(une version en français de cette entrée sera publiée ici bientôt, dans la langue originale de la plupart de ses lettres, soit en français)
After having read "Vincent van Gogh, Ever Yours, The Essential Letters", (Yale University Press, 2014), I realized that it contains much advice and personal philosophies about plein air painting that will be useful to contemporary painters.
The letters were selected from a documented total of over 900 letters, so my notes refer to letter numbers from this book. Vincent started drawing in mid-January 1879, and decided to pursue a career as a painter in July of that year. So his initial comments, even though astute and valuable, are from a beginner. However, they quickly become universal, valuable and enlightening.
Following are those excerpts of the letters which I feel contribute to an understanding of plein air painting.
Letter no. 214, Sunday, April 2nd, 1882 - to Théo
...As regards painting, there are two lines of reasoning, how not to do it, and HOW TO DO IT.
How to do it: with much drawing and little colour.
How not to do it: with much colour and little drawing.
Letter no. 252, Monday, July 31 st, 1882 - to Théo
As regards black in nature, we are of course in complete agreement, as I understand it. Absolute black doesn't in fact occur. Like white, however, it's present in almost every colour and forms the endless variety of greys - distinct in tone and strength. So that in nature one in fact sees nothing but these tone or strengths.
The three fundamental colours are red, yellow, blue.
The three composite colours are orange, green, purple.
From thses are obtained the endless variations of grey by adding black and some white - red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey. It's impossible to say how many different green-greys there are - the variation is infinite. But the wholw chemistry of colours is no more complicated than thos simple few fundamentals. And a good understanding of them is worth more than 70 different shades of paint - givent that 70 tones and strengths can be made with the 3 primary colours and whit and black. The colourist is he who on seeing a colour on nature is able to analyze it coolly and say, for example, that green-grey is yellow with black and almost no blue, etc. In short, knowing how to make up the greys of nature on the palette.
Letter no. 258, Sunday, August 20, 1882 - to Théo
For my part I regard it as in a sense a privilege that i began when romantic illusions were a thing of the past. Now I have some way to catch up, work hard, but particularly when you have lost illusions behind you, work is something you need and one of the few pleasures left. And from this comes great peace and calm.
Letter no. 358, Monday, 02 July 1883 - to Théo
...note that what pleases the PUBLIC is always what's most banal, what we're accustomed to seeing every year; we're used to insipidities of that kind, to such pretty lies, that we reject powerful truths with all our might.
Letter no. 363, Sunday, 22 July 1883 - to Théo
Holding on to the present and not letting it pass by without managing to get something out of it - now that's what I believe duty is.
Letter no. 371, Tuesday, 7 August 1883 - to Théo
But these days, now that some weakening prevents me from working as normal, it's just as if this helps rather than hinders, and letting myself go a little and looking more through my eyelashes instead of looking sharply at the joints and analyzing how things fit together leads me more directly to see things as patches of colour next to each other.
I'm concerned with the world only in that I have a certain obligation and duty, as it were - because I've walked the earth for 30 years - toleave a ceratin souvenir in the form of drawings or paintings in gratitude. Not done to please some movement or other, but in which an honest human feeling is expressed. This work is the goal - and concentrating on that thought, what one does and does not do simplifies itself in that it's not a chaos, but everything one does is one and the same aspiration.
Letter no. 400, Sunday, 28 October 1883 - to Théo
There's a saying of Gustave Doré's that I've always found exceedingly beautiful - I have the patience of an ox - right away I see something good in it, a certain resolute honesty; in short there's a lot in that saying, it's a real artist's saying. When one thinks about people from whose mind something like this springs, it seems to me that the sort of arguments one all too often hears in the art trade about 'gift' is such a hideous croaking of ravens. 'I have the patience', how calm that is, how dignified that is. They wouldn't even say that if it weren't precisely because of all that croaking of ravens. I'm not an artist - how coarse that is - even to think of it of oneself - should one not have patience, not learn patience from nature, learn patience from seeing the wheat slowly come up, the growing of things - should one think of oneself such a hugely dead thing that one believed one wouldn't grow ? Should one deliberately discourage one's development ? I say this to show why I find it silly to talk about gifts and no gifts.
