Quotes on Painting and Art from Vincent van Gogh

Insights from the Post-Impressionist Artist

Van Gogh Self portrait

Van Gogh Museum 

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), who lived a tormented life as an artist, sold only one painting during his lifetime and died relatively young by, presumably, self-inflicted gunshot wound, turned out to be arguably the most famous artist of all time. His paintings are recognized and printed worldwide and originals command millions of dollars at auction. The painting Les Alyscamps, for example, sold for $66.3 million May 5, 2015, at Sotheby's New York.

Not only are we very familiar with van Gogh's paintings, but we have also come to know van Gogh the artist through the many letters he exchanged with his brother Theo over the course of his life. There are 651 known letters from van Gogh to his brother, as well as seven to Theo and his wife, Jo. Those, along with letters van Gogh received from them and others, have been compiled in various excellent books, such as Van Gogh's Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890 (Buy from Amazon) as well as online on The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery. 

Van Gogh had much to say about the process of painting and the joys and struggles of being an artist. Following are some of his thoughts from his letters to his brother, Theo.

Van Gogh on Learning to Paint

"As soon as I have more power over my brush, I shall work even harder than I do now ... it will not be long before you need not send me money any more."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 21 January 1882)

"There are two ways of thinking about painting, how not to do it and how to do it; how to do it -- with much drawing and little color; how not to do it -- with much color and little drawing."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, April 1882)

“In both figure and landscape … I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly.”
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 21 July 1882)

“What I like so much about painting is that with the same amount of trouble which one takes over a drawing, one brings home something that conveys the impression much better and is much more pleasant to look at … it is more gratifying than drawing. But it is absolutely necessary to be able to draw the right proportion and the position of the object pretty correctly before one begins. If one makes mistakes in this, the whole thing comes to nothing.”
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 20 August 1882)

"As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, c.29 October 1883)

"I think it better to scrape off with the knife a part that is wrong, and to begin anew, than to make too many corrections."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, October 1885)

Van Gogh on Color

"I know for sure that I have an instinct for color, and that it will come to me more and more, that painting is in the very marrow of my bones."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 3 September 1882)

“Indigo with terra sienna, Prussian blue with burnt sienna, really give much deeper tones than pure black itself. When I hear people say ‘there is no black in nature’, I sometimes think, ‘There is no real black in colors either’. However, you must beware of falling into the error of thinking that the colorists do not use black, for of course as soon as an element of blue, red, or yellow is mixed with black, it becomes a gray, namely, a dark, reddish, yellowish, or bluish gray.”
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, June 1884)

"I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing the tones; I study nature, so as not to do foolish things, to remain reasonable. However, I don't mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on my canvas, as beautiful as it looks in nature."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, October 1885)

"Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 11 August 1888)

"I feel such creative power in myself that I know for sure that the time will arrive when, so to speak, I shall regularly make something good every day. But very rarely a day passes that I do not make something, though it is not yet the real thing I want to make."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 9 September 1882)

"To exaggerate the fairness of hair, I come even to orange tones, chromes and pale yellow ... I make a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I get a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 11 August 1888)

"Cobalt is a divine color and there is nothing as fine for putting an atmosphere round things. Carmine is the red of wine and is warm and lively like wine. The same goes for emerald green too. It's false economy to dispense with them, with those colors. Cadmium as well."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 28 December 1885)

Van Gogh on the Challenges of Painting 

"Painting is like having a bad mistress who spends and spends and it's never enough ... I tell myself that even if a tolerable study comes out of it from time to time, it would have been cheaper to buy it from somebody else."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, 23 June 1888)

"Nature always begins by resisting the artist, but he who really takes it seriously he will not be put off by that opposition.”
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, c.12 October 1881)

Van Gogh on Facing a Blank Canvas 

"Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don't know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can't do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can't' once and for all.”
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, October 1884)

Van Gogh on Plein-Air Painting 

"Just try going outside and painting things on the spot! All sorts of things happen then. I had to pick off a good hundred or more flies from [my] canvases ... not to mention dust and sand [nor] the fact that if one carries them through heath and hedgerows for a couple of hours, a branch or two is likely to scratch them ... and that the effects one wants to capture change as the day wears on."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh, July 1885)

Van Gogh on Photographic Portraits 

"I painted two pictures of myself lately, one of which has rather the true character ... I always think photographs abominable, and I don't like to have them around, particularly not those of persons I know and love.... photographic portraits wither much sooner than we ourselves do, whereas the painted portrait is a thing which is felt, done with love or respect for the human being that is portrayed."
(Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh, 19 September 1889)

Van Gogh on Signing a Painting

"... in the future my name ought to be put in the catalogue as I sign it on the canvas, namely Vincent and not Van Gogh, for the simple reason that they do not know how to pronounce the latter name here."
(Letter to Theo van Gogh from Arles, 24 March 1888)


Van Gogh As a Letter Writer, A New Edition, Van Gogh Museum, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letter_writer_1.html