“I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost.” — Vincent van Gogh
At 27 years of age, young Vincent was lost. He had spent years wandering around, moving from job to job, city to city, sometimes finding himself without work for extended periods of time. At one point, the red-haired Dutchman decided that bringing people closer to God would be his calling.
However, after failing the exams to get into preacher school, van Gogh instead took up a lay missionary position in the district of Borinage in the western part of Wallonia in Belgium. This, like all his previous experiences, would not last. Tired of his strange ways, the local church authorities terminated his contract after only a short period of time.
Distraught, and not knowing what to do, Vincent once again hit the road. He covered the 75 kilometers it takes to reach Brussels by foot. Finding no solace in the Belgian capital, the dispirited ex-missionary did the only thing he could think of. He moved back in with his parents in the south of the Netherlands.
The problem was that even there, the eldest of the van Gogh siblings couldn’t get any comfort. While intent on helping their son out, his father and mother were not appreciative of his life choices. Feeling directionless, Vincent spent most of his time lying around, thinking. His mind was searching for a purpose.
In a letter to his brother, Theo, he wrote:
“I appreciate that very much, but that doesn’t alter the fact that eating and drinking and sleeping isn’t enough, that one yearns for something nobler and higher, indeed, one simply can’t do without it.”
Depressed after years of failure, Vincent van Gogh had reached a low point. Yet all the soul searching was not in vain. On one of those cold, rainy days typical of the Low Countries, the wandering Dutchman had an epiphany. He discovered his life’s true calling. The failed salesman, the failed preacher, and the directionless youngster finally saw a clear path. He would become a painter.
His mind knew that this journey would not be easy. At an age when most artists are entering the most productive years of their careers, Vincent van Gogh was still a novice. Untalented, but determined, he set out on his new mission with an intentional fervor.
“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”
How did this man on the edge of turning 30 go from zero to one of the world’s most celebrated artists? There was a method to the madness, one that allowed Vincent to rise up in the ranks. It’s a method that can be replicated by anyone in any walk of life who wants to turn their life around.
If you want to launch yourself into a new challenge, you can reuse the approach that van Gogh and many other people used to perfect their craft.
How Vincent van Gogh Taught Himself to Draw
Starting off, Vincent didn’t have much talent for painting. Even years later, people were still making fun of his inability to get the proportions right when drawing the bodies of individuals.
However what Vincent van Gogh did have was drive, and a methodology to put that drive into action. When he set his mind on becoming a painter, he tried to achieve it with all his will. He went about it in a very systematic way. The struggling artist knew he needed to learn, and he did just that.
The chief part of his learning system was one thing: copying. Vincent van Gogh copied his way to the top. The man whose paintings are today worth millions of dollars started off his painting career by copying the works of artists he admired. In fact, even in later stages of his life, he would often go back to copying whenever he felt stuck or needed a new impulse.
The journey to artist nirvana had simple beginnings. Van Gogh started off by finding teach-yourself drawing courses, and going step by step. He would take one of these books and furiously copied all the different drawings in it. Vincent became quite methodical about it, buying several course books, and working through all their sections.
One of the books that Vincent used for teaching himself to draw was the “Cours de dessin” by French painter Charles Bargues. It consisted of 197 drawings, arranged in a way as to take the student through a series of exercises. Vincent completed the entire course several times, copying all of the drawings very meticulously.
The strong point of Vincent’s self-teaching method was that he was always on the lookout for new learning material. Even before completing Bargues’ course, he went through another book “Guide de l’alphabet du dessin” (which could be translated as the ABC’s of drawing) by another French painter. This one also had the theory attached to it, which allowed van Gogh to combine the study of theory with hands-on practice.
Once van Gogh got the hang of the basics of drawing through doing academic self-teaching courses, he proceeded to the next step. He chose different masters that he admired and copied their work. Throughout his career, he would pick various artists to emulate based on which one peaked his fancy at the time. Often, the choice was based on a particular skill that Vincent was trying to learn.
However, there was one special artist that Vincent always went back to: Jean-Francois Millet. This French painter is known for his paintings of rural life. These renderings of peasant farmers going about their daily life and work proved especially inspirational to van Gogh.
Vincent was impressed by one piece especially: “The Sower”. He would paint and repaint this painting many times over, at later stages changing things up according to his own imagination.
Van Gogh used different media in order to copy Millet’s original painting. He would often go back to Millet’s painting and recopy it using various styles and colors. Van Gogh copied and recopied his favorite painting several times, later also painting his own scenes of peasant life inspired by Millet.
