You Can’t Develop Solutions Unless You Realize You Got Problems: Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem finding plays an important role in creative thinking

Problem finding is one of the most significant parts of problem solving. However, it tends to be an underappreciated skill. Many managers naively consider it strange to encourage employees to look for problems at work: “Why look for new problems when we’ve got no resources to work on ones we’ve already identified?”

Many courses and books on problem solving and creativity overlook problem finding. Many educational resources tend to assume that problem solving really begins only after problems have been identified.

Problem-identification lead to the invention of the ballpoint pen

Invention of the Ballpoint Pen by Biro Brothers The story of the invention of the ballpoint pen demonstrates the importance of problem finding. Had the inventors not recognized a problem with the existing writing instruments of their day, they would not have developed their invention.

In the 1920s, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro spent much time proofreading and checking for errors in others’ writings. To communicate these errors to the authors, Laszlo could not use pencils because their impressions fade quickly. He tried using a fountain pen, but the ink from the fountain pen dried slowly and often left smudges on paper.

Laszlo observed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly and left the paper smudge-free. When he tried using that ink in his fountain pen, however, the ink was too viscous to flow into the tip of the fountain pen.

Laszlo then collaborated with his chemist-brother Gyorgy Biro to invent a new pen tip consisting of a ball that was enclosed within a socket. As the ball rolled inside the socket, the ball could pick up ink from a reservoir or cartridge and then continue to roll to deposit the ink on the paper. The Biro brothers thus invented the ballpoint pen. The company they created is now part of the BIC Company. The ballpoint pen continues to be called a ‘Biro’ in some countries.

Often, creativity is the outcome of discovered problem solving

Greek Philosopher Plato famously wrote in The Republic, “Let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.”

One reason we fail to identify problems is that we do not stop to think about improving various situations that we encounter. Very often, these problems are directly in front of us; we need to consciously identify them and convert them into opportunities for problem solving. Instead, we tend to take inconveniences and unpleasant situations for granted and assume they are merely “facts of life.”

  • The grain mill was not invented until somebody in antiquity identified the ineffectiveness of two hours of pounding grain to make a cup of flour.
  • The world’s first traffic lights were installed around the British Houses of Parliament in London only after somebody thought of the problem of traffic congestion. In other words, up until the problems from congestion were identified in the 1860s, no one attempted to systematically consider how the problem might be solved.

James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine

  • James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine after discovering an interesting problem with the Newcomen steam engine. In 1763, when Watt was working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, he was assigned to repair a model of a Newcomen engine for a lecture-demonstration. Watt initially had difficulty getting the Newcomen engine to work because its parts were poorly constructed. When he finally had it running, he was surprised at its efficiency. Watt observed that the engine was constantly running out of coal because the constant heating and cooling of the cylinder resulted in a large waste of energy. Watt then devised a system whereby the cylinder and the condenser were separate. This led to his invention of the “steam engine” (or, more precisely, the separate-condenser steam engine.)
  • As I mentioned in a previous article on the opportunities in customers’ pain points, crispy potato chips were invented only when Chef George Crum of New York’s Saratoga Springs attempted to appease a cranky customer who frequently sent Crum’s fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were mushy and not crunchy enough. Decades later, Laura Scudder invented airtight packaging for potato chips only after becoming conscious of customers’ complaints that chips packaged in metal containers quickly go stale and crumble during handling.

Finding and defining a creative problem

If problems are not identified, solutions are unlikely to be proposed

It pays to keep your eyes open and look at inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Don’t ignore these merely as facts of life.

Curiosity, intrigue, and motivation influence problem finding (and problem solving.) One of the easiest ways to develop your skills in problem finding is to ponder at anything around you and wonder why those gadgets and contraptions were ever invented. Analyze carefully and you’ll learn that the first step taken by the inventors of these objects was the identification of the problems the objects were designed to solve.

When you look around various objects in your life, think about what life was before these objects were invented. What problems could these inventions have solved? Why was the zipper invented? What problems motivated Bjarne Stroustrup to create C++? What was internet search like before Google? How did commerce transpire before the advent of coins and bills and money?

Some people make a career out of problem finding. Managers who want to know if their organizations are running efficiently frequently hire consultants to look for problems that managers do not know exist in their businesses.

And finally, if you want to become an inventor or an entrepreneur, try to start with problems you already have in your work or in your life. Ideally, identify problems shared by a large number of people to increase the probability that your inventions will be put in widespread use.

