The Art of the Re-Do: From van Gogh to Steely Dan

“Don’t be a copycat,” people say. Teachers warn students not to plagiarize. But have you ever said something and later thought you could have said it better? Vincent van Gogh would repeat his paintings. Today, we look at one of them and ask what it tells us about creativity.

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I had the good fortune to visit The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. two days ago. The Road Menders (above) is in their permanent collection. It is also one of the paintings used to illustrate my children’s book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

There are two versions of the painting: the one in the Phillips Collection and another (below), titled The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Remy), held in the Cleveland Museum of Artlarge-plane-trees-1889blog

In 2013, the Phillips Collection brought the two paintings together for Van Gogh Repetitions, an exhibition that included 13 examples of van Gogh’s penchant to sometimes re-do his paintings.

Art teachers in prior centuries believed that making copies of artworks was a valuable practice in learning art. Later, the idea of copying fell into disfavor in some circles. It was felt that an artistic genius should capture and express the original; should make an “authentic” representation or gesture of the subject; not focus on the mundane practice of, eww!, copying. Besides, the thought went, while an original is “imaginative,” a copy borders on being a fake–and a copy can come dangerously close to plagiarism.

Van Gogh’s repetitions, therefore, did not receive serious comparative study for some years. The exhibition at the Phillips Collection used modern techniques, like x-ray analysis, to establish that the version held by the Cleveland Museum came first (for example, x-rays show erasures and changes underneath the top-level paint in The Large Plane Trees; these are not present in The Road Menders). Visual analysis shows that the version held by the Phillips Collection features smoother brush strokes. There’s more. Henry Adams, in an excellent New York Times article, Seeing Double: Van Gogh the Tweaker, interviewed one of the exhibition’s curators, William Robinson. While the two paintings are very similar, Robinson points out that in The Road Menders van Gogh moved the street lamp for artistic effect, added more lines to the trees, and included an extra person digging. You can find other differences between the two images if you examine them closely, above.

Why did van Gogh “copy” his paintings? In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh said that the repetitions were an opportunity to improve and clarify. Adams’ Seeing Double article further explains that, when working outdoors, van Gogh would be beset by gawking onlookers and the light would change. It was in the studio, van Gogh told Theo, that “he could transform a painting from a direct transcription of a scene into a true work of the imagination.” Take that, anti-copy purists!

Repetition is also modern. Using these two paintings, Michael Lobel, a professor of art history at Purchase College, S.U.N.Y., addressed van Gogh’s “contemporaneity” in an article in the May 2014 issue of Art in America magazine. Van Gogh remains relevant to the modern art world, he says, because his embrace of repetition lets us perceive him:

as an artist who understood the modern condition of the image as repeating and repeatable and subject to extensive circulation in the form of reproductions….this version of van Gogh is more compatible with the artistic outlook of our own time, in which the strategy of appropriation has become a central device in the artist’s toolkit.

Barbara J. King, Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary, makes an additional observation. In her NPR Cosmos & Culture blog, Van Gogh Teaches Us How To Keep Life Interesting, she points out that  copying as a way to perfect artistic technique is not unusual  (musicians, for example, practice many hours every day). King’s insight is that van Gogh’s repetitions are not about copying or practicing in any conventional sense. Instead, she points out that van Gogh’s repetitions are about looking at one’s finished, visible-to-the-public product and deciding to do it again, almost the same, but not quite.

I agree with King. Creative repetition gives incredible freedom and growth. Live concerts are exciting because each performance is slightly different. Rather than getting caught up in perfectionism, in worrying about whether one’s so-called finished product is good or bad, we would do well to heed King’s NPR blog post. She highlights the lesson van Gogh teaches us with his repetitions: “embrace and take delight in an iterative process…you can appreciate what happens when a new mosaic of meaning emerges from the previous one.” As ’70s rock band Steely Dan sings and (for fellow jazz lovers) the more recent Philipe Saisse Trio plays, Do It Again.

– Ted Macaluso

How is The Road Menders used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? The book is an adventure story that introduces children 4 – 8 to van Gogh’s paintings in a fun, exciting way. The tale starts with young Vincent and Theo trying to catch a fox. After the young boys have finished chasing the animal, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows up. One is to be a road mender. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. If you haven’t seen the book yet, you can check it out here.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided you include attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com.