When describing his approach towards copying Millet’s works, Vincent revealed what he really wanted to accomplish. It was not copying, but rather translating. Vincent took what he saw before him, and applied his own mental language to it.
“It’s not copying pure and simple that one would be doing. It is rather translating into another language, the one of colors.”
How to Teach Yourself a Skill Like Writing
Copying is an old tried and tested method to learn. While Benjamin Franklin might be remembered as a brilliant writer and inventor, his beginnings were not so lofty. In fact, in his autobiography, the Founding Father stated that he was a lousy writer when he started. What got him over the hump is copying the works of writers he admired.
When Franklin decided to improve his writing, he followed a series of steps. Every week, the budding Renaissance Man copied the best articles from the local newspaper word for word. Later, when his own technique got better, he added an extra step. Putting the article out of his mind, he came back a few days later, and tried reproducing it from memory. In order to do that, Franklin relied on a few short hints that he had prepared previously. Once this reproduction was finished, he compared it with the original.
Many of the greatest writers started off in this way. Jack London, the author of perennial American classics, was largely a failure when he began his writing career. Self-educated, he kept piling up rejection after rejection. In order to improve, he found a few literary inspirations and studied their works. One of these heroes of his was Rudyard Kipling. London would spend several hours, day in and day out, copying Kipling’s work word for word. That’s how he improved his style.
How to apply the method
There are 3 simple steps that you can apply in order to progress your learning:
- Step 1: Pick a role model and copy their work straight up
- Step 2: Start changing things up on your copies
- Step 3: Reproduce from your imagination
Vincent’s methodological approach to learning allowed him to create his own unique style. Without the drive to learn, he would probably never have been able to reach the depths of genius that his later works such as “Starry Night” demonstrate.
In the early days, he would copy and recopy pictures from beginner drawing courses, improving slowly over time. At a later stage, Vincent became drawn towards reproducing the works of the great masters that he admired. However, as his learning improved, the imitation became an inspiration. Instead of producing straight-up copies of great works, van Gogh turned to re-imagining them.
As Austin Kleon, the author of “Steal Like an Artist” noted, borrowing leads to originality. While looking at your favorite creative heroes, the way to acquire your own voice is by asking yourself questions. This questioning gets your imagination flowing, and gives you your own unique flair.
“Think about your favorite work and your creative heroes. What did they miss? What didn’t they make? What could’ve been made better? If they were still alive, what would they be making today? If all your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew?” — Austin Kleon
While Vincent worked creatively, first and foremost he also worked deliberately. Van Gogh is known for his vivid colors, however, early in his career, he focused on only painting black and white. He mastered work in simple colors, learning to express the world through tones, shades, and contrasts.
Vincent knew that before he moved on to learning a new skill, he needed to get good at the previous one. In a letter to his brother Theo dated the 20th of August 1882, Vincent described his theory of learning the art. You build one skillset on top of the other. Without a scaffolding to support you, your entire effort can come crashing down.
“It is absolutely necessary to be able to draw the right proportion and the position of the object pretty correctly before one begins. If one makes mistakes in this, the whole thing comes to nothing.”
It is about picking a skill and working on it. What van Gogh described to his brother is the essence of deliberate practice. Vincent combined experimentation and learning by doing, with rigorous theoretical learning. He was a voracious reader, well-read in both fiction and non-fiction.
Well acquainted with a wide range of the greats of the literature world, he would often find support for his ideas from the writings of his favorite authors. While fiction gave him plenty of ammunition for his arguments, it was his deep knowledge of theory gained from reading countless science-based works that allowed him to create more effectively.
When he reached the stage of being obsessed with learning about colors, van Gogh did not wield his brush wildly. Instead, he read about color theory, went to museums to study how the great masters applied it, and then practiced what he learned on his own paintings.
He knew that no one is perfect. Starting off so late, Vincent was well-aware of his own limitations. What is remarkable about him is how hard he worked to overcome them. In a letter to Theo from 1883, deep in learning mode, Vincent revealed his philosophy of learning.
“As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward.”
This is the takeaway that you should remember. Practice makes perfect, and every step you take, even if you sometimes falter on the way, is a step towards progress. Luckily, whenever learning a new skill, you don’t need to start from scratch. Many others have been there before. If you follow in their footsteps, you will learn to walk, and eventually, gain the ability to create your own path.