Art History

Decoding the Pastels of Edgar Degas

Decoding the Pastels of Edgar Degas

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As art students from across the ages can attest, there’s plenty to be learned from copying the work of the masters. I had a unique opportunity to pick up the challenge—focusing on an art icon—for a new video series and art-instruction kit: Decoding Degas.


Fandom for a Master Painter

The practice of copying a great work by a master artist is an age-old tradition. By replicating the composition, line and application techniques of a masterwork, a student can learn specific skills, understand what makes a particular piece of art unique, and experience a well-known painting in a very personal way.

No surprise, then, that since the 1700s, artists have been setting up their easels and pulling out their sketch pads in any museum that allows the practice. I’ve been a fan of the celebrated French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas [1834-1917] ever since I started studying his artwork in the early 1980s.

Up until that point, I’d had only a passing interest in the artist, but a wonderful Degas exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1984—my first up-close encounter with his art—not only piqued my interest in the artist but also set the stage for my own transition from a career in graphic design at an advertising agency to the world of fine art.

The exhibition was around the same time, incidentally, that I’d started to experiment with pastels myself—in the evenings, after my day job. I’d played a bit with pastels in college and then art school, but they didn’t really apply to the work I was creating. Seeing Degas’ pastels in person was monumental.

Two years later, I’d committed myself to fine art painting, full time. Because of this personal connection, it felt like a striking instance of synchronicity when Scott Maier, an executive producer with F+W Media, contacted me and asked the question: “How would you like to re-create Degas pastels in a video?” My love of pastels and the work of Degas made the idea feel practically predestined. When I learned that the dates for the video shoot would coincide with a new Degas exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, my hometown museum, I was even more convinced that synchronicity was at work.

Painting Like Degas

I was allowed to choose any work of Degas’ that didn’t have copyright restrictions for the video project. For a variety of reasons, I selected Woman Combing Her Hair, an 1888-1890 pastel that resides at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.

The fact that Degas was 56 years old when he painted this pastel, and well into his career, resonated with me. Also, I liked that the work is a classic example of his “Bathing Women” series, which are considered ground-breaking for the depiction of models in everyday settings, doing everyday tasks.

This Degas pastel is also an excellent example of how the artist captured skin tones—an important element of his technique that makes the piece a perfect tool for study. Before the video shoot, I painted a full-size copy of Woman Combing Her Hair, which took about a week (below). The process was extremely valuable, allowing me to learn—at my own leisurely pace—more about Degas’ use of line, color contrast and compositional design.

Surface Observations

I took my time to explore the color combinations that he used to depict the hair, background and skin tones in this piece. In my research, I read that Degas’ unique use of purples and chartreuse in skin tones may have been influenced by the work of Van Gogh and Seurat, meaning that Degas had been studying and adopting the techniques and color combinations of his contemporaries. It simply confirms my belief that to be successful and energized as an artist, it’s necessary to continue studying, always.

Ready and … Action!

Armed with my 24 x 18-inch copy of Degas’ pastel painting, we began shooting the video. I worked with a talented group of videographers which included Maier, along with director Jared Jocang Maher and cinematographer Jarrod Basl.

Our goal was to produce something a little different from the typical instructional art video, and I marveled at the creativity the team brought to its film-making. For the first video (out of a set of four), I demonstrated a charcoal drawing of Degas’ pastel.

I endeavored to copy his use of line with all the twists and turns, his sense of design, and his use of shading either by crosshatching with lines or by gentle smudging with his fingers.

It’s important to mention here that, of course, only Degas can create a true Degas. My task was to study, copy and talk about what I learned from the process.

An Artistic Recreation

I re-created several Degas’ pastels and drawings before the shoot to gain a better understanding of how his mind worked and how he went about translating that vision in charcoal on paper. It was an enjoyable exercise, because I wasn’t copying a charcoal but rather copying a finished pastel in charcoal which left me much to learn and absorb—one advantage being that I didn’t have to copy every line rigidly, which can be overwhelming.

In a second demonstration, I built on the charcoal drawing with pastel by adding simple color accents. Degas created a number of charcoal drawings that he enhanced with limited color. Since, once again, I wasn’t copying an existing charcoal, I had the opportunity to tap into the experimental side of Degas, coloring “outside the lines.”

Copy vs. Forgery

The distinction between a copy and a forgery is an important one. To be clear, a copy of a painting exists only as a valuable learning tool. A forgery is a fraudulently created painting that’s designed to deceive dealers, critics and collectors for the purpose of profit.

So, when I mentioned the Degas video project to my son Conor and he asked, with surprise: “You’re going to paint a forgery on camera?” I explained, “No, it will be a copy of a famous pastel.” And then, jokingly, added, “Later, months from now, when I sell it, then it will be a forgery.”

Lessons from Degas

Throughout the course of filming, it was interesting to think about what I’ve learned not only from Degas but also from other artists over the years, and how these influences impact my own choices in terms of mark-making, color and composition.

Perhaps the most essential lesson I’ve taken from Degas is the importance of experimentation—to never fear pushing the boundaries.

Degas used a variety of techniques and media, and painted diverse subject matter, in a wide range of sizes. He was an innovator who truly pushed the limits.

Among his drawings, my favorites are the ones in which he uses thick, bold, expressive lines with dark masses of shapes, as opposed to his more delicate renderings.

As he aged, Degas included more abstract elements in his work. He treated shadows and backgrounds as large shapes and masses, leaving them to the viewer to decipher. I recognize more and more just how much this approach has influenced my own, as it has been a constant element in my own art from the start of my career.

I’ve always painted a variety of subjects to keep me inspired and to help avoid complacency. Sure, I’ve developed favorites—urban and interior subjects, in particular—that have become recurring themes, but I try to approach each painting with a fresh eye and unique perspective.

I’ve also found it important to continue to experiment with a variety of media. Although I work most consistently in pastel and oil, I also work with watercolor, charcoal, pen and ink, and monotypes to stay energized. Hopefully, this diversified approach—which I will credit to Degas—will sustain a long career, as I’m completely unsuitable for any other form of employment.

Decode Degas for Yourself!

The new Decoding Degas video series and kit with Desmond O’Hagan is available now–also available as a digital kit! It consists of four separate videos, with demonstrations of figural work in charcoal, and charcoal and pastel, you’ll learn more about Degas’ unique techniques for painting skin tones, hair and backgrounds. O’Hagan also discusses how the lessons he has learned from Degas—about color, line, contrast and design—impact his own work in a painting demonstration of a Paris street scene.

Award-winning artist DESMOND O’HAGAN is a Master Pastelist in the Pastel Society of America, an Eminent Pastelist in the International Association of Pastel Societies and a Hall of Fame member of the Art Institute of Colorado.

Watch the video: Mastering The Masters with Marla Baggetta - Degas - Pastel Painting Lesson (June 2022).


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