The Senses Project | Inspired By… Van Gogh

The Creative Life

I just finished listening to Van Gogh: A Power Seething* and the synapses are firing, the ideas zinging around my head, and it’s inspired me to start up a new series here on the blog: the Senses Project.


One of my high school English teachers didn’t assign book reports. Instead, we did either tracking projects on whole-class reads (we each had a character, element, or theme to track throughout the book then give a presentation on it at the end of the unit) or spin-off projects for independent reads (where we took an aspect of the book we chose and developed a presentation on that, rather than a synopsis of the book). These were, in my opinion, far superior to writing a book report and allowed us to express our creativity in the process. This is along those same lines.

I doubt I’ll do this for every book I read this year (in fact, I probably won’t even log this year’s reading the way I did most of last years–those posts were just gargantuan!), but I am in the mood to read more non-fiction, biography, etc. so as the inspiration hits, I’ll put a new one up.

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh (image via

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh (image via

Today’s has a very stream of consciousness start. There I was, in the car, listening to someone report on the early life of and read aloud letters sent by Vincent van Gogh largely to his younger brother, Theo. I’m sure most of us have this picture of the tortured artist in our heads from the public scuttlebutt about his life, but what we hear about is largely from the last decade of his life and some of it isn’t even correct.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! Let’s start with this quote from one of his letters to his brother. He didn’t start out wanting to be an artist, I don’t even think it was in his top 3–frankly, he didn’t seem to be setting out to do much of anything for a while, except push peoples buttons; this isn’t an entirely flattering “portrait” of the artist, more brutally honest than anything. But eventually he did find his way to art, and had this to say during the early days of painting:

“I’m glad that I’ve never learnt to paint… Probably then I would have LEARNT to ignore effects like this… I don’t know myself how I paint… I see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me and that I’ve written it down in shorthand.”

Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, September 3, 1882, letter 260
as quoted in Van Gogh: A Power Seething by Julian Bell

I love this idea that formal instruction would have been an impediment to his process and style. Granted, maybe things would have been easier for him, but easy is not always right. And it wouldn’t have suited his temperament as far as I can tell. We learn so much from just experimenting and trying.

But art as shorthand for nature, that’s just beautiful, too.

At any rate, listening to the book reminded me of two other works, stream of consciousness-style. The song Vincent by Don McClean (also sometimes referred to as Starry Starry Night, from the opening lyrics) and the movie Mona Lisa Smile. The former is a direct connection, the latter, well, if you haven’t see it, I urge you to for a variety of reasons, but of particular interest is the scene where the teacher and students discuss van Gogh’s sunflower painting.

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh (image via

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh (image via

And a popular lie is uttered:

…he never sold a painting in his lifetime.

But that’s not true, he sold at least one of record, and a second one is suspected (though the details are a bit fuzzy per this 1998 article from the Baltimore Sun). Furthermore, there’s a good chance he sold some sketches earlier on in his career and, as Bell points out, technically sold all of his work past a certain point to his brother. Theo largely supported Vincent and, in a fit of something, the artist decided he would not take handouts but would forward work onto Theo and would consider any money received to be payment for said work ,and based on merit, to boot!

Still, Vincent was just starting to make a name for himself in the larger art world when the confusion of his mind–he’d be living in an asylum for several years due to fits of what we would now call bipolar disorder or a non-seizure form of epilepsy, making him a danger to himself and to others–became too much and he committed suicide.

Mona Lisa Smile also sent me on a tangent to see if the other item of note in that scene, the paint by number kits of van Gogh’s more famous works, still existed (presuming that they did in the first place). They do! Though the ones I found on Amazon seem to use acrylics, not oils, and require the painter to add their own stretchers (wooden frame) or other support to facilitate painting. Still, I admit I’m tempted. Though the movie makes good story-use of the sunflower kits*, I’m more drawn to the almond blossom one* (based on one of his last paintings, done in the Japanese style that was heavily influencing art–and other realms–in those years, as a gift for his nephew). The colors and style would go nicely in our living room and, since it’s from the 1890s, isn’t all that far off from the time our house was built!

Blossoming Almond Tree, Vincent van Gogh (image via

Almond Branches in Bloom, Vincent van Gogh (image via

In moments I’d come up with something to read, see, hear, and do–what about the last sense, taste? (One could argue, after all, that paint would tickle the sense of smell, especially oil paint!) Food may not have featured highly in Vincent’s letters to Theo, but drink did. For those who are open to adult beverages, Absinthe is your best bet for imbibing as van Gogh did. And he was from Holland (though spent a lot of time in France and some in London as well), so you could also indulge in some good, imported Gouda (their best-known cheese); I prefer the smoked variety, though I don’t know how authentic that would be! Potatoes would also be appropriate, of you could go with a Dutch Baby pancake (maybe topped with cheese for a savory supper).

