Though I rarely give them credit for it, LEGO are occasionally on a lucky streak and among a sea of mediocre or terrible Star Wars, Super Heroes and Friends sets there are little gems. The recent The Mighty Bowser (71411) was one of them and now we have Vincent van Gogh – The Starry Night (21333). That in itself is extra remarkable as the LEGO Ideas series is also in a bit of a slump with way too many not so great sets like the ones based on TV series, films and games or the recent tabletop kicker game, which really was not well received by anyone.
Now here’s the thing with this one: I’m not a fan of LEGO ART, either, and as you know I also have strong opinions on DOTS and stuff like the Botanical Collection. This has nothing to do with that I dislike doing creative painterly stuff with LEGO, it’s more that I despise the way it’s positioned as decoration and for my taste there’s not necessarily a recognizable effort to do the arts justice. That’s why this one appealed even more to me: You can see that thought has gone into how to represent all the brush strokes and details without merely dissolving them into what equates a low resolution pixel raster.
I wanted this set from the day it was announced, being that I’ve always been a fan of modern impressionism and van Gogh in particular. I have fond memories of visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and it’s simply amazing seeing some of those paintings in reality with their thick layers of paint and sculpted brush strokes. So let’s see what the model holds for us.
Pricing and Contents
This is one of the bigger LEGO Ideas sets at 2316 pieces and this inevitably affects the price. Its MSRP is 170 Euro and as so often I don’t agree on that. You do get a lot of pieces and yes, the finished product has a certain weight, but at the end of the day this is once more a case of many, many small elements constituting the bulk of the pieces and those not really falling under the 10 Cent per piece rule. Since we can never really have nice things without LEGO giving us the middle finger, of course things are further complicated by this package only being available from them directly and a handful of select retailers. Luckily, one of them regularly runs special sales and so I got my chance to pick this up a few days before Christmas for 125 Euro. And wouldn’t you know it – that same seller just this week had another “start of the new year” sale where it could be had for 115 Euro. So it’s not impossible to get a good price, but you have to be patient and wait for the opportunity to strike.
The only minifigure in the set is the master himself, Vincent. They went a bit crazy with the hair by making it a bright orange when the reality likely is that he was just a normal ginger with a Dark Orange tint. At least it makes the figure stand out. The printed tile feels admittedly a bit lame, not least due to the studs. I would have preferred a nice 6 x 6 tile or even bigger, possibly with a MoMa logo on it.
The presentation is also rather uninspired and just looks ugly. Vincent should be standing on a small hill looking down in the valley and I think they could have somehow come up with a solution to that effect and included a few more pieces.
One thing you must be aware of right from the outset that actually building this painting is not much fun most of the time. The actual level of pain vs. happiness will depend on which parts you are currently working on, naturally, but even then you may find yourself only stacking 1 x 1, 1 x 2 and 2 x 2 elements. Things can get really tedious really quickly. Since these days I have trouble concentrating for long durations, anyway, I spread my assembly process across multiple afternoons/ evenings and that’s perhaps a methodology you should employ as well. Thankfully this is helped by many of the sub-sections being just modules that are built individually before being combined.
The process starts out with the part that is going to protrude the most, the tree at the right of the image, or more specifically not the tree itself, but the landscape behind it. This and the background are also pretty much the only area that you build conventionally upright with curved slopes and all that, whereas the other segments massively use sideways building techniques and other trickery. Most of it is just preparation for the later addition of the tree behind which a good part of this section will be hidden, so it isn’t the most complex and most detailed section, anyway.
The second major step is the lower left area of the painting and this is perhaps the most annoying phase of the whole venture. It’s layers upon layers of round plates, 1 x 1 studs and quarter tiles. This takes forever and somehow you always think you’re finished only to discover that the next page of the instructions has yet more for you to do. In the end it’s worth it, but it seriously drags on.