 

The Goat Herd

It’s van Gogh’s birthday in two days, which got me asking: what was his earliest drawing? What should we do to celebrate? Today, we discuss his early drawings and, yes, I’m giving away 3 free copies of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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Vincent van Gogh would be 163 years old on Wednesday. He was born March 30, 1853. Although Vincent did not think of himself as a painter until he turned 27, he was an artist much earlier. As far as I can tell, The Goat Herd is his earliest surviving drawing. He was not quite 10 years old when he created it in October of 1862. (It is very hard to find reliable scholarly information on van Gogh’s drawings made before 1877. WikiArt.org and David Brooks’ phenomenal vggallery.com have The Goat Herd as his first. After 10 pages deep on a Google search, nothing contradicts that. If you know of an earlier sketch, please leave a comment below.)

Here two other early drawings by van Gogh (courtesy of WikiArt.org): Corinthian Capital (from when Vincent was 10) and Two Sketches of a Man Leaning on His Spade (when he was 14).

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As David Brooks asks, “When does genius begin?” Clearly, quite early for van Gogh.

Van Gogh believed one had to learn to draw before one could paint. Although his adult drawings are not as widely appreciated as his paintings, they are still excellent. Here is a wonderful reference book: Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series).

Where does today’s artwork appear in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? It is not part of the story but appears in his biography at the end of the book.

And speaking of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, to celebrate van Gogh’s birthday I’m giving away three copies of the book.

Click here to enter giveaway (administered by Amazon.com). NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of Apr 4, 2016 11:59 PM PDT, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules http://amzn.to/GArules.

Hope you win,

Ted Macaluso

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced if attribution is given back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com.

 

 

 

 

The Church at Auvers

A church with no doors, sitting in its own shadow, splitting the path ahead in two, dark clouds reaching for it from above. What is Vincent van Gogh telling us about faith and religion?

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Monday’s blogposts are each about one of the 30 Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the children’s story, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today, the last Monday before Easter, the painting is The Church at Auvers.

First, a few facts. Van Gogh completed the image in June 1890, the month before he died.The church is a real building that still stands in the Place de l’Eglise in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise.  Its architecture is Gothic. The building is believed to have been constructed in the 13th Century. The oil and canvass painting is in the Musee d’Orsay, 27 kilometers southeast in Paris. The deep blue of the sky was also used in Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, the innkeeper’s daughter discussed in last week’s post. The church refused to hold a funeral mass for van Gogh because it was believed he committed suicide.

country-churchyard-and-old-church-tower-18851blogVan Gogh mentioned today’s painting in a June 5, 1890 letter to his sister, Wilhelmina. He mainly wrote about the colors he used; but also referred back to his earlier life, saying, “it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower…[only] the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous.” Completed five years earlier, The Old Tower is indeed a darker painting.

Viewers, of course, want more than facts. We all want to extract meaning from van Gogh’s art and life. In this regard, there is a lot of misperception of van Gogh, especially given his romantic appeal in popular culture. As Teresa Watanabe pointed out in her excellent Los Angeles Times article, A Divine View of Van Gogh,  the artist “is commonly portrayed as a sometimes loony genius who failed in a fanatical quest to become an evangelical preacher, turned his back on religion and went on to become one of history’s most celebrated painters.”

The misperception that van Gogh turned his back on religion gets some support from the absence of doors in today’s painting (the church is closed to him) and IMG_1610from the bleakness of The Old Tower. Interestingly, in his famous painting of The Starry Night, the church is dark and silent even though the houses in town are warm and lit (the spire is also needle-sharp, touching a dark patch in the sky, and stands in contrast to the cyprus, with its living curves touching three stars).

A dark church at night means nothing by itself, but Kathleen Powers Erickson makes some cogent points in her scholarly book, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Ericsson is an art historian who also holds a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago. Her full argument is too long to cover properly here, but I find her essential points convincing. She argues that religion was a central driving force in van Gogh’s life.

Van Gogh, Erickson explains, faced a crisis of faith in his early adult years. His father withdraw support for van Gogh’s desire to be a pastor, the protestant church that gave van Gogh a six-month appointment did not renew it, and a significant religious influence on his life, his Uncle Stricker, continually rejected van Gogh’s many efforts to marry his daughter, Kee. Allegedly, van Gogh never set foot in a church again and, as with the three paintings here, his art reflects some of his bitterness. It was a bitterness with organized religion, however; not with God, not with faith, and certainly not with spirituality which his work exudes. Erickson shows, through van Gogh’s letters and his art, that the artist went on a voyage of religious discovery. His struggles with religion and modernity led to the synthesis of the religious and the modern which he achieved in both his life and his work.

