Vinnie’s balls.

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A mural in my ‘hood foreshadows my trip to Amsterdam.

The conference and Amsterdam’s cold, damp (I miss LA!) didn’t leave me a lot of opportunity to roam around the city but I did get to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

Vincent van Gogh has alway been a huge inspiration to me. I love his colors, his ferocity, but most of all, the whole journey of discovery he took trying to beat and bend himself into being an artist. In just ten years, he went from painting awful brown crap into changing art for all time. I’ve always even a kindred spirit because of the way he went about teaching himself, how he absorbed so many influences, how he went down one path after another to get clearer and more direct in his work.  He spent a few months in art school, studied under a couple of professionals, read loads of instructional books, but most of all he just painted and painted, often filling a canvas a day, day after day.

As you can imagine, I was really excited by the enormous show called “Van Gogh at Work”. It focusses entirely on this process, showing how Vincent learned and evolved through more than 200 drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks. There are exhibits of his easels, his paints, palettes, preparatory drawings, and loads of completed masterpieces, in a sweeping chronological exhibit covering four entire floors.

I learned a huge amount in the hours I spent there.

First, there was the shock of seeing all these amazing paintings as working examples, rather than “Priceless Masterpieces,” giving them an immediacy that made me understand how Van Gogh himself must have seen them.

Have you ever had the experience of seeing an artist with his own work, how he might rub the paint with his thumb, or want to repaint a corner, or throws them onto a stack in the corner?  Artists  have such a different relationship with their pieces than curators or gallerists who tiptoe around with white gloves and X-ray machines, because artists value the process of their art as much, if not more, than the actual products of that process. Van Gogh would paint on the back of old paintings, or just scrape them down so he could make something new. He would knock out stacks of paintings of the exact same subject, trying new and different things. When you see, for example, both paintings of his room at Arles, two version of an iconic image hanging next to each other, similar but different in a hundred ways, you feel the living artist behind them, how he thought and developed, what he was considering, where he saw mistakes that became lessons. How often he would make copies of his paintings so he could give them to other people or just to brighten up his room. All those priceless sunflowers — he made them just so Gauguin would be happy in a cheerfully decorated room when he came to Arles.

And he was such a thirsty sponge. He was always studying others, absorbing, mimicking, incorporating, and then surpassing a long list of painters who seem at first to be him betters but ultimately look regressive, formulaic, and only of their moment, now past.

You get the sense that people are always telling him, “No, this is how you must make Art,” from the one professional teacher in his hometown who briefly mentored him, to the teachers at the Académie who gave him the worst marks, to the Impressionists who opened his eyes in Paris to Gauguin and on and on. Everyone knows better and he seems to listen, guilelessly. But, unlike them, he is never satisfied, never thinks he has the final answer, and keep pushing on.

vvg quote

You could sense how hard he was working and how he kept pushing himself onward. Even if he liked a painting he’d done, he would try something new. A new approach, a new subject, new materials, different canvas sizes… new, new, new. He never felt like the journey was over, that he had arrived; there was so much more to discover. I love that hunger and enthusiasm.

And, as the chronology of the show takes him (and you) from milestone to milestone, you can see his work progress and yet retain certain things that make them all Van Gogh. He copies and copies and copies — Impressionists, Dutch masters, Japanese Woodcuts, all of his friends from Lautrec to Seurat, absorbing each influence, going down by ways and dead ends, accumulating new ideas and ways of seeing, and yet each brush stroke can’t help but look like his. He couldn’t help being Van Gogh.

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. — Vinny vG.

His passion and his passion never abate and the miracle of what he is making himself into through sheer force of will is exciting and inspiring. No matter how familiar the images look, seeing them in the flesh makes them new and exciting.

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Oh, and he is always drawing. 

There are lines over and under the paint, that give everything definition and clarity.  That’s been my desire with my paintings too but it didn’t seem “painterly” and he shows how it can be.  His influences in this are those Japanese woodcuts, Lautrec, and Gauguin — lines that are sometimes black or in contrasting colors or just darker shades or hues of the blocked-in shapes. Or lines that graduate in color and tone along their length. Sometimes the lines are picture elements: a branch, a window frame, a doorway, the edge of a petal, but often they are just there to separate planes and outline color fields.

Also: I was surprised to learn that he used store-bought, pre-stretched canvases. And that for a long period, he relied on a wire perspective frame to help him draw more accurately. And that he would used lengths of colored wool to plan out the color compositions of his paintings. They displayed the actual box full of balls of yarn that corresponded to many of his most famous works.

