Vincent Van Gogh Drawings

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Despite the fame of his paintings, Vincent Van Gogh drawings are almost as celebrated and in terms of sheer volume represent the far greater share of his remaining body of work today.

Van Gogh (1853-1890) was Dutch, although it was in France that he truly became the great painter we know today.

In his early life in Holland, he lacked self-confidence and failed at many of the jobs he undertook - including even what he considered his vocation as a lay minister.

After some earlier experimentation with drawing, around 1880 he decided to turn definitively to art, beginning with a study of Rubens; he also bought himself many Japanese prints.

"Self Portrait", Vincent Van Gogh

In 1886, he came to Paris to help his brother Théo with his business and it was in the City of Light that Van Gogh discovered Pissaro, Monet and Gaugin.  This was the origin of his Impressionist brushstroke, which as we know he later developed into his own utterly unique style.

A Tormented Life...

Nevertheless, his mental health was a greater and greater problem, until in 1888 when he famously went after Gaugin with a razor during a fight, concluding by cutting off part of his ear. He spent time in the asylum in St-Remy. Commenters have proposed a wide range of undiagnosed and untreated maladies the poor man may have suffered from - they range from lead poisoning from his Titanium White paint to epilepsy, without forgetting the possiblities of Ménière's disease, bipolar disorder, sunstroke or acute intermittent porphyria, even syphilis - but it is clear that his was a tormented life, one that left its mark on his art. 

A Tortured Death

He finally died from a gunshot wound to the stomach in 1890, which for long has been called a suicide.  This has been subject to controversy since the 2011 publication of a book called Van Gogh: The Life.  In it, the authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith claim that in fact the artist sustained a mortal injury when shot either intentionally or negligently by young boys of his acquaintance, during or after a bout of drinking. 

In the ensuing few horrible days of agony before he expired, Van Gogh, according to the authors, would have assumed responsiblity for his own death to save his young friends, hence the explanation of his famous deathbed words: "Do not accuse anyone... it is I who wanted to kill myself..."

The Importance of Théo

The role of his younger brother is key in understanding Van Gogh - without Théo's financial support, encouragement and efforts on his behalf, he never would have been able to survive, even with the impoverished, difficult existence he did have.

Théo was an art dealer, and in addition to being the artist's brother, he was also his best friend.  Three-quarters or more of the 800 letters Vincent wrote were to Théo, including the very first one...and the very last one.

Vincent Van Gogh Drawings

"Man in Mourning", Van Gogh

There are about 1,000 Vincent Van Gogh drawings, dating from 1877 to 1890.  They can be placed in two great categories, although of course more distinctions are easily possible. 

The first is that of the studies and sketches he made as either preparatory work for a painting or simply to get a better understanding of his subject, as the drawing, left, of a man in mourning.

But the second and clearly more fascinating category of Vincent Van Gogh drawings are those found in the letters already mentioned, mostly addressed to his brother Théo. These letters not only contain a precious history of his development as an artist, but are also an important source of Vincent Van Gogh drawings that the artist dashed off to illustrate points he was making. Often, he would put a quick preliminary sketch in the letter to his brother, asking him for his advice and what he thought should be changed to produce the final painting.  But in themselves, letters from Van Gogh to Théo were meant for his eyes only, with no intention of their being a permament work of art in themselves.

An idea for a painting that Van Gogh suggested to his brother Théo in a letter...

...would later on become the painting "Marguerite Gacher at the Piano" (1890).

Media in Vincent Van Gogh Drawings

"Sorrow", by Van Gogh.  In this drawing, the artist used pencil and ink wash.

As far as drawing media was concerned, Van Gogh used anything he could get his hands on.  This meant pencil, of course, but also black chalk or red chalk. He was also very skilled with ink (he even liked red ink) or charcoal, and experimented with mixed techniques frequently, as in the example to the left.

In Vincent Van Gogh drawings it's easy to see he experimented with not only as many media as he could, but also as wide a range of various kinds of paper; this meant that his drawings appear on not only Ingres paper (named after the artist Ingres, this is a special paper good for pastel or charcoal), but also laid paper (the wires in the papermaker's mold are parallel, producing a ribbed paper) and woven paper (the wires are woven into a mesh for a more even surface).

An earlier "Sorrow" on which Van Gogh wrote a Michelet citation (my translation): "How is it that on this earth there be a woman alone?"

