Meet the artist channelling Van Gogh for ‘Loving Vincent’

Sarah Wimperis discusses her work on the Oscar-nominated animated film

The first fully painted feature using oil on canvas, Loving Vincent is a biopic tracing the suspicious circumstances surrounding Van Gogh’s untimely death in 1890. The film sees an all-star cast (including Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd and Eleanor Tomlinson) lend their voices to the characters who populated the painter’s secluded life in Arles. With painstaking care, a team of more than a hundred artists created 65,000 canvases for Loving Vincent, each of which appears on screen for a mere 12th of a second. Post-impressionist connoisseurs will also enjoy spotting 120 of Van Gogh’s most celebrated works sutured into the narrative, from Starry Night to Portrait of Dr Gachet and Sunflowers. The visually stunning result has been recognised by Bafta, the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press, all of which have nominated the film for Best Animated Feature.   

One of the artists working on Loving Vincent was the Cornwall-based Sarah Wimperis, who joined the project at the last minute when the directors realised they needed to hasten the film-making schedule. “They started in Eastern Europe, then expanded the search,” says Wimperis. “I was the only one of the 125 artists from England. We were from all over – 19 different countries. They took on an extra 25 at the end when I came in. Some of them had been there for two years when I arrived.”   

Courtesy Marc Berry Reid 

After beating nearly 5,000 other candidates in a rigorous application process, Wimperis reached the studio in Poland and – in a move that is unheard of for an artist – had to eliminate her individual style. “It was very strange imitating someone else,” she admits. “We had three weeks of training to help us lose our signature as artists. The tricky part was that we had to paint both like each other and Van Gogh. So that was an added challenge. As was learning how to do animation. Nothing I ever did before prepared me for this.” 

The artists based their pieces on the live-action version of Loving Vincent that was shot with the actors beforehand. Their scenes were subsequently stripped back to black outlines, which were projected onto the painters’ boards and served as guides for them. The artists would then complete their canvases, and finally take a photo of their finished frame so it could be edited into the film. They could review their progress on the monitor above their workstation. “I got into a meditative state when I was painting. I listened to a lot of audiobooks,” says Wimperis. “I was mainly in the wheat fields with the medium-size figures. They assigned paintings to the artists based on their tone. So those whose own work fit tonally with a scene were asked to work on that one.”  

Courtesy Sarah Wimperis   

Wimperis was supposed to be helping with Loving Vincent for five weeks. Five months later, she was still in Poland, toiling away. In the end, she contributed 788 paintings to the film, a number that comes close to the 800 Van Gogh produced in his eight years working as an artist. Wimperis’ paintings consist of 380 separate frames, which amounts to a grand total of... 32 seconds of screen time. She is proud of her involvement in Loving Vincent, and the role it has played in preserving Van Gogh’s legacy. Why does she think that people are still so fascinated by him? “In a way he’s a symbol of possibility,” says Wimperis. “He only ever sold one painting in his lifetime and he decided to be an artist at 28, which is quite late in the game. He was so determined and obsessed that he battled on in the face of adversity, breaking the rules of painting with his masterpieces. It’s this side of him that has generated interest. But what we’ve done in the film is show him as more of a gentle soul, and I hope that people suffering from bipolar take comfort in this. There’s really something for everyone in the movie.” 

‘Loving Vincent’ is now available to buy on digital, Blu-ray and DVD. 

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