Thursday, February 22, 2007

Van Gogh: Drawing media and techniques

Old vineyard with peasant woman,1890
Vincent van Gogh(1853-1890)
Brush in oil and watercolour, pencil on laid paper, 44 x 54 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

This post focuses on Van Gogh's drawing materials and how they influenced his style.

Here are some of the things I've learned about Van Gogh's approach to drawing.

Drawing Media:

  • Pencil: He employed pencil for preliminary drawings and then combined it with ink. He often worked with a carpenter's pencil. He liked to press hard and often worked on wet paper.
  • Pen and ink: Van Gogh had a remarkable gift for pen drawing and graphic technique.
    • Most of Van Gogh's pen and ink and brush drawings (such as the one above) are executed first in pencil first. He then inks/bruhes over the pencil marks once he is happy with them.
    • some of his pen and ink drawings are drawn without any preliminary use of pencil
    • During his visit to Arles in 1888, Van Gogh discovered the reed pen (made from local hollow-barreled grass, sharpened with a penknife). It changed his drawing style. He created some extraordinary drawings of the Provençal landscape, including a series of drawings of and from Montmajour (east of Arles) , in reed pen and aniline ink on laid paper. The ink has now faded to a dull brown.
    • The Van Gogh Museum is conducting research into pigments and drawing inks in use in the period 1888-1890 and comparing this to the inks Van Gogh used [UPDATE: See the Research Results REVIGO: Paintings - which also comments on inks] 
  • Prints: He studied prints from periodicals and wanted to make graphic art which would be affordable to the lower classes.
  • Print materials: He experimented with using a lithographic crayon - drawing over pencil and then removing it to get lighter effects. He sometimes also used printing ink in his drawings.
  • Use of brush and colour: At Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise, he experimented with rhythm and colour - often exploring further the impact of the use of complementary colours such as in the orange and blue used in the above drawing. For colour he used gouache, thinned oils and coloured inks (some of which have now turned brown) with a brush. [UPDATE: See Unravel Van Gogh App - which presents information about media used in paintings]
Trees with ivy in the asylum garden, 1889
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, May-June 1889
pencil, reed pen and brush and ink, on paper, 61.8 cm x 47.1 cm
Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Drawing Techniques

When he died, one commentator remarked that
"It may be certain that in the future the artist who died young will receive attention primarily for his drawings."
What seems to surprise people looking at the drawings is to find that the sort of marks he used in his paintings were first developed in his drawings. Van Gogh's drawings - particularly in the later years - will be immediately recognised to be by Van Gogh by anybody familiar with his paintings. All that is missing is the impasto finish, the saturated colour and optical mixing. Which is quite a lot, which in turn says something about the strength and style of the marks he made. 

However, once one understands that Van Gogh thought that drawing was the root of everything and that it was necessary to master drawing before proceeding to paint and colour, then it makes sense of how a style could become so well developed initially through drawing alone.

Van Gogh's earlier interest in Japanese prints may have sparked an interest in calligraphy. It's certainly the case that when a brush is used in his drawings he seems to use it a very sinuous and calligraphic way. Marks are independent and rarely blended. The pointillism used by some of the Impressionists also seems to have influenced him.

As well as making drawings in advance of paintings, Van Gogh also used to make drawn copies of paintings he was particularly pleased with or for his brother or when he was seeking comments from others. The drawing of the tree, in the asylum of the garden of the asylum at St Remy, is one example of this practice. His drawings are frequently not mere copies but rather seek to continue to explore the subject and the scope for mark-making.

His use of pen and ink demonstrates very good motor control of both his hands and his chosen drawing instrument. I'm not bad at drawing myself, but having drawn using my reed pen during the course of this project I have to say I am now even more impressed with his pen and ink drawings. His control of line direction and weight and ability to leave the ink untouched by a stray finger leaves me in awe! (And you now know why you haven't seen my efforts!).

The notion of Van Gogh as a man who studies, plans and works with control as well as energy is maybe not one that fits neatly with some of the more popular myths. All I can say is that actually trying to use a medium in the same sort of way tells me far more about an artist than anything else. 

Eric Gelber commented extremely eloquently on Van Gogh's mark-making in his article commenting on the drawings exhibition in 2005. Here's what he had to say.
There is a reason why Picasso’s praise of Van Gogh was never qualified. Van Gogh’s uncanny graphic intensity was not simply the by-product of mental disease, expression run rampant. Van Gogh teaches us that a drawn line is not just a drawn line. He instilled his line with veracity and an energy that continues to elude classification. His graphic resources, stippling, cross hatching, a barrage of multi-directional slashes and whorls, were always contained in smartly delineated compositions, and Van Gogh also chose startlingly original subject matter, a lone pair of shoes, a dramatically sloping hole in the ground. His ability to frame wild expanses of plant life allowed him to avoid the pitfalls of horror vacui, present in so much outsider art.............By carefully modulating the direction, shape and size of a limited vocabulary of hand drawn marks, Van Gogh convincingly evoked a variety of textures and forms and vistas. He was masterful at playing dot and circular form off of line or slash and his nuanced and commanding outlines of forms are products of a finely tuned imagination. His outlines are vibrant summaries of forms that are thoroughly convincing and hold our attention without resorting to self conscious distortions. (Eric Gelber)
For further information: If you can't get hold of a copy of Sjraar Van Heugten's book "Van Gogh - The Master Draughtsman" published by Thames and Hudson, then try reviewing the many reviews of the Drawings exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The MMA also has a very useful essay on his drawings.

RIC GELBER is Associate Editor at An artist as well as a critic, he has also written for Sculpture, Artnet and the New York Sun.


  1. a wonderful post, thank you for the time and research to put this together!

  2. What a wonderfully documented piece. Very interesting and makes you want to go to the hardware store for a box of pencils. thanks for your time.


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