Van Gogh and Nature

Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman by Sjraar Van Heugten

Looking at my previous post, I realize I may have been looking for discussions about style in a book that focuses on technique. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can discuss a person’s style without reducing it to an artist’s technique or without resorting to another approach.

For Van Gogh, I am inclined to look through the lens of psychology. Van Gogh’s father was a pastor and Van Gogh himself wanted to join the clergy for a short time, and knowing this, I cannot help but interpret his drawings as being imbued with religious or spiritual connotations.1 

He may have also suffered from manic-depressive disorder, and maybe I’m letting this color my view of him as well, but I think it’s thus fitting that he personified his surroundings. When he described the fields in Drenthe at sunset, he was rather poetic.

“… ‘when a poor little figure is moving through the twilight — when that vast sun-scorched earth stands out darkly against the lilac hues of the evening sky, and the very last little dark-blue line at the horizon separates the earth from the sky — that same irritatingly monotonous spot can be as sublime as a Jules Dupre.’”2 (47)

Everything is animated and I think how he saw the world informed him of how he conveyed the beauty of it to his audience.

When looking at his drawing, Pollard Birches (1884), I was inclined to look too closely at the details and glossed over how the lines work in concert, how they move the eye up from the ground to the sky. He struck a very neat or ‘perfect’ balance between the horizontal lines keeping one’s view of the trees steady and their branches reaching vertically above and between the horizontal line of the horizon and the lines of the grass guiding one’s eyes away from the base of the drawing toward the branches of the trees.

Meanwhile, there are two human figures standing apart from each other while among the trees. The trees are more than them, while they and the trees are all apart of their greater, natural surroundings.

Heugten describes Pollard Birches as “one of the best examples of the soulful character Van Gogh was capable of injecting into his landscapes…; he felt a great sympathy for these pruned trees with their striking, somewhat melancholy appearance.” (61)

It’s hard to say what is “soulful,” visually, and what is melancholy, but if I do not think of the work in a way that leads me back to thinking about people or the artist himself or myself, I lose sight of a major part of what’s beautiful about the work .

When we are in nature, we can see that aesthetic appreciation need not be in terms of oneself or ourselves. It can be about our natural habitat, about the ‘other’ beyond oneself, beyond human civilization. When looking at Van Gogh’s drawings, however, I am not appreciating nature but what the artist wanted to express with his depictions of nature. Maybe how he felt about the trees or his relationship to them or maybe how he saw himself vis a vis his own life.

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1 I wish I could compare this to a less biased view but I had known this about him before seeing his drawings for the first time.

2 This is from a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, but I’m quoting it second hand from Heugten’s book. Heugten in turn took quotes from De brievan van Vincent van Gogh, ed Han van Crimpen and Monique Berends-Albert, 4 vols., The Hague 1990; and The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 3 vols., Greenwich (Conn.), 1958

Heugten, Sjraar, et al. Van Gogh: master Draughtsman. Harry N Abrams, Inc, 2005, pp 47, 61

On the Subject of Style

I wanted to talk about style but quickly realized I couldn’t make any generalizations, because it’s so personal and subjective. Instead, I found myself looking at where I am as an artist.

I

I wrote the following description of my work a few months ago and it still holds true.

I like to look at what the most basic component of a drawing can do. EG, flow of a line or variations in line quality. There is often an interaction between two or more components: between the colors of each and/or how each occupies space. There may be a definable subject, like a vase or flowers. But I’m not exploring what an actual vase or flower looks like. I am exploring what the elements that compose the subject can do: the style of line, how it depicts the subject, how it may vary in what emotions it may elicit from the style itself.

When I consider color, I want the surface to get as much attention as the medium. So how smooth or textured a surface is can influence what medium I choose. It becomes one component that can interact with other components of the work.

Overall, my drawings are a meditative process as I mark the surface line by line. It is about interactions as much as it about rhythm.

It’s good to explore, but I think style goes beyond this; also, I might maintain some intent for a handful of works but then I’ll move on to something else. So my attempt at writing an artist statement above may have been premature.

Maybe a sense of style will reveal itself after a culmination of many works over time. It may require I get some distance from my work to see what path I’ve been on.

II

I’ve been thinking about how to create mood, and I find that watercolor helps me express a mood I currently enjoy as artist and audience. It’s often where I am or where I want to be, mentally.

I created color cards the other day, and the process of simply applying the medium to a surface was soothing and showed me the potential for larger works.

Color Cards for E-Sumi watercolor series Shadow Black by Boku Undo

I also created cards for washes of Lipton Black Tea and Sencha Green Tea. Lipton Tea is an old favorite while Sencha barely showed even after six washes.

