Van Gogh’s Palette
BELOW IS A MOST moving letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo. But for Theo, the world would never have met Vincent. There is absolutely no way to underestimate the fresh beef-ed up supply of materials to a painter. It is more thrill than a hundred birthdays and Christmases rolled into one. And means the work, the experimentation, the color can live on another day or week or month.
Vincent van Gogh also discusses the pigments he purchased with Theo’s boon, which is fascinating to any painter for the specifics. Copied and pasted from The van Gogh Museum, but I can’t find where except in Holland. The clicks inside van Gogh’s letter will produce either a connect to more material or a hover box with information.
5 August, 1882 Saturday.
My dear Theo,
Still very much under the impression of your visit,1 and more than a little pleased that I can go on painting with new vigour, I’m writing you a few words.
I had wanted to take you to the train the next morning — but I thought you had already given me so much time that it would have been impolite if I had asked you for the following morning as well.
I’m very grateful to you for visiting me here — it’s wonderful to have the prospect of a year of steady work without disasters, and thanks to what you gave me I now also have a new horizon in painting.2
I regard myself as privileged above a thousand others in that you remove so many barriers in my way.
It goes without saying that many often can’t carry on because of the expense; well, I can hardly put into words how thankful I am to be able to keep on working steadily.
I have to try twice as hard to make up for lost time because I began later than others, and with the best will in the world I would have to give up if I didn’t have you.
Let me tell you about everything I’ve bought.
First, a large moist colour box for 12 pieces or tubes of watercolour with a folding lid that serves as a palette when open — there’s also room for 6 brushes. 3 1v:2
This is a valuable piece of equipment for working out of doors, in fact absolutely essential, but it’s expensive and in my mind I had postponed it until later, and until now worked with loose pieces on saucers, but they’re awkward to carry, especially if you have other items as well.
So it’s a fine thing to have, and once you have one it will last you for a long time.
At the same time I bought a supply of watercolour and replaced my brushes and added some new ones.
Moreover, I now have all the essentials for proper painting.4
And a supply of paint — big tubes (which work out much cheaper than small ones), but you will understand that I’ve limited myself to simple colours in both watercolour and oil: ochre (red, yellow, brown), cobalt and Prussian blue, Naples yellow, terra sienna, black and white, supplemented with some carmine, sepia, vermilion, ultramarine, gamboge in smaller tubes.
But I refrained from buying colours one ought to mix oneself. [sketch A] I believe this is a practical palette, with sound colours.5 Ultramarine, carmine or something else are added if absolutely necessary. 1v:3
I’ll start with small things — but before the summer ends I hope to practise bigger sketches in charcoal with an eye to painting in a rather larger format later.
This is why I’m having a new and, I hope, better perspective frame6 made, which will stand firmly on two legs in uneven ground like the dunes. [sketch B]
Like this, for example.What we saw together at Scheveningen, sand — sea — sky — is something I certainly hope to express one day. Of course I didn’t spend everything you gave me all at once — although I must say the prices of things greatly took me aback, especially bearing in mind that more items are needed than appears at first sight. 1r:4 It would be a help if you could send the usual around the twentieth, not because everything will be gone by then, but because I think it advisable to keep a little in my pocket in case, while working, I find that I really need something or other. That will help me to work calmly and in an orderly fashion.
The moist colour box fits into the painting box — so that if need be I can carry everything required both for watercolour and for painting in one object. I place great value on having good materials, and would like my studio to look substantial — but without antiquities or tapestries and drapery7 — but through the studies on the walls and good tools. That will have to come with work and time.
On the subject of the village constable style 8 — I feel less like a village constable than like a Delft bargee, for example, and I don’t at all object to my place being like a cosy tow barge.
Yesterday afternoon I was in the attic of Smulders’ paper warehouse on Laan.9 There I found — guess what — double Ingres under the name Papier Torchon: it was a type with an even coarser grain than yours. I’m sending you a sample to show you. There’s a whole batch — already old and mature, excellent. I bought only half a quire10 for now, but I can always go back later. I was there in search of something else, namely the Honig paper that I have now and then, very cheap, from an undelivered order for the land registry. That is very suitable for charcoal drawing, I believe, and comes in large sheets tinted rather like the Harding type.
As you see, this sample has a grain as coarse as a piece of sailcloth. What you brought is a nicer colour and wonderful, for example, for studies of the sides of ditches and soils. However, I’m glad to have discovered this new batch.
Well, old chap, many thanks for everything, a handshake in thought; I’m going to start work. Give Pa and Ma my warmest regards, thank them for what they gave you for me, and tell them I’ll write soon — but as agreed not about special matters.11 Adieu — enjoy yourself, and have a safe return to your ordinary work, and believe me
Ever yours, Vincent
Pen & Ink – Van Gogh visits Sparhawk in Brooklyn