Idea for Impact: A creative solution to a problem often depends on first finding and defining a creative problem. Very often, the solution to a problem becomes obvious when the problem has been properly identified, defined, and represented.

Picasso’s Blue Period: A Serendipitous Invention

The Soup, 1902 by Pablo Picasso (from his Blue Period)

In October 1900, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) moved to Paris and opened a studio there at age 19. Shortly thereafter, Picasso was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. The Art Institute of Chicago remarks,

Picasso’s Blue Period … was triggered in part by the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas in 1901. The works of this period are characterized by their blue palette, somber subject matter, and destitute characters. His paintings feature begging mothers and fathers with small children and haggard old men and women with arms outstretched or huddled in despair.

Perhaps Picasso’s Blue Period is an instance of serendipity. Legend has it that one day Picasso had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy.

In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, thanks to serendipity, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome. As such serendipity goes, the confluence of many factors helped Picasso initiate a new art genre showcasing themes of alienation, poverty, and psychological depression that, though now considered marvelous, then kept potential patrons away.

Vincent van Gogh on Living Life with Zeal and Engaging Oneself in Work (They Beat the Odds #1)

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear - Vincent van Gogh

My article earlier this week presented a brief life story of the renowned Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh followed by inspirational quotations chosen from his letters to his brother Theo.

This article will explore his philosophy of work and his sense of devotion, as evidenced by extracts mainly from Vincent’s letters to Theo. I have interspersed fascinating bits of Vincent’s life in hopes that the story of this extraordinary man who achieved so much in the face of adversity may inspire you and, perhaps, elicit further admiration (recommended biography) and even sympathy.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

During most of his adult years, Vincent van Gogh wrote copious letters primarily to his brother Theo. Vincent wrote less frequently to his mother, one of his sisters, friends, and collaborators. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam maintains a comprehensive compilation of his letters. I also recommend “Ever Yours: The Essential Letters”, a fascinating anthology of Vincent’s letters to Theo.

'Ever Yours: The Essential Letters' by Vincent van Gogh (ISBN 0300209479) The accessible correspondence between Vincent and Theo is mostly one-way communication. This is because Theo retained the great majority of Vincent’s letters; but Vincent, owing to neglect, retained just a few of Theo’s replies.

Vincent’s letters offer a profound, soul-searching description of the jagged life of a genius who achieved much in the face of adversity. His letters make a splendid record of his life, work, and philosophy. They have provided the primary source and substance of numerous scholarly studies, particularly by art historians and psychiatrists.

Vincent’s letters reveal the inner workings of his mind and heart like few others have done. His letters were extemporaneous ‘thinking aloud’ journals: he took paper everywhere and scribbled his thoughts spontaneously while he was thinking or creating art. For this reason, Vincent’s letters aren’t easy reads—his thoughts often appear unstructured and abstruse.

Vincent van Gogh on Finding Meaningful Work

Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent van Gogh Vincent embarked upon his artistic career at the somewhat advanced age of 27. According to biographers, he showed no signs that he was precocious during his childhood. All through youth, Vincent struggled to find his place in the world and held various occupations where he proved deficient. Before resolving to devote his life to art, Vincent wrote,

We’ve talked quite a lot about what we feel to be our duty and how we should arrive at something good, and we rightly came to the conclusion that first of all our goal must be to find a certain position and a profession to which we can devote ourselves entirely.

And I think that we also agreed on this point, namely that one must pay special attention to the end, and that a victory achieved after lifelong work and effort is better than one achieved more quickly.

He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.

Do let us go on quietly, examining all things and holding fast to that which is good, and trying always to learn more that is useful, and gaining more experience.

If we but try to live uprightly, then we shall be all right, even though we shall inevitably experience true sorrow and genuine disappointments, and also probably make real mistakes and do wrong things, but it’s certainly true that it is better to be fervent in spirit, even if one accordingly makes more mistakes, than narrow-minded and overly cautious. [Letter to Theo, April 1878]

Vincent van Gogh’s Concept of Work and Idea of Art

Core to Vincent’s philosophy was his belief that the concept for a work must precede the execution of the work. At the beginning of his tenure as an artist, Vincent outlined his idea of art,

Art is man added to nature … nature, reality, truth, but with a significance, a conception, a character, which the artist brings out in it, and to which he gives expression … which he disentangles, sets free and interprets. [Letter to Theo, June 1879]

