Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Van Gogh: Drawing Landscapes

Pollard birches, 1884 Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Pencil, pen in brown (once black) ink, heightened with white opaque watercolour,
on wove paper, 39 x 54 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
(Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

More about Van Gogh and Drawing - this post focuses on his landscape drawings. So - what have I learned?
  • Proportion (landscapes): He initially learned to draw perspective using a perspective frame and continued to use it for the rest of his life. (The link is to one of his letters in which he describes and draws the frame). However, he didn't use it in every drawing and used it less once he found (in the south of France) that he could capture perspective without using it. Realistically this happened only after he had been drawing plein air and on a regular basis for a long time using the frame - in my opinion, he had trained his eye.
  • Townscapes and realism: Townscapes were drawn on a regular basis - but interestingly he rarely depicted the more obvious sights. He didn't believe in exploiting the picturesque and portrayed urban views in an unemotional way. This stance was very much 'in tune' with his preference for 'realist' painting - portraying what is there 'as is'.
  • Gardens and parks: Van Gogh made drawings of gardens and parks wherever he worked - small areas of planned nature seemed to hold an attraction for him.
  • Trees: Here's what the Van Gogh Museum has to say about the drawing at the top
Trees were an important source of inspiration for Van Gogh. Gnarled willows, oaks and beeches are the main motif in some twenty of his drawings and paintings. In this work the artist has drawn several rows of pollarded birches in a highly competent pen technique. On either side of the birches he has added a figure, a shepherd with a flock of sheep and a woman with a rake over her shoulder. In a letter to Theo from 1882 Van Gogh revealed that he saw ‘something like a soul’ in trees. He must have been similarly inspired when he depicted these expressive, rather tragic-looking pollarded birches. (Van Gogh Museum)
Van Gogh buys Japanese prints from the noted art dealer Siegfried Bing and studies them intensively. He arranges an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts at a Paris café and makes a few "copies" after Japanese prints. His own work takes on the stylized contours and expressive coloration of his Japanese examples. (Van Gogh Museum - His Life, Paris 1887)
  • Japanese influence: Van Gogh was much impressed and influenced by ukiyo-e prints - depictions of everyday life in Japan which were usually done as woodcuts and were of a fairly small size. He collected ukiyo-e prints and this collection now resides in the Van Gogh Museum. He learned about: the use of bright colours; their characteristic compositions, daring perspectives and tiny figures populating the scene. The Japanese prints set the tone for drawings done in the summer of 1887 and subsequently. In April 1888, he announces to his brother Theo that he wants to make drawings in the manner of japanese prints and would have to do a tremendous amount of drawing. He decided to start working in series on smaller size sheets - approximately the same size as Japanese woodcuts - and started to divide his compositions into large flat areas. In these areas he might use a particular kind of penstroke eg using a stipple mark to denote the sky. In Arles, Van Gogh found an inner harmony and a stimulating environment. The Provencal landscape also reminded him of Japan.
"I am convinced that I shall set my individuality free simply by staying on here. The Japanese draw quickly, very quickly, like a lighting flash, because their nerves are finer, their feelings simpler. I have only been here a few months, but tell me this - coild I, in paris, have done the drawing of the boats in an hour? Not even with a perspective frame and this one is done without measuring, just by letting my pen go. (Vincent )"
    • Montmajour series: The second Montmajour series contains six large views of the Provencal countryside (typically 48cm x 60 cm). These are generally regarded as the highpoint of his career as a draughtsman, demonstrating both maturity and versatility. Van Gogh experimented with a more fluent and powerful style of drawing. He drew using a reed pen and brush and ink as well as with pencil and a fine pen. He used smaller and finer strokes towards the horizon which gave the landscapes depth. A wealth of detail is included in the drawings but in an unobtrusive way leading to new discoveries every time you look at the drawings. This reflected the subtlety which Van Gogh found in the Japanese works. He also described the locations exactly on the reverse of the work. This suggest to me they were not done in one sitting and such notes may have helped him to relocate his vantage point.
    What I like about our project to study artists and their work and working approaches is that it highlights just how much study they themselves undertook. It makes me feel optimistic that all of this is going to have a positive impact!

    Trees are a favourite motif of mine and my sketchbooks are full of them (see the sketch to the left and the Trees Gallery on my website) as are all manner of Gardens. I've been tempted to draw trees in much the same way as Van Gogh for some time (and have been 'collecting' trees for this purpose and this project is I think going to provide the stimulus to get going on some drawings. I'm planning that one of my outputs from this project will be a drawing (or maybe even drawings) of trees - in pen and ink. I've got my eye on some in Greenwich Park which look suitably old and gnarled but may have to work from photos if the weather continues to be cold and wet.

    Tomorrow - more about his use of pen and ink and graphic techniques.

    I've also completed a landscape drawing in pen and ink influenced by Van Gogh and will also be posting this shortly. The only question is will this be before or after I get out my reed pen.............

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    1. Thanks for the VG links and info, Katherine. I dub thee the "Queen of Content", for thy service in support of artists and art lovers everywhere.
      I read where VG would denigrate one of his works if he thought it a "landscape". He took a perspective, I gather, that the soul of the subject must come through. He saw a landscape (perhaps the trees, as you are relating) in terms of a portrait.
      I am certainly gaining some insight from the old boy's view of realism.

    2. It never ceases to amaze me how much info you get into your posts, Katherine!

      Thank you for posting all this info about VG and his passion for drawing. So many people think 'painting' when they hear the name VanGogh without realizing that he was just as avid (if not more) about drawing as he was about painting.

      Time to get back to reading and investigating more of your links!

    3. My heart broke when I opened this link and saw VG's Birches with the mass of tiny hairy twiggs! That's what I want to do! All the trees I want to draw (apart from the Umbrella Pines) are like that at the moment, and I'm finding it impossible. Back the the drawing board! Thank you again for terrific links.

    4. Katherine,
      I too am a tree freak and have been for long years. This year I am working on a series of tree paintings, done at the area farms and ranches in this part of the world. I always enjoy your wonderful blog.
      Linda Blondheim


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