Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch Post-impressionist painter. Although he had a passion for art since a child, Van Gogh’s first career choice was to become a minister. After studying for a year, Van Gogh failed his entrance exam to a theology school in Amsterdam and later a missionary school in Brussels. Unable to join the Church, Van Gogh decided he would devote himself to art. Although his work was exhibited in his later years, he received no recognition for his work during his life, lived in constant poverty and died having only sold ONE of his paintings. Today he is considered one of the most important artists in history and his vibrant, powerful and expressive paintings sell for millions of dollars.

Van Gogh was the epitome of the ‘tortured artist’. He lived a very sad life and seemed to fail at everything he tried. Besides failing to become a minister, Van Gogh had a disastrous love life (most women found him repulsive), his friendships never lasted (after threatening friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin with a razor blade, Van Gogh famously cut off his own earlobe) and his art career went nowhere. He even failed at committing suicide – when Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a pistol, the bullet missed his vital organs and he was able to walk back to his house where he rested and smoked his pipe. He eventually died the next day after an infection took hold.

Van Gogh was in and out of mental asylums his whole life and it’s unsure whether he suffered from bi-polar disease, schizophrenia, epilepsy or some other kind of mental illness. Throughout all the difficulties in his life, the only thing that gave Van Gogh any kind of peace was the passion he had for his art:

“The work is an absolute necessity for me. I can’t put it off, I don’t care for anything but the work; that is to say, the pleasure in something else ceases at once and I become melancholy when I can’t go on with my work. Then I feel like a weaver who sees that his threads are tangled, and the pattern he had on the loom is gone to hell, and all his thought and exertion is lost.”

Even though he is considered a master today, Van Gogh was plagued with self-doubt and always strived to be a better artist. I thought this quote was great, similar to the message from Ira Glass’s Advice for Beginners:

“It constantly remains a source of disappointment to me that my drawings are not yet what I want them to be. The difficulties are indeed numerous and great, and cannot be overcome at once. To make progress is a kind of miner’s work; it doesn’t advance as quickly as one would like, and as others also expect, but as one stands before such a task, the basic necessities are patience and faithfulness. In fact, I do not think much about the difficulties, because if one thought of them too much one would get stunned or disturbed.”

The quote I used in the comic is taken from one of hundreds of letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. The discouragement he was talking about was a period of extreme poverty and bad luck.

A few readers have emailed me and said that Zen Pencils has played a part in them taking up drawing again, which is probably the best compliment an artist can receive. Have you recently rediscovered your childhood talent, or taken up a new creative hobby? Let us know in the comments 🙂

– What’s your favourite Van Gogh painting? Mine is probably Starry Night Over the Rhone, although it’s hard to pick just one – he’s always been one of my favourite artists.
– Thanks to Gabriel for submitting this quote.