In 2005, staff from The Phillips Collection and The Cleveland Museum of Art began an eight-year journey studying the creative process of Vincent van Gogh.
What they found contradicted popular opinion about van Gogh and the way in which he worked.
As early as 1883, van Gogh began recreating his own paintings. He would sketch a scene from life, and then reproduce it on a blank canvas in his studio. Through careful deliberation, he would paint the same subject several times over until he was satisfied.
van Gogh called these recreations repetitions. Indeed, he painted many of his most famous works in this way. Many other repetitions would reproduce the works of other artists such as Gauguin and Millet.
We will discover that repetitions were a significant part of van Gogh’s modus operandi. They allowed him to become a technically proficient artist. They also allowed him to creatively revisit familiar motifs or explore new ones.
The stereotypical view of van Gogh is of an artist whose creativity was fueled by intense moods swings and bursts of energy.
And while he could certainly paint with speed, his mental health was not some sort of fountain of creativity. It was in fact paralysing:
Instead, it was his creative process that enabled him to churn out one masterpiece after the other.
Process gave him purpose during his darkest hours. Process strengthened his artistic voice and allowed him to produce meaningful work with limited resources.
But process was more than a way of working for van Gogh. It was a way of life.
So what lessons are there to be learnt from van Gogh?
What can photographers – indeed artists of all kinds – learn from his approach to creativity?
We will discover that it is a matter of choice. We can choose to fall in love with the process – as van Gogh did – or we can choose to fall in love with the result.
* * *
In photography, the result we are after is, of course, a photograph. But when we become too focused on attaining a specific image, we can run into trouble.
From fellow photographer Guy Tal:
What causes this perpetual state of worry, stress and anger in the results-oriented photographer?
Why do they battle against forces they have no control over?
The result-oriented photographer is usually some or all of the following:
They possess a single-minded approach to their work, stopping at nothing to get the result they want. In striding toward what they think they want, they miss so much of what they actually need.
Those who concern themselves with results always revert to a baseline level of happiness — despite getting what they want. This is the hedonic treadmill, and like most treadmills, it is quite exhausting after a while.
Gazing at their photos of Mount Fitz Roy, they do not notice any piece of themselves gazing back. Uncomfortable with this realisation, they search for the next high. Or in the case of the results-oriented photographer, the next landmark photography workshop.
Results-oriented thinking is black and white thinking. Bagging the keeper makes them feel like the best photographer in the world. But if they fail, they toy with giving their whole craft away. Perfectionism and disappointment go hand in hand since perfection is a false construct that the results-oriented photographer ceaselessly strives toward.
The results-oriented photographer is desperate to cross the finish line first. But in doing so, they become ignorant of their surroundings. They cannot appreciate the world in any great depth. This closes off many creative avenues and stifles their artistic growth.
They are more concerned with following the crowd than they are their own intuition. They imitate the work of others with no thought of developing their own style. If the Wanaka Tree is the flavour of the month, then it is the Wanaka Tree they must shoot.
* * *
Process-orientation according to Vincent van Gogh
Preoccupation with the final result is a place we never want to be as photographers.
Process, as we will see, is much more rewarding in the long term.
But how do we become process-oriented exactly?
Let’s return to van Gogh and five characteristics of the process-oriented artist.
1) Process makes for unique work
When a photographer fixates on a particular image, it is not an image of their own conception. The image does not express their unique worldview or reflect their unique skillset.
The results-oriented photographer sacrifices process in favour of quick wins and known quantities. But what they have truly sacrificed is a chance to express themselves. To listen to their innermost desires and intuitions. To combine their experiences and interests in creative ways.
van Gogh’s 1885 piece The Potato Eaters features peasants huddled around a dimly-lit table. Their faces haggard as they pour coffee and resign themselves to yet another meal of potato. Their gaunt expressions and bony hands portray souls hardened by years of manual labour. An oil lamp throws just enough light on their faces to depict how weary they are.
After release, The Potato Eaters suffered criticism for being technically imperfect. But today, it is considered van Gogh’s first masterpiece.
It is such considered because there is a piece of the artist in the painting. van Gogh was able to empathise with those who lived below the poverty line because he too was a man of limited means. But he also believed that subject knowledge was vital to artistic expression.
He lamented that art schools focused on technique and not on immersion. He would spend hours outdoors in all kinds of weather as his subjects laboured in the potato fields. In this way, he understood the psyche of peasants in a way few else could – save for the peasants themselves.
And it shone through in his work. The weary peasant faces in The Potato Eaters are the product of van Gogh’s intense portraiture studies. He drew peasants in profile hundreds of times and painted them engaged in everyday chores.