Vinnie's balls

And finally, I saw that his work is a record of his life. He painted the people he knew: lovers, friends, neighbors, postmen, landlords. The places he lived. The cafés he ate in. The landscape all around him.  His subjects had meaning to him and it shows in his best work.

When he does academic work, painting from professional models or plaster casts, it feels dull and lifeless. But when he paints sunflowers he picked, irises he wants to decorate a room he will live in, the difference is palpable. I have always loved his painting of almond blossoms against a teal background, a background that he painted last, carefully outlining every branch. Now I know that he painted it so carefully for his newly born nephew, blossoms for a fresh life, and there is love and care in every stroke.

Great art isn’t scary and imposing and “Important”. It’s personal and full of feeling. At some point, van Gogh gave up making paintings to be sold — that seemed like it would never happen. Instead he made so many paintings because he had to, he wanted to, he had problems to unravel and the world around him was beautiful and cried out to him to be embraced.

The last two paintings in the show left me with a lump in my throat, like the ending of a great 1940s movie. The wheat field aswirl with crows, big wet-on-wet strokes that he slapped down in the baking sun, is well-known as a symbol of his tortured state. But the very last painting was one I had never seen before.  It’s of the roots of trees, tangled like snakes, and it’s unfinished. It was his last lesson and he never completed it.

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What must that last day have been like, him stopping in the middle of a painting and deciding that he’d had enough, that it was hopeless, and putting a revolver to his chest? One can never know. But as I walked down from the fourth floor of the museum, after seeing all of his hard work over the years, all of his experiments and discoveries, his catching up to and then surpassing so many other great artists, it was so sad to think that, in the end, van Gogh felt he had failed.

The monkey got him.

Skateboards and mousepads in the gift shop.

Skateboards and mousepads in the gift shop.

Imagine if Vincent had known how loved he would soon be. How we would all learn from his lessons and discoveries. How his works would become icons and decorate tea towels and boxershorts. And that the voice in his head was utterly wrong, despite how it seemed that one lousy day.

The monkey is almost always wrong. And the only answer is to keep trying and pushing and learning and discovering. The road has no end, just lots of twists and turns, and it keeps moving upwards even if we can’t feel it all the time.

66 thoughts on “Vinnie’s balls.

  1. As an artist myself I take away some comfort that people like why I do. I think if all I ever heard was negative comments I would probably stop. I love van’s work as you do for the process as much as the finished works.

  2. Incredible post, Danny. I was privileged to visit the major retrospective held there many years ago and treasure the catalog from that show that I had shipped to my home because it was much too heavy to carry in my luggage. The show you saw sounds even better!

  3. Thank you so much for this post. Now I have a lump in my throat – I love Vincent’s work immensely. Every time I have been to Amsterdam I had to go to the Van Gogh museum just to absorb it all. Also, for me, I think that spirit of productivity and constantly evolving is present in David Hockney (who I also love), although Hockney has obviously made a few quid in his lifetime and is a very different personality. Equally creative and free thinking though, I like that. And with both of them I think that, as you said, no matter what they are painting or in what style, you can always tell it’s a Van Gogh, or a Hockney.

  4. Such a moving and meaningful post – your feelings and passion so well expressed. While I (like so many) know his iconic works, I am ashamed to say I know so little of the man or his life, let alone his process. You conveyed his struggles so well, and the way an artist looks at his own work and methods – which is almost always such a different perspective from that of the audience. I loved the details you noticed, from the yarn colors to his line work. Thanks again for the always-needed reminder that we need to be vigilant – to push past the doubt and frustrations, to ignore the monkey. Safe travels.

  5. Danny– Your post is such a fantastic tribute to my all-time favorite artist. I remember seeing the Van Gogh and Gauguin exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002 and I literally cried when I leaned in as closely as I could to examine his paintings and thought his brush touched this canvas and made that bold stroke right there! I am inches from where he once was! It was completely overwhelming, I fought tears and was overcome with emotions the whole way through. I first read Irving Stone’s, “Lust for Life” back in about 1987 when I was in college, and reading of his struggles trying to find his place in the world and his life path helped me somehow. If this brilliant artist had self-doubt in his direction and talent, then I am truly not alone!

    The other biography I recently read on Van Gogh was Steven Naifeh’s and Gregory White Smith’s who claim that Van Gogh did not kill himself, but was shot. The bullet angle seems to attest to this claim. He (and his life) is still no less a tragic figure filled with struggle and unimaginable genius. I’m interested to know what you think of their claim. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-15328583

    Thank you again for sharing your journey and thoughts.

