The following definitions describe techniques and materials that occur repeatedly in Van Gogh’s letters and that are not annotated separately.

absorbent canvas
Canvas with a ground that absorbs surplus oil, producing a matt effect (Peres 1991, pp. 26-27). Van Gogh believed that Tasset’s absorbent canvas was primed with pipeclay. Cf. Callen 2000, pp. 52-70.

autographic ink
An ink used in lithography to transfer a text or composition from the paper to the stone.

Black and White
The term used for the wood engravings printed black on white and published between 1870 and 1885 in such magazines as The Graphic and The Illustrated London News. Van Gogh used ‘Black and White’ in a wider sense for the rendering of depth and gradations with black drawing materials (see letter 297).

conté
A black crayon.

crépon
Although a ‘crépon’ is strictly speaking a woodcut printed on crêpe paper or crêpe fabric, Van Gogh used the term for Japanese prints in general, which he also called ‘japonaiseries’.

fixing (fixeren)
A method of treating a drawing so that it no longer smudges; making it indelible by applying a fixative. Van Gogh fixed his pencil drawings with milk, sometimes diluted with water, in order to reduce the sheen of the graphite. He probably read about this method in Cassagne’s Guide pratique pour les différents genre de dessin. See cat. Amsterdam 1996, pp. 26-27, and letters 210, 217, 222, 297, 357, 360.

form (modelé)
The way in which something is modelled and the relief of shapes is rendered.

grain (grein)
The surface texture of a sheet of paper.

hatching (hachure)
A method of shading using short lines.

heightening (hogen)
The use of a colour or tint lighter than the underlying one to make a passage stand out.

lift (uithalen)
The use of varnish to brighten up paint that has become dull. Van Gogh also used the term for adding accents in ink to a drawing (see letter 168).

lithographic crayon
A greasy, deep black crayon used for drawing on the lithographic stone. Van Gogh also drew with it on paper.

natural chalk (bergkrijt)
A natural, soft chalk yielding a warm black or brownish-black colour. It was little used in Van Gogh’s day and was difficult to obtain.

perspective frame (perspectiefraam)
A wooden or cardboard frame with equally spaced horizontal and vertical wires that form a grid. The artist draws the same grid on his paper or canvas and then views his subject through the frame in order to study and reproduce the proportions and perspectival distortions. See cat. Amsterdam 1996, pp. 17-25.

preparation of canvases
In Van Gogh’s day, there were two main procedures for the preparation of artists’ canvas. On the one hand, lengths of canvas might be stretched and primed on large frames that in commercial practice traditionally measured around 10 x 2 m. Once dry, the strips of prepared canvas could be cut up to make individual picture supports. Alternatively, a piece of canvas was first cut to size, then individually stretched and primed on the working-size frame. Both pre-cut canvas, and canvas in rolls, was available with different types of preparation that offered varied degrees of absorbency. See Hendriks and Geldof 2005, pp. 43-44.

sink in (inschieten)
To dry and become matt, to lose force.

strainer, stretcher ((spie- of span)raam)
There are two kinds of stretching frame: a strainer, which has no keys, and a stretcher, which can be be enlarged using keys to tap out the corners. Van Gogh almost always uses the term ‘stretching frame’ (‘raam’ in Dutch and ‘chassis’ in French), without any further specification. Based on the ones that have survived, we know that he sometimes used stretchers and sometimes strainers.

wash (wassen/wassing, lavis)
To colour a drawing by means of several thin, transparent layers of Indian ink, sepia, bistre or watercolour.

work up, make more intense ((hoger) opvoeren)
To apply specific improvements in order to make a composition more forceful.

canvas sizes


In his letters written in French, Van Gogh refers to numbered canvas sizes. In Van Gogh’s day, commercially primed canvases could be bought ready-stretched on standard-sized wooden frames (either fixed strainers, or stretchers that could be enlarged by tapping out). The three basic rectangular shapes available in France were known as figure, paysage and marine (figure, landscape and seascape). For each numbered size, the three shapes would have one dimension the same, but the other would differ, figure being the widest and marine the narrowest.
By ‘toile de 25 carrée’ (square no. 25 canvas), ‘30 carrée’ (30 square) etc., Van Gogh meant the squarest variant of that particular size, those being ‘toile de 25 figure’, ‘30 figure’, etc. (81 x 65 cm and 92 x 73 cm respectively).
Standard French canvas sizes, in centimetres (as listed in Bourgeois Aîné 1906):
Size number Figure Landscape Marine
1 22 x 16 22 x 14 22 x 12
2 24 x 19 24 x 16 24 x 14
3 27 x 22 27 x 19 27 x 16
4 33 x 24 33 x 22 33 x 19
5 35 x 27 35 x 24 35 x 22
6 41 x 33 41 x 27 41 x 24
8 46 x 38 46 x 33 46 x 27
10 55 x 46 55 x 38 55 x 33
12 60 x 50 60 x 46 60 x 38
15 65 x 54 65 x 50 65 x 46
20 73 x 60 73 x 54 73 x 50
25 81 x 65 81 x 60 81 x 54
30 92 x 73 92 x 65 92 x 60
40 100 x 81 100 x 73 100 x 65
50 116 x 89 116 x 81 116 x 73
60 130 x 97 130 x 89 130 x 81
80 146 x 114 146 x 97 146 x 89
100 162 x 130 162 x 114 162 x 97
120 195 x 130 195 x 114 195 x 97

See also Callen 2000; Carlyle 2001, and Hendriks and Geldof 2005 (which lists of all the traceable dealers from whom Van Gogh bought canvas in Paris).

colours and pigments


(cf. Blanc 1870, pp. 601ff.) Listed below are some of the less common pigments used by Van Gogh that he mentions in his letters.

bistre
A rusty brown pigment obtained from the soot of burnt wood.

bitumen
A dark brown composed of asphalt, resin and linseed oil.

