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My dear Theo,
I have just received your very welcome letter, and as am
taking some rest today, I am answering it at once. Thank you
very much for it and for the enclosure, and for the various
things you say in it.
And many thanks for your description of that scene with the
workmen at Montmartre, which I found very interesting because
you convey the colours so well that I can see them. I am glad
you are reading the book on Gavarni. I found it very
interesting, and it made me love G. twice as much.
Paris and its environs may be beautiful, but we have no
complaints here either.
This week I did a painting that I think would remind you a
little of Scheveningen as we saw it when we walked there
together: A large study of sand, sea and sky - a big sky of
delicate grey and warm white, with a single small patch of soft
blue shimmering through - the sand and the sea light, so that
the whole becomes golden, but animated by the boldly and
distinctively coloured figures and fishing smacks, which tend
to set the tonal values. The subject of the sketch I made of it
is a fishing smack weighing anchor. The horses stand ready for
hitching up before pulling the smack into the sea. I am
enclosing a little sketch of it.
It was really hard to do. I just wish I'd painted it on a
panel or on canvas. I tried to get more colour into it, that
is, depth, strength of colour.
How strange it is that you and I so often seem to have the
same thoughts. Yesterday evening, for instance, I came home
from the woods with a study, having been deeply preoccupied
with the question of depth of colour the whole week, and
particularly at that moment. And I should very much have liked
to have talked to you about it, especially with reference to
the study I had done - and lo and behold, in this morning's
letter you chance to mention that you were struck by the very
vivid, yet harmonious, colours of Montmartre. I don't know if
it was precisely the same thing that struck the two of us, but
I do know that you would most certainly have been affected by
what struck me so particularly and would probably have seen it
in the same light.
As a start, I am sending you a little sketch of the subject
and I shall tell you what the problem was.
The woods are becoming thoroughly autumnal, and there are
colourful effects I don't often see in Dutch paintings.
Yesterday evening I was working on a slightly rising
woodland slope covered with dry and mouldering beech leaves [F
008, JH 182]. The ground was light and dark reddish brown,
emphasized by the weaker and stronger shadows of trees casting
half-obliterated stripes across it. The problem, and I found it
a very difficult one, was to get the depth of colour, the
enormous power and solidity of that ground - and yet it was
only while painting it that I noticed how much light there was
still in the dusk - to retain the light as well as the glow,
and depth of that rich colour, for there is no carpet
imaginable as splendid as that deep brownish-red in the glow of
an autumn evening sun, however toned down by the trees.
Young beech trees spring from the ground, catching the light
to one side, where they are a brilliant green, and the shadowy
side of the trunks is a warm, intense black-green.
Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red ground, is a
sky of a very delicate, blue-grey. Warm, hardly blue at all,
sparkling. And against it there is a hazy border of greenness
and a network of saplings and yellowish leaves. A few figures
of wood gatherers are foraging about, dark masses of mysterious
shadows. The white cap of a woman bending down to pick up a dry
branch stands out suddenly against the deep reddish-brown of
the ground. A skirt catches the light, a shadow is cast, the
dark silhouette of a man appears above the wooded slope. A
white bonnet, a cap, a shoulder, the bust of a woman show up
against the sky. These figures, which are large and full of
poetry, appear in the twilight of that deep shadowy tone like
enormous clay figurines taking shaped in a studio.
I am describing nature to you - I'm not sure to what extent
I reproduced it in my sketch, but I do know that I was struck
by the harmony of green, red, black, yellow, blue, brown, grey.
It was very de Groux-like, an effect like, say, that sketch of
“The Conscript's Departure” formerly in the Palais
It was a hard job painting it. The ground used up one and a
half large tubes of white - even though the ground is very dark
- and for the rest red, yellow, brown, ochre, black, sienna,
bistre, and the result is a reddish-brown, but one ranging from
bistre to deep wine-red and to a pale, golden ruddiness. Then
there are still the mosses and a border of fresh grass, which
catches the light and glitters brightly, and is very difficult
to capture. So there in the end you have it, a sketch that I
maintain has some significance, something to tell, no matter
what may be said about it.
