Did He Have a Lust for Line?

Portrait drawing

Portrait Drawing & Vincent Van Gogh

There are a few artists that I wouldn’t like to watch working. It is always addictive to see someone drawing in a sketchbook or painting in the studio. But after seeing what Van Gogh could do with simple line to create a portrait drawing, I would definitely put him at the top of my list.

I was, of course, aware of Van Gogh’s painting output and style, but his drawings were a shock to me, specifically his portrait drawings. They are filled with energy and pathos. This despite the fact that the poses are often static, the crops are quite tight, and the details are pared down. What gives them that charge is the line. The visual invigoration is something line drawings are built for. The line is like a live wire in Van Gogh’s hands. The frenetic energy inhabits the quietest, simplest drawing.

Head of a Woman by Vincent Van Gogh, portrait drawing with pencil and ink on paper, 1884-85.
Head of a Woman by Vincent Van Gogh, portrait drawing with pencil and ink on paper, 1884-85.

Van Gogh had very strong ideas about drawing. He believed the practice was the root of everything, and he had a robust appreciation for draftsmen across history including Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Daumier, and Howard Pyle.

What I found most intriguing during my study of his drawing oeuvre was that the artist went through a period of contour drawing and line drawing, and found appealing aspects to both. I often feel it is immature of me to enjoy drawings with strong outlines, but if Van Gogh found something in them worthwhile that’s enough for me.

Head of a Young Man by Vincent Van Gogh, portrait drawing, 1884-85.
Head of a Young Man by Vincent Van Gogh, portrait drawing, 1884-85.

I’m also enchanted by the way Van Gogh combined his materials, often mixing and matching graphite, gouache, colored chalk, pen and ink, oil paint, and watercolor. He would also often use multiple pens: reed, quill, and an ordinary fountain pen, to create a variety of lines. The results are hypnotic and strangely delicate–there’s an ornamentation to them that I’ve never ascribed to Van Gogh before. Looking at a portrait drawing of his was like “meeting” his work for the first time.

Studying Van Gogh’s drawings could be a lifelong drawing tutorial for me, with every new drawing teaching me a way of seeing and making marks. But I don’t live by Van Gogh, alone. Another mesmerist of portrait drawing is Mau-Kun Yim whose book, Lessons in Masterful Portrait Drawing, I find inspiring and incredibly informative when it comes to how to draw faces–from drawing the wrinkles of the face to where the nostrils really go when you draw a nose to understanding the power of the midtone. Yim’s own work is incredible but it is his 30 years of teaching drawing that are ready to help you along your own drawing path. I hope you get your copy of Lessons in Masterful Portrait Drawing so you can see what I mean! Enjoy!

P.S. What artist’s drawings do you really enjoy or are inspired by? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

17 thoughts on “Did He Have a Lust for Line?

  1. I, too, am a fan of Van Gogh’s drawings. I fell in love with them in my college years (I am now 71), especially the drawings of the workman’s boots and their rough hands. They have inspired me to continue to draw for many, many years.

  2. So funny you just wrote a piece about Van Gogh. My wife and I just drove up to Philadelphia to see the big Van Gogh show at the Phila. Museum of Art. What strikes me is how much his best oil paintings mimic the line work he used in his ink drawings. Of course he was great with color, but underneath that was a super-charged energy from his drawing skills. Sad that he was only with us for about 10 years as a painter.

    Also can’t leave without a mention of your praise for Hale’s Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters book. When I was a beginning art student at the Art Students League of New York I came across that book and fell in love with it. For a few years it was my bible. Must have read it through ten times and studied its reproductions 100 times each. A total classic!

    You have left me smiling this morning.