Vincent van Gogh on the Primacy of Work

The tragic circumstances of Vincent’s life allowed him to pursue his calling for just 11 years, the time required by most artists to master their technique fully. During those 11 years, Vincent experimented and practiced art with a steady sense of purpose. He continued to paint right up until his fateful suicide. On deeming one’s work as one’s salvation, Vincent wrote,

How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work. [Letter to Theo, September 1883]

Echoing Martin Luther and John Calvin‘s emphasis on conscientiousness and hard work (now labeled ‘Protestant work ethic‘,) Vincent believed that work is life’s highest reward and worthy of submission:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort. [Letter to Theo, February 1886]

He firmly believed that art—or more generally, work—like religion, was a way to communion with God.

To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture. [Letter to Theo, July 1880]

Vincent’s letters provide a profile of the shifting quality of his moods. Later, as a mature artist, he regarded his ability to create more sacrosanct than his godliness,

I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life—the power to create. [Letter to Theo, September 1888]

Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh on the Sense of Achievement and Identity that it Brings

Throughout his life, Vincent struggled to find meaning and establish some kind of harmonious relationship with the outer world. He seemed governed entirely by emotions (“the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it,” he once wrote to Theo.) People found him awkward and unreasonable; he even didn’t tend to his physical appearance. He acknowledged,

It is possible that these great geniuses (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Zola, Balzac, Millet) are only madmen, and that one must be mad oneself to have boundless faith in them and a boundless admiration for them. If this is true I should prefer my insanity to the sanity of others. [Letter to Emile Bernard, July 1888]

He caused anger, strife, or embarrassment wherever he went. He struggled in his professional and romantic relationships. However, he was determined to seek his sense of social identity through work. He wrote,

What am I in the eyes of most people? A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man, somebody who has no position in society and never will have. Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody. … Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people. [Letter to Theo, July 1882]

Vincent van Gogh on “the Secret of Beautiful Work”: Utmost Sincerity

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? … To a great extent the cause of the evil lies in the fact that the intentions of the great landscape painters have been misconstrued. Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies mainly in truth and sincere sentiment. [Letter to Theo, December 1882]

One of the keys to Vincent’s greatness is his incredible sincerity to his work. He exhibited his sense of extreme sincerity in two vocations he held before he decided to devote his life to being an artist. In both these instances, he proved deficient by giving too much of what the circumstances demanded of him.

  • At age 13, Vincent apprenticed with a leading art dealer in Paris where he assisted in the sale of paintings, photographs, and lithographs. This was his first experience with art. Within months, he began discussing unreservedly his opinions about the qualities of artwork with potential customers and frequently talked them out of sales. Within a year, his employer fired Vincent for conducting himself in a manner antithetical to the interests of the art dealership.
  • At age 26, Vincent started work as a lay preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium. Vincent was seized with compassion for the miners who toiled in darkness and exposed themselves to filthy dust. Having fully committed himself to this job and wanting to be like the poor miners, he even smeared his hands and face with soot and dirt. He gave away his belongings, lived on bread and water, and slept on a sack spread out on the floor of his miserable shed. The church’s committee of elders reprimanded Vincent for carelessness in dress and lack of dignity in the conduct of his office. They chastised him for his excessive zeal and dismissed him. His mother complained of his uncompromising stubbornness: “He will never comply with the wishes of the committee, and nothing will change him.”

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh on Giving Everything One’s Got to One’s Work

After nine years of meticulous experimentation and assiduous practice, Vincent developed his artistic expertise to a level where he could execute art swiftly. For the next two years, he focused on his artwork and produced masterpieces notwithstanding debilitating bouts of mental illness.

On investing in learning technique and mulling over ideas, Vincent said,

I consider making studies like sowing, and making pictures like reaping. [Letter to Theo, September 1882]

Successful people have the ability to concentrate on a single problem for extended periods of time. Vincent wrote,

The sooner one seeks to become competent in a certain position and in a certain profession, and adopts a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one observes fixed rules, the stronger one’s character becomes, and yet that doesn’t mean that one has to become narrow-minded.

It is wise to do that, for life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one thing and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain.

It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people, and at times one is actually obliged and called upon to do so, or it can be one way of ‘throwing oneself into one’s work unreservedly and with all one’s might’, but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely among people and in the world. One should never trust it when one is without difficulties or some worry or obstacle, and one shouldn’t make things too easy for oneself. …

… Launching out into the deep is what we too must do if we want to catch anything, and if it sometimes happens that we have to work the whole night and catch nothing, then it is good not to give up after all but to let down the nets again at dawn.

