Van Gogh’s sketchbooks hold what may be the artists’ most intimate creations, quick impressions of the world around him. Many of his sketches never had a life beyond these pages; others were the beginning of a creative process that culminated in a signed painting or fully developed drawing.
All of Van Gogh’s known surviving sketchbooks are in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). Not all of them are complete, however, and there are also loose sketchbook leaves that cannot be linked to any of them. This makes it clear that the artist had other sketchbooks, which have not been preserved. His earliest known sketchbook is from his period in Nuenen and the latest from Auvers-sur-Oise, the village where he died. The others contain sketches from Nuenen, Antwerp, and Paris.
Part of the problem (and therefore the challenge) in examining Van Gogh’s sketches is posed by his notes; the handwriting is often illegible and the content incomprehensible. He would jot down things like medical prescriptions and street directions in his sketchbooks, or copy entire poems into them. Many of these notes merit further study. But as intriguing as they are, they are not the most relevant parts of Van Gogh’s sketchbook to our research on his studio practice.
Some sketches are of special interest for this project because they tell us more about Van Gogh’s working methods or materials. His earliest sketchbook, from Nuenen, includes a small drawing of a watercolour paint box with notes on all the colours. This provides a basis for technical research on watercolours from that period. The same book contains several sketches of a perspective frame. The sketch below vividly shows how Van Gogh used this artistic aid: sitting on a stool, he looked through a frame with a horizontal and a vertical thread mounted on a stand, so that he could rapidly commit what he saw to a sheet of paper divided in the same way while maintaining the correct perspectival proportions.
Finally, there are a few sketches that can be directly linked to complete paintings. A few of these sketches were used in the traditional way, as preliminary studies for paintings, with appropriate adjustments and in colours that were sometimes noted on the sketch. In these instances, we see how a quick impression of something he had observed in passing could become a detailed, finished result.