The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh (image via

The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh (image via

And thus we have a recipe for some independent study, engaging all the five senses and with both quick and more involved options. I kind of love the idea of a book spurring deeper investigation and self-study, don’t you?

To sum up:

Anyone game to try? Have you ever read and seen something that sent you on your own journey of exploration?

45 thoughts on “The Senses Project | Inspired By… Van Gogh

  1. It sounds like your teacher instilled a really valuable lesson in you. It’s great when teachers think outside of the box and inspire us.

    1. She really did–I was lucky to be part of the gifted program and have teachers who really knew how to keep our minds occupied 🙂

    1. I was lucky to have some really fantastic teachers in high school, seriously, they were amazing. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Kaylene!

    1. The book was very much an eye-opener into the real man he was, not just the painter. It wasn’t always pretty, but it explains so much and makes the art he created that much more interesting.

  2. I actually have a print of starry night hanging above my desk. Of course it does have the Tardis added, but I super love it.

    1. His work really is astounding, but when you think about all the contemporary artists to him it’s easy to see how someone could slip into obscurity in the moment.

  3. ahhhhh this brings back memories from art school . . . and all of those art history lessons. 😉

    1. Right? I think it’s more fun when it becomes a personal project (though the narrator of the book sounded like any given humanities lecturer).

  4. Our museum has a traveling exhibit for van Gogh which is meant to ignite the senses.

    So true that formal education lets some slip through the cracks and sadly some never find themselves. It’s hard to do a one size fits all approach and expect good results.

  5. This is so interesting! I paint myself actually but not very well at the moment. I don’t have a good place to do it. Anyway, I love that painting – the Almond Branches! I think I saw someone painting it in Spain when I took my classes.

    1. We all have to start from somewhere. When I was a kid I remember setting up my music stand as a makeshift easel; don’t let a cramped space get in the way of creating 🙂

    1. I hope you enjoy the movie! Even though it’s set in the 50s there are a lot of parallels to today’s current events. Just goes to show that some things never change, even when they seem to!

  6. I love art. Always have. I toyed with the idea of art school but yep, most artists go undiscovered. Plus that was around the time modern art was up and coming and I was more contemporary. I’ll definitely check out the film though!

    1. I sent away for many art school catalogs in high school, but it didn’t seem practical enough. I don’t necessarily regret the circuitous path I ended up taking to get right back where I started, but sometimes I wonder what would have been different if I’d taken that road.

    1. Isn’t it, though? I actually listened to this in the car–audiobooks (in my case, Kindle Unlimited with Narration) have helped me cover so much more ground this past year!

  7. What an interesting and inspiring read. I absolutely love Van Gogh…his work is phenomenal.

    1. It really is, Nikka. It always amazes me to really consider how such interesting beauty comes out of situations that are far from beautiful themselves.

  8. I don’t think I have ever approached a book like this before! Very interesting. I loved Mona Lisa Smile, and didn’t realize it was on Netflix, I will have to make some time to re-watch it! I love to read non-fiction, but it definitely is a slower read for me, since I want to constantly sit on so many of the ideas!

    1. I’m definitely on a non-fiction kick right now, Heather, and know what you mean. I keep a few stacks of sticky notes on the bedside table so I can mark passages (or use the notes feature on my Kindle for eBooks–gotta love the convenience) for later review.

  9. This was SUCH a cool post! I’m an art student and big Van Gogh fan so I really appreciated everything (I’m definitely grabbing this book) you shared!

    1. So glad you liked the post, Kelly! Good luck in art school (part of me still wishes I’d gone that route after high school).

  10. I love Van Gogh and had the absolute pleasure of seeing a lot of his work in Amsterdam at the Van Gogh museum. The Potato Eaters is housed there and it’s stunning. Best wishes with your project! It is a very cool idea.

  11. I like the idea of sharing how you related to the book through your senses! That’s an idea I’m going to have to see if I can adapt to the elementary classroom. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yeah, the Absinthe wouldn’t go over too well with the PTA, I imagine 😉 A lot of the other items would, though. Maybe a Van Gogh picture book instead of the more gritty book that kicked this off, with a letter-writing exercise (pen pals are very in right now); coloring sheets based on his paintings instead of the paint by number kits, a Bob Ross painting episode instead of Mona Lisa Smile, the cheese and Dutch pancakes could still work, and then maybe an instrumental version of Vincent or just fading it out before the last verse with the talk of suicide, just to be safe.

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