Copying masters’ works has been practised over the centuries. Before the Louvre was opened for public viewing, it was an unofficial artist retreat, offering artists the freedom work on site, recreating masterpieces. Henri IV offered studio and living quarters to artists, where they were free to create in their chosen medium (from painting to sculpture).
Copying masters’ works is both an educational and meaningful exercise in understanding brushstroke, texture, tone, colour, and becoming intimately involved with a work of art.
Libby Hunter, who attends Marco’s Studio Art Class, has been generous enough to share with us her experience of copying Vincent van Gogh’s work.
I started Marco’s Friday morning art class one year ago. It was my first introduction to painting having only dabbled a bit at school. After six months of Marco teaching the basics of drawing and painting in oils, I decided I wanted to focus on an impressionist artist to get a greater understanding of technique, colour and brushwork. I decided on van Gogh. I have always admired his work, and after the recent exhibition at NGV – which just blew me away! – I thought exploring his techniques would teach me a lot – with Marco’s help of course!
The thing that struck me the most when viewing so many of van Gogh’s works at the NGV was just how vivid his colour was; nothing like the many art history books I’ve collected. And many of the artworks I had never seen before; they were just incredible. I wanted to learn how he achieved such vibrant colour and movement in his work. He also expresses such intense feelings in his painting, which are often quite melancholy; his work really makes me feel something. I think this is what attracts me most to his work.
Much of van Gogh’s technique is about colour and brushwork and the mix of the two. His brushstrokes are intense, bold, confident, and they create an energy and an impact in his work that is not easy for a novice to re-create. I am still working on this and I expect I could be chasing it for some time. I have discovered the process of copying a great artist is not an easy one.
Marco provided a constant guiding hand through the process but also gave me enough space to find your own way. I really enjoyed analysing books and prints of van Gogh’s work alongside Marco, with us trying to determine exactly what technique he used. It is such a puzzle and a really interesting way to discover and learn painting techniques. I am working on my very first self-portrait now, in van Gogh’s style. A very daunting task, but I am loving the process and hopefully, it will make me a much-improved painter.
Van Gogh and the seasons has been the fastest selling show in the history of the National Gallery of Victoria. Over 150,000 people visited the exhibition during the first month. There have been a number of people comment that they had expected to see Sunflowers, or Starry Night, and they were surprised by his darker work. As Van Gogh’s artistic career only spanned 10 years, only finding his most well-known style two and a half years before his death in Arles, we are taking a closer look at his earlier works. The years of study preceding the painting of Still Life with Apples and Pumpkins in 1885 play an important role in the establishment of Van Gogh’s dynamic style and the paintings that have become household names.
Under Anton Mauve’s short-lived tutelage, Van Gogh was introduced to still life objects. Normally a painting teacher would make their student study the work of another artist before they began their own compositions. Mauve, however, set up still lifes for Van Gogh, including apples, pumpkins and cabbages. This appealed to Van Gogh because, for him, they symbolised the harvest, and peasant life.
Van Gogh was living in Nuenen at the time he painted Still Life with Apples and Pumpkins. This was a particularly prolific period of his life; he produced 195 paintings, 313 drawings, 25 water colours, and 19 sketches in his letters to his brother Theo. 
Studying still life was not only cheap for Van Gogh (he did not have to pay for a model to sit for him), it also provided exercises in exploring light and how it affects colour. His palette was fairly limited, with mainly earthy tones, particularly dark brown. You cannot see any indication that this young artist would paint with such vivid colours, only two years later!
Van Gogh was aware that still lifes did not sell very well, however he wrote to Theo, “it is damned useful, and I shall continue to paint them this winter.”  You can see how Van Gogh has used the painting above as a very effective exercise in light and shadow.
Van Gogh also used still life to learn how to represent form using colour on the canvas. He applied varying tones of a limited number of colours to depict how the light fell and turned on the surface of objects to create planes, and form. Writing about his piece below, Van Gogh explained to Theo that he tried “to express the material in such a way that they become heavy, solid lumps – which would hurt you if they were thrown at you, for instance.” 
Only a year after he painted these still lifes, Van Gogh moved to Paris to live with his brother, and these dark colours were flushed out of his paintings and were replaced with the growing spectrum of Impressionist colour.
