My dear Theo,
It’s New Year’s Eve and I feel so much like having another word with you. When I wrote my last letter I spoke to you about large heads that I was working on. I was carrying out an experiment at the time, the first results of which I can now report to you, since the day before yesterday, yesterday and today I’ve had models for two drawings.
When I made the lithographs, I was struck by the fact that the lithographic crayon was very pleasant to work with, and I thought of making drawings with it.
It has one drawback, though, which you’ll understand — it’s greasy, so one can’t rub it out in the normal way. Working with it on paper, one mostly has to do without the only thing that one can use to erase on the stone itself, namely the scraper, which can’t be used with enough force on the paper because it goes through it.
But I had the idea of first doing a drawing in carpenter’s pencil and then working in and over it with lithographic crayon, because (owing to the greasiness of the material) it takes on pencil, whereas ordinary crayon does not, or only poorly. Having done the sketch in this way, one can confidently work in the lithographic crayon where necessary without having to search or rub out a lot. So I went quite a long way towards finishing my drawings in pencil, as far in fact as I possibly could with it. Then I fixed them and made them matt with milk. And then drew over them again in lithographic crayon, where the greatest strengths were, reinforcing them here and there with a brush or pen with lampblack,1 and working with white body-colour in the light passages.
Now I have a drawing of an old man sitting reading done in this way, with light that falls on the bald head, the hand and the book.2
And a second one, a head of an injured man with a bandage.
The model I had for that one really did have an injury to his head and a bandage on his left eye. Just like the head of a soldier of the old guard in the retreat from Russia, say.3
When I compare these two heads with the others I’ve done, there’s a big difference in the strength of the effect.
So I have hopes that drawings done in this way will be suitable for reproduction using the process you’ve described to me.
Especially if the paper you sent isn’t absolutely essential for reproduction.
And if it’s essential, then I believe that I would sooner get a better effect than a worse one with the same ingredients on the grey paper. When I looked at what Buhot had scratched on the one sample, I saw right away that the black was of a very deep tone, and I can understand that this is really essential for reproduction, where photogravure and galvanoplasty are involved.4
So I immediately tried to see which black I could use, while still sketching in my normal way.
I tried ink first, but I wasn’t satisfied with that, although I believe that in that way the effects will be better with lithographic crayon.
Well, I’m not writing about this in order to bother you in the midst of your busy days. I’m not in a hurry, and in fact it would be very welcome if I have some more time to investigate further.
But I’m writing this to you so that you’ll know that I’m toiling away heart and soul to get it good and usable.
What people call Black and White is actually Painting in black. Painting in the sense that one puts into a drawing the depth of effect and the rich gradations of tone that a painting should have. You rightly said not long ago that every colourist has an individual colour spectrum.
This is also the case with Black and White. Yet fundamentally it’s one and the same. One must be able to go from the highest lights to the deepest shadows, and do so with a few simple ingredients.
Some draughtsmen have a nervous manner that gives their technique something of the singularity of the sound a violin makes, such as Lemud, Daumier, Lançon. Others, like Gavarni and Bodmer, are more reminiscent of the piano. Is this how it seems to you? Millet is perhaps a solemn organ.
That’s as far as I got on New Year’s Eve, I was hoping your letter would have arrived. If you haven’t yet written, please do so, for I have nothing left. But you must be very busy. I’ve now done some more sketches in lithographic crayon. It’s almost as nice to work with as paint, and one can get a great strength and depth of black with it. I’m really yearning to speak to you again, I have so many plans — not all of which will be implemented, but not all of which will fail either. And with respect to them, I really have so little time to think things through and I have too little idea of how things stand to be able to decide on their feasibility myself, so I greatly need to discuss them with you. Above all, don’t be concerned that I haven’t yet done anything saleable this year — you’ve sometimes said that to me yourself, and if I now say it I do so because I see a few things being attainable in future which I didn’t see before. I sometimes think back to a few years ago when I came to this city. I imagined that the painters here would form a sort of circle or society in which warmth and open-heartedness and a certain unity would prevail. To me this was in the nature of things, and I didn’t know that it could be different.
I wouldn’t like to give up the ideas about this that I had when I came here, even if I have to modify them and make a distinction between what is and what could be. I can’t believe that it’s a natural state of affairs to have so much coolness and discord. What is the cause??? I don’t know, and I’m not called on to investigate this, but I for one make it my principle not to do two things. The first is that one shouldn’t get into disputes; instead one should try to foster peace, both for others and for oneself. And the other thing one shouldn’t do, in my opinion, is try to be something in society other than a painter if one is a painter. As a painter, one must leave aside other social ambitions and not produce the same thing as the fellows who live in Voorhout and Willemspark &c.5 For in the old, smoke-stained, dark studios there was an intimacy and something real that was infinitely better than what’s threatening to take its place.
Should you see progress in my work when you come again, then I would like to be able to continue in the same way as hitherto. Namely, that I can quietly
2r:5 carry on working without bothering about other people. As long as there’s bread in the house and I have a little in my pocket to pay for models, what more could I want? My enjoyment lies in my work getting better — and that absorbs me more and more. Now, old chap, if you haven’t yet written, write soon. I’m rather hard up.
Again, my best wishes for the New Year.
2v:6 I received a good letter from home.
Adieu, with a handshake.