  6. I’ve always loved Van Gogh because he was just a regular, real guy. It’s sad that he allowed his thoughts to destroy him. Suffering isn’t necessary. Pain, yes. Suffering, no. Suffering is monkey mind, and this man was mentally suffering. If he knew thoughts were only illusions and that he could change them, maybe he would have finished that last painting and many more. He was one of my favorites, like I said.

  7. Several years back I saw the Traveling Van Gogh Exhibit in LA. You had to have a ticket ahead of time to get in as it was so popular. I had never really liked his work until then, because in person they are so Big and Impressive and full of life and colors and stories you cant get from just seeing them in a picture book. And seeing so many at once and in order of his progress was awesome. I had to buy the book they were selling and have been a Van Gogh Fan ever since. Everyone should see the masters in person one time in their lives as it truly is humbling. I imagine you saw much more then I saw since that one is permanent. Yes that ole monkey is always raring its ugly head and this is a good lesson as usual you hit the nail on the head with this post. I wish he could see how much his work goes for now. What masterpieces he could have created had he not let that Monkey take hold of him.

  8. Danny – I adore Vincent van Gogh too –
    I have been to Van-Gogh-Museum in the seventies
    (I was on a bicycle tour though the Netherlands – how wonderful!) and I felt down on my knees in this museum. I think, that the sadest, poorest and honest painter of all times, had given us the most and especially the most “sunny” and bright paintings!

  9. “And that the voice in his head was utterly wrong, despite how it seemed that one lousy day.” That’s one of the best descriptions of suicide I’ve ever read, Danny, terribly apropos because one lousy day a week ago a close friend took her own life. Your observation comforted me. Go figure. . .

  10. Thank you for writing this. I’ve always liked VvG but always felt a bit cliche about saying it. His drive to explore the process, rather than the end result always helps me to continue whenever I start to question a piece I’m working on. ‘What would Vinnie do?’ Goes through my head and I push on. Thanks for that.

  11. Thank you for this exhausting memoir of Vincent. You write so beautifully. I read the life story of Vincent a few months ago; all 935 pages. It too was exhausting. Part way through, knowing the ending, I thought, “Vincent, just end it now!.” He fought so many internal battles and was so reliant on his brother that his life too, was tortured. If only Vincent would have known the impact he would leave on each of us who entered his life. He was so dedicated to his art and produced everlasting masterpieces to influence the future. Each stroke of his art is a part of his soul revealed to us. How lucky we are. If only he would have known. Thank you for this message of hope and inspiration.

  12. I was going to mention the Dr. Who episode but “Ed Mostly” beat me to it. It was very emotional, considering the demons tormenting Vincent.

    I was moved by this post, especially your comments about how the monkey got to him.

    My professional conferences never have any connection to art. Except one I attended this year. The presenter told us that the halos Van Gogh painted around the stars in his Starry Night might have been a visual side effect of the digitalis he was taking at the time! Digitalis, which is from foxglove, is refined into a medication called digoxin, used for Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) and atrial fibrillation (afib).

  13. What a wonderful post, thank you.
    I’ll never forget how a few years ago I went to see an exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum about his fascination for Japan. It was the first time I saw how he copied others works for his own practice. In this case the beautiful Japanese prints like Hiroshige. It really opened my eyes. If he, the great Vincent van Gogh, could copy and study others for practice, hell, so could I! Until that moment I always felt like that wasn’t allowed. :-)

  14. Of all the artists in the world – Van Gogh is my favorite and I’ve often spent hours and hours looking at his work on line. Thanks for this great write up about him and wonderful for you (and us) that you got to visit the museum.

  15. Wonderful post! I’m glad you wrote this — it was almost as good as being there! ;-)

    I’ve always felt saddened by the way Van Gogh ended his life. How much richer, art-wise, the world would be if he had lived longer.

  16. I find it interesting that although there has been much speculation about the nature of Van Gogh’s mental illness, he is now recognized as one of the world’s greatest artists and a bridge between 19th century Impressionism and 20th century art!

  17. Thanks for sharing. You say that in ‘just ten years’ he went from painting crap to painting masterpieces. It gives me some perspective on my own art (writing) and that I need to be a bit more patient (but relentless all the same).

