21 January 2021
In the first instalment of our series on stitching skin, self-taught artist Catherine Hicks shares her thought processes and techniques for hand embroidering a classic self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.
The masters used watercolour or oils to capture themselves. But if you’ve ever wondered how you’d approach reimagining a classic self-portrait using needle and thread, this blog is for you!
Becoming an artist
I made the decision to become an artist only about 9 years ago when, after taking a ‘basic painting’ weekend workshop at my local museum, I decided to teach myself to paint by studying the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh. Impulsively, I committed to painting 52 paintings in a year based on his work and on work he influenced. What I learned from Vincent was how to look at colour, and how to paint boldly and expressively, and how to not give a damn about what anyone (other than myself) thought about what I was making.
I came to realise that his paintings were nothing more than ‘dabs’ of pure and often opposite colours masterfully juxtaposed together. I remembered reading that Vincent used balls of knitting wool to work out his colour schemes, so I grabbed some old needlepoint kit yarn out of a basket, threaded a needle, and started stabbing at some stretched linen, making little dabs of colour that looked surprisingly like good, controlled, unsmeared and un-smearable post-impressionist painting.
Mark making with thread
I didn’t really ‘embroider’ with recognised stitches, I more stabbed and daubed as I had when using acrylics, and found myself making marks that, to my delight, looked very much like Van Gogh’s brush strokes. When my flabbergasted professor couldn’t figure out how I had made my portrait and gave me an A+, I decided that I was on to something. I put down my brushes, picked up a needle and have been embroidering ever since.
Recreating a masterpiece in wool
Based on Van Gogh’s own 1887 Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (Van Gogh Museum), my portrait features Vincent nattily updated with a dimensional stumpwork hat brim. This piece was made primarily with up-cycled needlepoint kit wool that I’ve collected from my own stash, thrift stores and on eBay. There is something about this weight of wool that perfectly replicates the oils that Van Gogh used. It’s also the right proportion to how I like to scale my embroideries – my Vincent’s face is about 3.25x3in. I’ve tried other fibres, but I like the weight and serendipitous colour selection of my discovered kit ‘threads.’
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Matching the master’s work
Observing the painted original carefully, you'll see that Vincent’s loose and easy brush strokes look very much like embroidered wool. He painted in a fauve style, using unexpected colours like green, violet, orange and blue to create shadows and depth, highlights and planes in his carefully studied face. On the side of Vincent’s right cheek is a deep spruce green area that looks extremely strange close up, but reads as a perfectly believable shadow when standing a few feet away. Because I wanted my portrait to look very much like Vincent’s, I simply trusted the master, and matched him, stroke for stroke, thread by thread.
Top tip! While remaking a portrait, keep the original on your computer monitor and hold up variously coloured threads to the blown up image as you match your colours. If you can’t zero in on the colour exactly, use what’s closest or ‘mix’ the colour by stitching the necessary shades closely together.
The finer details of creating a classic embroidered portrait
For the more finely detailed areas like the eyes, I either split the thread or used some of the thinnest Appleton’s wool which I purchased from my local fibre store. I also inserted just a few tiny little stitches of Kreinik Metallic Tapestry #12 (9032) to add a glisten to Vincent’s eyes and give him a more vibrant appearance.
Find out more
Just beginning your embroidery journey? Don’t miss our hand embroidery guide for beginners to get you started!