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Did He Have a Lust for Line?

Portrait drawing of the Postman by Vincent Van Gogh.
The Postman by Vincent van Gogh

Portrait Drawing & Vincent van Gogh

There are very few artists I wouldn’t like to watch working. It is always addictive to see someone drawing in a sketchbook or painting in the studio, no matter what they are depicting or their style of drawing. But after seeing what Vincent van Gogh can do with simple line to create portrait drawings, landscapes, and still lifes, I would definitely let him jump the line and get to the top of my list.

The Post-Impressionist Draftsman

I am, of course, aware of van Gogh’s painting output and style, but his drawings were a shock to me. They are filled with energy and design and pathos. In his portrait sketches, there is emotion even though the figures are in static, simple poses, the crops are quite tight, and the details are pared down and yet they deliver quite a charge. Because of line! Lines hatched as a background. Lines define a person’s every feature and strand of hair. It visual describes clothes, roads, shrubs and trees and haystacks too. The visual invigoration is something line drawings are built for. The line is like a live wire in Van Gogh’s hands. The frenetic energy inhabits the quietest, simplest drawing.
Haystacks Near a Farm by Vincent Van Gogh, drawing
Haystacks Near a Farm by Vincent van Gogh, drawing
 
Head of a Woman by Vincent Van Gogh, portrait drawing with pencil and ink on paper, 1884-85.
Head of a Woman by Vincent van Gogh, portrait drawing with pencil and ink on paper, 1884-85.

The Art Source

Van Gogh had very strong ideas about drawing. He believed the practice was the root of everything, and he had a robust appreciation for draftsmen across history including Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Daumier and Howard Pyle. What is most intriguing about van Gogh’s drawing oeuvre is that the artist went through a period of contour drawing and line drawing, and found appealing aspects to both. I often feel it is immature of me to enjoy drawings with strong outlines, but if van Gogh found something in them worthwhile that’s enough for me.
Head of a Young Man by Vincent Van Gogh, portrait drawing, 1884-85.
Head of a Young Man by Vincent van Gogh, portrait drawing, 1884-85.

Combining Materials

It’s also enchanting to see how van Gogh combined his materials, often mixing and matching graphite, gouache, colored chalk, pen and ink, oil paint and watercolor. He would also often use multiple pens: reed, quill and an ordinary fountain pen, to create a variety of lines. The results are hypnotic and strangely delicate. There’s an ornamentation to them that I’ve never ascribed to van Gogh before. Looking at a drawing of his was like “meeting” his work for the first time. Learn more about the structure and bearing of the human body, particularly the head, in this demo that can put you on the path of master draftsmen like van Gogh.

Lifelong Study

Studying van Gogh’s drawings could be a lifelong drawing tutorial for me, with every new drawing teaching me a way of seeing and making marks. But I can’t live by van Gogh alone. Another mesmerist of portrait drawing is Mau-Kun Yim whose book, Lessons in Masterful Portrait Drawing, I find inspiring and incredibly informative when it comes to how to draw faces — from drawing the wrinkles of the face to where the nostrils really go when you draw a nose to understanding the power of the midtone. Yim’s own work is incredible, but it is his 30 years of teaching drawing that are ready to help you along your own drawing path. I hope you get your copy of Lessons in Portrait Drawing so you can see what I mean! Enjoy! P.S. What artist’s drawings do you really enjoy or are inspired by? Leave a comment and let me know.

Join the conversation!

27 comments on “Did He Have a Lust for Line?

  1. Camille v says:

    Being an artist from Holland, like him, and an ardent admirer of all of Van Gogh’s work and the techniques and materials that he used, I sincerely thank you for this wonderful, delightful contemplation. I have read Mau-Kun Jim’s book and am still benefitting from it, so yes indeed, a must-read if realist painting and drawing are for you. I would like to add two more names to the list: the Korean-American Zin Lim (https://www.instagram.com/zinlimart/), the Chinese-American Yong Chen (https://www.instagram.com/yongchen8/) and the Cuban-American Cesar Santos (https://www.instagram.com/santocesart/). There is so much to tell about them that I’d better not even try 🙂

  2. silent_samurai says:

    A little over a year ago I discovered an Italian illustrator by the name of Fortunino Matania. He illustrated for a publication called “The Sphere.” I was struck by his attention to detail and the command of the human figure that he had. Last year a large book of his artwork was published, titled, “Drawing From History.” It is an excellent collection of his artwork, and near exhaustive. He drew many subjects from ancient history as well as chronicled World War I. If you’re a fan of realism and illustration I highly recommend checking out his work.