  18. Oh! Danny you made me cry. You have such a beautiful way with feelings. On the death of the man; I don’t believe he killed himself. A recent book as well as quite a few knowing souls feel that he was accidently shot by a couple of kids. And he took the blame for them. He was a good soul and thus in this, his final act, he may have also laid his monkey to rest. Thank you so much for this experience.

  19. Reblogged this on Coventry Uni – PDP and commented:
    The words of Van Gogh couldn’t be any more true but I find it difficult to manage time for creating pieces of art! At uni there is so much your expected to do but so little time, it makes me feel frantic, these days in organise my life using a piece of paper and jotting down a to do list everyday!!

  20. Really nice. I love the Rijksmuseum and the VanGogh museum. Powerful stuff. Once an Italian woman and I just looked at the paintings and cried…never said a word. Thank you. : )

  21. Wonderful, inspiring post.
    I was in the Van Gogh Museum last week, on a school trip with my ten year old son. The kids looked at some of the paintings and discussed them: the sunflowers, the two paintings of his room and the influence of Seurat. And they had a close up look at the letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother, with the little drawings of paintings he was working on. Being there and not having any time to have a realy good look at the paintings myself (we looked at the kids mainly), made me realise I wanted to come back soon by myself.
    Reading your post made me determined: very soon!

  22. I am so grateful to have stumbled upon this post – and your blog. In 1972 when I was eighteen years old and on a school tour of Europe, a few of the students desiring to laugh outside in the sunshine rather than speak in whispers in the shadowy rooms of yet another museum almost convinced me to go AWOL with them and skip the Rijksmuseum tour. Oh, how grateful I am that I was too much a goody two-shoes to break the rules. What I discovered that day changed me forever. I haven’t looked at art, literature, or life in quite the same way after viewing Van Goh’s works. I love that your post sent me back forty years and fed a forgotten little nook in my soul. I will return to this post and others in your blog often. Thank you!

  23. Great post! I love Van Gogh’s work as well. I had the privilege of seeing a show of his in Philly a few years back. I was Awestruck.

    I especially resonate with what you said about the process & journey – and never arriving. I blogged about that recently myself. http://mikebrennan.me/arrival/
    Great stuff Danny! Thanks for sharing your journey!

  24. super jealous of your recent travels!!! and this post was well-written – also loved the quote you selected (or the one that came with the post ad) – it was great.

  25. If Van Gogh could have jumped into a time machine and read your blog, he may not have given up on life. I am going through some hard changes right now and have not been doing any drawing or painting. I’m moving to a smaller home next week and as soon as I get there I’m going to start up. Thanks, once again for the inspiration.

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  28. Loved this post. Thank you for your insights on VVG. Have had the wonderful opportunity to visit Amsterdam several times and was able to visit the Rijksmuseum. What an experience! I love Vincent’s quote and am going to reblog this! Thanks again.

  29. Danny,

    I loved the mood of your piece. As a fellow artist, I too sympathize with the feeling that my work is not good enough. Perhaps because mostly it isn’t. Of course family and friends tell me otherwise, but, I always feel like my work is never quite finished…

    Only the canvas drying and the other events in life that draw you away from the easel, and the paints, and brushes that make you eventually feel that sufficient work has been done.
    And so they sit there in the corner of the dining room, turned to the wall, with no-one to see them. Perhaps I will one day, when I retire from the day jobs find time and energy to finish a few more.

    I fell in love with art as a 12 year old schoolkid, at a time and place where kids from my background didn’t pursue that as a career. After a period like VG in art-school at 19, and several, nay dozens of books of artists to make me feel so inadequate, I put all thoughts of high art to one side.

    I too sketch almost everywhere I go, but unfortunately I am married with kids, and have a wife who organizes my week-ends, so finding time to pursue my passion is so limited.

    But one-day, one-day…

    W.

    • “but unfortunately I am married with kids, and have a wife who organizes my week-ends”…

      Having a wife to organize your weekends certainly would be unfortunate. But perhaps you allow this to be the case. Be a man and dictate your own schedule. Would a woman like it if her husband “organized” her weekends? Hmmm, only if she let it. Free up time to follow your true love of art before it’s too late and your nagging wife kills you slowly.

      And women, please stop being nags. If your husband likes art, let him enjoy and express that part of himself.

      • sometimes, it’s create or die. It gets that way.

        When your spouse sees how HER life is enhanced by your joy and curiosity about the world around you, she will be your cheerleader.

        At least that is what happened to me when I redirected my energy.

        Draw her and the kids.

        Then again, take the sketchbook with you when you go on your wife’s scheduled activities and just draw constantly.

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