Van Gogh was in the habit of writing detailed descriptions of his working methods. As a result, his letters tell us a great deal about the practical aspects of his work as an artist. They touch on all sorts of topics, from his experiments with colour to his use of varnish and his attitude towards the exhibition and sale of his paintings.
Vincent wrote to his friend and fellow painter Van Rappard, as well as to Theo, about his drawing and painting techniques. He discussed the use of the perspective frame that had been made to order for him [letter 254] and his difficulties with outdoor painting: flies, dust and sand stuck to the wet paint. [letter 515]
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Use of colour
Van Gogh was intensely occupied with colour. Having no mentor to guide him, he consulted numerous books about colour theory. His great model as a colourist was the French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). It took Van Gogh some time before he appreciated the approach to colour taken by the Impressionists, which he initially described as “miserable”. [letter 626]
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Drawing and painting supplies
Van Gogh had diverse reasons for writing about the art supplies that he used. Sometimes he was stating his preferences: “I like nothing better than working with a brush – drawing with it too.” [letter 539] From the south of France, he sent Theo lists of the types of paint, canvas, and brushes that he wanted to order from paint dealers in Paris.
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Working from models
Although Van Gogh believed it was essential to use living models, sometimes he could not afford to have people pose for him. Then he would paint a still life or self-portrait. He wrote to his brother, “What I have to do, and the only thing that can be sure to help me progress, is work a great deal with models.” [letter 550]
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Selling his work
During his life, Van Gogh sold only a few works. He was preoccupied with the question of whether his work would sell and raised the subject in numerous letters.
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