Van Gogh lived with his parents between 1883 and 1885 in Nuenen. During his time there, he met Antoon Hermans, a successful, retired goldsmith, with whom Van Gogh wanted “to remain on good terms if possible”.  From Van Gogh’s perspective, Hermans was “rich and has built a house that he’s filled with antiques again, and furnished with some very fine oak chests. He decorates the ceilings and walls himself, and really well sometimes.”
Hermans was also an amateur painter, and Van Gogh took him on as a student. This may come as a surprise with the knowledge that Van Gogh began pursuing his artistic career only four years earlier. Van Gogh had previous teaching experience after taking up a position at a boy’s school in Ramsgate, England after he lost his job at Boupil & Cie, the Art Dealers in Paris in 1876. He really enjoyed his time teaching, so much so he questioned it, writing to Theo, “These are really happy days, the ones I’m spending here, day after day, and yet it’s a happiness and peacefulness that I don’t trust entirely, though one thing can lead to another.”  There was also material motivation behind Van Gogh teaching amateurs how to paint, as he told Theo, “I have a plan, though, to gradually get people to pay something — not in money, however, but by telling them ‘you must give me tubes of paint.’  Van Gogh taught Hermans whilst he lived in Nuenen, and he also took on tanner Anton Kerssemakers and telegrapher Willem van de Wakker as students. Van Gogh taught them general painting techniques and how to paint still lifes.
Hermans was a particularly interesting student, because he wanted Van Gogh’s help to paint the interior walls of his house. Hermans had already painted flowers on twelve panels of his dining room, and he wanted Van Gogh to help him design images of saints for the remaining six panels. Van Gogh thought that scenes depicting the four seasons would be more suitable, and Shephard and his Flock above, is one of the images that Van Gogh created for Hermans to enlarge. This painting represented autumn. He has created a strong feeling of an oncoming stark winter with the angular, leafless trees. The contrast of the bright pasture and flock of white sheep against the dark, looming clouds and night setting in, vividly creates the feeling of a cold autumn evening.
As with a lot of Van Gogh’s work, Jean-Francois Millet’s influence can also be seen:
Van Gogh also used this project to improve his drawing of the human figure, as he engaged various models to complete the painting studies. He initially sketched an ox-cart in the snow (which was later replaced with wood-gatherers in the snow), a ploughman, a sower, a grain harvest, a potato harvest, and the above sower. He then created oil paintings from the sketches. Van Gogh made an agreement with Hermans that he would create six compositions for him to reproduce onto his walls, only if Hermans returned the paintings to him. It is unconfirmed if Hermans ever returned his paintings, or paid Van Gogh for the work.
Written by Lauren Ottaway
 Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Monday 4 August 1884
 Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Saturday 6 May 1876
 Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Monday 17 November 1874
After following his brother Theo’s advice to pursue art, Van Gogh went to study anatomy at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1880. He returned to his parents’ home in 1881, where he focused heavily on drawing, and thus begun his serious artistic exploration.
Van Gogh greatly admired Jean-François Millet’s and his work had a profound influence on the emerging artist. Millet, who had quite a modest background, created nostalgic tributes to farmers, and Van Gogh identified with them and recognised the compassion in Millet’s work, which he highly valued.
Van Gogh began studying Millet’s work and produced drawings in order to learn how to paint. He drew The Sower (after Millet), pictured below, which was based on a black and white print of the painting. Van Gogh’s interpretation of the monochrome reproduction led to some interesting, minor inconsistencies; the grains that Van Gogh’s sower is scattering behind him were actually birds in Millet’s work.
That year Van Gogh also travelled to The Hague to try and sell his work, and to also meet with his second cousin, and successful artist, Anton Mauve. He returned to The Hague to study under Mauve a few months later after working in pastels and charcoal as Mauve had instructed. However, after a short month together, and a strained relationship, they had a final falling out about drawing from plaster casts. “First and foremost, I had to draw from plaster casts. I utterly detest drawing from plaster casts – yet I had a couple of hands and feet hanging in the studio, though not for drawing. Once he spoke to me about drawing from plaster casts in a tone that even the worst teacher at the academy wouldn’t have used, and I held my peace, but at home I got so angry about it that I threw the poor plaster mouldings into the coal-scuttle, broken. And I thought: I’ll draw from plaster casts when you lot become whole and white again and there are no longer any hands and feet of living people to draw.” 
