If you were a brain surgeon or a jet pilot, you might not have a lot of historical precedent in your job description. I’m talking about stuff that might apply to high-tech cortex procedures or landing a plane in zero visibility. But we artists, because of the relatively static nature of our technology and the eternal need for spirit, can, if we wish, be blessed with “the knowledge.” No matter where we are in our art, we can pretty well be sure that someone has been on that spot before. Like Carl Jung‘s collective unconscious, it’s out there.
My recent letter about Rilke was a case in point. If we had a dime from every reader who told us that Rilke’s ideas were totally useful and applicable today, we could have a new wine cooler in here. In my last letter, Small stuff, I touched on the values and joys of the sketch and other small works. I always thought it was just my problem that the first couple of sketches had to be bad — and were necessary to get to the good ones. With my feet up between sketches (I’m taking it easier these days), I happened to pick up a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to a fellow Dutchman named Anton Ridder Van Rappard. A line hit me like a falling roof-rafter: “After I had done the ones that were so stiff,” wrote Vincent, “then came the others.” He went on to say how his first attempts were “absolutely unbearable,” but that our minds form things up by the actual making of things — and it’s the latter things that start to be the things we need.
Vincent may have been digging this knowledge for the first time, but you can bet your bottom brush that others dug the same. How useful it is. You may have noticed the phenomenon at workshops. Flourishers are on to number three (the good one), while the non-flourishers are still stuck trying to make something out of number one or number two. Out in the bush, or pressed for time, I’ve tried to leave out numbers one and two, and just start with number three. I don’t need to tell seasoned painters that this number three soon reverts to being number one.
Fact is, there’s an encyclopedia out there. And the encyclopedia tells us how practically every painter, at one time or another, couldn’t even think of what to paint. History paces the studio, has a crisis of self-confidence, and tries to omit one and two.
PS: “When sailors have to move a heavy load or raise an anchor — they all sing together to give themselves vim. That’s just what artists lack!” (Vincent Van Gogh)
Esoterica: With all the idealistic ranting and seemingly minor fussing expressed by Vincent during his short life, he still turned out to be one of the most successful painters in history. Unfortunately, all of his sales took place after he’d gone to the big cornfield in the sky. Vincent and his knowledgeable, seeking spirit are needed in our studios every day — and they’re available. Take a look at his pages in our own Resource of Art Quotations. He’d be pleased if you did. “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890)
Tribute to Vincent
by Dave Edwards, Blyth, Northumberland, England
I was interested to read those quotations by Van Gogh — even today he is greatly misunderstood by many. I was once speaking to a sculptor, whose exhibition I had just enjoyed, and when I mentioned my love of Van Gogh’s art, he remarked that Van Gogh only painted the way he did because he “didn’t know how to paint properly.”
This sort of sweeping statement really annoys me, as there are extant paintings and drawings done by Van Gogh in his early days which clearly show that he could paint “properly” — or “traditionally.” Van Gogh stopped painting what he saw with his eyes and started painting what he saw with his soul. Sadly, as the singer-song-writer, Don McLean wrote in his tribute to Vincent, “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
Van Gogh letters
by Zara Cody, Canada
For me, Van Gogh is the only painter. Or I mean I have learnt the most from his work and color theories. I have not read any of his letters or writing of his Thoughts — only the technical ones. Would you suggest a book of his thoughts and letters?
(RG note) Thanks, Zara. And thanks to everyone who asked the same question. The Letters are published through Penguin Classics.
The quote of Vincent’s that was give to Anton Ridder Van Rappard was taken from The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin. It’s an inexpensive paperback that contains a lot of valuable materials by Max Ernst, Henry Moore, Paul Valery, Pablo Picasso, as well as many other writers and scientists.
Working in threes
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
To work in threes gives a chance for dialogue and comparison. First you make “this” then you make “that” and then there is the Other. The more you work, the more one, two and three can speak with vitality and unique expression. You don’t need one and two to be weak to have three be a knockout. However, for all three to embody value one must work consistently, with intention and presence, then success will be the majority. Speaking of success, an energetic healer said to me recently that when an artist dies and his/her work becomes significantly more valuable, it isn’t because there are now a finite number of works by the artist. He believes it is because the artist got out of the way! Knowing what I know about Van Gogh this seems plausible. May this enter the space of the collective and open up new paths.