Van Gogh subscribed to the sentiment, “Religions pass away, but God remains” (he believed Victor Hugo said this, although it was actually Jules Michelet). Van Gogh “believed in a religion that teaches people to have reverence and awe of creation, and to have compassion and feelings of charity and sympathy toward people suffering. It was totally non institutional,”according to another scholar, Naomi Margolis Maurer (quote is from Watanabe’s article).  Maurer is the author of The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.

The recognition of the spiritual in van Gogh’s art makes me love him even more. What do you think? Leave a comment, below, and I will be sure to read it.

Now, for some crazy stuff. The Church at Auvers is featured in season 5, episode 10 of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. In it, there is a monster in one of the church windows, signifying (to the Doctor) that an ancient evil is lurking in Auvers-sur-Oise in June 1890. Vincent must go inside the church to battle the monster before the painting can be returned to its original form. Hey, why not? Some other people believe there is a hidden portrait of Vincent’s face  in the painting. I don’t see it, but why not?

How is the painting used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? After young Vincent and Theo have finished chasing the fox, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows. One is to be a pastor like his father. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. As a young boy, Vincent does not know that his religious journey will be complex. As an author, I like that the illustration has some darkness to foreshadow the path that the real-life Vincent followed.

– Ted Macaluso

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is given. Some of the links, above, are affiliate links to Amazon.com.

Thatched Cottages By A Hill

An unfinished painting from van Gogh’s final days, an innkeeper’s daughter, and a Bob Dylan song. Today’s post ties them together, and also includes a giveaway prize.

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As with last week’s column, this week we continue to look at van Gogh’s work during the period he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. Van Gogh was fascinated by the thatched roofs he saw in the area. In a letter to his sister dated the same month as the painting (June 1890), van Gogh wrote, “there are some roofs of mossy thatch here which are superb and of which I shall certainly make something.”According to Ronald Pickvance, author of Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, today’s painting “shows the most extensive view of thatched cottages in all van Gogh’s Auvers canvasses (p. 269).”

However, while it is an extensive view, a number of art historians believe that today’s painting is unfinished. It is easy to see the reason for this belief when we compare the painting to another painting of thatched roofs done in the same month, the dramatic Houses With Thatched Roofs, Cordeville shown below (courtesy of WikiArt.com):

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In contrast to the Cordeville painting, today’s painting has a blank sky and some of the fields appear uncharacteristically plain. Compared to the turbulent sky and the witches tree hovering over the Cordeville house, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill appear calmer.

At the same time that they offer relative calm, the dwellings in Thatched Cottages By A Hill lack straight walls and roofs: they curve organically and feel almost alive. There is a tension in them, accentuated by the angle formed between the cottages on the left and right. They offer shelter, both in the form of solid roofs and the hills that surround them, yet bear the knowledge that storms will come. Van Gogh was suffering from psychiatric problems and he died in July, the month after creating these paintings. It is tempting to think that van Gogh sought shelter from his coming storm through them.

When vaportrait-of-adeline-ravoux-1890-1blogn Gogh was living in Auvers-sur-Oise he stayed at the Auberge Ravoux, an Inn run by the Ravoux family. The innkeeper’s daughter, Adeline Ravoux, was young (I believe 15) when van Gogh lived with them and painted her portrait. When she was 76 she wrote a memoir about the artist which you can read here. Her memories include:

“Vincent did not visit anybody in the village, to the best of my knowledge. He had few conversations with us….On the other hand, Vincent had attached himself to my little sister Germaine…then a baby; two years old. Every evening, following the meal, he took her on his knees, and drew The Sandman for her on a slate: a horse harnessed to a cart, in which the sandman stood upright, throwing sand by the handful. Following this the little girl kissed everyone and went to bed.”

Thatched Cottages By A Hill and the facts surrounding van Gogh’s life in Auvers therefore evoked for me Bob Dylan’s classic song, Shelter From The Storm, especially his last two verses:

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Even though I doubt Dylan was thinking of van Gogh when composing this song,¹ the parallels between his lyric and van Gogh’s life are intriguing.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings in the book every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

¹ Some claim that Dylan’s beautiful song Visions of Johanna is about van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger, who moved Dylan because of her single-handed transformation of the reputation of an obscure suicide into that of a major artist….