Letter no. 402, Friday, 02 November 1883
(No advice here, but rather beauty seen on an early morning wagon ride , a trip across the heath towards Zweeloo)
It was still very dark, though, when we got to Zweeloo at 6 o'clock in the morning - I saw the real Corots even earlier in the morning. The ride into the village was really so beautiful. Huge mossy roofs on houses, barns, sheepfolds, sheds. The dwellings here are very wide, among oak trees of a superb bronze. Tones of golden green in the moss, of reddish or bluish or yellowish dark lilac greys in the soil, tones of inexpressible purity in the green on the little wheatfields. Tones of black in the wet trunks, standing out against golden showers of whirling, swirling autumn leaves, which still hang in loose tufts, as if they were blown there, loosely and with the sky shining through them, on poplars, birches, limes, apple trees. The sky unbroken, clear, illuminating, not white but a lilac that cannot be deciphered, white in which one sees swirling red, blue, yellow, which reflects everything and one feels above one everywhere, which is vaporous and unites with the thin mist below. Brings everything together in a spectrum of delicate greys.
Letter no. 492, Thursday, 9 April 1885 - to Théo
(Sketch 492A) See, this is what the composition has become. I've painted it on a fairly large canvas, and as the sketch is now, I believe there's life in it.
But I know for certain that C.M., for instance, would speak of - badly drawn, etc.
Do you know what can definitely be said to counter that ? That the beautiful effects of the light in nature requires one to work very fast. Now I know very well that the great masters were able to finish and maintain the vitality, particularly in the period of their mature experience.
Letter no. 493, Monday, 13 April 1885 - to Théo
But I think about what Millet said: " I would never do away with suffering, for it is often that which makes artists express themselves most vigorously."
(Picasso never painted after a meal - he worked hungry, to get that edge)
Letter no. 497, Thursday, 30 April, 1885 - to Théo
Although I'll have painted the actual painting (The Potato Eaters) in a relatively short time, and largely from memory, it's taken a whole winter of painting studies of heads and hands...
Letter no. 515, Tuesday, 14 July 1885 - to Théo
Perhaps you think I'm wrong to comment on this - but - I'm so gripped by the thought that all of theseexotic paintings are painted in THE STUDIO. But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself ! Then all sorts of things like the following happen - I must have picked a hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you'll be getting, not to mention dust and sand etc. - not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them etc. Not to mention that when one arrives on the heath after a couple of hours walk in this weather, one is tired and hot . Not to mention that the figures don't stand still like professional models, and the effects that one wants to capture change as the day wears on.
(change of subject: the custom of drawing models from the nude)
But peasants and labourers simply aren't nude, so one doesn't have to think nude.
Letter no. 537,Wednesday, 28 October 1885
I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness of placement of the tones. I study nature so as not to do anything silly, to remain reasonable - but - I don't really care whether my colours are precisely the same, so long as they look good on my canvas, just as they look good in life.
A man's head or a woman's head, looked at very composedly, is divinely beautiful, isn't it ? Well then - with painfully literal imitation one loses that general effect of looking beautiful against one another that tones have in nature; one preserves it by re-creating it in a colour spectrum PARALLEL to, but not necessarily exactly, or far from the same as the subject.
Always and intelligently making use of the beautiful tones that the paints form of their own accord when one breaks them on the palette, again - starting from one's own palette - from one' knowledge of the beautiful effect of colours, isn't the same as copying nature mechanically and slavishly.
Now here's another example. Suppose I have to paint an autumn landscape, trees with yellow leaves. Very well - I conceive it as - a symphony in yellow - what does it matter whether or not my basic yellow colour is the same as that of the leaves - it makes little difference. Much, everything comes down to my sense of the infinite variety of tones in the same family.
(2 year period in Paris, studying drawing, meeting with and listening to the leading impressionist painters of the day, looking at their work)
Letter no. 590, Friday, 30 March 1888 - to Willemien van Gogh
From Arles, France
You understand that the countryside of the south can't exactly be painted with the palette of Mauve, say, who belongs in the North and is and always will be the master of grey. But today's palette is definitely colourful - sky blue, pink, orange, vermillion, brilliant yellow, bright green, bright wine red, violet.
But by intensifying all the colours one again achieves calm and harmony.