He strove to paint their faces “the color of a good dusty potato, unpeeled naturally”. The faces are out of proportion, but this does not weaken the peasant condition and their connection to the land. Nor does it weaken van Gogh’s artistic purpose — these are real salt-of-the-earth people and he wants you to know it.
The Potato Eaters was many years in the making. It was the product of sketches, trial paintings and immersion in working-class families. It was a labour of love for van Gogh, later remarking that he was “plowing on my canvas as they do on their fields“.
2) Process gives purpose and intent
The process-oriented photographer is not concerned with crossing the finish line first. To win would be to deviate from their purpose. It would be an admission that they had perfected their craft and had nothing left to learn.
The process-oriented photographer does not wait for the stars to align before they feel creative. Since they delight in the process, they are only too willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Of course, they are not immune to fear or a perceived lack of creativity. It’s just that they meet these obstacles head-on, avoiding quick wins and instant gratification.
van Gogh was also well acquainted with the fear in creating art and the internal dialogue that goes with it:
In the late 19th century, he never had to worry about smartphones or 24-hour news. But he did have distractions, nonetheless. He was paralysed by anxiety and episodic severe depression. He also faced periods of scrutiny and rejection, often by members of his own family.
How did van Gogh move through these obstacles without the aid of modern medicine and therapy?
How did he tame the blank canvas?
He produced over 1,000 drawings during his decade-long career, with more likely lost to history.
Drawing was his way of fleshing out an idea before committing to painting it. Drawing was a way to become a better artist by learning about perspective. It was a way to capture fleeting light and shadow where painting would have been too slow.
He also used drawing to move out of analysis paralysis. To pick up a pencil and create art.
Drawings accompanied many of van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo – many of which have become works of art in their own right.
These particular drawings helped van Gogh clarify his artistic direction. It also helped him communicate his worldview to others.
Drawing also helped him deal with his life as an isolated, mentally ill artist.
In the final two years of his life, van Gogh continued to draw at an astonishing rate.
It remained a source of focused study and comfort. He drew scenes repeatedly to find the most effective way of painting them. He continued to draw reproductions of works he enjoyed to see if there was a fresh take on them.
In 1886, van Gogh cut off his own ear and then admitted himself to an asylum. His famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear speaks of a humble and forlorn man who is at his wits end with mental illness. There is a look of dejection on his face and a tacit admission of a battle almost lost.
But amidst the utter despair enveloping his life, van Gogh continued to create. A blank easel sits behind his right shoulder, suggesting his story had more time to run. A favourite Japanese print sits behind his left shoulder – no doubt reproduced and adapted to suit his style at the time.
During his stay at the asylum, his health continued to deteriorate. He tried to poison himself on several occasions by ingesting turpentine, paraffin and his own paints. Despite this, van Gogh remained faithful to process and produced many of his most famous works.
The Starry Night (1889) is one such example. It was inspired by his admiring of the stars from his bedroom in the middle of the night.
In visualising this work, van Gogh remained committed to his process of repetitions. He relished the opportunity to paint a difficult night scene, a fact further complicated by not being allowed to paint from his bedroom at night. As such, the sky is painted from memory. It is expressive and energetic, portraying celestial objects with exaggerated form and colour.
In total, van Gogh made 21 repetitions of this scene. Some were painted and others were drawn. They were captured at different times of the day and under various weather conditions.
His process gave him the intent to see The Starry Night through to completion. And while van Gogh was ambivalent about the finished work, it is today one of his most recognisable.
Self-Portrait without Beard (1889) depicts van Gogh after he fell out with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. In this self-portrait, he cuts a lonely and melancholic figure. His angular facial features seem to channel the peasants from his first masterpiece The Potato Eaters.
But instead of the hard physical labour of toil, it is the burden of mental illness that has left van Gogh exhausted.
Amongst the chaos of his own life and his “companions in misfortune” at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, van Gogh remained committed to drawing and indeed to process.
3) Process encourages resourcefulness, resourcefulness encourages process
The process-oriented photographer makes use of what they have. They don’t consider an expensive workshop the epitome of creative photography. They don’t waste vast sums of money on equipment in the vain hope it will improve their work.
Resourceful photographers realise they are in control of their destiny. And with this realisation, that worthwhile images are not tied to location or equipment but come from within.
van Gogh was adept at working with what he had.
He drew with pencil, chalk, charcoal and a pen he fashioned from reeds growing behind his house. He also recycled his materials and canvases. Modern analysis has found several paintings under van Gogh originals – he simply painted over works he wasn’t happy with to save money.
