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Friday, October 26, 2012

On Vincent Van Gogh and Writing

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, Winter 1887/88
After visiting the Denver Art Museum's Vincent Van Gogh exhibit last Saturday, I became convinced that, if he had enjoyed words as much as drawing/painting, the man could have had just as much success as a writer. Why? One word: dedication.

The paintings were, of course, gorgeous to see, but I found myself equally intrigued by the narration of the museum's audio, biographical information, and quotes displayed along the walls. For instance, did you know that Van Gogh (1853-1890) only painted for 10 years? He took it up at age 27 and died at 37, the majority of his well-known works being from the last two years of his life.

Having seen a Van Gogh/Gauguin exhibit in Chicago several years ago, I thought I was coming in with a decent amount of information. But I was blown away by the difference. Why? Because of writing.

My three years of writing have been an incredible journey of learning, practice, execution, critique, repeat (eh-hem: I'm definitely NOT claiming to be in the same talent pool as Van Gogh). The steps that Van Gogh took to become such an accomplished artist (though he didn't sell much during his lifetime) were so similar to posts I've read about the writer's journey, and I found myself inspired by the man's passion for his craft.

He did everything a writer would do. He studied the masters and made copies at first, before establishing his own style. He mingled with fellow artists, learning their techniques and incorporating them into his own paintings. He understood that a great deal of failure precedes success, and that success can be followed again by failure. The described intricacy and layering process that went into creating his work was very reminiscent of creating a novel. 
Woman with Cap, 1882/83

So I finished my drawings pretty well in pencil, indeed as much as possible. Then I fixed them, and dulled them with milk. And then I worked them up again with lithographic crayon where the deepest tones were, retouched them here and there with a brush or pen, with lampblack, and worked in the lighter parts with white body color...~ van Gogh on creating Woman with Cap, 1882/83~

Outlining, character sketching, filling in the plot and setting and dialogue until a fully realized world has been created....knowing when it's done, when it needs a rest, when it needs to be polished. I could go on and on about the parallels with writing, but it's the Friday before Halloween and I've got a 4-year-old threatening to change her costume AGAIN, so I'll keep this brief and leave you with a quote from the exhibit and two paintings from the last years of his life.
Starry, Starry Night, 1889
By the last two years of his life, spent mostly in Southern France, his hand could do what his brain imagined.

To me, that's what we writers strive for as we develop our craft. To imagine a world, a character, a story, and fully translate our idea onto paper. If you haven't read anything about NPR's Ira Glass and his commentary on "the gap," feel free to read his thoughts below.


Undergrowth with Two Figures, 1890~ possibly my favorite van Gogh painting

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

But there is this gap.

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer, and your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.

Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through a phase of years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing we want it to have.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s totally normal and the most important thing you can possibly do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on deadline so that every week you will finish one story. Put yourself in a situation where you have to turn out the work, because it is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.

It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

~Ira Glass 



37 comments:

  1. This was a really great post. You make some wonderful observations, which I enjoyed immensely. Also, pretty pictures didn't hurt.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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  2. I love that quote so much. It's exactly what I need to hear! Thanks for the inspiration, and have a great weekend.

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  3. P.s. Oh, I remember those days of last minute Halloween costume changes. Enjoy!

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    1. Not sure about enjoying the costume changes, but I will certainly enjoy raiding my daughter's candy bag :)

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  4. Van Gogh is my favorite.

    There's definitely something to be said for working through that gap. It's too bad that so many people these days don't understand about that gap.

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    1. I have a feeling that I'll be battling that gap for the rest of my life. But it'll be an enjoyable battle :)

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  5. Wow, only ten years? I love your parallels for writers--so encouraging!

    ~Debbie

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    1. I know~ ten years! That's crazy, considering how many paintings he completed.

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  6. I had no idea he only painted for ten years - that motivates me big time!

    And I LOVE Undergrowth - so beautiful.

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    1. I didn't know that either~ and I think Undergrowth was one of his last, if not last completed painting.

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  7. I didn't know he painted for such a short time either, Imagine what he could've done had he lived longer...

    Love the last two paintings and what Ira had to stay about creating.

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    1. I love what Ira said as well~ somehow it's comforting!

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  8. Great parallels between Van Gogh's art and the craft of writing--love this post :-) And the Ira Glass quote is so true. The only way over and through the gap is to keep writing and to write regularly. I still have to remind myself of this on a regular basis!

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    1. Practice is key! I feel like I've been practicing for quite some time, and I hope I get to play in an actual "game" someday :)

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  9. Jess, I love, love, LOVE this. I'm going to have to link back to it in a post...fascinating. Hopeful. Closing the gap - that's such a good stuff. It's such hard work to master the craft, but that's what makes it great, isn't it?

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    1. You're so right~ that's what makes it a fantastic challenge to take up :)

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  10. I remember this odd Japanese movie composed of short stories. In one of them, a young Japanese painter steps into a van Gogh painting and meets van Gogh himself, at work painting a landscape. When the young painter says what an honor it is to meet him, van Gogh gestures at the countryside and says, "Why aren't you painting?"

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    1. Do you remember the name of the film?

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    2. "Dreams" by Akira Kurosawa. I loved it that Van Gogh was played by none other than Martin Scorsese. It's a beautiful sequence.

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  11. I've been writing for 3 years, too. I was so bad when I started, but I've worked so hard to improve. Still, it's slow going, isn't it? There's always something new to learn or reasons to second guess yourself. I hope we're like Van Gogh in that we get more prolific (and much better) as we go along. :-)

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  12. Gosh, I still love that quote. And WOW about Van Gogh. I didn't realize he only painted for 10 years. I'm simply in awe. So inspirational! Thank you for sharing, Jess. :D

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  13. I love Vincent Van Gogh's work. So interesting to learn about him. Great post!

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  14. I love this! Hearing his story was a total inspiration, to know how hard he worked and how far he came in such a short time. Though it does make me sad that he died at such a young age. What else could he have accomplished?

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  15. Thank you for enriching my exploration of Van Gogh's work. Also for Ira Glass's encouraging words, which I've posted to the fridge to keep me at the wonderful grind of creativity. Love your blog.

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  16. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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