    Philip

  3. I am a retired physician who loves to draw. Have no formal art education but have attended several workshops. I am totally impressed by Anthony Ryder! Love his drawings and find him to be an exceptional teacher. Thanks for your columns, always well done and enjoyable.
    WEH

  4. I am not a artist, but Art Lover. Really, I also shocked when saw the paintings of Vango..His colours are so fascinated to me that, Now i am try to making my son as a painter. Good piece about Vango, thanks
    Aravinda Navada

  5. I am also a life long fan of Van Gogh. I had the oppurtunity to view several of his works in person while working in London several years back. Seeing the work of a master such as him is something that you never forget. Personally, I am drawn to creating pencil works of art and seeing ones such as you posted inspires me to push my work even further and try new techniques. Thank you for this inspiring and enlightening post!

    http://www.artsagamble.blogspot.com

  6. I had the good fortune to see some of Van Gogh’s drawings on exhibit in Philadelphia; they were extraordinary. Many were not “studies”, but were meant to stand alone and they certainly did.

    I’ve also seen Edward Hopper’s wonderful drawings, which also aren’t as appreciated as they might be. The Metropolitan Museum of Art saw fit to exhibit some, along with the paintings he ultimately created that had similar content. It was great to see them together and notice how influential the drawings were on the final images.

  7. As I read another great Courtney Article, I found myself agreeing with every word – I might have written it myself! From the feeling of immaturity if I admired a drawing with outlines, to thinking that I’m sure I will learn from his drawings for the rest of my career. Not being a huge fan of his frenetic style, I am a fan of his workings, if that makes sense. These drawings are wonderful – and strangely delicate. I never thought I’d be inspired this much by Van Gogh, so thank you, thank you, thank you for presenting them here. Linda

  8. Sherry Camhy
    Van Gogh actually cut reeds that grew abundantly in the country side of France into to different size points to use to do his ink drawings. You can read more about his way of working in my article in Drawing Magazine entitled, INK INITIATION.

  9. Sherry Camhy
    Van Gogh actually cut reeds that grew abundantly in the country side of France into to different size points to use to do his ink drawings. You can read more about his way of working in my article in Drawing Magazine entitled, INK INITIATION.

  10. I like “Study of Lion Heads” by Delacroix. It’s a pencil drawing in the collection of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. I saw a Gauguin show at the Chicago Art Institute that included his sketchbooks. In it was a street made contour drawing of a whole dog done with one line. And don’t forget those reed pen drawings of Rembrandt’s.

  11. I’ve always loved Egon Schiele’s drawings – that great exploratory line.

    Mauricio Lasansky’s series of drawings about the holocaust are harrowing and unforgettable.

    Betty Goodwin’s mylar drawings are astounding – atmospheric and textured.

  12. I’ve always loved Egon Schiele’s drawings – that great exploratory line.

    Mauricio Lasansky’s series of drawings about the holocaust are harrowing and unforgettable.

    Betty Goodwin’s mylar drawings are astounding – atmospheric and textured.

  13. Your post today prompted me to comment as I have also rediscovered the value of drawing and sketching due to a book I recently discovered (and bought!), viz. “Lines of thought” by Isabel Seligman. This book was written to accompany an exhibition by the British Museum, with one of the largest, chronologically and stylistically wide-ranging group of drawings, created over a span of 500 years. In support of your thoughts about Van Gogh, Courtney, this book investigates the thought processes behind the works (drawings) of artists from Michelangelo to Tracy Emin. A fascinating book!

  14. There is a stupendous film of Picasso drawing done by Henri-Georges Clouzot called The Mystery of Picasso. It uses a screen that Picasso draws on and the camera picks it up from the opposite side, so the drawing just “appears”. You realize what strong draughtsman he was. It is mesmerizing…and won a Cannes Jury Prize. I also have always loved Van Gogh drawings and paintings. His are the only paintings that have actually visually “popped open” on the museum wall before me, as if there was no wall at all.

  15. A little over a year ago I discovered an Italian illustrator by the name of Fortunino Matania. He illustrated for a publication called “The Sphere.” I was struck by his attention to detail and the command of the human figure that he had. Last year a large book of his artwork was published, titled, “Drawing From History.” It is an excellent collection of his artwork, and near exhaustive. He drew many subjects from ancient history as well as chronicled World War I. If you’re a fan of realism and illustration I highly recommend checking out his work.

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