Research: Marks used by Van Gogh

The drawing chosen for studying the kinds of marks that Vincent Van Gogh used in his ink landscapes was  “The garden at the vicarage at Nuenen in Winter: ‘Melancholie’   “.  It was drawn in pencil and ink (29 x 21 cm) in December 1883 (De Leeuw, R. (1999) Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum, 14th Ed., p.25 ).   Van Gogh’s father was the protestant rector in this rural, predominantly Roman Catholic area in the southern Netherlands.  Van Gogh was newly arrived in Nuenen when he executed this ink drawing which can be seen here .    Clicking on this image produces a larger one with clearer detail but it doesn’t all fit on the screen at once!

In the foreground, there is a woman, her form suggested by dense black marks, directionally applied across her clothes.  Her partly bare arm is delineated against the dark ground.   She is looking down at a patch of ground on which small winter-bare shrubs / bushes (?).  The framework of these plants is indicated with longer, rough marks splaying outwards from a central point.  The suggestion is that they are less important than the woman (the artist’s mother?), who does not appear to be particularly dressed for the weather.  The ground is covered in snow and the smallest and lightest of marks suggest the shadows of her footprints, leading the viewer into the image.

The supports for a snow-covered bench to the right are drawn using hatching overlaid with wash to indicate darker shadow.  Marks used on two tall trees on the right, which serve to frame the image and return focus to the woman, are closely drawn semi-circular bands.  Marks for upper branches become less controlled, ending as squiggles for twigs; the squiggles convey energy –  a sense of the tree moving in the winter air.  One or two remaining leaves are drawn as the merest of marks near the upper centre of the drawing.  The tree closest to the viewer is drawn with darker marks, its lower trunk drawn using a dark wash.   Another, smaller tree is drawn using lines which change direction as the trunk twists and turns.  Each twist is a single mark, sometimes linear but more often curved.

The foreground is separated from the middle ground by a bare hedge, perhaps a beech hedge.  A variety of marks have also used here, too: semi-hoops, twisting curves, occasional dense black lines.  Small approximately horizontal lines suggest twigs, with a few surviving leaves shown as angled marks, broader at one end.  The middle ground consists of an expanse of snow, divided by fences, drawn as short marks, very few true verticals, of differing length.  These become shorter and less distinct with distance.

Trees are suggested in the background with diluted ink and hazily drawn horizontal zigzags, obliterating the detail that we could only see close to.  The focal point in the  background is the church.  From this perspective it is a relatively compact building; the use of predominantly horizontal marks, other than for windows, doors and structural outline (on the right only), prevents the building from appearing overly tall, despite its spire, such that it remains in the distance.   The marks themselves create the outline on the left.  The hazy light, such as it is, appears to be coming from a spot just to the right of the viewer’s shoulder, although there are no clear shadows and, despite the snow, it is not a “bright” image.  In fact, clouds are suggested with the lightest of marks which tilt this way and that across the sky, which forms just less than half of the image.

The woman and church are connected via an invisible diagonal line running across the drawing from bottom right to top left.  Her footprints also fall on this line.

Summary of types of marks made:

o    Dots (leaves)

o    Tapered dots (leaves)

o    Hoops (trees and branches)

o    Cross-hatching (shadow and dark surfaces)

o    Small linear marks (small twigs, clouds, footprints)

o    Longer marks, linear and curved (twisted tree trunks & bare hedges)


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