For Van Gogh, drawings could be intended to be finished works of art in themselves, and he would draw the same subject again and again to try to find the best and most effective way of portraying it.  Hence this earlier version of the drawing "Sorrow", just above. Van Gogh referred to it as "the best drawing I have done so far".

Vincent Van Gogh drawings are important because they show his immense talent, but also because what has come down to us makes it possible for us to see his stumbling first steps as an artist right through to when, as a master artist, he valued drawing as a faster way to capture light and shadow than by painting.  It was a tool to permit him to share his vision for his art with his brother, and a real inspiration for artists today - because he is so profoundly, vulnerably human.

He doubted himself and his ability, hungering for the skill of drawing while fearing he was incapable of learning it.  As he told Théo in 1880 : "I cannot tell you how happy I am that I have taken up drawing again. I had been thinking about it for a long time, but always considered it impossible and beyond my abilities."

Vincent Van Gogh Drawings as Inspiration

"Carpenter", Van Gogh, ©Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, ©Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  This drawing dates from 1880.  

"Woman Mourning", Van Gogh, ©Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, ©Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the BrainThis drawing dates from 1882, two years later.  

The amazing thing is that Van Gogh's entire artistic career only extended over the last ten years of his short life.  For the first two years he did nothing but struggle to teach himself how to draw.  The progress he made was prodigious, as evidenced by the difference between the drawing of the carpenter, above left, with its problems of proportion, shading and even artistic confidence, and the drawing of the weeping woman, above right, in which he has become a master.

In fact, I share that on a personal note, for several years after my arrival in France I had just these two drawings up on the wall of my tiny quarters in Paris, telling myself that if Vincent could make it...I could too.

One of the turning points in his self-instruction in drawing came when he discovered the concept of drawing grids, which permitted him to make a leap forward artistically.  He wrote to Théo:  "Long and continuous practice  with it enables one to draw as quick as lightning - and once the drawing is done firmly, to paint quick as lightning, too."  Take a look at the drawing grids pages on this site, where you can learn more about them, download grid paper, and even download instructions for building your own.

As for your drawing practice, you have several Vincent Van Gogh drawings below, available in PDF, for you to download and copy.

1. Bedroom in Arles (around 1888) is famous among Vincent Van Gogh drawings - it was in preparation for his celebrated painting of this same room. The objects are, indeed, in the same place than in the painting and we can feel the same sensation of rest, even without the colors of the painting.

2. Couple Out For a Stroll (1887) is a drawing done by Van Gogh with chalk. It must have been done very quickly by the artist, as indicates first of all the ways the lines are drawn; also, a crack in the midle of the drawing indicates the fact that Van Gogh probably folded it to be able to take it with him more easily.

3. The Starry Night (around 1889) is another one famous among Vincent van Gogh drawings in that it was preparatory to his famous 1889 painting - an icon today! - called "The Starry Night".  As with his drawing of his room, again his project is just about complete, a black and white version of the great painting to come.

4. Bridge in Arles (around 1888) is one of many representations van Gogh did of the the Langlois bridge (he also painted an oil of it in 1888). In this drawing, even if some elements such as the clouds were done quickly, other bits such as the bridge show thow much attention he gave to this drawing.

5. Old Man Grieving (around 1888) is another drawing van Gogh did well before the actual painting - here it turned into "Sorrowing Old Man ('At Eternity's Gate')", realized in 1890.

6. Postman Joseph Roulin (1888) is a drawing van Gogh did of the same postman that would pose for him in six different paintings. Every time, van Gogh prepared a detailed portrait before starting the painting. He also painted other members of the Roulin family.

7. Rock and Ruins (1888) is a drawing van Gogh while he was at Montmajour. Here, aside from certain bits such as the plants near the rock, he seems to stick to very realistic representation: just look at how the ruins in the back are so detailed, as well as the path leading to them.

8. Nude Reclining Woman (around 1887) is pure van Gogh - he shows both the vulgarity and femininity of the model posing for him, in his very unique style that also preserves the personal resemblance of the woman.

Vincent van Gogh, Man Warming Himself at a Fire

Vincent van Gogh, Field

Vincent van Gogh, Fishing Boats

Vincent van Gogh, View with Windmill

Vincent van Gogh, Man Loading Cart

Vincent van Gogh, Man Praying

Vincent van Gogh, Boats Being Loaded

Vincent van Gogh, Grandfather of the Artist

Vincent van Gogh, Reaper

Vincent van Gogh, Restaurant in Asnieres

Vincent van Gogh, View of Sea

Vincent van Gogh, Road with Willows

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