Two Kinds of Idleness


“If one is the 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

I’ve been a fervent admirer of Van Gogh for a long time but I hadn’t seen this quote until recently. It is amazing how closely it fits with that of Miyamoto Musashi which I blogged about last week but when I think about it I shouldn’t be that surprised. You see, my love affair with Van Gogh started with his writing, not his paintings.

Of course, I’d always been aware of his paintings, you had to be growing up in our house. My Dad was an artist, a real one that is, not a fumbling amateur like me. Some of my earliest memories are of climbing the three flights of stairs to the attic where he had his studio. When I wanted to do an oil painting my Dad found me a bit of canvas, a brush and squeezed some paints onto a palette. I asked him what I should paint, he picked up a book, opened it and said

“Here, paint that”

My first oil painting was a copy of a Van Gogh, I’ve still got it. I was seven years old.

And just in case you can’t tell the difference, mine is on the right!

You’d think that after this early encouragement that my painting would go from strength to strengh, but actually I didn’t really start painting until twenty years later. Once again my Dad gave me a little push in the right direction but this time it was Vincent’s letters rather than pictures that inspired me. My Dad gave me his copy of The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.


To open this book is to open the heart and mind of Van Gogh. He writes so beautifully and captures what it is to be an artist striving to express something which cannot be articulated in any other way. Just opening it at random I found this:

…there are two kinds of idleness, that form a great contrast. There is the man who is idle from laziness, and from lack of character, from the baseness of his nature. You may if you like take me for such a one.

Then there is the other sort of idle man, who is idle in spite of himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action, yet he does nothing because it is impossible for him to do anything, because he seems to be imprisoned in some cage…

This is the best description of the frustrations of the creative process that I have seen. I have so many pictures in my mind, unpainted, and so many stories untold, yet I struggle to get them out. I can’t even explain why I need to do this and I am aware that to others it could all seem like a waste of time.

Perhaps painting and writing are my two kinds of idleness.


4 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Idleness”

  1. Yep. I relate to this also. I call it “mental constipation”, for want of a much nicer term. All this stuff that wants to come out, but doesn’t, because it’s stuck for some reason.
    Anyway, that book sounds amazing. I’ve read a few quotes of Van Gogh about the place, and he seems like a wise- and very interesting- human.
    The painting done by your 7 yr old self is lovely!


      1. No! Don’t think that! I hope i didn’t come across as rude in any way there. I just meant it’s lovely to see kids painting. I kind of almost understand the feeling though; when i see kids draw or paint, they’re so free and uninhibited about it. I’d love to be more like that.

        Liked by 1 person

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