Drawing Like Degas

The name of Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) conjures up an array of images, perhaps most commonly the ballet dancers he rendered so movingly. His works range from tight, hard-edged realism to loose impressionism (a term he disliked), from charcoal drawings and pastels to oil paintings to magnificent sculptures in wax and bronze. One of the most instructive elements of this versatile artist’s repertoire was his drawing ability, so let’s focus on what we can learn from his many outstanding drawings, both independent of and in preparation for his finished pieces. Examine Degas’ drawing and see how much of his technique you can apply to your own work.

The Master’s Tools
Degas was a serious and incessant experimenter, using a wide variety of drawing tools and media, including graphite, chalk, Conte crayons, charcoal and pastel (see A World of Choices below). He was constantly reworking his drawings and paintings, his restless mind always in search of the perfect way to transfer his visions to his surfaces. This example can help us better understand an important principle of art: that successful artists don’t allow themselves to be limited in their search for better ways to enhance their work.

Although he frequently drew on a smooth surface, Degas’ drawing supports were as varied as his media, including canvas, bristol board and various papers. Many of his drawings on bristol board were done in oil thinned with “essence” (probably turpentine), and to gain a matte appearance he frequently used a method called “de-oiling,” in which he squeezed his paint onto a blotting material to absorb, and thus reduce, the amount of oil mixed in with the pigment. With pastels he used fixative between successive layers, and he often used pastel paste—a combination of ground pastels and his secret fixative—over oil sketches.

From an early age Degas was a superb copyist of the earlier masters, even becoming a registered copyist at the Louvre in Paris. For his own training, he generally copied individual figures or fragments from masterworks rather than copying entire paintings—a wise example for any artist to follow. Degas was interested primarily in replicating the surface techniques and subject treatments of other artists rather than in trying to analyze their ingredients or break down their methods of application. In other words, his concern was with what we see in the paintings, not how it got there. Furthermore, he quickly realized how useful photography could be to his work, so he learned to take pictures of his models and has left clear evidence of his probable reliance on them for some of his paintings.

Something to Use
How can you learn to draw like Degas? Taking his example, the first thing to do is to copy your favorite works—in this case, those of Degas himself, particularly his drawings and sketches (see A Feast for the Eyes, below, for resources). You can start by tracing them with good-quality tracing paper. One of the advantages of tracing the actual marks made by Degas is that it imparts the feeling—directly through your hand—that you, too, can draw like that. With practice tracing and copying in a variety of media, you’ll get a sense of the mechanics of Degas’ strokes.

But these are just steps for building your own repertoire of skills. Use these skills to test out your ideas in thumbnail sketches. Also, take note of how Degas’ figures, like most, are constructed of simple but highly useful shapes that form limbs, torsos and heads (see A Closer Look). Get familiar with these and you’ll be able to visualize and draw the human form in any position. Next give your forms the look of three dimensions by overlapping them and softening their edges, or even letting the edges disappear. Careful handling of edges is crucial to a sense of depth, and Degas was a master at this.

Finally, there’s one more example of Degas’ that you might follow. To deepen his understanding of forms, he sculpted small figure models from clay, and as his vision gradually failed him in his later years he turned to sculpting more and more. Beginning with a simple armature and using those simple shapes, you can apply ordinary modeling clay to develop—and, more importantly, to feel—the figures you want to draw.

Something to Learn
If there’s a simple lesson to learn from the drawings of Degas, it’s to never limit your artistic curiosity. In his methods and materials, Degas was willing to try whatever it took to get the image he wanted. To this end, ignore any drawing instruction you’re given that tells you there’s only one way to draw something, or that something you’re interested in won’t work. If Degas had accepted such burdens, we wouldn’t be enjoying the marvelous range of his creativity.

A World of Choices

Degas is known to have used a wide variety of surfaces and media in a wide variety of combinations. Here’s a partial list that can give you ideas for trying something new with your own drawings.

  • Graphite penciles or sticks shaved to a fine point
  • Conte crayons, made by combining varying amounts of clay and graphite
  • Charcoal of charred twigs and vines, often in combination with black crayon and stump, on off-white woven paper.
  • Pencil over black crayon on gray paper
  • Pencil, pen and brown ink
  • Black pencil and stump with touches of green chalk
  • Graphite pencil on light brown paper
  • Pastel and red crayon on buff paper
  • Graphite on white paper with small amounts of white chalk
  • Pastel and charcoal on gray-beige paper
  • Brushed black ink over pencil with white highlights
  • Black chalk
  • Red chalk
  • Sepia wash with blue ink and gouache
  • Monotypes with or without pastel

A Feast for the Eyes

If you really want to learn from the master, take every opportunity to see originals by Degas. You can find some good collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Denver Art Museum, The Saint Louis Art Museum, The Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In addition, there are many fine books about Degas that may be your only chance to see many of his numerous drawings and sketches. Here are a few you might check out:

  • Degas: Life and Work by Denys Sutton (Artabras, 1991).
  • Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago by Richard R. Bretell and Suzanne F. McCullagh (Art Institute of Chicago, 1984).
  • Edgar Degas: Dancers and Nudes (Pegasus Library) by Lillian Schacherl (Prestel USA, 1997).
  • Degas by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge (Abradale Press, 1988).
  • Degas: The Nudes by Richard Thomson (Thames and Hudson, 1988).

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