If you read about two things (or several) in a story, you wonder what they mean. Maybe their presence is symbolic. Especially if they recur time after time. Isn’t that what we’re taught in literature class? And if you see various images in a painting, maybe they are similarly meaningful. Certain kinds of art are famous for their symbolic content — like the Dutch 17th century still lifes, the vanitas pictures, or anybody’s, any era’s mythological or narrative paintings.
When as an artist you find yourself drawn to certain topics again and again, do the appearances suggest psychological insight and potential self-awareness? What prompts you to depict the things you do? What attracts, what repels?
And in the world of real things, does not the existence of the things have meaning? What do the things suggest about their author?
What does the book of Nature mean whenever we take the time to read it?
I think about Degas a lot. I feel like he’s my teacher. He died in 1917 when my father was just a baby, but I still feel that he’s my true teacher because his works were the world of lines that I studied in my youth. It’s natural, then, that I have strong feelings about his pictures and strong opinions regarding his techniques.
Sometimes you run across artists teaching students how to use pastel as Degas used it. And one thing that I note when I come across these forms of advice is how much they dilute Degas’s actual practice. In trying to explain Degas, these writers are over-simplifying him. So for instance when you look at actual Degas pastels, they are very loosely drawn. He took great liberty in dragging lines of color across forms, and it wasn’t a lack of precision that led him to use lines so broadly since Degas had developed his drawing technique so exquisitely in his youth that he could draw anything he had an interest in drawing. On the contrary, Degas’s evident carelessness in using broad effects was aimed at getting a great degree of visual incident into his pictures.
The textures of the marks take on a huge importance in his drawings. Think about a great musician — and Degas knew and portrayed a lot of musicians. A violinist or cellist at the height of his powers doesn’t just play the notes on the page: he interprets the music and in particular he interprets the sounds coming from his individual instrument. String players speak of “colors” in the notes they play, and just as the musician listens for the depths of a sonorous tone coming from the full technique of playing so Degas is watching the pastel lines as they form on the page and is using the physical beauty of the materials as a strong element of the subject.
“Drawing is not form, but a way of seeing form.”
Le dessin n’est pas la forme, il est la manière de voir la forme.
Sometimes drawing isn’t even the form; it is the space around forms or the area of the paper that lies between one form and another. Degas made the spaces between things a factor in the drawing.
His drawings are images of the things he portrays — the bathers, the dancers, the horses and jockeys, etc. but they are also the lines and colors that express visual ideas — the width of a line, its swell and taper, its passage over other lines in the hatching, the combinations of colors and their effects, the suggestion of motion in these lines — and it is not just the motion one might expect of the subject — dancers move, horses and jockeys move — but also our thoughts move, our eyes scan this picture, our feelings are in motion and the gesture of a line can relate to all these qualities.
Artists emulating Degas are always so much less bold than the man himself was. If we want to learn the lesson he teaches, we do well to take his lessons more to heart by striving for both the complexity and the daring that he sought.
The illustration above comes from the Kunstmuseum Basel.
I’m drawing Renoir’s Ballet Dancer from the National Gallery online, looking at a reproduction of the painting and using the website’s zoom feature. The dancer seems so simple, especially compared to some contemporary drawings of faces that I was looking at earlier today. Renoir had almost seemed to be bested by a contemporary artist, but looking more closely, I find the dancer’s face to be so subtle and difficult to capture. Perhaps the difficulty lies with the simplicity. Get one detail of a feature off just a little and the whole effect is mistaken. The frankness of gaze disappears, the sense of her living presence then eludes.
Mine is not his. I am still tinkering with it since it pleases me to fuss over it. The process makes me feel closer to Renoir. His frank art is easy to underestimate. Yet there’s a freshness and immediacy in his painting — and also depth, but the latter is subtle and easily missed.
I think that it’s through drawing that I am now sensing the nuance. How amazing to make a seemingly living face from such spare means as he uses.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is celebrating a birthday. As part of the celebration the museum’s education department has a “Sketching is Seeing” program going until April 24th. Visitors to the gallery can get a free notebook and pencil — pencils are courtesy of Faber-Castell company — and the Gallery is encouraging visitors to enjoy the art they see by making drawings of their own. You don’t have to be an artist. Just draw. I got my free notebook and made a couple sketches yesterday while I was there.
It’s a big planet and not everybody can come to the museum for the party. But part of how the museum has changed over time includes this thing called the internet. Many paintings, drawings and sculptures in the museum’s collection are available to see on the museum website. So even if you can’t be in Washington, you can still make drawings wherever you are and can post them on social media using the hashtag #NGAsketch.
That’s what I’ve done regarding the drawing above. Using the website zoom tool while looking at Fragonard’s “Young Girl Reading,” I made this drawing. At home I have the pencil, notebook and a flexible erasure. Given the tonal character of Fragonard’s image, I find it helpful to smudge the graphite and pull out some of the lights. Next time I visit the Gallery, if I want to draw Fragonard’s girl again, this drawing I made at home will help me better understand the image. Think of this as a rehearsal.
If you’re near DC, come visit the museum in person. The Education Department has some nifty displays set up in the Information room (that’s where you get your free notebook and pencil) — and these displays are themselves really fun. Currently they’ve replicated a Harnett trompe l’oeil painting so that you can draw a still life set up rather similar (in a theatrical sort of way) to what Harnett might have been looking at. Now doesn’t that sound like fun.
So go to the party in Washington, if you can make it. Or if you’re far away, join the party from your internet location. And just draw!
I was just searching for some of my own pictures on the internet using the innocuous search term “warm” because I surmised that I had written about warm and cool colors, and I was curious what the term would capture.
In an image search these two pictures came up coincidentally side by side. One is a detail of a still life containing a honey jar shaped like a bee hive and the other is a detail from a drawing featuring a broad yellow tree in an oriental formal garden. They are so similar in shape!
Sometimes I absent mindedly put one canvas next to another while arranging things in my studio and glancing back upon them am stunned to discover that one line or form flows right into the scene of the adjacent painting as if by design!
Who knows what connections one’s mind has made while the consciousness wasn’t paying attention. What do large dome shaped yellow forms mean in the grand scheme of things? Now I feel oddly connected to Monet’s haystacks in a way I never guessed before — or to this amazing painting by Van Gogh ….
Of course mine are pale echoes of Van Gogh’s powerful haystacks.
What do large yellow domed things mean? Does anyone know?
Here’s another reason why we do art: to find out what the Sam Hill is going on inside our heads. For that we need to spy thoughts with our own eyes.