Channeling Your Inner Van Gogh in Amsterdam

Sponsored by Avalon Waterways

With so much of Amsterdam to explore, long time cruiser Ralph Grizzle couldn’t understand why he’d be spending an afternoon in a painting workshop. He’s not a painter after all.

That all changed one afternoon in Amsterdam, in an artist workshop situated in an area called Westerdok, where more than a dozen of Avalon Cruise guests spent a few hours learning a bit about the life, and technique, of one of the Netherlands’ most famous sons, Vincent Van Gogh. Here is what changed his tune and that of others onboard.

The prolific post-Impressionist painter created 2,100 pieces of art in a single decade before committing suicide at the age of 37. Imagine. In a span of ten years, Van Gogh created an enduring legacy. What legacy will I leave? Certainly, it causes one to think.

When visiting Amsterdam in October of 1885, Van Gogh sat in the waiting room of a railway station here (it was demolished in 1889 when the city’s Central Station opened). The artist had traveled to Amsterdam to see the then new Rijksmuseum, pausing while waiting for his train to create two small sketches, View of Amsterdam from Central Station and View of Amsterdam, De Ruyterkade (a view from the back of the building).

Both sketches were damaged on his journey home, yet he sent them to his brother Theo, with this note:

“To my regret, the two little sketches of Amsterdam are quite badly damaged. They got wet on the journey; then the little panels warped when they dried, and dust got into them.

I’m sending them all the same to show you that if, in the space of an hour, I want to dash off an impression somewhere, I’m beginning to be able to do this in the same sentiment as others who — analyze — their impressions. And give themselves a reason for what they see. This is something other than feeling, that’s to say undergoing impressions — there may perhaps be a great deal between experiencing impressions and — analyzing them, that’s to say taking them apart and putting them together again. But it’s enjoyable to put something down in a rush.” 

Within five years of writing the note to his brother, Van Gogh would be dead, yet his output during his last years would be impressive. He created art that was original and distinctive. Now it was our turn.

After some brief instruction presented by Russian artist Tatyana Yassievich, a baker’s dozen of us stationed ourselves in front of easels with paints and brushes and still-life images for inspiration.

We were free to paint whatever we wished, sketching first with charcoal pencils, then applying oils in bold strokes, just as Van Gogh did. Grizzle decided to paint one of his Van Gogh favorites, sunflowers.

In February of 1888, ill from too much drink and suffering from smoker’s cough, Van Gogh moved for therapeutic reasons to Arles, in the south of France. While there, he created 200 paintings and more than a hundred drawings and watercolors. It was in Arles that Van Gogh painted his sunflower series.

Guests are often both surprised and delighted to watch their still-life emerge on the blank canvas. Grizzle was intrigued by the notion that he could dab my brush in a dollop of paint, then brush strokes on a white canvas, infusing the lifeless space with color.

While painting, he realized that the skeptic in him had been a manifestation of fear. Inwardly, he worried that his painting and his technique would not be good enough, for him or anyone who saw the painting.

Isn’t that what we all fear? It’s a huge sigh of relief as guests realizes that there are no hard and fast rules. What appeared on the canvas was simply their interpretation of what they saw.

Tatyana and her Dutch colleague visited each student to comment on the work and to show  techniques that Van Gogh used. Tatyana had words of praise for my painting of sunflowers, as she did for everyone’s paintings, “but,” she said … and then she showed a few techniques that Van Gogh mastered, such as purposely painting the background with deliberate brush strokes.

She spent some time to show Grizzle the technique in the artist’s self-portrait that hung on a wall nearby. Yes, the background was as much a work of art as the portrait, something he had not noticed until now.

While your technique might never come close to matching Van Gogh’s, but you’ll find yoursel enjoying painting for simply the experience. The three-hour workshop might even make you consider taking up painting as a hobby back home. Whether you do or not, you’ll be proud of the canvas that you will take home with me as a memory.

Avalon Waterways Active Discovery cruises are focused on engaging you in the unfamiliar. It’s an opportunity to become more than spectators during a European vacation, with more authentic and immersive experiences.

Are you ready to go deep? Find a certified river cruise Travel Specialist to help you plan your vacation.