Having the opportunity to visit any art museum is a pleasure. There’s always something to be learned. While art books and magazines serve a great purpose in providing visibility to many pieces of artwork that would otherwise be left in obscurity, they cannot equal the joy of viewing original artwork in person. It’s easy in a museum to tell which viewers are painters. They are usually the ones with their noses in a painting inspecting how the pigment was applied. This insight into technique and style can provide permission for a painter to take chances in their own work, leading to new creative possibilities.
As museums go, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is, without a doubt, one of the greatest. Its collections are vast and it would take days to peruse all of its offerings. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a day at the museum and was able to devote considerable time enjoying the room of pastels that is situated within the French Impressionists area. Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet fill it with numerous works and there were many lessons to be had from both.
When first entering the room you are struck by the dim light, as compared to the other galleries. I’ve enquired about this in the past and was informed that it was not due to any fragility of the pastel itself, but instead due to the nature of some of the paper grounds used for application. It was noted that one of the Degas portrait paintings was actually done on a much brighter toned paper that had faded to a lovely shade of gray. Beautiful as it was, it must have been an eye popper at one time.
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917) was a prolific artist. Upon his death, he had produced more than 2,000 oil paintings, pastels and sculptures. As his eyesight began to fail, he worked more and more with pastel and sculpture. Many of these pastels show a bold use of color and texture, foregoing the delicacy of earlier line work. Besides his use of innovative composition, masterful drawing skills, and perceptive portrayal of movement, he is perhaps best known among pastelists for his constant experimentation with new techniques that have forever changed how we think of the medium. This was very evident when reading the information card placed next to his painting, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, dated 1874, which is one of three paintings he did depicting this scene. The card noted: “Medium: Oil colors freely mixed with turpentine, with traces of watercolor and pastel over pen-and-ink drawing on cream-colored wove paper, laid down on bristol board and mounted on canvas.” Practically nothing had been left out. He had used whatever he needed to express what he wished.
As painting/drawing media go, pastel is nearly limitless in its possibilities. All that is required is enough surface tooth for the pigment to adhere. I always tell students, “There may be many rules in painting, but there is only one law: The Archival Law. Whatever is used must not deteriorate. Otherwise, don’t worry about what to label as its medium. Just worry that it is beautiful.
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