WIN A FREE GIFT

I’m introducing free giveaways this week to reward readers and build up my followers on Twitter. It is administered by Amazon.com. Click here to win a copy of a Van Gogh Coloring Book from the Van Gogh Museum. Three copies being given away, winners chosen at random.

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Bob Dylan’s lyrics copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music. Everything else © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. This post may be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landscape with the Chateau of Auvers at Sunset

Sunset is a time of transition and, like all transitions, it holds potential. Vincent’s ability to paint potential is part of what makes his art timeless, part of why he speaks to us today, and also why this painting coincides with an important transition in the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox.

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“a night effect – two completely dark pear trees against yellowing sky with wheatfields, and in the violet background the castle encased in the dark greenery” – Vincent describing his painting in a letter to his brother Theo, June 24, 1890

I’ve wanted to write about this painting for a while as it is one of my personal favorites. For me, the effect is both peaceful and haunting. The painting’s emotional impact stems from the fact that sunset is a time of transition, of impending change. And, changes in state–day to night, land to sea, the pause turning to action–always grab me emotionally because they indicate potential: the “what might be” that we don’t quite know yet.

In the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, this painting marks the point where the fox has gotten to safety and the two brothers transition from exploring the world to returning home. But the painting also coincides with a transition in theme, for this is when Vincent and Theo start to reflect on their chase of the fox and what it taught them. It is at this point in the story that young readers experience what it feels like to think about how to be the best that you can be when you grow up (all while continuing to learn about van Gogh).

About the painting: it is a double-square painting that Vincent created in one day in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the short months before his death. Did he know what was coming? I don’t think so, but many commenters believe that the 70 or so paintings he created in Auvers have an intensity that begs for such “significant” interpretation (see, for example, the interpretations of Wheatfield With Crows, another double-square painting from his time in Auvers, which I wrote about here).

I believe Vincent was “merely” in search of beauty. According to VincentInParis.com (a neat website and app that lets you geomap the location where van Gogh created his paintings so that you can visit them), today’s painting is one of three double-square paintings that Vincent wrote about to Theo. In Vincent’s mind, this painting is meant to hang between Undergrowth With Two Figures and Wheat Fields near Auvers. What unifies the three paintings are color and scale. (See them here.)

Auvers-sur-Oise, by the way, was a very pretty place that attracted a number of artists. Here is a view of the town painted by Paul Cezanne (courtesy of WikiArt.org):

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Finally, van Gogh’s time in Auvers was an important one. We will be writing more about it over the next few Painting Mondays as several other paintings from Vincent, Theo and the Fox were created there.

And oh yes, if you haven’t yet heard about the painted movie being made about van Gogh, the trailer for it starts with one of his Auvers paintings, the beautiful Landscape With Carriage and Train in the Background:

As I implied at the start, it is all about potential. Many of van Gogh’s works capture the essence of potential. It is why even today his work evolves in new ways without ever losing its magnificent beauty.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. I write about one of the paintings every Monday for readers who want more information. See the book here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to http://www.tedmacaluso.com is given.

Interior of a Restaurant

What does van Gogh’s beautiful painting of a restaurant have to do with a new eBook from the U.S. Department of Agriculture? This week, we find out.

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The children’s book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, weaves an adventure story around Interior of a Restaurant and 29 other Vincent van Gogh paintings. Readers also want information about each painting in the book. Every Monday, I write about one of those paintings. Why this painting, this week? Hint: it’s related to what you get in a restaurant: fun and food. I’ll explain in a minute.

First, a few facts about the painting. Vincent van Gogh painted it in Paris during the summer of 1887. You can see the picture at the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. Unlike his other restaurant pictures, which involve food, the scene in this painting takes place between meals and there is no food visible. Fine art promotor Mia Feigelson also makes an interesting observation: except for the hint given by the top hat on the hook at left of center, there is also no human presence. Van Gogh did not paint many restaurant scenes, but when he did they usually had food or people or both. For comparison, below are two of his other famous restaurant scenes (Interior of a Restaurant, Arles and Cafe Terrace at Night):

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61cxd11m-fl-_sx423_bo1204203200_Also unlike his other restaurant paintings, today’s painting is dominated by dots. Van Gogh was experimenting with the artistic style known as pointillism. While the dots are prominent, in their book, Van Gogh’s Table: At the Auberge Ravoux, Alexandra Leaf and Fred Leeman make the point (pun intended) that van Gogh applied the dots selectively and only on the floor and walls. The concrete objects (chairs, lamps, tables, and even the top hat hanging high up) are executed with strokes, sometimes even with drawn outlines. (Their book is nice and even has 50 French recipes! Yummy.)

