By Dena Peterson
I have been a big fan of the work of Vincent Van Gogh for many years. After my work as a painter/animator on the filmLoving Vincent, I made every effort to learn as much as possible about his life. I believe my work has always had a “touch” of Vincent’s style; I have always loved impasto brushwork and strong color. I also believe strongly that the job of a painter is to interpret a scene in an emotionally powerful way. Vincent once said that we are not “human cameras.” He was referring to the idea that artists must not simply copy a scene. He believed in painting what he “felt,” as opposed to what he “saw.” These ideas continue to inspire my work today. I am losing my need for realism and embracing my love of abstraction, simplification, and emotional expression.
I am often asked to teach workshops on Van Gogh’s signature style. While I do believe it is important to have your own style, if you have been afraid to push your paint thickness, brushwork, or color, then this type of workshop can be helpful. I would like to share with you some of the ideas I use to help inspire a Van Gogh-style painting of your own subject matter.
I am starting with this reference photo that I took while visiting family in Iowa:
I recommend choosing something that you find inspiring, that has personal significance (meaning your own photo), and something with a simple design. I liked this scene because I have a love of storms! Also, I saw a simple design with only three or four major shapes, and a simple value plan…the light field, the dark tree, and the medium skies.
The next step is to create some thumbnail sketches for compositional ideas and value plans. These are meant to be very quick and simple, not detailed. You can do several of these in just a few minutes. Usually, one will stand out to you as the best design. Here one I created from my reference photo:
One unique task I also assign my workshop students is to make what I call a “pattern sketch” as a part of planning their paintings. This is based on the hundreds of reed pen drawings and sketches Van Gogh created. He sometimes used these as a precursor to his paintings to give him a sense of the direction of his brushwork. Van Gogh’s style involves broken and impasto brushstrokes with a deliberate directionality to create patterns. His brushstrokes often follow the form of what he is painting. They can also be used to lead one’s eye through a painting or to emphasize movement. Again, this is not to be detailed, but a quick sketch as a planning tool. Here is the one I created for my painting:
I wanted the brushwork to lead the viewer’s eye through the field and toward the lone tree. The patterns in the clouds create a sense of the stormy movement brewing.
With my value/design sketch and pattern sketch completed, I focus on color. Color is a very subjective thing. I always tell my students that if your values are correct and strong, you can use any color you want! Color is one way to be personally expressive. We all see it differently. Try pushing the color you see in a scene! Van Gogh often used pure color straight from the paint tube. I once heard an artist tell his students that there is no such pure color in nature, that it must always be modified. I am glad no one told Vincent this!
I created a color sketch for my scene, too. This isn’t really required; I often like to choose colors as I go, and as they inspire me. The beauty of oil paint is that it is very forgiving! I learned this from working on the film, scraping and repainting every scene as it moved and changed. So, if the colors aren’t working for you, change them! You can scrape them and repaint, or simply add thicker paint on top to make adjustments. Vincent worked with passion, mixing his colors on the canvas or adding strokes of color to areas of another color, often using complementaries.
Here is my final painting: