The dark, narrow spiral stairway was so tight that my shoulders rubbed against the walls as I climbed. The surrounding walls were gray, with crumbling plaster that hadn’t been painted for over a hundred years. The thump of my feet on the worn wooden steps echoed against the walls. Looking up, I could see a small landing, an old wooden door cracked barely open, and a blinding light streaming through the crack.
Arriving at the top, I walked into a room so small there was barely space for a single metal-framed bed and a modest wooden chair. I had to squeeze to scoot in and shut the door.
I Can Hear Pain
An eerie feeling fell over me as I stood staring at the bed, which was flooded with streams of pink afternoon light through the wavy glass of the old window. Closing my eyes, I could hear the groaning, the crying, the wailing, and the footsteps of caregivers tending to the patient, who spent his final days suffering on the very mattress I was staring at in disbelief.
The myth, the stories, the romance all came alive at that moment, when I realized the man had lived and died in this simple, humble room.
I was shaken, and it all became real to me at that moment. I stood quietly and stared while I soberly envisioned the last moments of his life.
Minutes later, I was walking through the streets of this small village in a trance, passing scenes immortalized in paint … a courthouse, a cafe, a church, a field … until I reached the grave of this man and of his brother, who died of grief shortly after. The markers on the simple grave were for Vincent and Theo Van Gogh.
My visit to Auvers-sur-Oise made Van Gogh come alive for me like never before.
A Miserable Artistic Existence
Every artist I know is aware of the the tragic story of this starving artist, the man who painted with passion, misunderstood because he did not follow the style of the day, the man who struggled, starved, and led what many think was a miserable existence and a life of addiction to alcohol. Some say he was insane.
Biographers know about the life of Van Gogh through his letters, where his angst and pain were revealed in detail. And we as artists hold him in high esteem as someone we admire because of his passion, his struggle, and his suffering. Van Gogh has become a sort of role model for those of us who call ourselves artists.
Painting and sculpting are hard. Though the techniques can be learned with practice, the search for one’s own voice is where the struggle lies. Like a good country song, it is the pain, and life experiences, that help us find our voice, help us express what is truly inside us, help us go beyond rendering to become true artists.
Deep Painting Passion
In a soon-to-be-released podcast with Alvaro Castagnet, the world-famous watercolor artist, he passionately told me that technique, though important, is not what makes great art. It’s the mood, the feeling, the reflection of our lives, and not doing what’s been done a thousand times before. It’s standing out and finding your unique self. Vincent Van Gogh is the poster child for painting something beyond rendering a pretty scene.
The Bravery to Feed Your Own Soul
Van Gogh broke through. He had the bravery to do something that fed his own soul. Although he knew how to do pleasing paintings that matched the times, Vincent instead followed his own spirit. He could have conformed and would have struggled less and made a living. Yet, to him, there really was no choice but to paint from his heart and passion. Though it is believed Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, and it was not until his sister-in-law, Theo’s widow, was an elderly woman that his work was released, sold, and became appreciated, he ultimately became world-renowned only because he followed his own muse.
Van Gogh is indeed a role model because he painted for himself and did not paint to please others. He wasn’t thinking, “This one’s going to be a big seller,” he was trying to please no one but himself. I learned this about Van Gogh from artist Dena Peterson, who had to paint like Van Gogh for the movie Loving Vincent, and who studied all of his letters for the production of the movie and the recent release of her video How to Paint Like Van Gogh.
No More Little Red Barns
In my art marketing video series I speak about the well meaning galleries that ask for more paintings of little red barns, knowing they sell well — which is fine, if that’s what you’re passionate about and pleases you. But it is my belief that there has to be a bigger purpose to your art than sales alone. Your painting is your voice, and one that could live on for generations beyond you, telling your story, communicating your ideas. Other than writers, who else can say their work can have such a long-term impact?
Amazing Historical Paintings
Just this week while I was in Santa Fe planning for April’s Plein Air Convention, I visited several galleries, some with historical paintings that looked as fresh as the day they were painted. Each of them told a story, evoking emotion in their viewers. Like rare first editions of books, these works carry high price tags, because so few artists have ever perfected their craft through a lifetime of study and experimentation, painted to please themselves, and painted with mood, emotion, and story. Those who are caregivers of these paintings own the best art has to offer.
Whether you’re a painter, a sculptor, a musician, a writer, or frankly, someone in any position, including parenting, those who are remembered are those who strive to be the best in their craft, who communicate with powerful and emotional stories, and who please others most because they have pleased themselves with a passion for perfection.
These traits lie within each of us, waiting to be discovered.
What if, next time you pick up your brush, your clay, your tools, you push your limits, squash the little voice in your head that is holding you to the past, and seek to be free?
Paint like no one will ever see it, so the only person you’re pleasing is yourself. You’ll have breakthroughs unlike any you could otherwise experience.
Paint your joy, your pain, your fear, your angst, your faith, and your anger. Paint what hasn’t been done. Seek your own self in your work.
Will you try? Will you be willing to take chances, to ruin good paintings, to make mistakes, to be bold and find new approaches? This is your year to break through beyond the average, beyond the expected.
I know it’s in each of us, including you.
PS: This was an amazing week for me. I was in Santa Fe in preparation for the convention and I had the privilege to see a lot of art and meet a lot of art dealers. What made it especially amazing is that the overall mood is excellent. Everyone reports that their art sales are booming. That’s good for all of us. I want to thank Joe Anna Arnett and James Asher for showing us all the cool painting locations and introducing us to so many dealers.
It was also a good week because we made three big announcements having to do with our future. First, PleinAir Magazine Editor Steve Doherty is retiring. I’ve written something about Steve here. I’m deeply grateful for his time with us.
Though Steve is impossible to replace, we managed to hire an new editor for PleinAir Magazine with more than 20 years of experience in art publishing. Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education, and art history.
Another big deal is that we launched a new weekly newsletter called American Watercolor™. We have been seeing a renaissance in watercolor painting and decided to show our commitment with a new publication. Because Kelly is deeply connected in watercolor circles, she is also the newsletter’s editor.