3 Tips for Creating Outstanding Portraits, Inspired by the work of Dutch Artist Van Gogh

3 Tips for Creating Outstanding Portraits, Inspired by the work of Dutch Artist Van Gogh


Few months ago I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Upon arriving there, I immediately ran to see the work of the artist who influenced me the most: Vincent Van Gogh; the artist who changed the way we look at color as a tool for telling stories; an artist who had nothing in his pockets but had a never-ending passion for creativity and innovation.

In this post I decided to share some work methods and tips that I have learned from the portraits of this great artist. Methods I TRY, just try, to apply in my work as well.

3 Things I learned about Portrait Photography from Vincent Van Gogh’s Work

Tip 1: Use Light as a Tool for Telling Stories in Your Portraits:

You can treat “light” in one of the two ways below:

  • Something that just illuminate your subjects. An existing fact, which you cannot control
  • A creative tool. Something to be aware of, as being aware of the lens or the camera you are using

Source of Inspiration

Notice how the light affects the story in this drawing of a Peasant from Nuenen.

Vincent van Gogh Head of a Young Peasant in a Peaked Cap

The choice to create the peasant’s portrait at night (or a dark room) under the pale light of a single bulb, which forms many shadows on his face, strengthens the dark feeling coming from this image- a feeling of a hard working man. You can imagine that creating the portrait of the same guy, in daylight, in an open space, would create a completely different story.

My Interpretation:

In this image of Apollo-mo, a 61 years old farmer and village shaman from the Akha community in Laos, I tried to create the same “hard working” feel as in the “Peasant from Nuenen”. I chose to capture Apollo indoor (keeping him also very compressed inside the frame) with this dark background and dramatic, single source light coming from his right side, creating very deep shadows on his face. Of course I could photograph Apollo at any other time: Laughing with his family and grandchildren, working under the soft light of the sunset and so on. Yet,I chose to show him as I perceived him – as a hard working man with a difficult life story.That’s exactly what I wanted the viewer to feel.

Tip 2: Harnessing the Power of Complementary Colors

Van Gogh’s use of color was groundbreaking and many books and theses already examined the issue in depth. What I would like to present here is a small fraction of his approach on color: Understanding the power of complementary colors.

You can think of the complementary colors (and this is going to be a very shallow way of putting it) as two colors, sitting side by side, and by doing so, creating a great impact on the viewers.

Color star en svg

Van Gogh often used complementary colors in his works. Green and red, orange and blue, purple and yellow – he’s done it all.

In my work, I try to keep this principle of complementary colors in mind.

Source of inspiration:

Van gogh

My interpretation:
Red and green or orange and blue are working together to create a stronger portrait.


Tip 3: The Power of the “Off Camera” Gaze

In Most portraits, either photographs or paintings, the person looks straight at the viewer. Van Gogh’s work taught me that sometimes, when a person is looking “off camera”, it can give my image some sort of natural feeling, sometimes melancholic, yet always powerful.

Source of inspiration:

409px Van Gogh 2

The artist made this painting during the last months of his life. And although the situation appears seemingly nice (woman standing in a field) the sadness and hardship is certainly present, mainly due to the off camera gaze.

My interpretation:
So when I want to convey a feeling of hardship or sadness I will try to capture my subject in an unguarded moment, looking off camera.

Woman in field A

This off course can be done only if you get a good relationship with your subject, enabling you to work in a close distance and still be “transparent”.

I will not tell the subject what to do (“now, look off-camera and act sexy”). I will just wait for the right time to click the shutter.


Using light as a creative tool: Try to match the story you want to tell to the light being used. One possibility is to control the light: flash, reflectors, etc. the more simple option is to just choose the right time to shoot. Dramatic story? Choose a time when there is a harsh or dramatic lighting situation. A story about the happy moments in life? Let your light to convey this feeling by working in a soft, full of color light, like in the golden time (before sunset or right after sunrise)

Watch for complementary colors: in order to create powerful portraits.

Think about the subject’s looking direction as a creative tool: Sometimes an off camera gaze can give your story outstanding emotional impact.

The story of Vincent van Gogh Is sour – sweet. On one hand, an artist whose paintings are known by everyone and sold today for millions of dollars. On the other hand, an artist who had a great financial and emotional struggle over his life-time.