The Sower, which Van Gogh produced at The Hague, is particularly poignant to the body of work on exhibition at the NGV, and Van Gogh himself, because it is a depiction of the seasons and the people who toil in order to maintain a meagre life. Van Gogh had lived in many rural areas and was captivated by the sowing of the wheat, the harvest, the sheaves of wheat in fields, and the haystacks, which you see increasingly in his later work in the late 1880s. The sower, amongst other working-class figures engaged in the field, formed a body of work ‘from the people for the people’, which Van Gogh thought ‘would be a good thing – not commercially but as a matter of public service and duty’. He planned to produce thirty low-cost prints to create this body of work. Van Gogh sent photographs of four of his drawings of people working in the fields, including the Sower, to his brother (first image above). This is how he described the work to Theo, “Then a second Sower, with a light brown fustian jacket and trousers, so this figure stands out light against the black field, bordered by a little row of pollard willows. This is quite a different type, with a clipped beard, broad shoulders, rather thick-set, somewhat like an ox, in that his whole frame has been shaped by his labour in the fields. Perhaps more of an Eskimo type, thick lips, broad nose.’ 
Van Gogh wanted to show these figures in action – not at rest, because ‘there is more drudgery than rest in life.’ He worked on these series of working-class drawings because he tried ‘to work for the truth.’ 
Millet’s influence on Van Gogh was clear during the early stages of his career. When he was living in Paris in 1886-87, his focused shifted from the fields to the Parisienne cafes. However, the countryside returned to his work when he moved to Arles in 1888, and then over three months from late 1889 to early 1990, Van Gogh produced twenty-one copies of Millet’s work. During this time Van Gogh was in the asylum at Saint- Rémy, and he described to Theo his own interpretations of the Millet’s works. ‘If someone plays Beethoven, he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn’t have to be the only one to perform his compositions. Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure. I put the black and white by or after Delacroix or Millet in front of me to use as a motif. And then I improvise in colour […] seeking reminiscences of their paintings; but the memory, the vague consonance of colours while are at least correct in spirit, that is my interpretation.’ 
Written by Lauren Ottaway
 Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Friday 21 April 1882
 Vincent van Gogh. Letter 291 to Theo van Gogh. Written 3-5 December 1882
 Vincent van Gogh. Letter 607 to Theo van Gogh. Written 19 September 1889
Over the three months that Melbourne is home to an awe-inspiring collection of Van Gogh’s works spanning his life and representative of the seasons through which he viewed and painted the world, we will be taking a closer look at some of his works at the NGV.
In October 1884, Van Gogh sent a letter to his brother Theo, along with some small photos of his recent works, so that Theo (who was an art dealer) would have something to show of his work, if the opportunity arose. In the letter, he described Avenue of Poplars in Autumn as “The last thing I made is a rather large study of an avenue of poplars, with yellow autumn leaves, the sun casting, here and there, sparkling spots on the fallen leaves on the ground, alternating with the long shadows of the stems. At the end of the road is a small cottage, and over it all the blue sky through the autumn leaves.”
From this passionate and intricate description alone, you can get a real sense of Van Gogh’s love for Autumn. It was his favourite season, and he wrote in 1882, “I sometimes yearn for a country where it would always be autumn, but then we’d have no snow and no apple blossom and no corn and stubble fields.” 
Van Gogh was living back with his parents in Nuenen, in Norther Brabant, at the time he painted this work. A few months earlier he had been living alone in northern Netherlands, and, driven by loneliness, moved back to his parents’ house. Van Gogh was drawing and painting fervently at the time and the darkness in this image would carry through to his future work.
He began painting in oils in the early 1880s and really enjoyed the medium. You can see the liberal application of the paint in the details of the textured lines used to create the tall poplars and the woman in the foreground. The vibrant Autumn colours and soft graduated sky, combined with the tall, dark shadows, create an undisputable feeling of the season – something which Van Gogh, over his short ten-year career, translated onto the canvas with genius.
The melancholic interpretation of the painting inspired author Greg Bogarerts to write Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, a tragic story of the lone figure in the painting.
  Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written late October 1884 in Nuenen.
I was lucky enough to be in the South of France and visited Arles to experience the scenes I have admired for so many years in Van Gogh’s paintings. I would like to take you on a little walking tour through the city where Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace, Starry Night over the Rhone, and the hospital grounds where he was taken after the ear incident.
