What Van Gogh Taught Me About Painting Materials

I’m working on my next DVD (which relates to Van Gogh) and have been reading a number of technical reports which give some amazing information on the tools, materials and process of select Van Gogh paintings.

I love these reports. They’re not cheap (yes, you have to pay for them!) but they are utterly fascinating. Keep in mind, whenever I go to a museum, most of my friends and family members take advantage of the many benches to take a quick snooze (i.e.; they could care less about looking at art – but no matter, it’s their loss)

To give you reference to which Van Gogh painting I am referencing – it’s is “A Cornfield, with Cypresses” (see picture above) one of three related versions of this composition, completed in the summer of 1889 not long after he entered the the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence.

A lot of things caught my eye when reading this detailed report (about the 3 versions of the painting pictured) which covers, Cleaning and Restoration, The Materials of Van Gogh’s “A Cornfield, with Cypresses” (including exact pigments used, what support, ground, the likely process he used and more) and The Medium.

I could go on and on (and probably will in future posts) but as I was researching the what ground because as I looked at the close-up of the picture via the National Gallery in London website I noticed, what appeared to be raw linen. The warm linen color looked beautiful behind the cool greens/blues in the swirling sky.

You can check it out for yourself by going to the National Gallery site and using the enlarge feature to actually see this. For your convenience just click this link: Van Gogh Painting: “A Cornfield, with Cypresses”

Come to find out the “pre-made” canvases that Van Gogh often used would come with a very light white lead ground when they were purchased.

It appears, some manufacturers in the 19th century put on just such a ‘wash’ to stiffen the canvas a little, over a layer of (glue) size, the intention being for the artist to apply their own proper thick ground on top.

So, what is fascinating to me is that Van Gogh didn’t even do this. Of course, a glue size is actually enough to oil paint on but it’s not ideal.

I find, many times, even myself fussing over the stretcher (typically I build these myself) but since reading this technical report I have realized that it’s about doing the work.

If a pre-made stretcher, bought off the rack, is good enough for Van Gogh (and has held up quite well over time) it’s probably good enough for me.

The big lesson being: just getting into action. I always had a strange phobia about buying “pre-made” artist canvas from Utrecht, Pearl Paint and all the other art manufactures (and even some of the craft chains) I thought they “appeared” cheap.

Well, since reading this report I have decided to use them and spend much less time building (and worrying about the perfection of artist materials) and spending more time creating and painting.

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