Loving Vincent, loving your craft

This is a collaborative piece.
Text: Madhav Dutt
Photos: Arunita Walia


The sight of a blank canvas or an empty notebook page (or even the blinking cursor on a new Word Document) marks a fresh start. Beginning a new creative work comes with a myriad contrasting emotions. The blank slate is at once pregnant with possibilities, but also daunting in its emptiness: the exciting rush of creation brings nervousness and introspection with it. This is what makes the journey of constant creation all the more thrilling. 

Three weeks ago, I watched Loving Vincent with my mother at a local PVR multiplex. I’d spent the better part of this decade waiting for the film with bated breath: the directors, British animator Hugh Welchman and Polish artist Dorota Kobiela (his wife) started work on the film eight years ago, slowly releasing stunning trailers to keep impatient viewers like me excited.

A painstaking labour of love, Loving Vincent is nothing like your run-of-the-mill Disney or Pixar animated feature film. With 65,000 frames hand painted by 125 artists, the movie is a kind of meta-artwork; each oil painting stitching together the broader narrative in Vincent Van Gogh’s distinct style that is today synonymous with post-impressionism and modern art. This is the first start-to-finish oil painted feature film in history. 

Van Gogh himself said that “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Every individual frame is a testament to this. The film’s animation style itself pays tribute to the new beginning artists experience every time they start a new canvas, marking a simultaneous fresh start for each frame of the narrative.  

I left the cinema hall conflicted. On the one hand, I was awestruck by the visual brilliance of the production. Watching Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, Old Man in Sorrow or Starry Night come to animated life was a delight, and left me viewing his work with newfound respect.  

On the other hand, the film also left me in a thoroughly introspective mood, thinking and rethinking the relationship between the artist, the artwork and the spectator. The events in Vincent Van Gogh’s own life serve to reiterate the absurd, often thankless nature of being an artist, visual or otherwise. 

What was it that kept Van Gogh going? Although he was bankrupt for most of his time as an artist, he persisted, beginning anew, again and again. Eventually, he even resorted to painting on old bedsheets and used plain cloth when he couldn’t afford canvas. It’s possible he persevered because he believed that his best work was still ahead of him.     

What was it that kept Van Gogh going? Although he was bankrupt for most of his time as an artist, he persisted, beginning anew, again and again.

Scenes from an artist's desk

Such passion and commitment, especially in adverse circumstances, begs the question; why do people create? What do artists hope to achieve by producing their work? And, consequentially, what do they expect from their viewers/readers?

To delve deeper into this, I thought about why I draw and write, and what I hope to achieve every time I sit down and put pen to paper. In addition to unpacking my personal views on this, I also researched the motivations and aims of other writers and artists, both famous and those personally known to me. These queries are far from objective, and don’t have one objective right answer. What motivates and suits one writer or painter doesn’t necessarily become the course of action for all artists. 

When asked by the Paris Review about what made him want to write, Raymond Carver said, “The only explanation I can give you is that my dad told me lots of stories about himself when he was a kid, and about his dad and his grandfather… I loved his company and loved to listen to him tell me these stories.” My own desire to create and write stems from a similar place: ever since I was a child, I’ve admired people who can tell a story well. Nothing momentous needs to take place in the story or poem, but it must come from a unique and succinct place. My college creative writing professor used to say, “A bad writer can make the best topic boring, while a good writer can make the most boring topic fascinating.” 

Although both writing and drawing are creative, the impetus behind their creation can vary greatly. When I asked a painter I know what compels her to create, she noted that, “The sight of a blank page or canvas represents a world of unexplored possibilities. It's exciting for me to know it can morph into something completely different. Painting gives me an opportunity to explore all the experiences within me.” In her case, the latent possibility of what is yet to be created keeps her going.

A blank page or canvas is a new beginning, bringing with it limitless potential.

In my opinion, there’s also an element of self-belief, sometimes bordering on narcissism, in the act of creating art. After all, one must have some conviction of one’s abilities to be able to put their work in front of the critical public eye. To this end, writer Harper Lee said, “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless.” 

Cartooning—something I’ve been practicing for some years now—combines elements of drawing/painting and writing. For me, a new cartoon normally starts off with an idea. I personally think a poorly drawn cartoon with a clever, witty underlying idea does a better job than one which lacks a comical punch but is immaculately drawn. This is also why my goal is to constantly come up with a wittier, more novel idea with every new cartoon.

A blank page or canvas is a new beginning, bringing with it limitless potential.

scenes From a writer's desk

For many years of his life, Van Gogh didn’t even paint. Once he started, only in his late 20s, he created more than 2,100 paintings in just over a decade. Virtually none of his work received commercial or critical success in his lifetime, and he destroyed a lot of it himself. He suffered psychotic episodes and delusions, all of which reached a crescendo when he shot himself, suffering a slow, painful death. The cruel irony of it all is that his death made him famous, turning an impoverished “madman” into a celebrated, revered dead man.

I’ve touched upon the artwork and the artist, but haven’t quite delved into the audience/viewer’s role. The sad reality is that most people who are creatively inclined don’t have the means or ability to make a living solely through their craft. The blessing and interest of the art world or the general public is essential, and even putting this aside, a sense of validation seems equally important for an artist to keep producing. This is what makes me admire and appreciate Van Gogh even more. The true purity of intent behind the act of painting shines brightest in his work. Despite receiving nothing but rejection and criticism from all those around him, Van Gogh didn’t stop painting.

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
— Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh loved his craft, and although he died poor, today a team of 125 skilled artists spent years of their lives painting in his style, for a film about him. His selfless desire to produce artwork after artwork reflects the core of an artist’s psyche. 

In me, there’s a constant urge to capture and depict my observations. It’s a desire to depict the world from my focal point. Carver puts it one way, saying, “Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.”  The painter I quoted above says, “With photography, as with art, I aim to share my view of the world. A view that is uniquely my own.” The world of art is constant conversation, and with each brave attempt at a starting over, we’re all adding short and long remarks to it. 


Madhav Dutt is a student in Duke University, North Carolina. He isn't sure which artistic medium he enjoys the most, so he's trying them all.

Arunita Walia is an engineer by education and a self-proclaimed artist. She describes herself as an 83 year old trapped in a 23 year old's body, who's always on the lookout for good caffeine providers and books. See more of her pictures here.