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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

From the Lips of Vincent: Life Lessons from Van Gogh


Today is Vincent Van Gogh‘s birthday…and there are so many thoughts going through my head. Perhaps the most spot on thing I’ve ever learned from him is the concept of

“active melancholy”

– yes, that is what he called it and it’s just perfect to describe the sort of creative frenzy one can go into while one is in a very dark place. My most creative moments have been in these times and I’m sure I’ll have many more. It’s a mixed blessing, of course. Given that Vincent wrote so many letters to his brother Theo, we have quite a few direct quotes from him – and they are eloquent and inspiring as hell. I’ve pulled a few and have grouped them into four categories, or shall we say “life lessons” from the lips of Vincent.


The Wow and the Wonder

These are about the essence of creativity…finding a muse in all of nature and one’s surroundings…keeping eyes and heart wide open and trying to pin down the beautiful and poignant into something tangible and lasting. Van Gogh must have had a sort of child-like wonder that is at the crux of all creative endeavors. I want to see poetry in everything…to paint my dreams…to admire more than the average person does.

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

“We are surrounded by poetry on all sides…”

I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.”

“It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.”

“At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.”

“Admire as much as you can. Most people do not admire enough.”


Being You- No Compromises

Van Gogh was a strong believer in going one’s own way, despite the disapproval of others. These quotes would be wonderful to turn to when insecurity creeps in…when you feel yourself too concerned with what others think rather than sticking to your own desires. I’ve adopted Henry Miller’s motto of “paint what you like and die happy” (using “paint” as a metaphor for many things), and these are in the same vein.

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

“I try more and more to be myself, caring relatively little whether people approve or disapprove.”

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.”

Creative Courage

Perhaps the most useful are these quotes on keeping courageous, overcoming obstacles, setbacks and lack of confidence. My all-time favourite expression has always been the “just slap anything on…” (referring to a blank canvas staring at the painter). I’ve had this feeling a lot- especially when it comes to writing. But I’ve just encountered the “nobody can in the beginning do as he wishes” and I think this is just brilliant encouragement. I shall remember, when disheartened, to “take up my pencil” and “go on with my drawing”.


“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

 “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”

 “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”

 “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

 “I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.”

 “In spite of everything, I shall rise again; I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”

“Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can’t’ once and for all.”

“Don’t lose heart if it’s very difficult at times, everything will come out all right and nobody can in the beginning do as he wishes.”

Leaving a Legacy

The concept of creating to leave a legacy has been a big part of my life for the past decade – ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and then losing my mother to cancer as well. I am convinced that art heals – both the artist and the viewer (or as Vincent poignantly says, those “broken by life”). I totally abide by the notion of “I will make something good every day”. Van Gogh is the personification of legacy, of course, because his work didn’t gain popularity until long after his passing. The last quote really floored me…such a poetic description of death (almost reminds me of Bowie)…and in particular death from cancer. Whatever happens, if death puts us on a star Vincent is one of the brightest in the Starry Starry Night.

“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’.”’

“Art is to console those who are broken by life.”

“If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is a grass in the beginning.”

“I feel such a creative force in me: I am convinced that there will be a time when, let us say, I will make something good every day , on a regular basis….I am doing my very best to make every effort because I am longing so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things mean painstaking work, disappointment, and perseverance.”

 Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.”

Below are two of my most loved quotes by Van Gogh set to my sketches

#legacy #art #vincentvangogh #courage #creativity #wisdom #cancer #lessons #wonder #vangogh #life #melancholy

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