His choice of subject matter was also resourceful. If he couldn’t afford a model, he would paint himself. And paint himself he did, making at least 30 self-portraits in the last 3 years of his life.
He painted flowers to practice using bright colours. But when he couldn’t find fresh flowers during winter, he bought old shoes instead. One particular pair he wore through the mud after buying to make them as dishevelled and characterful as possible.
Starved of subject matter during his stay at the asylum, van Gogh returned to interpretations of other artist’s paintings. He also made variations on his own works. When permitted to venture outdoors, he would paint whatever he saw in the asylum gardens.
Whether through necessity or artistic direction, he made use of what was available to him.
He was also a resourceful artist. He did not need all of his ducks to be in a row to paint.
In modern pop psychology, we now understand this concept well. Action comes before inspiration, instead of the reverse. To suggest van Gogh’s lack of wealth meant he used whatever he could get his hands would be too convenient.
Even as a man of limited means, he realised the importance of consistency. Of getting started and pushing through obstacles.
Had he waited for inspiration or to come into riches, many of his most prized works would never have been created.
4) Process comes from love and passion
The process-oriented photographer is a photographer who enjoys the journey. Who enjoys taking the time to understand something so well that it shines through in their work.
In modern terms, the things we understand well are often our passions. We love our passions to such an extent that we persist long enough to have something to say about them.
van Gogh believed that love was essential to the creative process.
Although he uses the term love, we can use passion and love interchangeably. Both must be felt before any art with feeling can be made.
While van Gogh never considered himself a landscape painter, he had a passionate understanding of nature and how people interacted with the land.
The son of a protestant pastor, he was a shy child who spent his free time observing nature in the Dutch countryside.
After short stints as an art dealer, language teacher and lay preacher, he felt a longing to serve humanity. He studied theology and then took a 3-month trial in evangelism. But after a sub-standard performance, he was not told he would not be admitted to the course.
In the winter of 1879-80, he left the Netherlands to perform missionary work in the Borinage – a disadvantaged coal-mining region of Belgium.
But conflict would follow him there, too.
Although kind and empathic, church authorities believed van Gogh lacked the communication skills to become a preacher. Dismissed from his post, a destitute and religiously lost van Gogh returned home. Soon after, he decided to make a serious go of being an artist and dedicate his life to shining a light on the poor.
Back in the Netherlands, the poor were not coal miners but peasants who laboured in the fields. van Gogh became attuned to peasant life and the almost rhythmic cycles it followed. The sowing and reaping of crops, for example, was a subject he returned to again and again.
van Gogh had a similar verve for nature. He loved nature to the extent that he missed it when it was gone. After 2 years in Paris enduring the ‘filthy Paris wine and the filthy fat of the steaks’, he moved to Arles.
In the south of France, he was rejuvenated:
In the latter stages of his career, van Gogh painted nature heavy with symbolism. In Arles, he completed his Butterflies series, using them as a metaphor for the transformational nature of life and artistic progression. He reasoned that caterpillars were not as beautiful as butterflies, but that all butterflies had to first be caterpillars before they were appreciated.
One particular painting he made in the gardens at Saint-Paul Asylum is particularly striking. It was of a giant peacock moth which van Gogh later admitted he would have had to kill to paint accurately. Of course, the nature-loving van Gogh could never do such a thing. He instead returned to process, quickly sketching the specimen so that it could be painted in more detail later.
In the finished work Great Peacock Moth, van Gogh’s love of nature and expressive use of verdant, lush colour are apparent. This expressiveness is more pronounced in the foliage behind the moth, which he had to paint from memory.
While held up in the asylum shortly thereafter, he wrote letters to Theo listing in detail the flowers he’d seen in the walled gardens.
He continued to draw nature in all its glory, noting to Theo that despite his condition, “I still have work to do”. He drew whatever he came across. Dandelions, daisies and violets. Pines, cypresses and olive trees. The changing seasons, which had so delighted him during his formative years in the Netherlands.
In most of van Gogh’s work from this time, he continued to find inspiration in his love of natural rhythms.
His work Wheat Field with Cypresses portrays a field of wheat in exquisite detail. The wheat is ripe and appears to huddle together against the intense sun as it waits to be harvested.
van Gogh would paint wheat in all its forms many times over his life. He loved wheat because it cycled between life and death. He loved it because it could be destroyed at any moment by the forces of nature. He appreciated the peasants who tended to the wheat and the lives of toil they lead in doing so.
In another 1889 work, van Gogh painted Peasant Woman Bruising Flax (after Millet). As the name suggests, this is a reproduction of a black and white original made by Millet around 1850. But in van Gogh’s interpretation, he painted the woman in colour using his signature impasto brushstrokes.
