Van Gogh was a poseur, or why it’s okay to be a novice


I often hear people being reluctant to start something new.  “I’m afraid I’m going to do it wrong,” is usually how the hesitation displays itself.  I know that feeling myself, of course, having a whole host of things that I’m neither good at nor confident in.  And yet, whenever I hear someone say that, I tend to think of Vincent Van Gogh.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Van Gogh.  On my first trip to Amsterdam, I stopped at the Van Gogh Museum and wandered around.  What struck me most about that visit was his early paintings.  They didn’t look like Van Goghs at all!  Why, they were almost derivative, and looked like any famous 19th century painter could have done them!

Van Gogh – Woman Winding Yarn (1885)

Now, of course, more than half of the museum was devoted to Van Gogh’s better-known period, the last four years before his death.  But his early years were on display too, and I found I was just as fascinated by them as I was Wheat Field With Crows.

Van Gogh – Wheat Field With Crows (1890)

There is this myth we believe where the great artists (be them visual, musical, or otherwise) were born great, that the first thing they ever touched turned to gold.  And while it is possible that this is true in a few cases (Mozart, perhaps, who I believe came out of the womb holding sheet music), I can say that in most cases, the great artists once sucked.  More specifically, they were derivative, poseurs, parroting someone else’s ideas.

A brief circuit around my favorite artists appears to play this out.

  • The Beatles’ early output (what you hear on Anthology 1) sounds like they could have been any 60’s skiffle group.
  • Bob Dylan’s first album could have been called “Bob Dylan Does a Woody Guthrie Impersonation.”
  • Bill Bryson’s first travel memoir, The Lost Continent, might have actually been ghostwritten by Dave Barry.
  • Andy Warhol’s pre-Campbell’s Soup days.  Need I say more?

I would wager that you might be thinking of a counter example.  But I would posit that what you are familiar with may not be the artist’s earliest work.  It may be the earliest work that anyone has heard of, but that’s my point: the early, derivative works aren’t usually remembered.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important.

I believe that everyone will start out being derivative.  This is not a bad thing, nor is it something to be minimized.  When you start out with any pursuit, you need to have context, you need to have rules, you need to have structure.  As Frank Zappa said in his autobiography, “you have to put a ‘box’ around [your art] because otherwise, what is that [stuff] on the wall?”.  Other artists provide that frame for you.  They provide the context.

READ MORE:  The wisdom of tenacity

You shouldn’t expect to come out of the gate being so wildly original and fully formed that there is no connection between you and any other artists.  Not only is that unrealistic, but it’s also unnecessary.  You won’t start out being good or original.  You will start out being a novice.  And being a novice is okay.  It allows you space to develop context, to see what worked for other artists, to try out wearing different hats, all while exploring what works and doesn’t work for you.

The more time you spend being derivative, you will start to learn about what differentiates you from others.  You will find your footing, you will find your voice.  Eventually you’ll be working on something you’re convinced is derivative, and others will remark on how original it is.

This will take longer for some than for others.  Fine.  Might it take you 40 years to find your style?  Possibly.  Might it take you years to feel like an expert in your field?  You bet.  But while you shouldn’t lose sight of the top of the mountain, you equally shouldn’t lose sight of each step you take.  If you enjoy the process and not the outcome, this will help you keep working.  The most healthy goal you can have is to enjoy the process of creation, the process of finding your own voice, the process of slowly becoming yourself.  When you approach your work in this fashion, being a novice doesn’t seem like such a burden.

Look at this website.  This isn’t exactly the most original of ideas.  “Ooh, a blog, how original!” someone might say.  And while this is undeniably true, I don’t particularly care (well, I care a bit, but I’m working on that).  I’m going to eventually become more original in my work as I go.  Maybe a blog won’t be part of it eventually; I don’t know.  The point is that I’m a novice at this, but I’m not going to let it stop me.

So, if you’re scared to do something because you’re afraid you’ll do it wrong, I have good and bad news.  The bad news is that you’re going to do it wrong.  The good news is that doing it wrong is exactly what you should be doing.

But enough about me.  Have you ever let the fear of being a novice keep you from trying?  Or how have you conquered this fear?


  1. Tina

    My sophomore year college roommate was a music minor, or a double major, or something. Either way, she was pretty obnoxious about it, constantly making fun of the “amateurs” in the college ensembles, or that she overheard in the practice rooms, etc. Having only dropped out of the orchestra a few months earlier, I found it pretty hard not to take this personally. But besides just being insulting, it was total bullshit, and I eventually told her so (hopefully slightly more tactfully than that, but I was young and she was annoying and things might have happened…).

    Because here’s the thing: It’s OK to suck! Or to be mediocre, as the case may be. Those “talentless” musicians my roommate was so snotty about were enjoying themselves, and that’s the real point.

    While I love this post, I think it might be unrealistically optimistic. The fact is, for many of us, even if we work at something for 40 years or more, we might never be original, or good, or whatever positive adjective you want to use. But…so what? If something brings you joy, that should be enough.

    The other thing I want to point out is that this idea applies to much more than just art. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately with regard to running. As we’ve discussed, I let the fear of sucking stop me from trying for a looong time. And to answer your question, one thing that helped me get past that was to change who I was comparing myself to. The ultimate goal is to stop comparing, period, but until I get there, I’m finding it a whole lot more satisfying to compare myself to the guy sitting on his couch, rather than to the guy who just whizzed past me. Doing it–whatever “it” is–badly is always better than not trying at all.

    • Mike Pumphrey

      Hi Tina. Thanks for writing in. I think we’re pretty much in agreement. My suggestion that it might take years to become original or good just means that we need to become comfortable where we are at. You’re right, one might not even become truly original, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to embark on projects solely in the hope that we will become good or original. The process should hopefully be enough.

      And yes, I agree that this applies to any vocation. I usually think of music and other artistic pursuits because that’s my background, but I could have also used running as an example (if I knew any good stories about them!).

  2. Masha

    I love this post. Thank you Mike.
    I do try new things in life and find this fascinating.
    Sometimes it works, sometimes doesn’t. Than you look for another path…
    As it’s said: life is the journey not the destination…

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