Edgar Degas's innovative steaming technique with pastels can be duplicated by using a travel steamer.
Recently, while teaching a workshop in New Orleans, I was reminded of Edgar Degas’ ties to the city. The artist’s mother was an American who hailed from the “Crescent City” and her family home stands proudly, in a somewhat altered state from the massive original structure, on majestic Esplanade Avenue. When we think of pastel, it’s impossible not to consider the Degas legacy. He is justifiably credited with elevating the medium to a serious form of artistic expression, and his innovative techniques have inspired generations of pastelists.
One of the techniques Degas employed was the application of steam. A kettle of boiling water provided the fine water vapor and he reportedly applied it—in a variety of combinations of pastel and mixed-media—to produce different effects. At times, the stream was gently misted over the pastel surface to settle the outer layer of pastel. This didn’t produce a hard “fixed” surface like an application of resin-based fixative. Instead, it helped to bind the delicate outer pastel layer, making it less prone to migration and less fragile. He also applied the steam to thick passages of pigment, creating a pastel paste. This was then manipulated, either with a painting knife or brush, as the paste dried. Spraying water would have created a similar effect but steam was easier to regulate, allowing him to create a viscosity that met his needs. At other times, he would combine charcoal, watercolor or gouache with the dry pastel and then steam them together, creating interesting textures.
Today, instead of a kettle of boiling water, we can utilize a travel steamer or the steam function of a clothes iron. These appliances can be positioned next to a studio easel, providing ease of access while painting. It’s best to use distilled or filtered water; otherwise, impurities may be embedded into the pastel that can lead to eventual discoloration and mold or mildew. Remember to test the steaming process on a failed painting before trying this out on a precious masterpiece to see how it will respond. Different surfaces will react in various ways to the addition of water, even the minimal amount produced by steam. Don’t be surprised to see a slight darkening of the pastel surface when the stream is applied. This should dissipate as the water evaporates but some diminishing of subtle nuances may occur. Steaming is not meant to replace or duplicate the usefulness of workable fixative. No matter how wet the pastel surface is made, once the water evaporates, a soft layer of pastel will emerge.
Louisianans refer to days high in humidity as “steamy.” Having experienced both those days and the maternal home of Edgar Degas while visiting the charming city of New Orleans, “steamy” will always have a dual meaning for me.