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.