What I learnt from copying a Van Gogh painting

If you looked through my 2018 portfolio page, you will find a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. The challenge initially started when I was visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and found that they were pricing €80 for an A3-sized poster of his works at the gift shop.

Sure, it was a reproduction of the true original and yes, we will be contributing towards the preservation of his works in the museum – but I could not will myself to fork out that much money for a print! So I told my mom, I will recreate that painting in actual oil paints for a lot lesser than €80. I did it with about €10 worth of supplies.

Some may call me an plagiariser or a copycat for doing so – but something I learnt about Van Gogh while at the museum makes me believe that Van Gogh isn’t turning in his grave at my attempt. You see, while he was in the asylum, Van Gogh used his time there to replicate other artists’ works, so that he could learn more about how they think, paint and process ideas.

Below you will find some of my learnings and process photos.

  • Medium: Oil paint on canvas
  • Total time: 3 weeks
  • Actual painting time: 16 hours

 

GET A GOOD REFERENCE PHOTO

No photography allowed in the Van Gogh museum, so I bought a €2 large postcard of his portrait at the gift shop. My goal here wasn’t to be accurate, but to study his style of painting. Therefore, I did not bother drawing grids and lines for guidance like many other artists would do.

I simply picked up a pencil and drew a rough outline of his face. It kind of looked like a drawing of a cowboy at first glance. This was done on a 10″ X 14″ canvas.

 

 

YOU ALWAYS START WITH THE BACKGROUND

Like with most artists, I paint from back to front. Sometimes I work from middle to outwards, but I will always fall back to the back to front principle. In this case, it is because the background is so dark and his style requires an overlay of strokes that working on the background first makes sense. A closer study of the original (on the postcard) shows that the portrait strokes are on top of the background strokes.

I laid down a foundation of solid dark color, so that I can slowly build my strokes upon it.

My first mistake here is quite evident – I used much too big strokes and was too excited to notice that my color scheme was also off. The original work was more of a greenish-blue hue while mine was very, very blue. Of course, I decided to let it slide as the point of this study again, was not for accuracy but for methods and process learning.

 

 

PATIENCE & DRYING TIME

It definitely takes a lot of patience to complete a painting that moves stroke-by-stroke. Also, as each layer of strokes are laid, you need to leave them to dry off for a few days before you can resume laying in more overlapping strokes – or risk moving the paint around terribly. Since I paint indoors at the moment, I did not have the luxury of using thinners to speed up the drying process.

Overtime, I developed my own color palette based on the blue hue I started out with and tried to follow as closely as possible to the original, but with more vibrant, brighter hues.

 

 

WATCH THE FACE

The face was very challenging to paint. There are so many subtle variances of strokes to suggest natural color shift and planes of the face that it took me many layers and many hours of close study to get it right.

There were also odd lines of green here and there to suggest facial lines, but they varied in tones – I’m guessing from some of them being overlaid thinly with white, or mixed into a different stroke. Not only that, but the orangy-reds of his beard was also scattered around the face, which was a nice touch of contrast against the green – but I had to be very careful with placement. Each stroke placement could result in a totally different facial feature/expression.

The eyes were much easier to paint as I left them for last after mapping out the rest of the face. I couldn’t get the expression quite right, but it was as close as possible.

 

 

VERDICT?

It was a very fun experiment overall, and I definitely am awed with Van Gogh’s absolute mastery of strokes, something which seemed easy (I assumed it was easy too) – but turned out to be so much more challenging that it seems. You can tell that Van Gogh really took the care to place certain defining strokes, which gave his paintings life and character.

He may have been a mad painter – but he puts great thought into each stroke and care into his composition.

Painting this portrait of him has made me feel closer to the artist in a way that money (well, €80) can’t buy. I’m so glad I went through the experience and that I now have my very own Van Gogh hanging in my room – to remind me each day that to paint, is to bring imagination to life.

Here’s the finished work:

 

 

Oil on canvas.

 

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