A Lesson in Composition to Help You Paint Like Degas

I took an interesting workshop recently on using meditational practices that are meant to better oneself. It involved envisioning a mentor or someone I admire, doing what I want to be doing, and then transferring those thoughts to see myself doing that same thing, just as successfully. This is a fascinating theory, and while I had a wonderful breakthrough that inspired me to use concrete action and work harder toward a specific personal goal, I know that it’s those actions that will ultimately get me there.

For you, studying a master such as Degas is a solid step that you can take to get closer to painting with a similar level of expression. His use of color and ideal compositions are to be admired, and artist Damian Callan understands how to practice the techniques that can help you. He breaks them down, step by step, in his new book titled Paint Like Degas: Learn the Secret Techniques of the Master of Movement and Light.

Woman Ironing by Edgar Degas_How to paint like Degas

Woman Ironing by Edgar Degas

“Degas was spectacularly inventive in his approach to composition,” says Callan. “His working methods demonstrate a flexibility and willingness to adapt and modify his compositions (for example, adding extra pieces of paper to change the format of a piece and radically alter the image). Movement characterizes many of his subjects–the dancers, the racehorses–and this was in turn emphasized by his choice of composition. For instance, the long, wide, double-square format with figures arranged along a diagonal from one corner to another would enhance the sense of movement of the figures arranged within it. He was also interested in photography and the accidental cropping of figures in a snapshot. This cropping tended to give a more natural or authentic arrangement of people–much more like real life, and therefore more dynamic and unpredictable. In these moving subjects he also employed a wonderful approach to the pattern and rhythm of repeated figures, whether dancers in a line on the bar, or horses in a line at the start of a race.

“The Dance Lesson (1879; above) illustrates many of the above points. The format is long and narrow, and the figures are spread out from left to right (the direction in which we “read” a painting), from the bottom left corner up to the top right corner. These figures get smaller in scale as we look along the painting, decreasing in size as they get farther away. Hence the movement across the painting is also a movement away from us, deeper into the picture plane. This is further emphasized by the cropping of the first seated dancer in the foreground–effectively she is so near that she doesn’t even fit into the picture frame. Meanwhile, off in the distance another figure at the opposite end of this line is also cropped severely so that her face and hands are all out of the frame. Each dancer is turned in a different direction from the next– there is almost a spiraling motion from the first through to the last. The architecture with a dado line runs diagonally straight up the painting–but the figures themselves create a broken line with varying distances between each group, creating a more interesting and natural rhythm.” ~ D.C.

Callan goes on to share four specific tips on how to create an art composition that’s as impeccable as those of the master. Click here to order Paint Like Degas.

4 Art Composition Tips to Help You Paint Like Degas by Damian Callan

  • Degas’ inventive compositions were often based on unusual formats. Try drawing on square papers, or long narrow double squares. By choosing unusual formats, your compositions will often surprise you as you attempt to deal with different parts of the design.
  • It is instinctual to try to contain your whole subject within the edges of the frame, so if you’re struggling with this try intitially photographing your subject deliberately cropped and work from that.
  • Carefully consider the placement of your subjects within the frame, and avoid the obvious. By cropping out some features, Degas’ compositions appear more natural and less contrived.
  • As well as the placement, consider how the position of your subjects reflect the theme or mood you want to convey. So in the above painting, the spiraling motion conjured by the positions of the dancers immediately makes you think of the movements of a dance.

Wishing you success in art and life,

Cherie Haas, online editor

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