Cassel earth (Cassels aarde)
A brown lignite-based pigment (see letter 322).

cerulean blue
A greenish-blue pigment composed of cobalt stannate, introduced in 1860 (also called ‘caeruleum’, ‘bleu céleste’). See exhib. cat. London 1990, p. 211.

Chinese white
A solid colour that mixes well with other colours; Cassagne regarded it as the best white for watercolours (Cassagne 1875).

chrome I, II, III
Chrome yellow is a lead chromate, commonly referred to with the numbers 1 (lemon), 2 (yellow) and 3 (orange).

gamboge (guttegom)
Paint with a golden yellow colour obtained from gum resin.

lampblack (lampezwart, noir de bougie)
Contains a fine-grained, deep black pigment.

madder (kraplak)
A pigment consisting of a compound of alizarin, the red colourant extracted from the madder plant (but now made synthetically) and a metallic salt. Different salts yield different colours. Used on its own it refers to the red variant.

neutral tint
A composite watercolour pigment.

Prussian blue
A synthetic dark blue pigment (ferric ferrocyanide) invented in Berlin c. 1704-1710, also called ‘Berlin blue’, ‘Paris blue’. There were various qualities and names for this blue pigment, mainly depending on particle size. Prussian blue is one of the very fine, dark types. See exhib. cat. Amsterdam 1993, p. 68 (n. 21).

paint tubes


Van Gogh often ordered tubes of paint in various sizes from Theo. He lists them as ‘gros’ (large), ‘demi-gros’ (half-size), ‘doubles’ (‘double’, probably twice the size of a small tube, i.e. quarter-size) and ‘petites’ (small) tubes. It is likely Van Gogh was referring to tube sizes originating with the British model, since these references clearly cannot be immediately correlated with the numbering system (1 to 10) used in the Bourgeois Aîné catalogue. If he was accustomed to ordering in numbered sizes, then he would have specified tube numbers. Throughout the 1880s, Winsor & Newton offered their oil paint in 2-inch (for the most expensive), 3-inch and 4-inch tubes. At the bottom of their lists, they noted: ‘All colours are also supplied in double, treble and quadruple tubes.’ With thanks to Leslie Carlyle, author of The artist’s assistant. Oil painting instruction manuals and handbooks in Britain 1800-1900. London 2001. See also exhib. cat. London 1990, p. 40, with an illustration from the 1888 catalogue of Bourgeois Aîné showing the different pigments in tubes of various sizes identified by numbers. For a specification of the prices and sizes see Bourgeois Aîné 1906, p. 148.
Lead white was sold in the largest tubes, because it was used in larger quantities (in the Winsor & Newton catalogue it was available in a half-pound tube).

types of paper


Van Gogh would have known of the different types of paper from Armand Cassagne’s Traité d’aquarelle (see letter 168), as well as from the shops at which he bought his drawing materials. Cassagne’s book has a whole chapter on paper in which various types are discussed (Cassagne 1875, pp. 25-39). It also contains samples of several types, including two of Harding and of Whatman (unpaginated, at the back of the book).

Bristol
Bristol board (also referred to as ‘Bristol paper’) is a heavyweight paper used for drawings. The paper, originally made from rags, came from Bristol, England.

Harding
The Excello Mill, built in 1865 by the Harding Paper Co., produced fine writing paper; Van Gogh used Harding paper for his drawings.

Honig paper
Probably paper from the Honig paper mill in Zaanstad, which was well-known for its printing, writing and drawing papers. See Henk Voorn, De geschiedenis der Nederlandse papierindustrie I: De papiermolens in de provincie Noord-Holland. Haarlem 1960, and P. Boorsma, Bijzonderheden betreffende molens der familie Honig. Koog aan de Zaan 1975.

Ingres
A French mould-made paper that comes in various thicknesses and is particularly suitable for drawings. It is a mingle-coloured paper, with a special grain and watermark (see Heenk 1995, p. 27). In Van Gogh’s terminology, ‘Ingres’ stands for any kind of laid paper, but that is an incorrect widening of the meaning.

mature paper
‘Paper that has been kept in stock for a considerable period before use, by which many papers are greatly improved. Newly made papers tend to fluff, cockle and stretch.’ See Elsevier’s dictionary of the printing and allied industries. Amsterdam, London and New York 1967. Its pleasant surface texture would also have appealed to Van Gogh.

papier de la forme
Mould-made paper (Cassagne 1875, p. 38).

papier sans fin
A machine-made paper that comes in rolls. Unlike mould-made paper, it has a uniform surface structure (‘fin’) with little variation.

torchon
A coarse type of paper incorporating rags that is used especially for gouaches and watercolours (Cassagne 1875, pp. 26-27). Van Gogh also impregnated it with oil so as to work on it with oil paint.

transfer paper
Paper for transferring a composition onto another support, such as canvas or a lithographic stone.

Whatman
Made since the eighteenth century in Springfield, Kent, Whatman paper, which took its name from James Whatman, the paper mill’s founder, set the standard for superior quality drawing, writing and printing paper. It became enormously popular with artists such as J.M.W. Turner.

Van Gogh’s terms for techniques and works

Some of the manuals used by Van Gogh

Further reading

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