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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
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!

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