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Van Gogh in Art Class

It's a bachelor weekend here at Idle Words, which means lots of electric guitar, meat (as of last week, the better half is a vegan), naps, general laying about, and very little wearing of pants.

I have been roaming the Internet like a wild panther, and came across some interesting art lesson plans on teaching Van Gogh, at least in those schools that still offer art classes. An example:

Provide students with a landscape photo (from magazine, or digital picture of school grounds) and ask them to create a painting or drawing with a sense of movement. You may want to have them practice different styles of brush strokes on separate paper first. To create Van Gogh's texture, I suggest using one color at a time to paint several brush strokes all over the painting leaving lots of space between them. Next, choose another color and lay down brush strokes wherever needed for that color. Keep repeating these steps until the painting is filled in.

Shocking, my friends. Making a painting from a landscape photo? A digital picture of school grounds? Not exactly the fun, outdoorsy kind of painting class you'd expect, given that Van Gogh was big on painting from life. It's like trying to instill a love of creative writing by having kids copy out the phone book. And note the creepy emphasis on being sure to leave lots of space. Or else! Whap!

But at least it's still an art class.

Van Gogh has been my favorite painter since I was about twelve, even though I went through extended art snob periods when I tried to tell myself I liked other, less instantly recognizable artists better. For a while it was Manet, and then Frans Hals, and then Vermeer. But every time I went to an art museum, it was the Van Gogh pictures I always came back to, and a couple of years ago I finally made peace with myself over it. I don't look good in black anyway, so why be an art snob? Van Gogh is the man.

And judging by these lesson plans, you have to assume he's developed a fair amount of rotational energy in his grave by now. A number of them eschew art altogether, preferring verbal stuff that's easier to evaluate:

Language Arts

[After discussing Van Gogh's self portrait], have the students write a self-portrait, using only words to describe their personality, moods, and facial features. Have them use several descriptive colors from the color wheel. For instance, "Sometimes I feel as blue as the deep blue velvet night sky."

You never see the inverse of this kind of assignment, which I would have absolutely adored as a kid. "Based on your reading of Dante, draw a picture of the nine circles of hell. Remember to vary your line texture and use impasto to best represent the pits of hot blood."

But even the boring written stuff is better than having to do 'Young Consumers of America' story problems like this:

Math or Science

Your students are all multimillionaires. They have just learned that this painting by van Gogh recently sold for fifty million dollars to a private investor. They have a chance to bid on the rights to the movie Titanic. They also have a chance to acquire the original of this van Gogh painting.

If each costs exactly fifty million dollars, and this painting is 16x12 inches, what is the price per square inch?

$260,000. Way too much.

If the movie runs 187 minutes, what is the price per minute?

Assuming $7 admission and $4.50 for a large popcorn, 6 cents per minute. Way too much.

Should size or length factor in determining the cost of a work of art? They will tell you size doesn't matter, but that just means your work of art is too short.

If you had the opportunity to own the original van Gogh painting, or the movie Titanic, would you spend the money on the painting or the movie rights? Why? AAAAAUUUGGGHHH!

That just makes me feel as blue as the deep blue velvet sky.

A frightening number of the lesson plans I found seem to involve inflicting Don McLean on the unsuspecting youth of America. Mostly along these lines: " Closure Activity: Have students sing the song using the PowerPoint slides and the lyrics on the song sheet".

I have nothing against American Pie, suitably introduced in eight grade - it builds long-term memory, and teaches symbolic thinking and guitar skills. But I do have some issues with Starry Night, unless you want to make children hate all art, forever. Or at least Van Gogh. Witness:

Listen to the song "Starry Night" by Don McLean.

...And when no hope was left inside on that Starry, starry night, you took your life, as lovers often do.  But I could have told you Vincent, This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you...

How do the lyrics of the song help us interpret Vincent's feelings when he created this painting?

The lyrics of the song help me understand Van Gogh's state of mind by making me want to shoot myself.

Some of the lesson plans are fun to read because they ask thorny questions about nature of art, the artist's relationship to society, whether suffering has a redemptive role to play in the creative act, questions about murky details of Van Gogh's life itself... and then provide definitive answers. Finally! All that ambiguity removed! Here's my attempt at one homework assignment, followed by the correct answers:

1. Which element of art was most important to Van Gogh?

Texture and pattern were very important, you can see that most clearly in the drawings. But he was also a pioneer in the use of color, strongly influenced by Japanese prints. And there's the texture of the paint itself, the way he used thick layers of paint and shaped them into furrows and ridges, emphasizing its physical presence. He understood the importance of composition, learning from the Japanese printmakers, the Western classical tradition, and his own contemporaries. Van Gogh also believed in painting and drawing directly from life, even under difficult conditions. He seemed to assign mystical importance to the act of painting, and dreamed of a Utopian artists' commune he might found in the South of France, with his brother's help. And he emphasized a painting's ability to create a direct emotional response in the viewer, without the intermediacy of language or thought.

Correct answer: line

2.  What unique painting techniques did Van Gogh use in his paintings?  

Short brushstrokes that follow countour and show flow. Radical (but harmonious!) juxtapositions of color. Simplified forms and large blocks of solid color; use of paint as a three-dimensional medium, strong outlines, use of texture and pattern as an artistic shorthand, innovative applications of color and pattern to represent strong light. Radical use of non-local color to create compositions that somehow still captured the reality of a scene. Free use of newly available strong pigments, sometimes straight from the tube.

Correct answer: straight lines, black outlines, empty spaces, scratches, dots and dashes

3. Describe Van Gogh's brushstroke.

Which one?

Correct answer: thick, thin, long, short, wide, and narrow 4. Why is The Starry Night one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings?

Snoopy ads.

Correct answer: based less on nature than the artist's inner feelings and emotions.

5. Why did Van Gogh have such a sad life?

Unrequited love. Unsatisfied religious fervor. Absinthe. Mental illness. Chronic malnutrition. Loneliness. The mistral wind. Disdainful locals. Jealousy for his brother's attention after wedding of the same. Gauguin. Inability to pay his own way. General exhaustion. Homesickness. Sense of being a washed-up failure. Poor social skills. Internalized family members, berating him. Possible alcoholism. Premonitions of life's work being turned into twisted lesson plans. Premonitions of Don McLean.

Correct answer: Painted only 10 years, his only friend was his brother Theo, shot himself due to inner turmoil and mental illness.

All the above notwithstanding, I have to declare the winner for the Most Evil Van Gogh Lesson Plan has to be this:

Teacher explains that copyright prevents us from copying the painting and saying that we painted it but it does not stop us from using Van Gogh's idea and creating a picture of our own bedrooms. Class discusses the idea behind the artwork (painting a bedroom). Definition: Copyright protects the original expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. It is free and automatically safeguards your original works of art, literature, music, films, broadcasts and computer programs from copying and certain other uses.

Not only is the definition of copyright given here confusing and wrong (claiming you painted a Van Gogh is either stupidity or fraud, depending on your skill level, but not a copyright violation), the whole ideology implied in the question goes against a thousand years of art history, and the evidence of Van Gogh's own life. Just look at his tributes to Millet or the brazen copyright violations of his Japanese period.


I was lucky in school. I had a great art teacher in fifth grade, and again in middle and high school. Even in college, there was good drawing instruction in the intro courses, though things fell apart later. Luckily, by then I was pretty set on being an artist, thanks to all those wonderful instructors I had as a kid. What about you, oh Idle Words reader? Any Van Gogh story problems in your past?

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