What’s the difference between random browsing and a deep, guided dive into a subject? My father loves visiting museums and makes sure that I visit them virtually. He would bring back books, pictures, puzzles that we would regularly study.
This was my introduction to Van Gogh.
Vincent van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890)
Vincent Willem van Gogh was a Dutch Post- Impressionist painter. In a decade, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of which date from the last two years of his life. They include landscapes, portraits, and self-portraits. These paintings are characterized by bold colors and dramatic, impulsive and expressive brushwork.
Before the post-modern period, artists would create paintings that were, essentially, photographs- before photography was invented! Artists like van Gogh disagreed with this approach. He painted to highlight what he thought was important. This meant exageratedly bright colors, arched or curved lines, etc.
A painting doesn’t have to be a replica of the subject, it is a replica of what the artists sees.
The curving, swirling lines, brilliantly contrasting blues, and yellows, the large, flame-like cypress trees, and the thickly layered brushstrokes of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night are ingrained in the minds of many as an expression of the artist’s turbulent state of mind. Van Gogh’s canvas is indeed an exceptional work of art, not only in terms of its quality but also within the artist’s oeuvre, since, in comparison to favored subjects like irises, sunflowers, or wheat fields, night landscapes are rare. Nevertheless, it is surprising that The Starry Night has become so well known. Van Gogh mentioned it briefly in his letters as a simple “study of night” or ”night effect.”
We see many things but we notice very few of them. The Starry Night is ubiquitous. I did not notice it until I had studied the painting, and suddenly it was everywhere.
I wanted to understand the composition and the technique of this famous painting, so decided to “re-create” it myself (including the insanity, but I still have both my ears).
Starry night is very unique. It is set at night. One would expect a dark pallete, but look at the bright colors used. Personally, I don’t think blue and yellow go well together, but in this painting, they do.
The foreground is dominated by the tree. Although it is large and has the darkest colors, the church roof is the center of perspective, according to me. This is very interesting – an object in the distance draws our attention more than the large foreground object. I think this is because of the colors used. Most of the action, of course, happens in the background – just look at the sky!
Van Gogh has used small strokes in this painting. From up close, these look like scratches but step back, and they compose into an almost 3-dimensional view. The wind in the sky is more like waves in an ocean. I wonder if Hakusai’s Great Wave was an inspiration.
I decided to paint The Starry Night at a small scale, on paper and using colored pencils. This would help me develop familiarity with using strokes and experiment with different mediums. My goal was also to understand the different shades and the combination of primary colors (blue and yellow) in the original.
Have you ever stared at the night sky and seen this much drama? I looked at the (city) night sky and only observed points of light on a black background. In a painting, the artist is presenting his view of the reality in front of him. van Gogh looked up at the sky and saw the brilliance of the wind swept heavens. The moon and the stars are now luminous globes and we see their halos as though viewing them through water. I very much doubt that van Gogh was a student of physics, but doesn’t this remind you of magnetic flux?
Drawing this sky showed me how one could take a bland, sober scene and infuse it with action and dynamism. I am yet to understand the imagination needed to see beyond what is in front of us.
I sketched out the elements in the sky and then colored the background from darkest to the lightest shade. I didn’t realize that the lighter colors wouldn’t show on the dark blue! This also happened with the celestial objects (they have a green border around them). A key lesson that I learned was to plan out my drawing and maybe even do a few experimental sketches first.
I have never seen a cypress tree. Have you? Do cypress trees look this weird? I did a bit of research and found that these trees have trunks that grow about half way and put out branches in all directions. When wind flows through them, the branches sway haphazardly.
How did van Gogh see the cypress tree? In the painting, it looks like a villain’s evil lair, maybe Maleficents castle or some other Disney villain? Oh, wait! it’s the beanstalk tree from Jack and the Beanstalk. No, no! It has an almost fire-like quality with its branches similar to flames reaching up to the “Gambrels of the Sky“.
In a fine example of not learning from my mistakes, I started with brown, and the green wouldn’t show up. So the same lesson from the sky applies here.
Mountains and Village
How does this scene look in reality? My guess is a dark shape of looming mountains against the backdrop of the night sky. van Gogh sees the mountains as an extension of the sky. They give shape and, in turn, are shaped by the flowing winds we see in the sky.
On a dark night, distant houses wouldn’t be visible but for the light shining from within. We see this in their lighted windows and this light illuminates the village. What does the village contribute to the composition? It is a small part, but its smallness serves to emphasize how little the works of men matter in the grander design of the cosmos.
The village is heavily distorted. I had left space for finishing it at the end, but did not estimate its size correctly. Again, I need to do a better job of planning, this time of the layout and the placement of the different elements.
This exercise turned out to be more educational than I had anticipated. Much like photographing sunsets forced me to look and observe in ways I had never done before, replicating The Starry Night unveiled a vision that I had never imagined possible in art. I feel like van Gogh was speaking with me across the years, but I still dont know if I have heard him correctly. However, I am slowly beginning to appreciate a little bit of what he saw.
In terms of technique, I of course realize the necessity of planning and experimentation even when making a copy. I used color pencils on paper which would not give the same effect as acrylic on canvas. Guess what my next painting is going to be?