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10 Things Van Gogh Can Teach Us About Photography


In keeping myself motivated as a photographer I love to look for inspiration from all across the creative spectrum. I like to take the advice of my favorite photographer Ernst Haas in this when he recommended to: “refine your senses through the great masters of music, painting, and poetry. In short, try indirect inspirations, and everything will come by itself.” I recently visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and felt really energized by the work.

Not only do I love Van Gogh’s paintings, but I love how he talks about being an artist. I feel he expresses that desire to see the world in a new way so uniquely.

I liked too how he wrote very simply of the life-giving qualities of being creative.

Today I wanted to indulge in his brilliance and see what we can draw from his life to help us with our photography.

1. Kill self-doubt with action

This connects to my last post about how we all need creative pursuits in our lives. I love this quote:

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. Vincent van Gogh

Self-doubt is the enemy of creativity, and it’s one we all face. But self-doubt only controls us if we let it. If we plow on regardless, self-doubt is eradicated by taking action.

2. The night is rich with photographic possibility

I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day. Vincent van Gogh

I love to photograph dawn. But many of my photographs are taking before dawn, in the magical blue hour, when the world is emerging from the deep darkness.

My explorations in Spain have taken me further into the night and I have been waking at odd times at night to photograph full moons over the ocean, the stars in the night sky and rich colors of the night sky – blacks, greys, blues, silvery light – many surprising colors.

Night and the edges of the day are fascinating. Of course, it requires some technical skill to capture interesting photographs at night, but once you have basic skills it’s fascinating to explore the colors, textures, and ambiance you can find at night.

3. The strange magic of creation

What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. Vincent van Gogh

I love this quote. It shows some of that strange magic that is involved in the act of creativity, but also the grind of just doing the work.

Sometimes I don’t know where my images come from. I just know my role is to show up, push through discomfort when it arises and keep going.

4. Achievement of any kind is just a lot of small tasks

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. Vincent van Gogh

This says to me – don’t let yourself be intimidated! Let us not think of the big things we need to do or want to achieve. But gently and quietly work on little things, that eventually make up the vast whole of our work, our days and our lives.

5. Paying attention to your subject changes what it is

It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning. Vincent van Gogh

When you look deeply at a subject it starts to transform into other things.

Perhaps it becomes intertwined with your imagination, your memories, and thoughts. Your imagination transforming it from one thing to another.

Perhaps it changes because as you look, really look at something, you notice its many facets, its individual details, its many elements. It becomes less a part of a whole, and more a whole world in itself.

6. We all need to be courageous

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? Vincent van Gogh

I need this stapled to my forehead sometimes. I feel that my life requires a lot of courage, often. I’ve chosen a different path to others, so I see what this would be. When I overcome fear and feel courageous, wow, it’s an amazing feeling. When I succumb to fear and am not courageous, then, yes, it doesn’t feel great. But the mere act of attempting courageous acts induces a lot of creative energy within me.

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. Vincent van Gogh

7. Taking photos is the most important thing I can do

I wonder if it’s my age, but my desire to create photographs feels in some ways more urgent than when I was younger. Maybe urgent is the wrong word. It feels more essential than it ever has.

When I was younger taking photos was a deep pleasure, it was fun, it was adventurous! I have loved all of my work and projects and learning. But there is something about getting older when you see with starker and starker clarity what is essential to your life and what is unnecessary filler.

I want to only fill my life now with things that are essential to my being. That makes me proud, that push me to be a better person, that help me grow and learn and help me experience the world in beautiful new dimensions.

8. It doesn’t matter what is on the outside, we are all deeply creative on the inside

Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney. Vincent van Gogh

I have met too many people who say they aren’t creative types or arty types. And yet they have a huge desire to create, to be people who make things.

That desire is enough. That fire within is enough to take you to where you need to go with your photography.

9. Photography and my family are all I need

…and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough? Vincent van Gogh

I often think I want lots of things – a big flashy house, vast wealth – but really what I want is the freedom to be myself, to enjoy what makes me happy, and to live without restriction.

But if I were to choose what is essential to my happiness, it is this – nature and photography, family and sunshine – that for me is more than enough to keep me fulfilled.

10. When we are seeking to do what we love, life is complete

I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart. Vincent van Gogh

This is the true test for me of a good life – are we in it with all of our hearts? I like to think I am in mine, and like family, photography is a natural conduit to living in a wholehearted, connected way.

So I hope these are some nice thoughts for you, giving you some inspiration for your photo practice.

I’d like to leave with one last quote from the great man — one that’s always a good reminder for me:

I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. Vincent van Gogh

So there is no reason not to do things. The time to do things is now, regardless of where you are and what you don’t know (yet.)

About the author: Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Epes is also a teacher – writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques. This article was also published on Cities at Dawn.