The Creative Process
Your life is a blank canvas, paint it a Van Gogh.
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others,” writes Marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher.
Welcome to another new issue of Abandoned Curiosities. This week, we talk about the legendary Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh.
Today, Van Gogh is one of the most influential figures in art history and his paintings are among some of the world’s most expensive paintings ever sold. But Van Gogh could hardly sell any paintings during his lifetime, during which he was generally considered a madman and a failure.
Struggling with severe depression and poverty, Van Gogh took his life at the age of 37. His achievements are all the more remarkable considering the brevity of his career — he didn’t start painting until he was 27, nor had any formal training.
Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s fame came only after his death, as he evolved into the public imagination as a misunderstood genius and the quintessential tortured artist.
“What am I in the eyes of most people,” Vincent once wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, “a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.” “All right, then, even if that were absolutely true,” he continued, “then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”
Throughout his life, Vincent wrote many such letters to Theo, forming the most comprehensive primary source of his life. The letters also form the basis for Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s fictional re-telling of the Van Gogh story. While Stone has taken a few technical liberties, the story remains true to its heart.
In one of my favorite excerpts from the book, Van Gogh talks about the creative process — the challenge of facing the blank canvas and its analogy to life:
One day, as he was preparing to attack a new canvas, someone asked Vincent, “How can you be sure that the spot you choose will come out right on the canvas?”
Vincent thought for a moment and then replied, “If I want to be active, I must not be afraid of failures. When I see a blank canvas staring at me with a certain imbecility, I just dash something down… I have to. I find paralyzing the stare of a blank canvas which says to me, ‘You don’t know anything!’”
“You mean it’s a sort of challenge?”
“Exactly. The blank canvas stares at me like an idiot, but I know that it is afraid of the passionate painter who dares, who once and for all has broken the spell of that ‘you cannot.’ Life itself turns towards a man an infinitely vacant, discouraging, hopelessly blank side on which nothing is written, no more than on this blank canvas.”
“But the man of faith and energy is not frightened by that blankness; he steps in, he acts, he builds up, he creates, and in the end, the canvas is no longer blank but covered with the rich pattern of life.”
In the end, I sincerely hope your life turns out to be a lovely canvas. Meanwhile, keep building. And keep reading the Abandoned Curiosities newsletter.
If you’re interested in learning more about the creative process, I previously wrote a post titled Leonardo da Vinci in Defense of Your Procrastination. And here’s the rest of the archive.
I’m currently reading Madam Curie by Eve Curie. Marie Curie was a Polish-born French physicist and chemist, and twice a winner of the Nobel Prize. Marie’s achievements are substantial, including her pioneering research on radioactivity that led to its usage in the treatment of cancer. In fact, Marie’s death due to leukemia is believed to have been brought on by her exposure to the high levels of radiation involved in her studies. You can find out more about Marie in our next issue.
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Also this week: Ever since I finished reading Lust for Life, I’ve been obsessed with all things Van Gogh. Movies, books, and his paintings and letters, of course. In fact, I’ve got two very special recommendations — movies — that you should check out.
The first one is called Painted with Words. And there are two things that I absolutely love about the movie. One, every single word of dialogue is sourced from Van Gogh’s original writing. And two, Benedict Cumberbatch as Vincent Van Gogh.
The other movie is called Loving Vincent, the world’s first fully painted film. Check out the trailer below. It’s a beautiful experiment in film-making and does a great job of bringing Van Gogh’s paintings to life. Anyway, rest assured that you will cover a decent amount of Vincent between the two movies.
And that’s about it. Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week.