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Oded Wagenstein is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National Geographic.com, BBC.com, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

Some Older Comments

  • T K Sarkar July 30, 2013 05:32 pm

    A great article which sets the insight of the great works and translating the passion into own creation really make me understood the importance of basics that matters absolutely in art or photography. Thank you.

  • ShadowFX July 20, 2013 03:31 am

    Great article, short and to the point. I like that there is no attempt to theorize what the artist had in mind, just what you interpreted he accomplished and what he inspired you to create...

  • Albert Ward July 19, 2013 08:09 pm

    I think another artist that we could learn a lot about when it comes to portraiture is Rembrandt van Rijn. I am always stunned how he used light in his paintings to "create" atmosphere. From a photographers point of view one get the impression that he deliberately "underexposed" his paintings in regards to light. But he accomplished great effects which has somehow made me rethink my understanding and application of exposure in the photos I take.

  • Oded wagenstein July 19, 2013 06:41 am

    hey guys!
    thank you so much! I really appreciated it

  • Frank Crews July 19, 2013 06:02 am

    Inspirational photographic art and inspiring teaching as well.
    A generous and as has already been said very well written communication.
    I am fortunate to work mainly in food - this makes me want to study portraiture photography 'for me'.
    Many thanks

  • Dave Benson July 19, 2013 03:55 am

    Lovbe it when an artist aligns concepts... wonderful connections you have made to a master's work

  • Julia July 19, 2013 02:42 am

    Excellent article. Your interpretations are spot-on. Makes me look again at my favorite artists in a whole new light. Thank you for the insight!

  • t-fiz July 19, 2013 01:31 am

    VERY well done article and great examples! A new (old) way of looking at creating nice portraits.

  • Alberto July 19, 2013 01:29 am

    Well written and I agree with the previous comment, about the fact that your interpretations are useul to understand what you wrote.

  • Mridula July 18, 2013 04:18 pm

    I have seen a few articles on DPS on this topic. I liked your's because you shared your interpretation as well which makes it more practical and doable.


  • Ed July 18, 2013 12:14 pm

    I am a bit confused. Tip # 2 says that two colors sitting side by side create a big impact on the viewers. However, the examples show two colors as opposite each other (eg. green and red, orange and blue, purple and yellow). Thus, complementary colors are two colors sitting directly across each other, and not side by side.

  • Bogdan July 18, 2013 01:55 am

    Art painting and photography are both forms of creative expression through color and light. Looking at painting artists work is a good way to discover techniques for improving our photography, whether is portrait, landscape, still life or even abstract. Thank you, Oded, for this well written and enlightening article!

  • Shannon Wilson July 18, 2013 01:52 am

    Thank you for the great article. I've never really thought of looking at art for more than composition. You've made me want to go back and look at my favorite artists are think more about how I can apply what I've learned from them to my photography - Thanks :)

  • Gertjan July 18, 2013 12:52 am

    Living just a few miles away from Van Goghs birth-ground, I could (or should) have made the connection with photography earlier. Especially the use of complementary colors never really occurred to me. Thanks for this insightful write up.

  • Sudeep Manak July 17, 2013 07:02 pm

    Learn from past masters. I am planning to start a project based on this idea. Good thought provoking article.

  • Oded Wagenstein July 17, 2013 04:20 pm

    Hey there Clyde
    I was happy to read that you liked my article.
    Thanks for the great images you uploaded

  • Clyde July 17, 2013 03:29 am

    I've always been a fan of all sorts of artists from various mediums and try to use what they knew and apply it to my photography. The best example I thought of was the use of complimentary colors. However I never connected "off camera" looks to Van Gogh (although I will now I am sure). My favorite type of portraits I take are candid shots and I use a lot of off camera looks without really thinking about it. It just feels natural. It can be used to convey all sorts of emotions though. I've used it for happy in photos like this http://500px.com/photo/25038205 and I've used it for my own version of a "hardworking" photo like this. http://500px.com/photo/29665715 I even try to keep complimentary colors in mind when I experiment in split toning photos (although in the example above I did not, I used Blue and Yellow on it. These are three great techinque's that if you start to use them they become almost second nature to capture the feel of a moment or can even be applied in post to help guide or strengthen the feeling you want to give with your shot.