While visiting Amsterdam I explored the Van Gogh Museum. Seeing his paintings and listening to the audio guide, I learned about his effort to become a better painter and about his personal story.
What amazed me the most was how he made himself a “genius” through hard, dedicated work.
(if I got any of the things below factually wrong, please let me know!)
Vincent Van Gogh was prolific. He “shipped” a lot of paintings, and did a lot of exercises to improve his technique. His time went into painting. Subsidized by his brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh didn’t have a day job and could fully focus on creating art.
He improved his craft beyond his personal limits and beyond the contemporary limits. He practices to paint mundane things like a forearm, in order to get the details right. He practices different types of strokes - short, long, dots, curved, straight. He tries out different color combinations. The strength of his technique allowed him to do novel things - wet-on-wet painting, and using sparse heavy brush strokes.
While he cared about the “craft”, he cared even more about the actual result and product of the painting. Van Gogh really cared about the target of his painting. He was fond of the rural life and people and really cared about portraying them and their life in his canvas. He wanted to portray things in their essence. His paintings send emotions to me, and I know nothing about painting technique. And generally don’t care. People don’t care about how hard it was for the painter to make the painting, the care about how it makes them feel.
Van Gogh was resourceful! When he didn’t have subjects available, he painted self portraits, instead of despairing or procrastinating. I don’t really know history of Art, but I wouldn’t be surprised, if Van Gogh was the person who took the highest number of selfies up until his time.
He started painting in his late twenties and there has been only a decade from his beginning to paint, to reaching world class level. His prolificness, mastery of the craft, resourcefulness and caring about the product made him reach such a high level so quickly.
Van Gogh was great despite his mental illness. He didn’t get “lucky” to become more creative from his illness. He got unluckly to lose his wits when he was doing state of the art work. After the begining of his illness, he was using his art to fight insanity. He put a lot of deliberate effort into becoming a great painter, and just when he was innovative, an unknown mental illness brought him down, as he painted on average a masterpiece per day.
To me, his fight with insanity is his biggest masterpiece.