Vincent Van Gogh
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Vincent Van Gogh was born into a family of art dealers. They had the sense to keep every drawing, every letter and every painting. There are many Van Gogh paintings that would not sell for a dollar at a local flea market, except that we all know his name. Cornfield with Crows, his last painting, is an example. It is terrible in every way. How many of your readers come from a family of art dealers? Vincent made many great paintings. These were not the early ones, nor the late ones.
My problem is that everybody asks me for an artist’s statement. Does one ask for a brain surgeon’s statement? Or a plumber’s? And just like a plumber, I wish to say only that the drain is clear! If I had words to say something, I would be a writer. I simply make pictures. I have no desire to be a legend, I just want to be a human being. A human being that made some memorable pictures.
I fatigue of hearing about Vincent Van Gogh. I went to his celebration in the Netherlands in 1990. I have made three treks to his museum in Amsterdam. He was great, but he was not God. It is likely we would have never even heard about him, if it was not for his art dealer relatives.
Sketches for sculpture
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
Those sketches are even more important for sculptors. We work so far over the actual creative point. Do sketches, do more, rework them, make overlays, work up different views and maybe some months (years) later you have the material to carve. And, after all of this one needs to keep it fresh, dynamic and ‘spontaneous.’ Then one finds the studio area full of work because someone wanting to decorate their home can hang a painting (must hang paintings), but something 3D?
Agony and ecstacy
by Robert Billyard, Mission, BC, Canada
W. H. Auden is one of my favourite poets and it was through him I learned of Rilke, also one of my favourite poets. Some years ago I was reading a critique of Auden’s poetry and the author quoted from the first draft of one of Auden’s poems. I was astounded that Auden, my hero, could write anything so bad — his first drafts were almost as bad as my first drafts. I was, though, greatly encouraged that he, too, had to go through the same tortuous process of refining and editing to come up with the final exquisite product.
“Writing [like art]is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” (Gene Fowler) Such is the agony and the ecstacy.
Confidence takes repeated effort
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
I have students return to me after a year to continue working on the same piece they were working on in the last workshop. Are they afraid to make the next mark on their own? I tell them they will learn more from painting a new painting every day than they will ever learn in a workshop. There is no quick way to learn how to paint. There is no magic brush or magic technique unless you want to paint lifeless imitations of stylized objects. Because actually it is about learning to see and becoming sensitive to what you are seeing and developing a deep understanding of what it is you have seen. Then you can proclaim your discovery on the canvas with confidence. It is that confident vision that sets great paintings apart. There is often a sense of timidity in less successful work, the mark of the unsure cautionary brush. These paintings scream out, “I think this is what I saw.” To know something well enough to paint with confidence takes repeated effort and a certain level of trust. Try to understand why you have chosen to paint your next painting. What is the inspiration that will carry you through to its completion? Believe the next mark you make will be the one needed. Be confident. What do you really have to lose? If it isn’t the right mark, wipe it off or cover it with another! If it totally fails, START OVER! You will have learnt so much through the previous effort that the new painting will progress that much faster and easier because you know it better.
by Jane Kley, Hermann, MO, USA
I was struck by the verbal illustration of the volga boatmen singing and pulling up the anchor. Even though I still perform on stage, and I put vaseline on my front teeth so my lip can slide over my teeth as I smile for long periods of time, I always knew I was not a “social creature.” What I do, I do alone. Who falls deeper into that rabbit hole to the psyche than artists (in all the arts)? Doing art is a very isolated task. No voice is raised with mine and no one can pull with me. I have with me always the voices and knowledge of those who go before me, and those who breathe along side me and cheer me on. But realistically, I pull this anchor in alone. And yes, the first few sketches are just dreadful.
Fear of failing
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA
I remember my mother being very careful with her use of canvas and oils, coming out of the depression and during WWII. She made many sketches, practice pieces, often on paper that was the back of something else. Finally, she would be ready to “make a painting” as she called it.
As an elementary school teacher, I found that children would assume that “they were not good at art.” “I can’t draw!” What they meant was that they could not sit down and do something right off that looked perfect. We start early to form that attitude. It is just the kid who is compelled to draw that gets enough experience to allow themselves to draw over and over.
Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way, talks about this fear of failing that keeps so many from producing enough to grow and get better. She has a phrase that I find very helpful: “Show up and do the work!” When I was teaching full time, I did not have blocks of time to paint or draw, like I have now in retirement. I knew I only had a half-hour and often would get frustrated because I did not have the time to do a drawing or painting over and over until I “got the hang of it.” So it’s just paper, canvas, paint, pastel, pencil: dare to make 100 drawings of the same thing!
Statistics for the “new”
by Barbara Davis, Charlotte, MI, USA
I have picked up the brush and drawing pen again after not having done so since I took four years of art classes in high school (1956-1960). I bask in the leisure of doing something I have relearned that I love, and I look back on every piece, even if I then see it as worth nothing to me, much less a discerning art critic, knowing that the process is leading me somewhere in the skies that I have not been before.
I respond today because in the 50 years between when I was practicing my art in school and now, I have acquired an English degree, a Journalism degree, and a Ph.D. in the Social Sciences (Measurement, Evaluation and Statistical Analysis) and I have served as an educator and staff development specialist for other educators, students, and parents of students. Over and over, I passed on a bit of information that I believed but did not put into practice at the time: If you brainstorm twenty-five responses to a given stimulus, the 25th will, in all likelihood, never have been thought of before. That was a bit of data I picked up from a man named Joseph Renzulli, University of Connecticut, and frequent guest speaker on topics relating to the education of gifted, talented and creative children.
I am FAR from my 25th response to any one stimulus, but I bask in the wonder of what I experience in the path I am on, wherever it is en route to that magic number 25.
Immediacy in drawing
by Candace Fasano, Fernandina Beach, FL, USA
The process I use involves making the “3” drawings (actually paintings for me) on top of each other. I find the residue from what is left behind from “1” and “2” to be invaluable. Not that I actually count 3 separate paintings. Instead they weave together intention and residue of past choices — it is very metaphorical as well. Drawings seem to have an immediacy that I do not want to lose in my paintings and this process incorporates it in ways that turn out significantly better than any of my initial plans. An example of that immediacy was in Van Gogh’s drawings at the Met in NY a couple of years ago. I have fortunately seen many of his paintings but had never seen these rare and fragile drawings apparently saved by his sister — if I have my facts straight. I am sure I was not the only one who literally felt Van Gogh’s thought processes through those drawings — I saw my tears reflected in several others’ eyes as we looked and looked.
Black and white colours?
by John Seccombe, Ottawa, ON, Canada
In scrolling through your Art Quotes by Van Gogh, he says, in part, “black and white are also colours…” I certainly don’t feel in any way qualified to contradict a master; however, there is the notion that black is, in fact, not a colour but rather the absence of colour (the absence of light) and, in the same manner, white is not a colour but is the presence of colour, i.e., light. Further, he likens the contrast of white and black to that of red and green. Is not the contrast between white and black actually that which we are able to see and that which we are not able see? I wonder if Van Goghs’ comparison is totally valid. Or am I missing his point here?
(RG note) Thanks, John. Black and white are valuable pigments that have always come in for a bum rap. See previous letters on the uses and abuses of black and white:
The uses of black (December 26, 2006)
Black beauty (June 20, 2003)
Notan (March 30, 2004)
Ideas are private
by Lisa Stewart, Raleigh, NC, USA
It’s true that one must sketch continuously until mind, eye, and hand become one; only then do the three respond as orchestra to director. Until that time, I spend quiet time alone applying ideas — just to get them documented — and without the curious eyes of others. The body in tandem with the major 3 players (mind, eye, & hand) need time to warm up with the creative calisthenics akin to any major sport. While I realize this and refuse to open my ‘idea book’ to anyone, it’s because in the past I’ve made the mistake of allowing others to peer in during the warm-up phase only to get confused looks and quips, “Are you sure this is your work?”