And not troubling ourselves too much if we have shortcomings, for he who has none has a shortcoming nonetheless, namely that he has none, and he who thinks he is perfectly wise would do well to start over from the beginning and become a fool. [Letter to Theo, April 1878]

Vincent van Gogh - Sower with the Setting Sun

Vincent van Gogh Found Solace and Meaning in Painting

When he lived in the town of Arles in Southern France, he suffered his first attack of mental disturbance and cut off his own ear after a dispute with another artist during Christmas 1888. By May of 1889, he had already suffered two horrifying episodes of psychotic illness. Following a complaint about his conduct by the townspeople of Arles, he was terrified of the possibility of compulsory incarceration. He voluntarily joined the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

Vincent could not paint during periods of mental illness while at the asylum. On the road to recovery, Vincent sought peace in nature. He found solace and meaning in painting. He drew inspiration from nature and painted some of his well-known works here, including The Starry Night, and Wheat Field series. To Vincent, budding flowers symbolized the cycle of life and butterflies represented hope. Even the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly symbolized the ability of humans to transform,

… since nothing confutes the assumption that lines and forms and colours exist on innumerable other planets and suns as well, we are at liberty to feel fairly serene about the possibilities of painting in a better and different existence, an existence altered by a phenomenon that is perhaps no more ingenious and no more surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or of a grub into a maybug. [Letter to Emile Bernard, July 1888]

Vincent van Gogh on the Frustration of Inactivity and Incoherence

Road with Cypress and Star by Vincent Van Gogh One of the most impressive features of Vincent’s letters is the depth of his self-analysis, even about his debilitating illness and his helplessness with social wellbeing. Even when growing up, he possessed a difficult temper and lacked self-confidence. He wrote,

Do not imagine that I think myself perfect or that I think that many people taking me for a disagreeable character is no fault of mine. I am often terribly melancholy, irritable, hungering and thirsting, as it were, for sympathy; and when I do not get it, I try to act indifferently, speak sharply, and often even pour oil on the fire. I do not like to be in company, and often find it painful and difficult to mingle with people, to speak to them. But do you know what the cause is —if not at all, of a great deal of this? Simply nervousness; I am terribly sensitive, physically as well as morally, the nervousness having developed during those miserable years which drained my health. [Letter to Theo, July 1882]

Vincent’s lifestyle exacerbated his mental condition and compounded his problems. Towards the end of his life, he was deeply upset by the inability to paint and the incoherence in his creative process during periods of illness. After taking to work again during his stay at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, he wrote,

Life passes in this way, time does not return, but I am working furiously for the very reason that I know that opportunities for work do not recur. Especially in my case, where a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good. … I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.[Letter to Theo, September 1889]

Conceivably, at the brink of death, Vincent was conscious about his mortality.

Theo van Gogh and Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

No discussion of Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) would be complete without mention of the extraordinary devotion of his brother Theo van Gogh (1857–91) and the zeal of Theo’s wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925.)

Portraits of Vincent van Gogh and Theo van Gogh

Theo van Gogh, the Devoted Brother

Vincent wouldn’t have been an artist had it not been for a squabble he had with his brother Theo who was visiting Vincent after he’d been fired from his job as a lay preacher in 1880. Until then, he held a variety of occupations—art dealer, schoolteacher, book seller, priest—where he proved deficient. Theo declared that the van Gogh family was worried about Vincent’s lack of direction in life, especially after several false starts in various vocations. Vincent once wrote,

Either inside or outside the family, they will always judge me or talk about me from different points of view, and you will always hear the most divergent opinions about me. And I blame no one for it, because relatively few people know why an artist acts as he does. [Letter to Theo, April 1881]

The ensuing dispute between Theo and Vincent marked a serious turning point in Vincent’s life: he resolved to become an artist. He would build on what was once a mere pastime. He would finally find his place in the world.

For the next eleven years, until Vincent’s tragic suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot, Theo supported Vincent not only emotionally, but also provided him a monthly stipend in exchange for his artworks.

The tragedy of Vincent’s life overwhelmed Theo. After losing his adored brother for whom he’d dedicated his life, Theo seemed no more himself. He suffered a stroke that led to paralysis. His health deteriorated rapidly and he died at the age of 33, just six months after Vincent’s death.

