GW's Reviews > Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman

Van Gogh by Sjraar Van Heugten
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really liked it
Read 3 times. Last read December 29, 2020 to February 12, 2021.

When I opened this book, I was thinking about my own style and what it might be, so that may have lead me to approach this book with the intent to consider style, as opposed to technique, as the title suggests is the focus of the book.

Or it's like a walking tour you might have at a museum, as you travel from place to place Van Gogh had lived, as he developed as an artist or specifically as a draftsman. We get brief descriptions of these places and the circumstances of his life, but only so far as it might provide a context for his drawings.

I

To say style is difficult to talk about is nothing new; fortunately, technique is something we can all see.

For example, for The Plain of La Crau (May 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 Van Gogh’s style. Leaving a space empty was the exception and not the rule. It looks like a conscious choice was made to do so. Moreover, the parts share the space in a way that conjures up something beyond the whole. They are organized and convey a sense of balance.

His drawings, overall, 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 (June 1888), there’s that emblematic steadfastness I spoke of before.1 The thick lines ground the boats as the main focal point, despite being surrounded by the marks depicting the sand and ocean. There is again a 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.

II

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.2 

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

“... ‘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)3

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 (March 1884), I almost 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.

The author 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.

III

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.4

Choosing black and white or a contrast of colors helps make each mark more noticeable. The markings on the page have character as opposed to their being subtle and being not as noticeable as individual marks. When you see each mark you see how the artist engaged with his materials.

The author provides descriptions of how Van Gogh experimented with watered down gouache, lithographic crayon and his initial reliance on a perspective frame and later his use of a reed pen and brush.

Being inspired by both the Montmajour and the many Japanese prints he collected, he drew a series of drawings in pen and pencil. He was able to achieve, the author notes, more delicate line work with less pencil, “which points to the fact that he was searching for greater clarity of line.” (126)

The author also notes how Crau seen from Montmajour and Landscape near Montmajour with train “display a particularly wide variety of penstrokes. The artist used smaller and finer strokes towards the horizon -- one of the techniques he employed to give these landscapes their surprising depth. The compositions show a wealth of detail…” (120)

Drawing his paintings and vice versa, Van Gogh was able to “achieve a greater degree of precision in the drawings. This artistic process -- moving back and forth between paintings and drawings, [allowed] him to scrutinize the rhythm and cohesion in the composition by comparing the contrasting media…” (130)

I think describing what Van Gogh could achieve as “cohesive” is a way to look at his work on a technical level, while the author leaves it to us to go beyond this as individual audience members who might appreciate the work on a more personal level.


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1 I’ve mentioned in two posts for my blog about how thick lines can make a drawing look emblematic.

2 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.

3 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

4 I'm thinking about how exaggerated gestures can be reminiscent of iconography.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
December 29, 2020 – Started Reading
December 29, 2020 – Shelved
January 3, 2021 – Started Reading
January 30, 2021 – Finished Reading
February 12, 2021 – Finished Reading

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