  3. silent_samurai says:

    A little over a year ago I discovered an Italian illustrator by the name of Fortunino Matania. He illustrated for a publication called “The Sphere.” I was struck by his attention to detail and the command of the human figure that he had. Last year a large book of his artwork was published, titled, “Drawing From History.” It is an excellent collection of his artwork, and near exhaustive. He drew many subjects from ancient history as well as chronicled World War I. If you’re a fan of realism and illustration I highly recommend checking out his work.

  4. silent_samurai says:

    A little over a year ago I discovered an Italian illustrator by the name of Fortunino Matania. He illustrated for a publication called “The Sphere.” I was struck by his attention to detail and the command of the human figure that he had. Last year a large book of his artwork was published, titled, “Drawing From History.” It is an excellent collection of his artwork, and near exhaustive. He drew many subjects from ancient history as well as chronicled World War I. If you’re a fan of realism and illustration I highly recommend checking out his work.

  5. tamdyer says:

    There is a stupendous film of Picasso drawing done by Henri-Georges Clouzot called The Mystery of Picasso. It uses a screen that Picasso draws on and the camera picks it up from the opposite side, so the drawing just “appears”. You realize what strong draughtsman he was. It is mesmerizing…and won a Cannes Jury Prize. I also have always loved Van Gogh drawings and paintings. His are the only paintings that have actually visually “popped open” on the museum wall before me, as if there was no wall at all.

  6. tamdyer says:

    There is a stupendous film of Picasso drawing done by Henri-Georges Clouzot called The Mystery of Picasso. It uses a screen that Picasso draws on and the camera picks it up from the opposite side, so the drawing just “appears”. You realize what strong draughtsman he was. It is mesmerizing…and won a Cannes Jury Prize. I also have always loved Van Gogh drawings and paintings. His are the only paintings that have actually visually “popped open” on the museum wall before me, as if there was no wall at all.

  7. peterkar says:

    Your post today prompted me to comment as I have also rediscovered the value of drawing and sketching due to a book I recently discovered (and bought!), viz. “Lines of thought” by Isabel Seligman. This book was written to accompany an exhibition by the British Museum, with one of the largest, chronologically and stylistically wide-ranging group of drawings, created over a span of 500 years. In support of your thoughts about Van Gogh, Courtney, this book investigates the thought processes behind the works (drawings) of artists from Michelangelo to Tracy Emin. A fascinating book!

  8. peterkar says:

    Your post today prompted me to comment as I have also rediscovered the value of drawing and sketching due to a book I recently discovered (and bought!), viz. “Lines of thought” by Isabel Seligman. This book was written to accompany an exhibition by the British Museum, with one of the largest, chronologically and stylistically wide-ranging group of drawings, created over a span of 500 years. In support of your thoughts about Van Gogh, Courtney, this book investigates the thought processes behind the works (drawings) of artists from Michelangelo to Tracy Emin. A fascinating book!

  9. techne says:

    I’ve always loved Egon Schiele’s drawings – that great exploratory line.

    Mauricio Lasansky’s series of drawings about the holocaust are harrowing and unforgettable.

    Betty Goodwin’s mylar drawings are astounding – atmospheric and textured.

  10. techne says:

    I’ve always loved Egon Schiele’s drawings – that great exploratory line.

    Mauricio Lasansky’s series of drawings about the holocaust are harrowing and unforgettable.

    Betty Goodwin’s mylar drawings are astounding – atmospheric and textured.

  11. Bongobongo says:

    I like “Study of Lion Heads” by Delacroix. It’s a pencil drawing in the collection of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. I saw a Gauguin show at the Chicago Art Institute that included his sketchbooks. In it was a street made contour drawing of a whole dog done with one line. And don’t forget those reed pen drawings of Rembrandt’s.