I said to myself while I was doing it: don't let me leave
before there is something of the autumnal evening in it,
something mysterious, something important. However - because
this effect doesn't last - I had to paint quickly, putting the
figures in all at once, with a few forceful strokes of a firm
brush. It had struck me how firmly the saplings were rooted in
the ground - I started on them with the brush, but because the
ground was already impasted, brush-strokes simply vanished into
it. Then I squeezed the roots and trunks in from the tube and
modelled them a little with the brush.
Well, they are in there now, springing out of it, standing
strongly rooted in it.
In a way I am glad that I never learned painting. In
all probability I would then have learned to ignore such
effects as this. Now I can say to myself, this is just what I
want. If it is impossible, it is impossible, but I'm going to
try it even though I don't know how it ought to be done. I
don't know myself how I paint it, I just sit down with a
white board in front of the spot that appeals to me, I look at
what is in front of my eyes, and I say to myself: that white
board has got to turn into something - I come back,
dissatisfied, I lay it to one side and when I have rested a
little, I go and look at it with a kind of awe. Then I am still
dissatisfied, because I have that splendid scenery too much in
my mind to be satisfied with what I made of it. Yet I can see
in my work an echo of what appealed to me, I can see that the
scenery has told me something, has spoken to me, and that I
have taken it down in shorthand. My shorthand may contain words
that cannot be deciphered, mistakes or gaps, and yet there is
something left of what the wood or the beach or the figure has
told me, and it isn't in tame or conventional language derived
from a studied manner or from some system, but from nature
Enclosed another little sketch from the dunes. There are
small bushes there whose leaves are white on one side and dark
green on the other and are constantly moving and glittering.
Beyond them dark trees.
You can see that I am plunging full speed ahead into
painting, I am plunging into colour. I have refrained from
doing so up till now and I am not sorry for it. Had I had not
already done some drawing, I should be unable to get the
feeling of, or be able to tackle, a figure that looks like an
unfinished clay figurine. But now that I sense I have gained
the open sea, painting must go full speed ahead as fast as we
If I am going to paint on panel or canvas then the expenses
will go up again, everything is so expensive, paint is
expensive, too, and is so quickly used up. Well, these are
complaints all painters have, we must see what can be done. I
know for certain that I have a feeling for colour and shall
acquire more and more, that painting is in the very marrow of
I value your loyal and effective help more than I can say. I
think of you so much; I should so like my work to become
vigorous, serious, virile, so that you too may get some
pleasure out of it as soon as possible.
One thing I should like to bring to your attention as a
matter of importance - wouldn't it be possible to obtain paint,
panels, brushes, etc., at discount prices? I am having
to pay the retail price at the moment. Have you any
connection with Paillard or someone like that? If so, I think
it would be much more economical to get paints, say, wholesale,
for instance white, ochre, sienna, and we could then come to
some arrangement about the money. Everything would be cheaper,
it goes without saying. Do think it over.
One doesn't paint well by using a lot of paint, but in order
to do a ground effectively or to get a sky bright, one must
sometimes not spare the tube. Sometimes the subject calls for
less paint, sometimes the material, the nature of the subjects
themselves demands impasto. Mauve, who paints very frugally in
comparison with J. Maris and even more so in comparison with
Millet or Jules Dupré, nevertheless has cigar boxes full
of the remnants of tubes in the corners of his studio, as
plentiful as the empty bottles in the corners of rooms after a
soirée or dinner such as Zola describes, for
Well, if there could be a little extra this month, that
would be wonderful. If not, then not. I shall work as hard as I
I sincerely hope that your luck is in and that you will have
even more. Please accept a handshake in my thoughts, and
Ever yours, Vincent
You will see that there is a soft, golden effect in the
little marine sketch and a more sombre, more serious mood in
the woods. I am glad that both exist in life.
[Sketch `Beach and Boats' JH 227, enclosed in letter.]
At this time, Vincent was 29 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 3 September 1882 in The Hague. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number 228.
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