First Impressions of Van Gogh

In Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman, Sjraar Van Heugten describes the techniques Van Gogh used for his drawings, but he stops short of elaborating on his style.

He describes Van Gogh’s work based on people at the Dutch Reformed Old People’s Home as “large pencil drawings in a vigorous, angular style. He worked with carpenters’ pencils, which have more solid leads than ordinary pencils. The wide piece of graphite in the middle of these pencils allowed him to draw both broad and narrow lines. He liked to press hard, and he also liked to work with wet paper, so he used torchon, a strong, rough watercolour paper. This method gave to many of his figures a power of expression that does justice to the model’s age and character.” (33 – 36)

I am prompted to ask, What about this style “does justice to the model’s age and character?” Why are thick lines suitable for depicting Van Gogh’s models? To be fair, I do agree that there is a “power of expression” but maybe only because both the views of the author and myself are seen through a modern lens.

He again uses the word “angular” to describe drawings inspired by illustrations Van Gogh had collected from periodicals and says “they were studies meant to represent certain types, not characteristic portrayals of specific people. (37)

By “certain types,” Heugten is referring to people who were struggling to get by, financially. Like the illustrations, Van Gogh rendered many of his drawings in black and white. He also experimented with materials and “discovered that milk… can take the shine out of graphite and give it a velvety black quality, an effect that he greatly appreciated and that was well suited to the realistic drawings he wanted to make.” (39)

Why was this “well suited to realistic drawings?”

I haven’t read much in terms of criticism or interpretation of Van Gogh’s work, but even so I have some bias. Here are some first impressions of Van Gogh’s work.

First, color can create a particular mood. Bright colors can make a picture look more cheerful and distract or make a viewer feel something they may not have felt otherwise. For example, I don’t think many people would disagree when I say that Van Gogh’s paintings are full of vitality, due to the contrasting color schemes.1  

So it’s interesting how black and white can create a more somber mood, somber being more fitting for a scene with somebody or a group of people living in poverty. I can’t say much else except that, to look at color, maybe we have to look at one’s psychology.

Like other contrasting colors, the color of the white negative space can make each black mark for the positive space more noticeable. The markings on the page have character and are more easily seen as individual marks. When you see each mark you see how the artist engaged with his materials, and the way an artist marks a page is akin to his hand writing. He may even have some signature moves.

For Van Gogh, it feels like everything wants to be seen: each vigorous mark, each shape and even the gesture or pose of a model.2 Or am I, by “vigorous,” assuming too much? Given how much we as an audience like to emphasize that Van Gogh was prone to mania, am I betrayed by some bias and seeing each mark coming from more angst than careful deliberation?

Maybe I can say that despite his careful deliberation, his angst shows through.

Overall, how Van Gogh marked the page speaks of Van Gogh… and he in turn spoke for the models.

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1 Like Iconography

2 This was in line with contemporary experiments with color

Van Heugten, Sjraar. Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman. Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2005, pp 33 – 39.