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the Determined Sister-in-Law

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger Vincent van Gogh signed only a few of his pieces “Vincent” but did not sign his name in full. He said,

Van Gogh is such an impossible name for many foreigners to pronounce; if it should happen that my pictures found their way to France or England, then the name would certainly be murdered, whereas the whole world can pronounce the name Vincent correctly. … they will surely recognize my work later on, and write about me when I’m dead and gone. I shall take care of that, if I can keep alive for some little time. [Quoted by Anton Kerssemakers, April 1912]

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law and Theo van Gogh’s wife, played a pivotal role in initiating the legacy and renown of Vincent. Johanna inherited all of Vincent’s artwork from Theo. Theo hadn’t been able to save much money because Vincent had been a perpetual drain on Theo’s earnings as an art dealer. Even though Johanna needed money to live on, she did not sell Vincent’s art.

Johanna came from a wealthy family with connections to artists throughout Europe. In the few years after Vincent’s death, Johanna contributed his art pieces to many exhibitions. She compiled 650 of his letters to Theo and published them in three volumes in 1914. She even wrote the first memoir of Vincent. She shared Theo’s conviction that, one day, Vincent’s artistic genius would be widely acknowledged. She lived to see that day.

Inspirational Quotations by Vincent van Gogh + A Précis of the Troubled Life of an Extraordinary Man

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh

It’s the birthday of Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853–90,) the prominent Dutch painter who is renowned for his characteristic style of undulating lines and bold colors. He produced a great number of masterpiece paintings and sketches in just 11 years dedicated to art. In fact, it was during the last two years of his life that Vincent produced all of his best-known pieces. Though it may surprise us in retrospect, his work was not widely appreciated during his lifetime. Now, of course, he is considered one of the most eminent post-Impressionist painters.

Equally fascinating are the tragic circumstances of Vincent’s short life. His productivity and artistic genius are especially remarkable in the context of his debilitating illness, which caused the self-mutilation of his ear and ultimately his fateful suicide. Even to this day, the trials and tribulations of a man posthumously discovered to be an extraordinary artist elicit haunting curiosity and even sympathy.

Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo and others offer a profound, soul-searching description of the jagged life of a genius who achieved much in the face of adversity. Scholars have even wondered if he was rather a great man who painted great pictures. When understood in a certain light, Vincent’s troubled life, his devotion to art, and his sense of purpose make one of the most inspiring stories in the world.

This article provides a brief story of Vincent’s life followed by inspirational quotations chosen from his letters to Theo. A subsequent article will delve into his philosophy of work and his sense of devotion.

Vincent van Gogh’s Quest for Meaning

Young Vincent van Gogh Vincent was raised in a religious and cultured atmosphere. Growing up, he possessed a difficult temper and lacked self-confidence. All through youth, Vincent struggled to find his place in the world. This was a precursor to his life-long struggle to find meaning and establish some kind of harmonious relationship with the outer world.

Vincent began his artistic career at the relatively advanced age. Until then, he held a variety of occupations where he had proved deficient. At age 26, Vincent started work as a lay preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium. As was his habit, Vincent quickly developed great empathy for the miners and fully committed himself to this job. He wanted to be like the poor miners—he even smeared his hands and face with soot and dirt. He gave away his belongings, lived on bread and water, and slept on a sack spread out on the floor of his miserable shed. The church’s committee of elders chastised him for his excessive zeal and fired him. His mother complained of his uncompromising stubbornness: “He will never comply with the wishes of the committee, and nothing will change him.”

Soon thereafter, Vincent’s younger brother Theo visited to discuss Vincent’s future. Theo declared that the van Gogh family was worried about Vincent’s lack of direction in life, especially after several false starts in various vocations. The ensuing dispute marked a serious turning point in Vincent’s life: he resolved to become an artist. He would build on what was once a mere pastime.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

The Art of a Self-Taught Genius

Vincent van Gogh - Self-Taught Genius For the next nine years, with Theo’s financial and emotional support, Vincent traveled around Europe teaching himself to draw and paint. He struggled financially and even starved sometimes after spending the entire stipend that Theo sent him on art supplies rather than on the necessities of living. After a great deal of meticulous experimentation and assiduous practice, Vincent developed his artistic expertise to a level where he could execute art swiftly.

