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7 things Van Gogh can teach us about photography

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It might sound strange to suggest that painters can teach us anything about photography.

I believe, though, that any creative pursuit springs from the same space within us – whether it’s photography, writing, painting or even making exquisitely beautiful cakes.

Creativity comes from a desire to express ourselves, to verbalize our experiences, thoughts, ideas and what fascinates us about the world.

The ways we express ourselves are merely our personal preferences, but the fact that we choose to create, that is a universal desire and, what I would argue, is also a need.

In keeping myself motivated as a photographer I love to look for inspiration from all across the creative spectrum.

I like to take the advice of my favourite photographer Ernst Haas in this, when he recommended to:

“refine your senses through the great masters of music, painting, and poetry. In short, try indirect inspirations, and everything will come by itself.”

Not only do I love Van Gogh’s paintings, but I love how he talks about being an artist. I feel he expresses that desire to see the world in a new way so uniquely.

I liked too how he wrote very simply of the life-giving qualities of being creative.

Today I wanted to indulge in his brilliance and see what we can draw from his life to help us with our photography.

1. We are all deeply creative 

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside? 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.” Van Gogh

I have met too many people who say they aren’t creative types or arty types. And yet they have a huge desire to create, to be people who make things.

That desire is enough. That fire within is enough to take you to where you need to go with your photography.

2. The strange magic of creation

“What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently.” Van Gogh

I love this quote. It shows some of that strange magic that is involved in the act of creativity, but also the grind of just doing the work.

Sometimes I don’t know where my images come from. I just know my role is to show up, push through discomfort when it arises and keep going.

3. Paying attention to your subject changes what it is

“It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.” Van Gogh

When you look deeply at a subject it starts to transform into other things.

Perhaps it becomes intertwined with your imagination, your memories, and thoughts. Your imagination transforming it from one thing to another.

Perhaps it changes because as you look, really look at something, you notice its many facets, its individual details, its many elements. It becomes less a part of a whole, and more a whole world in itself.

4. We all need to be courageous

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

I need this stapled to my forehead sometimes. I feel that my life requires a lot of courage, often. I’ve chosen a different path to others, so I see what this would be. When I overcome fear and feel courageous, wow, it’s an amazing feeling. When I succumb to fear and am not courageous, then, yes, it doesn’t feel great. But the mere act of attempting courageous acts induces a lot of creative energy within me.

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

Girl on phone Hanoi Vietnam at Night

5. Taking photos is the most important thing I can do

I wonder if it’s my age, but my desire to create photographs feels in some ways more urgent than when I was younger. Maybe urgent is the wrong word. It feels more essential than it ever has.

When I was younger taking photos was a deep pleasure, it was fun, it was adventurous! I have loved all of my work and projects and learning.

But there is something about getting older when you see with starker and starker clarity what is essential to your life and what is unnecessary filler.

I want to only fill my life now with things that are essential to my being. That makes me proud, that push me to be a better person, that help me grow and learn and help me experience the world in beautiful new dimensions.

6. Kill self-doubt with action

This connects to my last post about how we all need creative pursuits in our lives. I love this quote of Van Gogh’s:

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

Self-doubt is the enemy of creativity, and it’s one we all face. But self-doubt only controls us if we let it. If we plough on regardless, self-doubt is eradicated by taking action.

Lazy at in Chefchaouen Morroco

7. When we are seeking to do what we love, life is complete

“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.” Van Gogh

This is the true test for me of a good life – are we in it with all of our hearts? I like to think I am in mine, and like family, photography is a natural conduit to living in a wholehearted, connected way.

So I hope these are some nice thoughts for you, giving you some inspiration for your photo practice.

I’d like to leave with one last quote from the great man, one I have quoted several times before on my blog, but is always a good reminder for me:

“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” Van Gogh

So there is no reason not to do things. The time to do things is now, regardless of where you are and what you don’t know (yet.)

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PS: Want to know more about us?

I’m from California, but I now live in Andalucia, Spain with my beautiful family. I came to Europe to shoot London twenty years ago for my first book, London at Dawn, and stayed to create a series of books and exhibitions on Cities at Dawn. I run my business with my wife Diana who is a writer and marketing genius. My projects and work have been featured on The Guardian, BBC World, French Photo Magazine, The Economist, CNN, Atlas Obscura and Digital Photographer. As well as sharing my knowledge and passion for photography in regular articles + videos I also run photo workshops around the world and inspiring live online classes.


  1. Chris
    24/03/2019 @ 5:42 PM

    Wonderful read Anthony. I’ve never really heard anyone quote Van Gogh, especially for photography. I am a passionate landscape photographer but my bread & butter job is graphic design. These two definitely go hand in hand. I’m preparing a talk to help motivate others to draw and sketch on regular basis and the benefits of regular creativity. I will certainly use a few of Van Goghs quotes to help with my motivation. Cheers.

  2. 10 Things Van Gogh Can Teach Us About Photography – Photography News World
    22/10/2018 @ 5:45 PM

    […] About the author: Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Epes is also a teacher – writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques. This article was also published on Cities at Dawn. […]