In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh moved to a small town called Arles in the South of France with the aim of creating a school of art outside of Paris. He believed that his new, personal style could thrive outside the capital and contribute to what was the modern art movement. He also preferred to work alone and the prospect of a quiet, Southern town in France was where he felt he needed to go.
A short history of Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles
Van Gogh rented the Little Yellow House in May 1888 (which was unfortunately bombed in WWII and no longer stands). Van Gogh painted prolifically during this time, and produced a number of masterpieces including his Sunflowers and Haystacks series.
Van Gogh convinced Paul Gauguin to join him, and he did eventually in October. However, Gauguin and Van Gogh’s friendship was strained; they debated often about their differing opinions of art. Van Gogh, who was suffering mentally which was exacerbated by his significant output of work, was not the easiest person to live with.
There are many theories as to what happened with Van Gogh’s ear: a battle wound from a violent altercation with Gauguin; an accident whilst he was shaving and suffered an epileptic fit; an action of ill mental health. What seems to be known however, is that he presented his ear to a local prostitute with whom had fallen in love with, as a last attempt to win her heart.
Van Gogh was taken to the local hospital in Arles, which is now L’espace de Van Gogh and has been kept as you see it in his painting. The hospital also houses some of his masterpieces.
Walking in the steps of Van Gogh in 2015
If you visit the tourism office in Arles you can purchase a map with a walking tour of ten famous scenes that Van Gogh painted. The thought of walking in the footsteps of Van Gogh and being in the real scenes that he painted was overwhelming; however the reality was somewhat less romantic. Arles is not the typical idyllic Southern French town; it was a little dirty, and a little smelly, which surprised me because I was anticipating the bright, moving scenes from Van Gogh’s paintings (which was over a hundred years and a couple of wars ago, so I removed my rose-coloured glasses).
It didn’t take long to forget about the state of the town though; retracing Van Gogh’s paintings around Arles was a bit like an artistic treasure hunt for me. Here are some of the places I found:
L’entree du jardin public
This was the first stop on the map. It was a strange feeling standing in the same scene that Van Gogh depicted in the painting. I took my time here to digest exactly what I was doing. I looked for details that weren’t there; I tried to match up positions of the trees and park benches, and turn the elderly men drinking into women in black dresses. I then just stood there and took in the feeling of the park, the shady refuge it provided in the middle of the town. Van Gogh certainly had a way of making something we consider ordinary, so moving.
Les Alsycamps is a famous Roman necropolis and was Arles’ burial ground for over 1500 years. The walk down this long avenue of stone coffins to find Van Gogh’s famous scene had to be taken in slow, silent steps. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted side-by-side here and produced a number of paintings. Above is a particularly emotive painting by Van Gogh, which describes the vast space and desolate feeling of Les Alsycamps.
Garten de Hospitals
The hospital was an extremely moving place. You could not help but feel melancholy walking underneath the yellow arches. The gardens have been kept more-or-less the same as how Van Gogh described them in his painting, including the stunning blue irises. The hospital, now housing some of his pieces and a few touristy boutiques was eerily quiet, as people around me paid their silent respects to Van Gogh and his troubled life.
Le Cafe Terrace
I was quite star struck when I discovered this iconic scene. The cobbled streets no longer remain; there is an army of plastic chairs and tables in the foreground; the cafe has been renamed Cafe Van Gogh; however, you can still imagine Van Gogh painting this scene. This was the easiest image to visualise and also feel. There was a bustle to the streets, and the buildings had aged with the painting. I felt so lucky to be standing there.
This was not the most pleasant place to visit in Arles, but I am glad I found the painting. The steps up to the left had large worn dips in them from hundreds of years of footsteps. The painting can be viewed as historical in nature and it also shows how Van Gogh can see a composition from such a simple scene. The light of Van Gogh’s painting, which was completed in October 1888 appears to be a lot different to how I saw it in early May. It would be interesting to come back during Autumn.
The Langlois Bridge
We had to travel a little further to see the bridge because it had been moved because of an expanding industrial area. Driving past the old site you could see an abandoned Van Gogh cafe, used when tourism for the painter had been booming, I assume. The bridge was important enough to reassemble down the river however, and I did run into another Van Gogh enthusiast.
There are a couple of towns around Arles with more scenes that Van Gogh painted, including Auvers-sur-Oise where he ended his life. I recommend visiting the scenes of painters you admire so you can have your own experience of a composition you have may have been looking at for a long time.