Four Great Creativity (and Life) Lessons from Vincent Van Gogh

By day I run my resume business but in my spare time, I’m working on developing a second career as an artist. It’s not easy as any artist knows, but whenever I feel daunted, I think of my favourite artist of them all, Vincent Van Gogh. Many people don’t realize that Van Gogh wasn’t born brilliant. He worked very hard for many years before he started to paint masterpieces, and during that time, he was fueled by sheer determination and bloody-mindedness.

I was intrigued to read this Think Collective post about what can be learned from Van Gogh’s life and work. It’s worth a read because there are some solid takeaways for anyone who has ever said ‘I’m just not talented enough’ or ‘I simply don’t have what it takes.’

And it got me thinking about the things I’ve learned from Van Gogh. Here are my four favourite life/work lessons from my favourite painter.

1. Just do it

Did you know Van Gogh was considered a mediocre artist when he started out. But that he taught himself to paint by just doing it day after day after day. He once said “if you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

2. Don’t be afraid of failure

I’ve been taking art classes recently and it’s amazing how many students ask the teacher whether it’s OK to try something. (Can I put some orange here? Can I paint with a bigger brush? Can I use acrylics on top of pastel?) His answer is always the same: ‘try it and see what happens.’ At first I thought he wasn’t much of a teacher – after all, anyone can say that! But as each person blossomed and produced work far beyond what they started with, I realized he was right. The greatest block to creativity is fear of getting something wrong.

Van Gogh knew there was no such thing as wrong, no such thing as a mistake – there were just opportunities to try it and see what happened.

3. Work at it

Van Gogh never stopped working. Once he had decided to be an artist, he took himself from mediocre student to master by sheer dint of effort. He just kept working and working and working until he got to what he wanted. In the end, he produced an average of 4 works of art a week for a decade – a prodigious effort.

I have a friend who is a full-time teacher and a writer. He gets up at 5am every morning – even on weekends – to make sure he has time to write every day. I also know a local artist who runs a busy farm by day and then spends several hours every evening in his studio painting. Despite a terminal illness, he rarely misses an evening.

But I often meet people who tell me what they want to become once they get free of their current day job. A recent client wanted to become an interior designer, but felt trapped because of her lack of experience. It hadn’t occurred to her to work weekends and evenings on designs for friends and family as a way of building a portfolio. She was simply waiting for someone to give her a chance.

By the way, if you’re lucky enough to work at your creative profession as your day job, you can still learn from Van Gogh. He used every single day to improve his craft, never letting up, never cutting himself slack.

4. Don’t wait for inspiration

Van Gogh didn’t wait for inspiration to strike. He sat himself down every day and made himself work – sketches, drawings, paintings – he never stopped, saying “I am always doing what I cannot do yet in order to learn how to do it.”

If you work in a creative profession, you know those days where nothing seems to flow. Lately I’ve hit a roadblock with my painting. In the past, I’ve let those roadblocks derail me and wound up not producing anything, sometimes for months, once even for years. Now I’m making myself keep working even if the work I’m producing isn’t particularly inspired. I’ve started keeping a sketchbook and it’s here that I try out ideas without the pressure of getting anything right. I have been drawing and painting anything – a wheelbarrow in the garden, the dashboard of my car, a cup of tea, some sheep in a field near my house … anything just to keep myself working until inspiration strikes again. Which it always does.

In the end, it’s about making things happen

We might not all have the talent to be Van Gogh, but how do we know if we don’t put in the amount of work and study and sheer determination that he did?

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