Thursday, 21 January 2010

Faber Pencil and Vincent Van Gogh:The Artist and his Letters (or his Pencils)

A brand new exhibition which opens on January 23 in the Royal Academy of Arts in London promises to reveal the "Real Van Gogh" . It focuses on the artist's correspondence which provides an insight into Van Gogh's life and work. The rarely exhibited letters are displayed alongside the relevant drawings or paintings. Van Gogh's correspondence can be explored in detail in an exquisite online resource edited by Leon Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker.

 "I drew, among others, a woman in the barge with crepe around her cap because she was in mourning, and later a mother with a small child - this one had a purple scarf around her head". Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3 October 1883; Sketch on cream, machine-made wove paper; pencil, pen, ink.

All 902 letters to and from Van Gogh can be viewed on vangoghletters, and they are all richly annotated and illustrated with new transciptions and translations. The whole thing is of course searchable by keyword and what did I put there but "pencil" and "Faber pencil". Vincent Van Gogh used carpenters pencils for his drawings about which (pencils) he writes to his brother Theo on May, 1, 1882:

As regards a carpenter's pencil, my reasoning is as follows. The old masters, what would they have drawn with? Certainly not with Faber B, BB, BBB &c. &c., but with a rough piece of graphite. The implement Michelangelo and Durer used was perhaps very similar to a carpenter's pencil. But I wasn't there and don't know. This I do know, that with a carpenter's pencil one can achieve intensities differently than with those fine Fabers.

Van Gogh often used both pen and pencil in his drawings, which he called "pencil and pen croquis". At the end of June 1881, he writes to Theo that "up to now" he had been drawing with pencil only, worked up or heightened with the pen, if necessary with a reed pen, which makes broader lines".

But couple of years later, his opinion about Faber pencils has changed. On 15 June 1883, he writes to his fellow artist Anton von Rappard:

Wanted to tell you about a type of pencil by Faber that I've found. Here you see the thickness of the cross section. They're soft and better quality than the carpenter's pencils, produce a marvellous black and are very agreeable to work with for large studies. I used it to draw a woman sewing on grey papier sans fin and got an effect like lithographic crayon. These pencils are made of soft wood, dyed green on the outside, cost 20 cents apiece.

 "My dear Theo, it's very difficult for me to write, so disturbed is my mind". Letter of Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh from the hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, 22 August 1889. Cream machine-made wove paper; pencil black, or maybe black chalk.

 In 1890 Vincent Van Gogh ended his life. Some ten years earlier a more optimistic Vincent had written to his brother:

It was in this extreme poverty that I felt my energy return and that I said to myself, in any event I'll recover from it, I'll pick up my pencil that I put down in my great discouragement and I'll get back to drawing, and from then on, it seems to me, everything has changed for me, and now I'm on my way and my pencil has become somewhat obedient and seems to become more day by day. It was poverty, too long and too severe, that had discouraged me to the point where I could no longer do anything.

The Real Van Gogh. The Artist and his Letters opens in the Royal Academy of Arts in London on January 23, 2009. The new edition of Van Gogh's correspondence Vincent van Gogh - The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, the result of 15 years of scholarship is available for sale; 6 volumes with 640 of his paintings and drawings, 4,000 supplementary illustrations and 240 actual size letter sketches.

Vincent Van Gogh letter with an imprint of a Faber pencil.
Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG

On Vincent Van Gogh correspondence and artist techniques, see briefly Artist Online, Artist Materials and Techniques:  Drawing Pencils, Pen and Pencil and Van Gogh's Supplies, on Suite101


  1. Excellent post

    I also did a lot of research about Vincent Van Gogh and drawing techniques as part of a major project on my blog Making A Mark back in 2007. You can find all the blog posts and an awful lot more information about his drawing techniques on my resource site Vincent Van Gogh - Resources for Art Lovers

  2. Katherine, thank you.
    You've done a lot of work on Van Gogh. Very informative resource - I like the references to Van Gogh's London in particular.