  12. sherrycamhy says:

    Sherry Camhy
    Van Gogh actually cut reeds that grew abundantly in the country side of France into to different size points to use to do his ink drawings. You can read more about his way of working in my article in Drawing Magazine entitled, INK INITIATION.

  13. sherrycamhy says:

    Sherry Camhy
    Van Gogh actually cut reeds that grew abundantly in the country side of France into to different size points to use to do his ink drawings. You can read more about his way of working in my article in Drawing Magazine entitled, INK INITIATION.

  14. lrampey says:

    As I read another great Courtney Article, I found myself agreeing with every word – I might have written it myself! From the feeling of immaturity if I admired a drawing with outlines, to thinking that I’m sure I will learn from his drawings for the rest of my career. Not being a huge fan of his frenetic style, I am a fan of his workings, if that makes sense. These drawings are wonderful – and strangely delicate. I never thought I’d be inspired this much by Van Gogh, so thank you, thank you, thank you for presenting them here. Linda

  15. pencilmama says:

    I had the good fortune to see some of Van Gogh’s drawings on exhibit in Philadelphia; they were extraordinary. Many were not “studies”, but were meant to stand alone and they certainly did.

    I’ve also seen Edward Hopper’s wonderful drawings, which also aren’t as appreciated as they might be. The Metropolitan Museum of Art saw fit to exhibit some, along with the paintings he ultimately created that had similar content. It was great to see them together and notice how influential the drawings were on the final images.

  16. kirstengamble says:

    I am also a life long fan of Van Gogh. I had the oppurtunity to view several of his works in person while working in London several years back. Seeing the work of a master such as him is something that you never forget. Personally, I am drawn to creating pencil works of art and seeing ones such as you posted inspires me to push my work even further and try new techniques. Thank you for this inspiring and enlightening post!

    http://www.artsagamble.blogspot.com

  17. navada says:

    I am not a artist, but Art Lover. Really, I also shocked when saw the paintings of Vango..His colours are so fascinated to me that, Now i am try to making my son as a painter. Good piece about Vango, thanks
    Aravinda Navada

  18. says:

    I am a retired physician who loves to draw. Have no formal art education but have attended several workshops. I am totally impressed by Anthony Ryder! Love his drawings and find him to be an exceptional teacher. Thanks for your columns, always well done and enjoyable.
    WEH

  19. says:

    I am a retired physician who loves to draw. Have no formal art education but have attended several workshops. I am totally impressed by Anthony Ryder! Love his drawings and find him to be an exceptional teacher. Thanks for your columns, always well done and enjoyable.
    WEH

  20. Philip Koch says:

    So funny you just wrote a piece about Van Gogh. My wife and I just drove up to Philadelphia to see the big Van Gogh show at the Phila. Museum of Art. What strikes me is how much his best oil paintings mimic the line work he used in his ink drawings. Of course he was great with color, but underneath that was a super-charged energy from his drawing skills. Sad that he was only with us for about 10 years as a painter.

    Also can’t leave without a mention of your praise for Hale’s Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters book. When I was a beginning art student at the Art Students League of New York I came across that book and fell in love with it. For a few years it was my bible. Must have read it through ten times and studied its reproductions 100 times each. A total classic!

    You have left me smiling this morning.

    Philip

  21. knitinfool says:

    I, too, am a fan of Van Gogh’s drawings. I fell in love with them in my college years (I am now 71), especially the drawings of the workman’s boots and their rough hands. They have inspired me to continue to draw for many, many years.

  22. knitinfool says:

    I, too, am a fan of Van Gogh’s drawings. I fell in love with them in my college years (I am now 71), especially the drawings of the workman’s boots and their rough hands. They have inspired me to continue to draw for many, many years.

  23. knitinfool says:

    I, too, am a fan of Van Gogh’s drawings. I fell in love with them in my college years (I am now 71), especially the drawings of the workman’s boots and their rough hands. They have inspired me to continue to draw for many, many years.

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