I am looking for mediums that can produce a soft and subtle tone, although I say this while reading a book on Van Gogh as Master Draughtsman, whose use of oils were suitable for something more aggressive and exalting.

I mention him here only because I know I can admire his work while knowing I do not make the same choices for my own work as he had for his. I think it’s important to develop a sense of what your choices will be. I don’t want to reduce the creative process to a matter of taste, because one’s approach and intent also influence one’s choices, but at the same time I am guided by my sense of taste with almost every choice I make in the creation of a work.

Oasis (2020)

III

I want to go beyond relying on “intuition” and have a better sense of what I’m doing.

I think I may have been confusing intuition with taste.

Intuition, I believe, is the subconscious culling lessons learned and applying knowledge I might not be conscious of, while taste is a matter of what is pleasing to me. The latter is a product of my personal experience and my current frame of mind.

IV  

I’ve been breaking down the idea of being creatively blocked, at least for myself. I had to first see my overall work as going beyond any individual work. Being aware of my own frame of mind helps me change my approach from following how I feel intuitively to being conscious of the idea I’m responding to, asking questions and observing the idea at play.

Seeing my creative process as a way to explore, I had a silly notion that the more I know the less creative I would be. I say silly because I couldn’t possibly run out of things to explore. Moreover, being creative is equally driven by a desire to express oneself.

I think about how artists might go through multiple phases throughout one’s career, and I don’t think a change in one’s approach or intent for one’s work will necessarily change one’s style; although having seen more and learned more, one’s style might evolve.

When thinking about the style of a given artist, I ask myself, Do I see the same artist in one’s early work as I do in one’s later work?

V

It is important to know what I want to get out of being creative.

Overall, being creative is a way for me to think freely, and to do this, I have to see more and know more. I have to live my life. I have to engage with the world around me.

Of course, I don’t have to do everything all at once. I can manage my creative impulses on my own terms.

I believe there is a balance between engaging with others and being honest with what one shares.

Books and Influences: Bauhaus

Bauhaus by Magdalena Droste (2006)

While he was the director of Bauhaus, Walter Gropius stood by a few fundamental ideas of design — laws of proportion, beauty and spacial distribution. (11) He also tackled the problem of resolving art and technology (10). EG, what makes a great piece of furniture? Is it in its utility and beauty or only in its utility? Initially, I saw this problem as mostly resolved, or I took it for granted that we are living with both in our everyday lives and assumed it was a balance maintained by individuals.

I want to say I choose what I surround myself with but schools of thought like Bauhaus had an impact on how we see the spaces we occupy and everyday objects that fill those spaces.

Magdalena Droste, in her book Bauhaus, takes a snapshot of different aspects of Bauhaus, each 1-2 pages. It provides a historical context and descriptions of the school’s components: “the preliminary course,” “apprenticeship and diploma,” and “The Workshops,” and “Form Training — Craft Training.”

The school was far from perfect.

There was an interesting problem with the workshops: having contradictory goals of being a place to learn on the one hand and creating prototypes for products that could be sold on the other. If you are thinking about selling your work, you may not allow yourself full freedom to explore and take risks, so that the fear of making mistakes may have an undue influence on the choices you make. Some might say that because one’s art requires an audience, the fear of making mistakes and forfeiting a potential audience is inherent in the work itself, but if the environment revolves around the notion of furthering a dialogue, it would encourage the students to share and be apart of a dialogue. Selling to somebody requires more. The buyer likely has to think about whether the object fits well with other pieces, whether or not it might be too distracting for wherever it goes, and if it’s a piece of furniture, its utility.

The school was constantly in flux. It enjoyed experimenting with pedagogy and as it changed directors, the design of its courses and programs also changed. You could say the rise of Bauhaus may be a lesson in fighting traditions. Borrowing strategies from the avant garde of mid 19th century France, like forming groups and publishing manifestos, Bauhaus took its place next to Expressionism, Futurism and Dada, all of whom continually redefined what it meant to be avant gard. (15)

Some of the artists who taught at Bauhaus took a holistic approach and linked the aims of their work with the aims of everyday living. Johannes Itten and Georg Muche believed in an ideal “new man” and worked toward fulfilling that ideal and developing “reformed living” as apart of the Mazdaznan movement. I am weary of subscribing to any idea of an “ideal” man (or woman); however, like Gerhard Marcks, I think art can “have a higher value for human development.” (25)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s approach, specifically, intrigues me: “For him the production of art was a mental process, not a question of craftsmanship.” (25) It sounds similar to my own approach; unfortunately, the book doesn’t say much else. (It’s a very quick read.)