Ah, recipes, food, fun. That is why I wrote about this van Gogh painting this week. I was at the The National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference yesterday and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that they just published some eBooks on good nutrition febooks_graphicor preschool and kindergarten kids. Whether you are dining in a fine French restaurant or eating at your school cafeteria, good nutrition is important. The USDA eBooks are free, kids can read the words themselves or press a button for the book to read the words to them, there is an interactive “plan your meal” page, and a maze where children have to touch the right nutritional foods to make it through to the other side. Before turning to writing, I worked for many years in the child nutrition/hunger field and some of my former colleagues created these eBooks. I’m very happy to see that they are now available. Your kids may be happy to see them too. Did I say they were free?

– Ted Macaluso

Interior of a Restaurant is the third illustration in Vincent, Theo and the Fox. The fox is hungry. He wants to eat like humans do so he goes into the restaurant. Mistakenly thinking that people must eat the flowers on the tables, he jumps up. Chaos ensues, which readers like. If you haven’t yet seen the book, it is available on BarnesAndNoble.com and Amazon.com.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided that attribution and a link to tedmacaluso.com is given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wheatfield With Crows

One of van Gogh’s most striking paintings, “Wheatfield with Crows,” was also one of his last. Observers have therefore analyzed and re-analyzed it for meaning. There are probably as many viewpoints as there are crows in the painting. Perhaps we should all just agree its beautiful.

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Because it was painted in the final month of his life, some wish to see Wheatfield With Crows as a lonely, suicide note. These interpretations focus on the dark sky, the allegedly ominous birds, the emptiness of the field, and the fact that the path goes nowhere. Some observers believe it matters whether the crows are flying towards the viewer or away. Still others think there is a hidden image of a severed ear in the cloud (if you rotate the picture 130 degrees). Dark interpretations are bolstered by the 1956 movie about van Gogh, Lust for Life, which, for dramatic effect, falsely portrayed the painting as van Gogh’s last. It was not.

This all strikes me as silly. What we know is that the painting is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is a double-square canvas, which contributes to its imposing width and presence. It is dramatic. For example, the three paths could be the shadow of a giant bird. The darkness in the sky could be descending. Or, the darkness could be lifting. One can focus on the golden light of the field and the pretty, deep blue of the sky. But, then again, one could focus on the feeling of stormy darkness. Like most great art, the painting provides an infinite opportunity for viewers to draw forth their own meanings. Vincent’s letters do not clarify the issue. He wrote that he had made a point of expressing sadness, later adding “extreme loneliness” (de la solitude extrême), but also says he believes the canvases show what he considers healthy and fortifying about the countryside (and adds that he intended to take them to Paris as soon as possible).

The painting itself is in balance. The paths divide the canvas in 3 with 2 golden sections. The field occupies two-thirds of the canvass, the sky one-third. The colors–blue, golden yellow, green, brown–are complementary. Whether the viewer wishes to see the painting as “half full or half empty,” as impending darkness or impending light, the image is poised at the edge of change, at the moment just before something happens.

Personally, I see the painting as hopeful, as the sky being ready to clear for a beautiful day. In Vincent, Theo and the Fox, for this painting, I wrote:

“As the day drew to a close, the fox walked through a golden field. Crows flew out of his way, slowly circling in the sky. ‘I’m happy here. This is where a fox should be,’ he thought.”

Do you side with the pessimists or with the fox? It’s up to you. But I would love to know what you think. Leave a comment and I will read and respond with interest.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings. While intended for children, adults find the book interesting too: it has full-color reproductions of over 30 of van Gogh’s masterpieces and the story gives readers new contexts for appreciating their favorite paintings. See the book here.

And finally, if you want to have some fun, enter wheat field with crows YouTube into your browser. One poster animates the crows flying toward you, another shows how to paint a copy by numbers, several pair the painting with good (and sometimes not so good) music. If only, van Gogh had known.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.