Vincent was an artist for just 11 years before his death. In those 11 years, he completed more than 2,150 pieces, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, and sketches. Vincent was exceptionally productive towards the end of his life, churning out work with incredible speed—he sometimes executed up to three pieces a day. His most notable paintings are Starry Night, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, Bedroom in Arles series, Sunflowers series, Church at Auvers, and several self-portraits including the iconic Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

Following years of depression, frequent bouts of mental illness, struggles with personal relationships, and tumultuous romantic pursuits, Vincent shot himself at age 37, just when his artistic genius was starting to be acknowledged. In an unfinished final letter found on his person when he shot himself, he declared, “Well, the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak.” And speak they did: even today, art lovers marvel at Vincent’s attention to color, his ability to convey emotions, and his unique sense of observation. Although he was poor and practically unknown most of his life, Vincent’s work greatly influenced 20th century art.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

'Ever Yours: The Essential Letters' by Vincent van Gogh (ISBN 0300209479) Despite suffering from mental illness, Vincent possessed an extraordinary unity of mind and spirit. This is evident in the 700 letters he wrote over a period of 20 years, primarily to his beloved brother Theo. These letters are a marvelous record of his life, art, and philosophy. They are the primary source and substance for scholarly studies on Vincent’s life and work, particularly by art historians and psychiatrists.

“Ever Yours: The Essential Letters”, an absorbing anthology of correspondence between Vincent and Theo, sheds light on the shifting quality of his moods, his turbulent life, and philosophical evolution as an artist. Few other men and women have written such letters that reveal the inner workings of their minds and hearts.

I also recommend Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith’s brilliant biography, “Van Gogh: The Life and Anthology”, and Michael Howard’s “Van Gogh: His Life & Works in 500 Images”.

Inspirational Quotations by Vincent van Gogh

The best way to know God is to love many things.
Vincent Van Gogh

One must work and dare if one really wants to live.
Vincent Van Gogh

But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.
Vincent Van Gogh

If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love is something eternal; the aspect may change, but not the essence.
Vincent Van Gogh

People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.
Vincent Van Gogh

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.
Vincent Van Gogh

Love always brings difficulties, that is true, but the good side of it is that it gives energy.
Vincent Van Gogh

If you truly love Nature, you will find beauty everywhere.
Vincent Van Gogh

What is true is that I have at times earned my own crust of bread, and at other times a friend has given it to me out of the goodness of his heart. I have lived whatever way I could, for better or for worse, taking things just as they came
Vincent Van Gogh

One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way.
Vincent Van Gogh

I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may.
Vincent Van Gogh

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.
Vincent Van Gogh

Some good must come by clinging to the right. Conscience is a man’s compass, and though the needle sometimes deviates, though one often perceives irregularities in directing one’s course by it, still one must try to follow its direction.
Vincent Van Gogh

I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Vincent Van Gogh

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is a pity that, as one gradually gains experience, one loses one’s youth.
Vincent Van Gogh

If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint… and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
Vincent Van Gogh

The thing has already taken form in my mind before I start it. The first attempts are absolutely unbearable. I say this because I want you to know that if you see something worthwhile in what I am doing, it is not by accident but because of real direction and purpose.
Vincent Van Gogh

Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way.
Vincent Van Gogh

What has changed is that my life then was less difficult and my future seemingly less gloomy, but as far as my inner self, my way of looking at things and of thinking is concerned, that has not changed. But if there has indeed been a change, then it is that I think, believe and love more seriously now what I thought, believed and loved even then.
Vincent Van Gogh

Conscience is a man’s compass.
Vincent Van Gogh

A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many little threads has no time to philosophize about it, but rather he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts, and he feels how things must go more than he can explain it.
Vincent Van Gogh

The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
Vincent Van Gogh

For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.
Vincent Van Gogh

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.
Vincent Van Gogh

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.
Vincent Van Gogh

In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.
Vincent Van Gogh

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.
Vincent Van Gogh

When we are working at a difficult task and strive after a good thing, we are fighting a righteous battle, the direct reward of which is that we are kept from much evil. As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.
Vincent Van Gogh

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others.
Vincent Van Gogh

Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.
Vincent Van Gogh

It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.
Vincent Van Gogh

No matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily.
Vincent Van Gogh

If one were to say but few words, though ones with meaning, one would do better than to say many that were only empty sounds, and just as easy to utter as they were of little use.
Vincent Van Gogh

Life is not long for anybody, and the problem is only to make something of it.
Vincent Van Gogh