Before moving onto its own mantra, “art and technoloty — a new unity,” (31) Bauhaus invited Theo van Doesburg, one of the founders of the De Stijl movement, to give lectures, offer De Stijl courses and exhibit his own work. Years ago, Chess Players had attracted my eye and even now, looking at examples of Doesburg’s work, I am moved by them and want to emulate them. But reading about his approach to art, I am surprised by how extreme it sounds.

In a De Stijl course, artists were discouraged from depicting their feelings, “but instead should recognize their responsibility to create a world of uniform design… Creative design entailed striking a balance between contrasting means of expression: black and white, yellow and blue, horizontal and vertical, empty and solid.” (32)

Being aware of what the goal was, I feel obligated to consider why I was moved by Doesburg’s work. I say obligated because I believe looking at my own psychology as audience is a fundamental step towards achieving an understanding of my own approach as artist. This is not to reduce the De Stijl movement to what can move an audience. Doesburg believed “an equilibrium between polarities would allow truth and beauty to become manifest in the universe, raising the art of De Stijl to the realm of Platonic thought. This was accompanied by a faith in the machine.” (32 – 33)

On the one hand, my eye is attracted to the balance between two opposing elements (color, direction of line or occupation of space) and the visual rhythm created by these elements. On the other hand, to put one’s feelings aside while creating one’s work would have an artist neglect oneself; and to move forward as an artist, one has to develop as a human being. Or I see such a role in my own work.

I like an approach that does not necessitate an integration with all other aspects of life but does not create a false boundary between art and oneself. I like to have art as a way of thinking so it is not entirely for its own sake even though what I enjoy about the product is a balance struck by the elements, a quality that exists with or without an audience.

Droste seems to imply that Bauhaus was driven by a desire to stay away from “everyday bourgeois existence” and refers to “artistic proletariat” and “dilettantism” as products of their traditions. (15) It sounds like a response to the problem of letting one’s ego overshadow the value of one’s art or the thing that supposedly brings one glory.

I don’t see the glorification of art as a problem. It becomes a problem when it leads to stagnation and the inability to distance oneself from one’s work to gauge whether or not one is making progress. This, I believe, is crucial in maintaining a place in an ongoing dialogue, whatever the issue may be. I believe we create art so that we can engage with others. We share our thoughts and responses to personal experience and abstract ideas alike. We do so to form community. I don’t think community is merely a by-product of what an artist does.  

Below are Composition II and Composition III, which I drew in 2009. I was getting my first glimpse at work by Wassily Kandinsky and just like the idea of drawing compositions.

On the Subject of Happiness

When thinking about success, it’s easy to segue into the subject of happiness or even to confuse the two. The bottom line for either may be the same for both; IE, when I become successful I will be happy. Or when I am happy I will be successful.

When thinking about happiness, however, I can’t help but wonder if it is a matter of psychology. Is there such a thing as happiness or are there only phenomena which disrupt our sense of normalcy and thus make us feel not so happy.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself… But I feel like I’m going through or I’ve been going through withdrawal of a very addictive drug. Dare I say… ego…

I don’t want to reduce my creative endeavors to a form of escapism, a way to distract myself, because the work is good in itself.

But what does that mean?

What is good work?

II

What do I want to get out of my work?

I like learning new things, namely things that are visually pleasing. I like learning how to appreciate new ideas. I like learning how to think the way others thought, especially if it helps me create something of my own.

This happens to calm me down because it brings me to a state of mind in which I am free to think.

[While trying not to reduce this to some state of mind, it occurs to me that… Being free to think is more than a state of mind.]

It is a state of being.1

Moreover, when the work leads one to create something there’s a product to share with others. It’s a form of communication and it fosters community.

There’s a free flow of thoughts and ideas.

We — humans — like to collect things as well, especially as a way to appreciate humanity as a whole.

But isn’t that part of the problem?

My head is filled with big ideas that were created by other people…

III

When trying to think about what is “good” or what is real, it’s easy to take a philosophical approach.

The first step is to inquire in a more practical way what is true at least for myself and what has been false.

Getting back to psychology

Maybe I’m looking for something to believe in. Something upon which I can begin building a foundation of some sense of self… as a person who creates…

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1 Feeling is responding, IE to an idea, as opposed to thinking, when one is the agent of that action and thinking or speaking by one’s own volition.

But when do the ideas learned from others become one’s own? When is it okay to believe in those ideas? It’s only healthy to be skeptical.

However, too much skepticism can make it feel like things are always shifting?

Maybe it comes down to my doubting myself or the choices I make.

Maybe it comes down to doing more than dipping my toes in the water to see if it’s to my liking.

It comes down to doing the work to know and fully appreciate what’s out there.