More Notes on Van Gogh

Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman by Sjraar Van Heugten

Here are some notes on two more drawings.

I posted a review of Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman to Goodreads, which incorporates the above as well as the better parts of the two previous Van Gogh posts.

For The Plain of La Crau (1888), Van Gogh followed basic rules of perspective, making what is in the distance darker and more obscure, while the foreground is depicted without many marks. You might also notice the marks depicting what is in the distance are divided neatly into what look like fields or agricultural land. The sky above, by virtue of the lack of marks, looks serene.

There is nothing careless about where he chose to mark the page and how.

Style of course goes beyond technique and I think marking the page to fill up space was part of that style. Leaving a space empty looks like the exception and not the rule. It looks like a  conscious choice was made to do so. The parts also share the space in a way that conjures up something beyond the whole. They are organized and convey a sense of balance.

Overall, his drawings seem to express a particular mood and each mark was chosen not just to distinguish a given part of the work from another part but to help convey that mood.

Looking at Fishing boats on the beach at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888), there’s that emblematic steadfastness I spoke of before. The thick lines ground the boats as the main focal point, despite being surrounded by the marks depicting the sand and ocean. There is a again perfect balance, this time between the parts of the boats, as their lines intersect and the lighter details lead to the heavier details and guide the eye to the boat in the foreground.

Just for fun, I made of a copy of Van Gogh’s Fishing boats. I used Chinese ink (from Daiso) on Xuan paper and it created a very similar effect as Van Gogh’s materials, which I think was a reed pen on either laid or woven paper.

I also framed the boats in yellow and blue to highlight how the boats are in balance with not only themselves but with the lines created by the horizon and water line and the paper’s edge.

NB The yellow and blue are Roel Acuarelas Italianas water colors. They don’t absorb into the paper as well as the Chinese ink.

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

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.