Persistence through interruptions
by Ingrid Christensen, Calgary, AB, Canada
Like the Rilke letters, the letter about the first, stiff paintings and drawings really struck home for me. I paint in the few hours when my children are at school in the morning (they still want to come home for lunch and who am I to say they can’t). I am in such a rush to get painting that I often end up with nothing but the stiff works; there’s only time to start the loose and flowing ones before I have to clean up and make sandwiches. When I do get back to those interrupted ones, they seldom fulfill their promise. With watercolour, at least, it seems to be: do it in one solid session or don’t finish it at all. You’d think this would frustrate me enough to stop or at least change mediums and yet, perversely, the one or two truly good works that I produce every month sustain me. Like a compulsive gambler, I keep pulling out the paint every day, hoping that this will be my lucky day.
You have to build it
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
I am not a sculptor, but I imagine sometimes that painting is a lot like sculpting in that, as Van Gogh was getting at, you do indeed form things by the making of them. In representational art, even if you are copying nature leaf for leaf, you still have to make a tree full and alive and a mountain robust and dynamic. You have to build it! Even if it is built in one slap-dash stroke. In the end it is the interpretation that brings life to a subject. As artists, we interpret by first borrowing from nature and then from each other in knowledge and influence, past and present (the collective consciousness if you like), and finally we bring our own unique insights and mannerisms, stroke by stroke, year by year, to create our interpretations. It’s not about the first or the last study done. It’s more often just a matter of doing it. An artist paints not really because he wants to but because it’s who he is and he has to. It’s an ongoing song. A bird sings and sings often. Each painting, whether in the end seen as a note of harmony or discord, brings a greater understanding to the overall melody.
Third time’s a charm
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA
Not unlike joggers, artists have to get into a specific pace. We need to get there in order to freely create without limitations of the distracting lower self. These restrictions include self-doubt, mind chatter and a general lack of solid ideas. In the vein of Vincent Van Gogh, we are all in search of our higher selves. Many call this phenomenon “the zone.” While in this special place, there are less artistic uncertainties and more occurrences of good quality productivity. But getting there is easier said than done. There are loads of books on the subject of mind technology. Each author attempts to delve into the mind-set of a famous artist and crack his or her creative code. Hypnotherapy and metaphysical guru, Dick Sutphen has even produced CDs filled with positive reinforcements entitled The Zapper Series to supposedly help achieve a quick meditative state. Just like skipping one, two and instantly getting to three. I haven’t tried his technique but I suppose it couldn’t hurt. You know what they say… third time’s a charm.
Connection in isolation
by Lynn Sanguedolce, San Francisco, CA, USA
For many of us, as you know, being an artist leads to a very isolated lifestyle. I am isolated by choice, and enjoy my solitude, as it allows me the quiet necessary for developing ideas and painting. But there is a downside to all this being alone stuff. I often feel like I am in my own little bubble and miss the camaraderie of other artists. It’s hard to balance caring for a family, painting, and making time for friends. The social side is what seems to lose out, in my case. Your letters have been a wonderful link to other artists for me and have helped to counteract this. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy reading them. Sometimes they make me question things I hadn’t considered, sometimes they validate feelings, but in all ways, I find them so beneficial. I feel better connected to other artists (both in the past and present!) and their philosophies, and ideas.
oil painting by Yuqi Wang, New York, NY, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ila McCallum of Woodburn, OR, USA who wrote, “If Vincent had the same problems that I have, I am in very good company!”
And also Ursula Kirchner of Stuttgart, Germany who wrote, “Being German, I am a Rilke fan. We also have evening classes in fine arts. It is strange that when elderly women begin, they paint nice strong pictures. Naive but good. Very soon they start making exhibitions. But only very few of them succeed in painting good works. I find this rather strange.”
And also Michele Rushworth of the USA who wrote, “It’s interesting that you feel the first one or two attempts at something turn out to be just ‘warm ups.’ I usually find the opposite: the first one is usually my best and subsequent paintings of the same subject, or the same idea, or the same location usually turn out to be much weaker.”
And also Donna Elio of Glen Burnie, MD, USA who wrote, “Why do we artists think that just because we are called artists that everything we touch should come out beautiful the first time. I have found that the rule of one out of three usually applies.”
And also Jeanne Long of Minneapolis, MN, USA who wrote, “I agree sometimes it takes several attempts to get it right, but sometimes the first attempt is best and then we go on and wreck it by thinking that just because it looks so good right now, maybe it can get even better!”