My dear Theo,
Just a word to say welcome before you come here.1 And to report the safe arrival of your letter and the enclosure, and to thank you very much.
It was most welcome for I’m working hard and again need one or two things.
As regards black in nature, we are of course in complete agreement, as I understand it. Absolute black doesn’t in fact occur.2 Like white, however, it’s present in almost every colour and forms the endless variety of greys — distinct in tone and strength.3 So that in nature one in fact sees nothing but these tones or strengths.
|| red, yellow, blue,
|orange, green, purple.
From these are obtained the endless variations of grey by adding black and some white — red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey.
It’s impossible to say how many different green-greys there are for example — the variation is infinite.
But the whole chemistry of colours is no more complicated than those simple few fundamentals. And a good understanding of them is worth more than 70 different shades of paint — given that more than 70 tones and strengths can be made with the 3 primary colours and white and black.4 The colourist is he who on seeing a colour in nature is able to analyze it coolly and say, for example, that green-grey is yellow with black and almost no blue, &c. In short, knowing how to make up the greys of nature on the palette.
To make notes out of doors, however, or make a small scratch, a highly developed feeling for the outline is absolutely essential, as it is for working it up later.
This doesn’t come of its own accord, but firstly through observation, and then above all through persistent hard work and seeking. Some study of anatomy and perspective is also required.
Hanging beside me is a landscape study by Roelofs, a pen sketch, but I can’t tell you how expressive that simple outline is. Everything is in there.5
Another, even more telling example is the large Shepherdess woodcut by Millet which you showed me last year, and which has remained in my memory.6 Also, for example, the pen sketches by Ostade and Peasant Bruegel.7
When I see such results, I feel the cardinal importance of the outline most clearly. And you know from Sorrow,8 for example, that I take great trouble to make myself better in that respect.
But you’ll see when you come to the studio that besides seeking the outline I certainly also have a feeling, like anyone else, for the strengths.
And that I also have nothing against making watercolours — but they’re founded on drawing first, and then from the drawing springs
1v:3 not only the watercolour but all kinds of other shoots that will develop in due course in me as in anyone else working with love.
I’ve attacked that old giant of a pollard willow, and I believe it has turned out the best of the watercolours.9 A sombre landscape — that dead tree beside a stagnant pond covered in duckweed, in the distance a Rijnspoor depot where railway lines cross, smoke-blackened buildings — also green meadows, a cinder road and a sky in which the clouds are racing, grey with an occasional gleaming white edge, and a depth of blue where the clouds tear apart for a moment.
In short, I wanted to make it like how I imagine the signalman with his smock and red flag must see and feel it when he thinks: how gloomy it is today.
I get a lot of pleasure out of work these days, though now and again I still clearly feel the after-effects of my illness.
As to the drawings I’m going to show you now, I think only this: that they will, I hope, serve as evidence that I’m not stuck on one level but am moving in a direction that is reasonable. As for the commercial value of my work, I have no pretensions other than that I would be very surprised if in time my work doesn’t sell as well as that of others. Whether that happens now or later, well, I’m not bothered about that too much. Just working faithfully from nature and with persistence seems to me a sure way, and one that can’t end up with nothing.
1r:4 The feeling for and love of nature always strike a chord sooner or later with people who take an interest in art. The duty of the painter is to study nature in depth and to use all his intelligence, to put his feelings into his work so that it becomes comprehensible to others. But working with an eye to saleability isn’t exactly the right way in my view, but rather is cheating art lovers. The true artists didn’t do that; the sympathy they received sooner or later came because of their sincerity. I know no more than that, and don’t believe I need to know any more. Making an effort to find art lovers and arouse their love is something else, and of course permissible. But it mustn’t become a speculation that might well go wrong and would certainly waste time that ought to be spent on work.
Of course you’ll find things in my present watercolours that should be taken out, but that must improve with time.
But you should know that I’m a long way from having a system or anything like that to keep up and lock myself into. That sort of thing exists in H.G.T.’s imagination, for example, rather than in reality. As for H.G.T., you understand that I have a personal reason for my opinion of him, and that I don’t in the least intend to press you, for example, to take the same view of him as I am forced to do. As long as he thinks and says of me the kind of things you know of, I can’t regard him either as a friend or as someone of use to me in any way, but quite the opposite. And I fear that his opinion of me is too firmly rooted ever to change, all the more so because, as you say yourself, he won’t take the trouble to reconsider some things and to change.
When I see how several painters I know here struggle with their watercolours and paintings, unable to find the answer, I sometimes think, friend, your drawing is where the trouble lies. I don’t for a moment regret not moving straight on to watercolour and painting. I know for sure that I’ll catch up if I keep hacking away at it, so that my hand doesn’t hesitate in drawing and perspective. But when I see young painters composing and drawing off the top of their head — then daubing on all sorts at random, also off the top of their head — then holding it at a distance and putting on a very profound, sombre expression to find out to what in God’s name it might bear some resemblance, and finally, still off the top of their head, making what they can of it, it makes me feel feeble and faint, and I find it truly tedious and heavy going.
The whole thing makes me sick!
Yet these gentlemen regularly ask me — not without a certain patronizing air — ‘whether I’ve started painting yet’.
Now I also sometimes find myself playing, so to speak, at random on a piece of paper, but I attach no more value to this than to a rag or cabbage leaf.
And I hope you’ll understand that if I go on just drawing, I do that for two reasons. Because at all costs I want to acquire a sure hand when drawing above all else and, second, because painting materials and watercolours entail considerable expense for which there’s no return in the early stage — and these costs are multiplied twice and ten times if you work on the basis of a drawing that isn’t yet sufficiently correct.
And if I got into debt or surrounded myself with canvases and papers daubed all over with paint without being sure of my drawing, my studio would quickly become a kind of hell, like a studio I once saw that seemed like that to me.
As it is, I always enjoy going there, and work there with pleasure.
So I don’t believe that you suspect me of unwillingness.
It seems to me that the painters here have a way of reasoning as follows. They say, you must do this or that — if you don’t do it, or not immediately or exactly, or if you object, the reply is: ‘So you know better than I do, do you?’ Thus immediately, sometimes within 5 minutes, there’s a conflict between you. And the situation is such that neither side can move forwards or backwards. The least odious outcome of this is if one of the two parties has the presence of mind to keep silent and in one way or another quickly slip away through some opening. And would almost say, Sapristi, the painters are a family too. That’s to say, an ill-fated association of people with conflicting interests, each one at odds with the rest, two or more of whom share the same feelings only when they join forces to obstruct another member. I hope, my dear brother, that this definition of the word ‘family’ doesn’t always apply, especially not in the case of the painters or our own family. I hope with all my heart that peace will reign in our family, and I remain with a handshake,
[The top part of the next sheet is missing; the following text is crossed out]
not to be afraid [xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx] to make it difficult for them if they’d rather not see me.
I refused, even when they asked me lately whether I wouldn’t come sometime, so that they’d clearly see that I didn’t want to make it difficult for them in any way. But I also expect that they, for their part, won’t meddle in my affairs. While I care about the good will of those at home, Princenhage10 matters much less to me. Would you and can you be so good as not to talk about one thing and another, so much the better, if, though, it is talked about and that can’t be avoided — too bad, but what do I care?
Well, as I said, I want nothing so much as to keep the peace, nothing is as necessary for my work as that very peace. So I’m grateful to you for everything you can do to reassure those at home and to keep them calm. I hope that you’ll have pleasant days there and breathe in plenty of Brabant air. I still think of Het Heike so often, and have again been busy these last few days with a study from there, cottages with mossy roofs under the beech trees.11
[Passage missing on verso of sheet]
must take. This is just about the effect of the pollard willow, but in the watercolour itself there’s no black except in a mixed state.
Where the black is darkest in this little sketch is where the greatest strengths are in the watercolour — dark green, brown, dark grey. Well, adieu, and believe me that I sometimes laugh heartily at how people suspect me (who am really just a friend of nature, of study, of work — and of people chiefly) of various acts of malice and absurdities which I never dream of. Anyway — goodbye for now, with a handshake.