Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve always loved Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings and admired his mastery of color and texture, so was thrilled when my father took me to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was fabulous seeing so many of his paintings, drawings, and sketches, and I felt I gained a more intimate knowledge of him through studying his drawings and sketches.

When I read Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art, by Carol Berry, I found much that inspired me about his art and his life. Early on Vincent became a pastor/evangelist because of his love of and compassion for the poorest people he could find—miners living in darkness and misery. He determined to live with them and as they did, in abject poverty and identifying with them as he ministered to their bodies and souls, caring for the sick and sharing the love of Christ with them, to the great consternation of his family and the religious establishment of the day. From his letters to his brother Theo:

I wish I could get a position there as an evangelist, just as we talked about it, preaching the Gospel to the poor—those who need it most and for whom it is so well meant                                                                                                                              (Laken, on or about November 13 and 15, or 16, 1878; Quoted in Berry, p. 41)

Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one. I tell you that I think it absolutely necessary to believe in God in order to be able to love. What I mean is, to believe in God is to feel that there is a God, not dead or on display, but a God who is alive, who with irresistible force urges us toward an “aimer encore.” (Etten, November 23, 1881; Quoted in Berry, p. 69)

Vincent’s drawings and paintings often feature poor miners and peasants, as he sought to serve them by emphasizing their worth and the value of their labor. He felt that by drawing the poor and destitute in the harsh reality of their existence, rather than by romanticizing their lives, those who were more fortunate would come to love and care for them, loving their neighbor as themselves.

Peasant life is something serious, and I, for one, would blame myself if I didn’t try to make paintings that would give serious things to think about to people who think seriously about art and about life… One must paint the peasants as being himself one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves.
(Nuenen, April 30, 1885; Quoted in Berry, p. 119)

Another aspect of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters and paintings that strikes a chord with me are his thoughts about and depiction of nature.

But in the meantime I’m always fed by nature. I exaggerate, I sometimes make changes in the theme, but in the end I don’t invent the whole content of the painting; on the contrary, I find it all completely there in nature—but it has to be disentangled.  (Arles, on or about October 5, 1888 ; Quoted in Berry, p. 151)

There is at times something indescribable in those aspects—it is as if the whole of nature is speaking—and when one goes home one has the feeling as if one has read a book by Victor Hugo, for example. As for me, I cannot understand that not everybody sees it and feels it. Doesn’t nature or God do it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand? It seems to me that a painter is happy, because he lives in harmony with nature, as soon as he can express, to some extent, what he sees. (The Hague, November 26 and 27, 1882; Quoted in Berry, p. 176)

An artist friend of mine who has copied well over 300 of Van Gogh’s paintings plans to paint replicas of all of Van Gogh’s almost 900 paintings, and he has given many as gifts to friends and coworkers. Seeing his work has inspired me to try copying some Van Gogh paintings in order to learn from his style. Here is my copy in gouache of Van Gogh’s “Old Yew Tree”

My goal in studying any artist’s style is not to change my style to be just like theirs, but to learn from them and incorporate into my own style what fits with who I am. This is similar to how I learn from and incorporate lessons from people I respect, whether in the realm of art, or their approach to daily life, or how they live out their faith. As the Apostle Paul said, “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” Philippians 3: 17

Here are a few paintings I have done as I try to figure out what I want to incorporate into my painting style from Van Gogh’s example:

Vassar Farm White Oak- gouache

A to Z April Blogging V

Oaks of Righteousness

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:3

I draw trees, or perhaps it is rather that trees draw me.  The personalities of oak trees in particular capture my attention, and I love to observe (that’s another of my favorite “O” words), study, and sketch them whenever I can. There are so many varieties and shapes of oaks, but they all speak to me of stability, strength, and perseverance. When I sit sketching or simply studying an oak, I see the ways it has stood firm through assaults of weather, disease, loss of limbs, and insidious attacks by insects, yet still it stands with branches lifted skyward- a display of God’s splendor visible in his creation. 

Our land is wooded, with many trees of various species, but when we moved here 34 years ago, there were no oaks. Our first fall here, we went hiking with our sons, then one and two years old. When we came home, their pockets were bulging with acorns, and, after the boys had played with them for a while, I tossed the acorns into our unmown field area. Apparently the deer and mice missed one acorn.

That acorn, so little it easily fit in my toddler’s hand, has grown into an oak tree that towers far taller than that boy, now a man of over six feet. My sons and the oak are now in their thirties, well-rooted, strong, and thriving. The oak lifts its upper limbs higher than our house, providing perches for finches, woodpeckers, warblers, orioles, robins, hawks, and more, and it grows its lower limbs downward to provide shelter for small creatures and once even a newborn fawn in the haven of its tangled and spreading branches.

I wasn’t familiar with Isaiah’s words about oaks of righteousness displaying God’s splendor until I was writing this piece, but I will always think of that when I sketch them in the future. And now I wonder what maples, ashes, cedars, dogwoods, and other trees are saying. I will be observing them closely to see what words of wisdom they have for me!

Lower limbs of the oak that grew up with my sons
Bedford Oak– over 500 years old
Holy Cross Monastery Oak- over 300 years old
Oak I sketched in the rain yesterday, hence the ink smudges
Sketching the Angel Oak in South Carolina with two of my grandchildren

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.
                                  Isaiah 61:1-3

A to Z April Blogging O