Van Gogh’s Paintings Come Alive In “Loving Vincent”

by Lynn S. Schwebach

Robert Gulaczyk as a Vincent van Gough self portrait in “Loving Vincent”
Courtesy of Breakthru Films

If you have ever wanted to step inside a Van Gogh painting, you now have the opportunity. Go see the film “Loving Vincent.”

Publicity for this unusual movie describes it as “the first feature-length film to combine live action computer animation and hand-painted animation.” But after seeing it last Saturday, I have to say that it’s not like any animation I have ever seen.

The difference in look and feel centers on the oil paintings used to create each frame of the film. The film’s directors considered the work of 5,000 painters from around the world for the film and accepted only 124 to replicate Van Gogh’s art.

One of those elite artists who worked on the project, Dena Peterson of Colorado, attended the film’s screening at The Lyric in Fort Collins, Co., on Nov. 18. Then she held a special Q&A after the showing. Listening to her discuss the project was fascinating—and helped us, the viewers, understand the awe-inspiring “moving pictures” we had just witnessed.

Dena Peterson was one of a small number of artists chosen  from the United States to work on “Loving Vincent.” Photo courtesy of Dena Peterson.

Peterson said each second of film required about 12 paintings. She would start with a frame (the film contained 65,000 frames), which was either a Van Gogh painting or an image of someone he had painted. Using oil paint, she tried to copy Van Gogh’s brushstrokes and match his colors exactly. After the director Darota Kobiela approved the frame (i.e. painting), Peterson photographed it, scraped off that paint, added a movement, completed another painting, took another photograph, and repeated the whole process until she had 15 seconds of film.

Peterson said she painted about 15 canvases a day.  Each of the movie’s scenes was made up of 50 to 100 paintings.

Artists like myself in the audience moved uncomfortably in their seats—a few gasped. How was it that someone could paint 15 paintings a day? Peterson chuckled.

“It was grueling,” she said. She worked alongside the other artists in a square-like cubicle for 8 to 10 hours a day in Gdansk, Poland—where the directors set up a building and constructed these workspaces for the artists. At first it was five days a week, but then it turned into 7 days a week to get the work accomplished to stay on a schedule.

She started out on a 3-month stint in Poland. However, that “stint” turned into 6 months.

“The first frame took the longest,” Peterson said. “You thought you had colors matching exactly, and then you would put the frame into the software on the computer to match it with the colors of the original, and with all the other artists and their frames, and it didn’t match at all.”

With over 100 artists working on the film, ensuring style and color consistency became a huge challenge. Peterson said it took Kobiela, and her co-director and husband Hugh Welchman 5 years to make.

In total, Peterson worked on a handful of frames, but her most memorable and cherished was Van Gogh’s iconic “Wheat Field with Crows.” When an audience member asked her if the directors had a favorite frame or frames, Peterson said that Kobiela’s favorite frame was the wheat field with the crows. The Lyric’s audience broke out in applause.

Dena Peterson’s canvas for the scene using Van Gogh’s ‘Wheat Field with Crows.’ 

She said that while working on that frame she had tears in her eyes. The crows fly out of the field in that scene, and she saw it as a metaphor for Van Gogh letting go, for his spirit finally free of his severe mental illness—probably bipolar disorder.

As a painter, I could not believe the torturous work this groundbreaking animation involved and I knew instinctively the arduous days Peterson lived. This made the film even more astounding.

I asked Peterson if her style as a painter has changed after this experience. She smiled.

“Good question,” she responded. “At first I couldn’t paint when I came home. I was blocked.”

Who wouldn’t be, I thought? But then she said she went back to painting, and now is a bit looser with color, more daring—like Van Gogh.

Peterson now offers Van Gogh-inspired commissions based on photos as well as murals for your home or office. See this link for more information.

And if you’re looking for something to do this Thanksgiving weekend, go see this movie. Even if you’re not a fan of animated films, you will love the imagery on a large screen that brings Van Gogh and his paintings alive. The hand-painted frames pull you into each painting and move you through the story. It is an emotional, raw experience.

Also, I strongly urge you to shop small this Saturday. I urge you to buy art! I have art available on Etsy and at Schwebach Arts.

Here are also some of my favorite artists and their websites. Gifting fine art means more than any factory-generated piece of merchandise. Fine art lasts forever.

Sheila Dunn

Maker Jake

Bonnie Lebesch

Also read more about Bonnie Lebesch here on


2 Replies to “Van Gogh’s Paintings Come Alive In “Loving Vincent””

  1. How inspiring, to read about the artist’s experience, her perspective, the work that went into the film. I’m definitely going to see the movie!

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