Research point: Vincent van Gogh

Find a van Gogh pen and ink drawing, preferably of an outdoor, natural scene. Look at the variety of mark-making used and the expressive way in which these marks are made.  Make notes on the types of marks employed.

“I try to capture what is essential in the drawing”, (van Gogh, 1888).  This is certainly apparent in the first picture I’ve chosen to write about – Figure on a road, 1884.  Nothing here seems surplus to requirements.

Figure on a road, 1884, pen and ink

Figure on a road, 1884, pen and ink

This is a striking scene of bold linear contrasts, largely comprised of horizontals and verticals. A rhythmic composition of hatching (the light horizontals in the sky) & cross-hatching, the latter being most pronounced on the road and in the treetops.  There are very few curves in this picture – some to indicate the shape and form of the tree trunks, and others to describe the lower branches of the trees.  The sharp uprights of the tall trees serve to dwarf the lone figure, enhancing the feeling of isolation.  It is a markedly directional drawing.  In addition to the viewer’s eye following the road as far as the horizon, the diagonals of the branches to the left and at the centre draw the eye in the direction the figure is travelling.

Initially, it might seem that the relatively small number of marks used in this picture could result in a dull and passive scene.  Interestingly, the reverse seems to be true.  By focusing on an ordered arrangement of horizontals and verticals almost to the exclusion of other marks, Van Gogh has created a strong picture, employing shadow as an effective tool to create mood.  Also, his use of negative space is a significant feature here – the space between trees, and on the horizon, where the figure is heading.  In addition, van Gogh has left a few small almost empty areas on the road, indicating the light filtering through the trees, the shadows suggesting that the sun is quite low.

The angled lines in the road have been applied with varying pressure – the darker, heavier lines point us in the direction the figure is going.  Length seems to be a recurring motif here – the length of the trees, the shadows, the road… all heighten the sense of endlessness.  The repetitive line of trees only adds to this.

Van Gogh’s early interest in printmaking is apparent in this drawing, with many of the marks being suggestive of an etching, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012).  This can be contrasted with the more calligraphic marks in the second picture, The Corner of the Park, 1888.

The Corner of the Park, 1888, ink and pencil

The Corner of the Park, 1888, ink and pencil

This picture demonstrates, to some extent, the ways in which van Gogh’s mark-making style had evolved since the time of Figure on a road (1884).  He had developed an increasing interest in Japanese art, and many of his marks had a distinctly calligraphic quality.  Also, he had discovered the reed pen.  Whilst I do not know whether he used one for this picture, it does bear the hallmarks of the ways in which these pens changed van Gogh’s mark-making.  As the reed pen didn’t hold much ink, marks were necessarily shorter, more rapid, and tended to be more vigorous, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012).  The style is more expressive, more varied, yet retains a sense of order, with each section clearly delineated by use of different directional marks – heavily applied short staccato lines for the bushes and shadows, lighter and sometimes curving lines for the foreground grass, applied in a slightly less dense fashion (in lighter-toned inks), and a scattering of dots to represent the grass as it recedes from the viewer.  Robert Hughes’ description of van Gogh’s later drawing style as “a tapestry of microforms” is appropriate here, (Hughes, 2005).

Having looked closely at these two drawings, I decided to try copying one of them in order to get a feel for how van Gogh might have worked.  In my picture, copied from Figure on a road, I started with a light wash over the paper, to knock back the stark whiteness, and then put in a few pencil guidelines (as van Gogh often did), mostly to mark out the horizon and the angle of the road. Then, I used sepia ink to echo the colour of the drawing as we see it now, although it’s likely to have been drawn in black ink, originally.

my version of van Gogh's 'Figure on a road', pen and sepia ink on watercolour paper

my version of van Gogh’s Figure on a road, pen and sepia ink on watercolour paper

The fact that van Gogh’s drawings are instantly recognisable is a testament to the strength and individuality of his mark-making.  Even in the absence of the colour and impasto texture with which he is often associated, his ‘hand’ is clearly evident.  This exercise has made me far more aware of the ways in which marks affect drawings – they are the language the artist uses to describe what they see.


Hughes, R. (2005) ‘The genius of Crazy Vinnie’, The Guardian, 27 October, (Accessed 23 October 2012).

Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012a) How Van Gogh Made His Mark [Online], (Accessed 23 October 2012).

Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012b) Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): The Drawings [Online], (Accessed 23 October 2012).

van Gogh, V. (1888) Van Gogh to Emile Bernard, Arles, 9th April 1888 [Online], (Accessed 23 October 2012).