By contrast building the background is a walk in the park as you kind of mindlessly just stack 1 x 4 plates, only interrupted by having to insert a few brackets and smaller plates every now and then. At the same time it’s a bit of a drain on the brain, as you need to pay a lot of attention to not mix up colors while your thoughts are drifting over this repetitive work. The bags are the ones with the number 5 and you have two of them filled to the brim with Blue plates alone and then there’s still the other ones.
I made a little oopsie and somewhere wrongly used a Dark Blue plate too many where it should have been a regular Blue one, but it didn’t stand out negatively and I didn’t want to spend my time backtracking where I went wrong, so I left it in there. If this happens more than in one spot and the irregularities in the flow of the pattern become too noticeable you possibly can’t avoid having to fix at least some of the mistakes.
With the basic painting done you then have to build the frame onto which later to plug the “canvas” similar to how it works with real paintings. Interestingly enough many of van Gogh‘s paintings were never properly framed when they first were created because he didn’t have the money for it or didn’t want them to be framed, so the design of the frames is pretty much arbitrary and more a decision of the curators and owners of the art pieces. The black frame apparently came about as a result of the image being cleaned up and undergoing restoration work after it had been displayed in some ugly golden frames for decades.
This is of course beneficial for re-creating it in LEGO and the designers have done a good job. The frame is very sturdy and easy to build and similar to the background you don’t need to stress your brain too much. It is built mostly from large elements such as a ton of 2 x 8 and 1 x 16 bricks and of course all the slopes. The edges are capped off with the rounded 1 x 4 slopes and matching corner elements as they were introduced last year e.g. in the LEGO Architecture Singapore (21057) set or the DOTS message boards (41951 and 41952). There is provision to put the picture on the wall with a hanger, but I feel that this is better presented standing on a shelf or in a showcase where you can look at it from slightly above and still see all the details you built.
This is also the point where I would have to come up with a serious complaint. The “canvas” is affixed into the frame using these T-style brackets and while there are enough of them and everything is stable once you actually manage to press them on hard enough, doing exactly that is a bit of an exercise, especially if you’re free-handing things and don’t work on a flat table. There’s also no real locking of everything, so it’s easy enough to push out the insert. I almost managed to ruin my day in such a situation and could barely manage to catch the painting so it didn’t drop to the floor. That is to say that once you’re at this stage this becomes a matter of handling the model with two hands like a tablet to prevent disaster.
With the frame in place you’re getting closer to the finish line and the cloud swirls are added. This is where the limitations of working with 90 degree angles really show as everything still looks a bit blocky despite the designer’s best efforts to disguise everything with slopes and stair step approximations. This is one of those things where alternate brick manufacturers that have direction inverters and other elements would have an advantage. Here again I made a minor mistake using a Light Aqua plate somewhere instead of a Bright Light Blue one, so I had to resort to my own stock to account for the wrongly used plate.
The final steps are just plugging on the various discs for the stars and moon an d then finishing up the trees so they can be slid into the place you constructed at the very beginning. The group of cypresses is another minor weak spot owing to the way it’s built. To keep things slender it’s only a bunch of alternating slopes with a few thing plates and as a result some areas only overlap by one or two studs. As you would imagine that makes it easy to accidentally break them off.
After all your toiling you’re left with a bunch of intentional spares in addition to the usual small extra bits. These are from the background step and you should basically have two 1 x 4 plates of every color used there along with a few 1 x 2. Since I made some errors this doesn’t work out as it should have, apparently. That in fact made me wish they had thrown in two spare elements of each color, including the ones I made a mess with.
The result is rewarding, but the road is a long and rocky one for this set. That’s why no doubt it also isn’t for everyone. It’s not just that you have to have some interest in the artistic side of things, but also a lot of patience. This doesn’t offer any instant gratification especially due to the complex and long-winded assembly process. After this even I think I will not go near a similar project for a while and focus on stuff that’s more fun. That said this is still a gorgeous set. Too bad the price is a bit off-kilter and will deter some people from buying it. In the 100 Euro range this could have been a real smash hit.