In January 1987 I saw an exhibition, The Private Degas, at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, that changed my life. As a student I had admired Degas’ work but this show revealed some of the means by which the artist arrived at his startling images and allowed an intimate insight into his unique working methods through his drawings, studies and prints.
Degas made pastel his preferred medium when he was in his 50s. He often worked on a large scale, adding strips of extra paper to the original drawing as his forms expanded. Working on different varieties and colours of paper, often smooth tracing paper, he would apply the pastel directly to the charcoal underdrawing, or on occasion a black and white monotype, in a series of extraordinary calligraphic marks. As successive layers of colour built up to create an open weave of cross-hatched strokes, the colours worked with and against each other, creating a sense of pictorial dynamism. Between each stage he would fix the drawing so that he could continue without dirtying the colours below. His surfaces are incredibly varied – sometimes he would crush the sticks of pastel into liquid and apply them with a brush, making washes of heavily pigmented colour; at other times he would use steam from a boiling kettle to diffuse the surface, leaving it pitted with tiny pockmarks. The speed of observation and memory necessary in working with moving figures has informed my approach to brushwork and mark-making, and my study of Degas’ methods has encouraged me to be as bold and direct as possible.
Demonstration: Dancer Tying her Shoes
My reference photograph
I rapidly established the major movements of the pose; I was particularly fascinated by the dancer’s arching form as she reached to tie her shoe. I made no distinction between fabric and body as I wanted to energise the drawing by the broken rhythm of the heavy charcoal lines. At this stage I do not worry about exactitude, knowing this is the beginning of a prolonged engagement
I locked the figure into the composition with a loosely worked covering of diagonal, horizontal and vertical marks that follow the dancer’s anatomy and began to develop the colour balance of the picture by introducing descriptive touches of pink for her shoes and sash
After thoroughly fixing the initial layers of pastel I have started to overwork the entire composition with a mesh of open marks that allow the previous layers and the grey tone of the paper to show through. As the layers built up I was able to capitalise on the particular ability of pastel to unite texture and colour
Degas’ late pastels emphasise the animal-like strength and grace of the dancer. As my drawing developed I too emphasised this expressive aspect to create a strong sculptural and tactile presence; like Degas I am not expressing the character of the model so much as the dynamic tension of her movement
Dancer Tying her Shoe, 2008, pastel, 16312in (40.5330.5cm).
I concentrated on enriching the colour balance of the composition: Degas loved to bring his models right up close to the spectator, using just enough detail to create a sense of mystery and atmosphere
This short extract was taken from an article by Ghislaine Howard, The Artist October 2008 issue.