I often say I’m not a big believer in an art genius, any more than I’m a believer in a math genius or a language genius. Almost everyone can learn to draw, just as almost everyone can learn to do sums, write or sing. To make this point, I frequently point people to Van Gogh’s drawing. By dint of hard work, his drawing went from pedestrian to splendid in just a few short years.
Vincent van Gogh: the Lost Arles Sketchbook was published simultaneously this week in France, the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Its author, Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, is a respected Van Gogh scholar from the University of Toronto. “When I opened it up, the first thing I said was, ‘No, unbelievable!’ The first drawing that I took out and held in my hands, it was a moment of total mystical experience: ‘Oh my goodness, this is impossible!’” said Welsh-Ovcharov.
The book is based on a folio purported to contain 65 recently-discovered Van Gogh drawings from his mature period. Van Gogh’s drawings are very instructive. He used a pencil or pen with the same flourish as a brush, creating works with energetic and detailed mark-making using an enormous range of technique. Even at the nosebleed list price of $85, the book was making my credit card hand start to itch.
But wait, there’s more! On Tuesday the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam—the accepted top dogs on the subject—released a statement saying that the drawings are fakes. Among other things, they say that the drawings do not show the rapid development in skill that was the hallmark of this period in his work.
I wouldn’t need anything more to convince me, because that’s the defining characteristic of his drawing career. However, the Museum also notes that the drawings include topographical errors. Van Gogh was a meticulous recorder of reality. It is inconceivable that any painter would forget the details of a place in which he lived and worked. Drawing has a way of deeply imprinting them on your being.
I feel like a kid who just got socks for Christmas instead of the toy I really wanted. This doesn’t, however, negate what Van Gogh’s drawings say to me as an artist and teacher: to paint, you need to be able to draw, and you need to do it as regularly and naturally as you brush your teeth.