Letter no. 620, Tuesday, 5 June 1888 - to Théo
What Pissaro says is true - the effects colours produce through their harmonies or discords should be boldly exaggerated. It's the same as in drawing - the precise drawing, the right colour - is not perhaps the essential element we should look for - because the reflection of reality in the mirror, if it was possible to fix it with colour and everything - would in no way be a painting, any more than a photograph.
Letter no. 635, Sunday, 1 July 1888 - to Théo
As for landscapes, I'm beginning to find that some, done more quickly than ever, are among the best things I do.
It's like that with the one of which I sent you the drawing, the harvest and the haystacks too - (van Gogh, "La Moisson" and "Meules de foin", 1888) - it's true I have to re-touch EVERYTHING to adjust the workmanship a little, to harmonize the brushstrokes, but all the essential work was done in a single long session, and I keep the retouches to a minimum when I go back to it.
Letter no. 663, Saturday, 10 August 1888 - to ThéoAnd I wouldn't be very surprised if the impressionists were soon to find fault with my way of doing things, which was fertilized more by the ideas of Delacroix than by theirs.
Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully. Well, let's leave that alone as far as theory goes, but I'm going to give you an example of what I mean.
I'd like to do the portrait of an artist friend who dreams great dreams , who works as th nightingale sings, because that's his nature.
This man will be blond, I'd like to put in the painting my appreciation , my love that I have for him.
I'll paint him, then, just as he is, as faithfully as I can – to begin with.
But the painting isn't finished like that. To finish it, I'm now going to be an arbitrary colourist.
I exaggerate the blond of the hair, I come to orange tones, chromes, pale lemon. Behind the head – instead of painting the dull wall of the mean room, I paint the infinite.
I make a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can prepare, and with this simple combination, the brightly lit blond head, against this rich blue background achieves a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep azure.
Letter no. 683, Tuesday 18 September 1888 - to Théo
...nature here (in Arles) is extraordinarily beautiful. Everything and everywhere. The dome of the sky is a wonderful blue, the sun has a pale sulphur radiance, and it's soft and charming, like the combination of celestial blues and yellows in paintings by Vermeer of Delft. I can"t paint as beautifully as that, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go without thinking about any rule.
Tomorrow I'm going to draw until the colours (paints) arrive. But now I've reached the point where I've made up my mind not to draw a painting in charcoal any more. There's no point; you have to tackle the drawing with the colour itself in order to draw well.
Letter no. 689, Wednesday, 26 September 1888 - to Théo
Now it's true that I've left out some trees but what I've kept in the composition is really like that. Only I've overcrowded it with a number of bushes that aren't in character; and so to find this truer and more fundamental character, this is the thrid time I'm apinting the same spot. ...But this corner of a garden is a good example of what I was telling you about, that to find the real character of things here, you have to look at them and paint them for a very long time.
Letter no. 779, Sunday, 9 June 1889 – to Théo
When the thing depicted is stylistically absolutely in agreement and at one with the manner of depiction, isn't that what creates the quality of a piece of art ?
Letter no. 801, Tuesday, 10 September 1889 – to Théo
What a funny thing the 'touch' is, the brushstroke. Out of doors, exposed to the wind, the sun, people's curiosity, one fills one's canvas regardless. Yet then one catches the true and the essential – that's the most difficult thing. But when one returns to this study again after a time, and orders one's brushstrokes in the direction of the objects – certainly it's more harmonious and agreeable to see, and one adds to it one's serenity and smiles.
Letter no. 805, Friday, 20 September 1889 – to Théo
...That's what Bernard and Gaugin feel a little bit, they won't ask for the correct shape of a tree at all, but they absolutely insist that one says if the shape is round or square – and my word, they're right -
- exasperated by certain people's photographic and inane, silly perfection. They won't ask for the correct tone of the mountains but they'll say : “for Christ's sake, were the mountains blue, then chuck on some blue and don't go telling me that it was a blue a bit like this or a bit like that, it was blue, wasn't it ? Good - make them blue and that's enough !”
Artiste figuratif peignant principalement à l'acrylique; ses sujets préférés sont les figures (musiciens), les intérieurs et les paysages peints en plein air. /Figurative artist painting primarily in acrylic. His favorite subjects are figures (musicians), interiors and landscapes (plein air).