You Only Become Van Gogh One Canvas At A Time

As artists we often get stuck.


We get stuck thinking that everything we do needs to be new.


That we have to reinvent everything, otherwise it’s not creative.


It’s not true, of course. But it gives us a good excuse to not share our work with the world.


“It’s not innovative enough.”


“It’s already been done.”


The fear of rejection within us looks for all sorts of reasons why we shouldn’t ship our projects. If we don’t share them, no one can laugh at us, no one can say we’re not good enough.


We can remain artists-in-waiting for years and years if we’re not careful.


Vincent Van Gogh was almost thirty before he made the decision to be a professional artist. But from that day on he painted almost every day, producing canvas after canvas. Many were studies, where he would explore painting techniques, test different colour combinations, practised painting specific people or objects, or experimented with different composition of shapes.


As he sat down with his canvas each morning, he didn’t know whether he would end the day with a painting that someone would buy. But sooner or later he discovered that by being a pro and showing up to do his work every day, his style developed to the point where he was making art that people wanted to buy.


His work attracted attention. He sold canvases, offered private tuition to (wealthy) students and accepted commissions.


I wonder whether Van Gogh considered his legacy as he worked. Did he wonder how he would be remembered?


He collected reproductions of work that inspired him, purchasing prints and tearing photos out of published journals and arranging them on the walls of his studio where he could be surrounded by ideas that excited him.


He couldn’t have known that his own paintings would achieve iconic status, gracing the walls of the world’s most prestigious galleries. He couldn’t have imagined that art lovers and students would have reproductions of his work hung in homes and studios all around the world.


I don’t think he could have imagined that his everyday sketches and the small study canvases would be housed in a museum dedicated to the memory of his work. Nor could he could known that thousands of people would queue to see those same works in progress when they were exhibited a hundred years later in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria.


The outcomes are out of our hands. At the rate of social and technological change you couldn’t put too much money on predicting what will happen a year from now. The world one hundred years from now will be filled with possibilities and realities we can’t begin to imagine.


Worrying about what will happen to our work after it’s given to the world is of less importance than the process of doing the work in the first place. Certainly in the long term. So (going back to technical painting terminology) why do we get so hung up on it?


All we can control is our process. The process of showing up each day to do the best work we can. Like the professionals we are. We take care of ourselves and our business so that we can continue to make art. We share our art with the world regularly, because that’s what professional artists do.


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