Of course, this was not imitation for imitation’s sake. van Gogh’s confidence had been shattered by his continual setbacks and he attempted to rebuild it by studying the work of artists he adored.
Even at this late stage, his love of the peasant life and commitment to process shone brightly.
5) Process borrows but never imitates
The results-oriented photographer defaults to copying others very early on. Whether through laziness, ignorance or disinterest, they rarely graduate from this point.
The process-oriented photographer borrows freely from other artists. They allow their inspiration to take them where it may without crossing the line into plagiarism.
van Gogh began his career with the intense study of books on technique, perspective and anatomy.
He learnt to draw by imitating the work of others. Early in his career, French artist Jean-François Millet was a major influence. So too was Rembrandt, who inspired van Gogh to paint in dark, earthly colours.
In 1886, he moved to Paris and became immersed in new ways of thinking.
There were Impressionists such as Monet, who painted outdoors using bright colours. There were Pointillists, who used small, distinct dots of colour to form an overall image.
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat is a tribute to the Pointillism of Seurat and Signac. But the directional, energetic brushstrokes and complementary colour use are uniquely van Gogh.
There was also the French painter Adolphe Monticelli, whose impasto brushstrokes were a precursor to much of van Gogh’s work.
There were the Cloisonnists, who liked to paint bold, flat forms separated by dark contours. The Cloisonnists, in turn, drew inspiration from Japanese art and its similar use of strong outlines and flat panes of colour.
In fact, van Gogh developed a love affair with Japanese prints. He enjoyed their simple yet powerful compositions. He also enjoyed the ability of Japanese artists to draw accurately yet spontaneously. He was so infatuated with Japanese art that he bought over 600 such prints during his life.
He latter travelled to the south of France in search of the right conditions to bring his Japanese obsession to life. Ostensibly, to find a little piece of Japan and make it his own.
Of course, it wasn’t possible to actually find Japan in the south of France. But van Gogh was after what he called the “Japanese dream”. He believed in the rather utopian depiction of nature by Japanese artists, uncorrupted by Western industrialisation. He was also, as the above quote suggests, borrowing the Japanese artist’s way of life and applying it to his own creative process.
In his final years in the French countryside, van Gogh was an artist at the height of his powers. But he never forgot where he came from.
In 1880, he was a rank amateur who imitated Millet to learn the disciplines of drawing. Nine years later and emotionally tortured, we learned that he turned to Millet for a different reason. van Gogh was a borrower, not an imitator, and sought comfort and solace in the process.
Some final thoughts
Some photographers start down the paths of others and wonder why they feel unfulfilled. Many more skip the path entirely in their dogged pursuit of the end result. Each approach is a short term solution and like a cheap thrill, leaves the photographer craving more.
Why not try process instead?
To love the process, you have to love what you do. Find out what you love to do and then become really good at loving it. Try new things if you’re not sure what lights you up.
Give photography your all and be the best you can be. Don’t worry about having all your ducks in a row. Be resourceful. Start from scratch with purpose and intent. Learn the ropes and borrow from others without imitating. Read widely, and expose yourself to other photographers who are further along the path than you.
van Gogh’s devotion to process elevated him from a no-name amateur to master painter in under a decade. But he was hampered by his mental health and it remained a constant thorn in his side.
It was art (and indeed the process of making art) that afforded van Gogh some degree of stability. That he became one of the most celebrated artists of all time is a byproduct of his persistence and grit.
His love of the working class and the natural world was the backbone of his work. But he did not immediately associate these passions with art. It was only after several false starts that he closed in on discovering his true purpose. His loves were his passions, and he persisted long enough to find them a meaningful outlet.
As a burgeoning artist, he admired the greats who had gone before him. He drew inspiration from a wide range of styles, subjects and methods. He was not afraid to experiment with new ideas and incorporate them into his work. Accepting and open to new influences, he had the confidence in his own process.
After years of intense study, he had developed a deliberate and systematic way of working. It was also highly individual. Even when incorporating a new influence into his work, his rock-solid process and style were always present.
The process-oriented artist, as Guy Tal states, does not “let their pursuit of results distract them from appreciating the magic, the nature, and the humanity of their unfolding journeys.” I like to think that van Gogh derived at least some satisfaction from the best parts of his journey – even if it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Some believe that the great travesty of his life was that he was on the cusp of fame and fortune before he died. I wonder if the greater travesty lies elsewhere. That his zest for art and life was not enough to overcome the intense sadness which ultimately consumed him.