Home > Blog > #PKMChat 2015-11-11 Van Gogh on Learning

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Van Gogh on Learning

Vincent van Gogh had hardly any formal artistic education at all. He managed to reach his high level of mastery by creating his own learning process.

Being one of the most popular artists of our time, many people know about the beauty of his work while his high productivity is less well known. He worked as an artist for only 10 years producing 862 paintings and 1000+ sketches (do the math for yourself please!). He did so in poor circumstances – always short on money, often in bad health. Vincent started his work as artist in the village of Nuenen in the south of the Netherlands and worked there for 2 years. His first masterpiece ‘the Potato eaters’ was created there. His parents lived in the village – his father was a preacher there. Vincent liked to paint the poor peasants, weavers, buildings in the village and nature. I live in the same village of Nuenen and my home based office is literally surrounded by Van Gogh monuments. In 2010 I decided to do some research on Van Gogh’s (900+) letters – still available today http://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/ . I wondered how he had managed to create his own learning process and the sources of his high productivity. It became an amazing journey and I found some clear principles that are still very useful today. Original post here.
Self-Portrait, 1889 - Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 - 1890) - Oil on canvas - Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Self-Portrait, 1889 – Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890) – Oil on canvas – Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The first one is that he painted a lot of ordinary day to day things or situations. The house where he lived, the church where his father worked, some peasants eating potato’s, his own shoes, chair, tools or a glass of his favorite drink absinthe. He managed to find value in what was close to him, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I call this ‘thinking inside the box’. In one of his letters he says: ‘I only have to open my eyes and paint what is right in front of me’.

Before he created his first masterpiece ‘the potato eaters’ he painted 50 heads of peasant people and made a lot of drawings from the hands holding a fork or a kettle. He applied deliberate practice to master the crucial details before he applied them in the overall painting.

As mentioned before Vincent wrote a lot of letters: some to other painters but most of them to his brother Theo. Theo was an art salesman who was acquainted with a lot of upcoming painters in Paris. So he had his ideas about art. In his letters Vincent described his ideas, his approach, his failures and experiments related to his work. Sometimes he asked for feedback and others opinions. The reflective nature of his writing must have helped him in his learning process.

When he lived and worked in Paris Vincent struggled with the hectic life of the city. In one letter he says he needs a refuge to create solitude to be able to work. In Arles he dreamed of founding a community of painters who would develop the future of painting. He hoped to live, work and learn together with them in the Yellow House. Only Gauguin came over and after he left Van Gogh suffered from loneliness. Van Gogh needed both being able to work alone and to work with others. With focus on social learning in our days we might forget the power of solitude, being alone as a condition for (deep) learning. I suggest we look for balanced circumstances and like to introduce the word ‘socialone learning’.

Topic prepared by: www.cld.academy

PKMChat being about Personal Knowledge Management encompass Knowledge lifecycle in general. Our first chat was about learning, acquiring Knowledge. Our second is about sharing it. Week after weeks we will switch from one end of the lifecycle to another while exploring all the channels that could be used: social, formal, writing, videos. Feel free to suggest topics by tweeting to @pkmchat.


Van Gogh letters with translations original post by Ger Driesen


  • Q0: How has art ever influenced your learning?
  • Q1: How do you use ‘think inside the box’(use what is close to you) for learning?
  • Q2: How do you apply deliberate practice to master the critical details in your job or hobby?
  • Q3: Van Gogh’s letters show a lot of reflection: how do you apply reflection in your work?
  • Q4: What is the right balance of social versus solitude in your learning practices
  • Q5: What else do you like (to) know about Van Gogh?
  • NB: Questions are subject to change without notice.

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