It took many years before Vincent van Gogh found his true calling. At the age of 27 he decided to become an artist. Vincent was not naturally gifted, and still had everything to learn.
In order to improve his skills, Vincent took lessons for short periods of time. Nevertheless, mastering the profession was largely down to his own hard work. How did he set about becoming an artist?
Even before Vincent was an artist, he included sketches in letters to his brother Theo. Once he decided to become an artist, Vincent gave it his all. He practised endlessly by copying works by other artists. He was always looking for ways to improve his work, writing to a friend:
I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.
An inquisitive mind
Vincent certainly had an inquisitive mind. For example, he studied lots of books on colour theory to learn more about how colours work together. He learned that complementary colours (red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange) intensify one another. When Vincent was 32 and living in Nuenen, he applied these insights into colour in several still lifes. If you take a closer look at these paintings, you can clearly see the result of Vincent’s inquisitive mind.
At first sight, the still lifes in which Vincent practised with colour appear to consist mostly of earth tones. This is because Vincent kept mixing the bright colours into ‘muddy tones’. But if you zoom in, you’ll see that he really was using complementary colours. See for yourself!
In a letter to Theo, Vincent explained exactly why he used certain colour contrasts in this painting. For example, he placed red accents on the apples alongside ‘greenish things’. The colours are not very bright, because he mixed the red and green with darker shades. Can you see the red alongside the green, just like Vincent described it?
Shades of a single colour
In this painting, Vincent was keen to see what happened if he used different shades of a certain colour next to each other. He experimented using Terre de Sienne, an ochre colour. If you look at the vertical stalks of reed on the left-hand side of the basket, you’ll see that they are illuminated. As if a light is glowing to the left of the painting. Only small bits of these stalks are visible. Vincent used yellowish-green dots of paint, which he hardly mixed at all before applying to his canvas.
However hard Vincent practised with colour, his works remained fairly dark. This did not go unnoticed by his younger brother Theo, who lived in Paris, working as an art dealer. The colours in Vincent’s paintings were much too dark when compared to those used by the modern painters in Paris. Theo would never be able to sell them. Vincent continued to believe in himself and practised tirelessly. It was only once he moved to Paris that he would see the colourful light.
The light of Paris
Approximately six months after he painted these still lifes of potatoes and apples, Vincent moved to Paris. This is where he saw the vivid, colourful paintings of the modern artists with his own eyes. All of these new impressions influenced his own work. Vincent experimented to his heart’s content. Darker colours were gradually replaced by lighter shades as he flourished to become a modern artist.