Friday, September 16, 2011

The Degas Exhibition - notes for pastellists

First - following on from yesterday's post - REVIEW: Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement - I forgot to say that all pastellists visiting the exhibition should leave a large proportion of the time allowed for visiting the exhibition for Room 9 - Colour and Dynamism (the penultimate room in the exhibition).  This is where most of the larger scale colourful late pastels are located.  You'll need much more time for this room than some of the others - as Alastair Sooke commented in this Telegraph video about the exhibition - How Degas captured movement

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement - Gallery Guide

I've had the experience before now of making a special pilgrimage to an art gallery or museum to see a pastel by Degas - only to find that it's off on its travels to an exhibition somewhere(!) or it's in the process of restoration (the latter being what happened last time I visited the Musee d'Orsay).  Sooooo frustrating!

So if you enjoy pastels works and art by Degas you should definitely make a point of seeing the exhibition!

Pastellists may well enjoy the notes of insights below into Degas's process of working.  Like any good pastellist I had to ask some of the more obvious questions!

I noticed that a lot of the work was on tracing paper and yet these works displayed a scumbling effect which could not be achieved unless done over an abrasive surface.

I asked Richard Kendall about both the surface of the work and the fixative he used.  His view was that
  • the tracing paper seems to have been fixed to card before he started.  Also the tracing paper he used might not have been the same as that used today.  In any event, the card created a rougher surface and hence the speckled optical mixing effect caused by scumbling and a surface which is  far from smooth.
  • Degas's approach to his pastel work was to work in pastel and fix each layer as he progressed using a dilute solution of shellac.  (Presumably mixed with alcohol)
Colour/ Lightfastness of Pastels & Fragility Issues

Edgar Degas - Les Jupes Rouges / The Red Ballet Skirts, c. 1895-1901
Pastel on tracing paper, 81.3 x 62.2 cm
Lent by Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City Council.
Gifted by Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944.
Image © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)
Pastel Supports and Fixative

The late pastel works reveal the dense pattern of colours created by the optical hatching employed by Degas which serves to make the colours vibrate.  A blue-green and a vibrant salmon pink/orange-red are perennial favourites in his palette. Muted greens and purples are also frequently present.  The presence of charcoal for the under-drawing is also often very evident.

What was interesting to me, as a pastellist, was how much better the colour is in the pastel works compared to the paintings where the work of the environment and time has conspired to create paintings where the colour is now more muted and has less impact compared to when first painted.

Now this may be because the pastel works on paper may not have been displayed for as long as the paintings or in the same light conditions.

However it's worth reminding ourselves as pastellists (and this is me not the curator speaking) that
  • the fragility problem essentially relates to the paper and not the pigment per se - as it's very often the case that exactly the same artists' pigments are used in all coloured media for use by artists
  • how pigment responds to the environment depends on what it's bound with and how it is protected (eg glazed or unglazed; varnished or unvarnished).  
  • the colour of oil paint tends to be affected by how varnish changes over time and, given the lack of glazing, the dirt in the atmosphere in which is has been hung.  The colours in Oil paintings which have been cleaned look completely different to the subdued/brownish affairs which have never been touched
  • the quality of colour in pastel works depends on:
    • the nature of the fixative and 
    • how/where they are hung.  If they're behind glass they should not be affected by dirt.
My personal belief is that works in pastel have the potential to be are a lot more robust than people often think - although it does always depend on the indidivual approach of each pastel artist.

The catalogue

What I did find very disappointing - and this a comment I have made previously in relation to other RA exhibition catalogues - is that the quality of the colour reproduction in the catalogue is poor.  That may in part depend on the quality of the image they have to work with - and frankly some of these could be improved too.  However it seems ironic that this should be the case when considering an artist who is particularly well known for his colour work.  I can't imagine if he was an artist who was alive today, that the colour reproduction would pass without comment amongst RA members.

If Taschen can achieve both very good colour reproduction and very reasonable prices for their publications I really don't think there is any excuse at all for catalogues with poor colour - particularly when they are not cheap!

Do buy the catalogue - but buy it for the text and the mono images rather than the colour images.

I really do hope that the RA in the near future will look very carefully at its contractors for catalogue production and/or its QA processes inhouse as their catalogue colour images bring them no credit and are such a disappointment.

Note:   Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement opens this Saturday (17 September) at the Royal Academy of Arts and continues until 11 December. 


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    The things you say regarding archivality (spell check doesn't like this word) make good sense and I endorse what you say.

    I'll be posting the video with a hat tip to you.

  2. I have often wondered how in the days of old how, Degas and others fixed their work, as it seems as perfect as the day it was 'painted'.

    Now I know and thank you for finding out, what still bothers me is how did they apply the shellac without smudging their work?

  3. You use a spray diffuser - used with a jar of the fixative. One end goes in the mouth and you blow and hopefully it comes out as a fine spray.

    see examples here (This is the version I Know)

    I've never felt confident about using this type of diffuser, it takes some skill.

    Alternatively, nowadays a simple pump diffuser

  4. I re-read this post and have more to say.

    The video from the Telegraph gives a stunning effect of the colors in Degas' works, much better than, for instance, the jpeg posted.

    Your example of Taschen's quality resonates with me. High color and inexpensive. Sometimes I feel the production and perhaps computer techs cannot see straight.

    I won't be running out to buy a can of shellac varnish anytime soon. It is worth noting, IMO, that the pastels available in Paris in Degas' day (I think of 3 brands as I understand it) were very outstanding. We still use them today.

    Edgar Degas is in the hall of fame for draftsmenship, yet it is probably true that he traced over his own image references, as I know he did combine his photographs of a a ballerina to montage groups of ballerinas. Also, he grided-out some figures.

    All this in addition to working from life models and from his wax statues. If this sounds strange to some, keep in mind that the difference between a master's copy of his own work vs. an amateur's tracing of an image are distinct. The master's work still looks wonderful, but the amateur may not be so grand.

  5. Thanks Casey

    I forgot to mention that a number of the charcoal drawings of studies of ballerinas show clear evidence of having been gridded up for transposing to a larger sheet for a more considered work.

    I think it's possible that one of the reasons he used tracing paper may in part have been so be could try moving shapes around when he was assembling groups. It's a not uncommon phenomenon.


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