Just a line to welcome you in anticipation of your arrival.
Also to let you know of the receipt of your letter and the
enclosed, for which I send my heartiest thanks. It was very
welcome, for I am hard at work and need a few more things.
There are but three fundamental colours - red, yellow and
blue; “composites” are orange, green and
By adding black and some white one gets the endless
varieties of greys - red grey, yellow-grey,
blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey,
violet-grey. To say, for instance, how many green-greys
there are is impossible; there are endless varieties.
But the whole chemistry of colours is not more complicated
than those few simple rules. And to have a clear notion of this
is worth more than seventy different colours of paint, - since
with those three principal colours and black and white, one can
make more than seventy tones and varieties. The colourist is he
who, seeing a colour in nature knows at once how to analyse it.
And can say for instance: that green-grey is yellow with black
and blue, etc.
In other words, someone who knows how to find the greys of
nature on his palette. In order to make notes from nature, or
to make little sketches, a strongly developed feeling for
outline is absolutely necessary as well as for strengthening
the composition subsequently.
But I believe one does not acquire this without effort,
rather in the first place by observation, and then especially
by strenuous work and research, and particular study of anatomy
and perspective is also needed. Beside me is hanging a
landscape study by Roelofs, a pen sketch - but I cannot tell
you how expressive that simple outline is, everything is in
Another still more striking example is the large woodcut of
“The Shepherdess” by Millet, which you showed me
last year and which I have remembered ever since. And then, for
instance, the pen and ink sketches by Ostade and Peasant
When I see such results I feel more strongly the great
importance of the outline. And you know for instance from
“Sorrow” that I take a great deal of trouble to make
progress in that respect.
But you will see when you come to the studio that besides
the seeking for the outline I have, just like everyone else, a
feeling for the power of colour. And that I do not object to
making watercolours; but the foundation of them is the drawing,
and then from the drawing many other branches beside the
watercolour sprout forth, which will develop in me in time as
in everybody who loves his work.
I have attacked that old whopper of a pollard willow, and I
think it is the best of the watercolours: a gloomy landscape -
that dead tree near a stagnant pool covered with reeds, in the
distance a car shed of the Rhine Railroad, where the tracks
cross each other; dingy black buildings, then green meadows, a
cinder path, and a sky with shifting clouds, grey with a single
bright white border and the depth of blue where the clouds for
an instant are parted. In short, I wanted to
make it as the signal man in his smock and with his little red
flag must see and feel it when he thinks: “It is gloomy
I have worked with great pleasure these last days, though
now and then I still feel the effects of my illness.
Of the drawings which I will show you now I think only this:
I hope they will prove to you that I am not remaining
stationary in my work, but progress in a direction that is
reasonable. As to the money value of my work, I do not pretend
to anything else than that it would greatly astonish me if my
work were not just as saleable in time as that of others.
Whether that will happen now or later I cannot of course tell,
but I think the surest way, which cannot fail, is to work from
nature faithfully and energetically. Feeling and love for
nature sooner or later find a response from people who are
interested in art. It is the painter's duty to be entirely
absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express
sentiment in his work, so that it becomes intelligible to other
people. To work for the market is in my opinion not exactly the
right way, but on the contrary involves deceiving the amateurs.
And true painters have not done so, rather the sympathy they
received sooner or later came because of their sincerity. That
is all I know about it, and I do not think I need know more. Of
course it is a different thing to try to find people who like
your work, and who will love it - that of course is permitted.
But it must not become a speculation, that would perhaps turn
out wrong and would certainly cause one to lose time that ought
to be spent on the work itself.
Of course you will find in my watercolours things that are
not correct, but that will improve with time.
But know it well, I am far from clinging to a system or
being bound by one. Such a thing exists more in the imagination
of Tersteeg, for instance, than in reality. As to Tersteeg, you
understand that my opinion of him is quite personal, and that I
do not want to thrust upon you this opinion that I am forced to
have. So long as he thinks about me and says about me the
things you know, I cannot regard him as a friend, nor as being
of any use to me; quite the opposite. And I am afraid that his
opinion of me is too deeply rooted ever to be changed, the more
so since, as you say yourself, he will never take the trouble
to reconsider some things and to change. When I see how several
painters here, whom I know, have problems with their
watercolours and paintings, so that they cannot bring them off
I often think: friend, the fault lies in your drawing. I do not
regret for one single moment that I did not go on at first with
watercolour and oil painting. I am sure I shall make up for
that if only I work hard, so that my hand does not falter in
drawing and in the perspective: but when I see young painters
compose and draw from memory - and then haphazardly smear on
whatever they like, also from memory - then study it at a
distance, and put on a very mysterious, gloomy face in the
endeavour to find out what in heaven's name it may look like,
and finally make something of it, always from memory it
sometimes disgusts me, and makes me think it all very tedious
The whole thing makes me sick!
But those gentlemen go on asking me, not without a certain
patronizing air, “if I am not painting as yet?”
Now I too on occasion sit and improvise, so to speak, at
random on a piece of paper, but I do not attach any more value
to this than to a rag or a cabbage leaf.
And I hope you will understand that when I continue to stick
to drawing I do so for two reasons, most of all because I want
to get a firm hand for drawing, and secondly because painting
and watercolouring cause a great many expenses which bring no
immediate recompense, and those expenses double and redouble
ten times when one works on a drawing which is not correct
And if I got in debt or surrounded myself with canvases and
papers all daubed with paint without being sure of my drawing,
then my studio would soon become a sort of hell, as I have seen
some studios look. As it is I always enter it with pleasure and
work there with animation. But I do not believe that you
suspect me of unwillingness. It only seems to me that
the painters here argue in the following way. They say: you
must do this or that; if one does not do it, or not exactly so,
or if one says something in reply, there follows a: “so
you know better than I?” So that immediately, sometimes
in less than five minutes, one is in fierce altercation, and in
such a position that neither party can go forward or back. The
least hateful result of this is that one of the parties has the
presence of mind to keep silent, and in some way or other makes
a quick exit through some opening. And one is almost inclined
to say: confound it, the painters are almost like a family,
namely, a fatal combination of persons with contrary interests,
each of whom is opposed to the rest, and two or more are of the
same opinion only when it is a question of combining together
to obstruct another member. This definition of the word family,
my dear brother, is, I hope, not always true, especially not
when it concerns painters or our own family.
With all my heart I wish peace may reign in our own family,
and I remain with a handshake.
This is nearly enough the effect of the pollard willow, only
in the watercolour itself there is no black, except a broken
[A sketch heightened in watercolours added here.]
Where in this little sketch the black is darkest, there in
the watercolour are the strongest effects, dark green, brown
and grey. Well, adieu, and believe me that sometimes I laugh
heartily, because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity
and absurdities, of which I do not nourish an inkling. (I who
am really nothing but a friend of nature. of study. of work,
and of people in particular.)
Well, hoping to see you soon, with a handshake,
At this time, Vincent was 29 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written c. 1 August 1882 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 221.
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