dix fois, cents fois: Degas’s advice for artists

1157_10200754970055686_113377938_nTen times is probably a good number for deciding if you like a thing.  And a hundred times is surely a good number for mastering it (or for beginning its mastery).

Degas thought you should repeat things the way that a ballerina repeats her dance steps or a musician practices a musical figure.  You gain skill and sureness with each repetition.  But sometimes you also gain ideas.  The differences between one repetition and another can sometimes lead to new ideas. Thus it’s a source of invention in art.


“Il faut refaire dix fois, cent fois le même sujet.”  You must redo — ten times, one hundred times — the same subject.

across the room jan 6 2012

Certainly one hundred times is excessive if you don’t love the thing.  But ten times is a way of gaining skill.  And ten times offers enough repetitions to get to know the subject in a preliminary way — to learn it.  With ten repetitions you find out if you do love the motif — whether or not it’s the right motif for you.

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And if after you’ve done the subject ten times, you wish to explore it further then you know that your love is deep.

You could do ten versions of this, and ten versions of that, and discover through the process what kinds of things matter to you.  Somewhere in that process you will find that the subject holds deeper meaning (even if you don’t know what that meaning is).  At that point you want to plunge in and really explore its every aspect.  Exploration leads to invention.


detail of the drawing

I have certain subjects that I return to again and again.  I did not begin them with the idea that they would become my particular venues.  I went into the subject innocently.  But I was heeding some call — even if I was unaware.

I am not sure how many subjects I have — some I’m keenly aware of — the koi, flowers, seashells, certain kinds of landscape.  If I did one hundred of each — GOODNESS —  that would be four hundred right there!

Degas is a strict task master!  But this is all stuff that one loves.  It would be wonderful to do one hundred repetitions of each subject!

Today I’m beginning the Big Tidy Campaign of 2017 and part of tidying is taking inventory.  I begin this inventory with an inventory of my thoughts — and of my fishes!

green fish vase

The green fish vase,

fish vase wc (2)something that I found at the thrift shop, is a favorite object for me.  I have been drawing it today in watercolor and oil pastel, making drawings for a painting. Green Fish Vase (I should call it GFV for short) has a prominent place in a still life I’m developing.  These drawings are for practice and joy.

Both drawings are totally sloppy.  I have been throwing color at this thing aggressively. I am thinking about shapes and colors, and I’m very untidy about it.


Both drawings are a little vague on the right hand side because in the painting something else will be sitting in front of Green Fish Vase.  So the contour I draw here won’t actually find its way into the painting. But I like knowing the object well. The drawings are not just about the view in the painting.  They are about this wonderful, clunky, imaginative vase of green glass in the shape of a fish.

The second drawing completes the notebook of the post prior. It uses the last sheet of paper.


I’m beginning an oil study today, June 25.


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my super fast flower drawing

quick drawing

I have to leave for the life class soon. But it’s still possible to draw something.  So oil pastel for freedom, small notebook (8 x 10), little bouquet of fake flowers quickly assembled and then “draw fast.”

I love oil pastel’s freedom. So direct: think the thought, make the mark.

First Go

I got this far and stopped.  For one thing, I had to get to bed.  It was late.  But I felt that something special had begun to happen.  I have to get back to this drawing, but I stopped at the threshold of the moment when I first saw whatever magic it is that I long for.

Looking at it this morning, it looks familiar to me in a new way.  When I first drew this motif large, I had stopped in a similar place.

I have drawn these guys before several times.  And I am getting at something.  I don’t know what it is.  But big or small, it intrigues me.

I had done a large practice drawing (above).  I had done a small practice drawing (below).

I had got this far with a large one.

Then there was another large version.

And now I revisit it again.  I never get tired of repeating these same motifs.  And just making the lines holds a fascination for me that I cannot describe.

Doing this motif now small again, nearly the same size as the reference photo, drawing all these little blues lines, and watching the fish emerge — it has such a quiet beguiling charm over me.  The lines themselves are so mesmerizing.

Who invented the ballpoint pen?  Oh, I would embrace you — whoever you are — that you have brought me such joy!  God bless you …

My classicism

I have a painting that I am going to finish soon.  Really.  And I plan to resume working on it.   Having studied my calendar diligently I feel very confident of being able, very soon, to find myself reliably in the vicinity of the easel and the paint — for you know it’s difficult to paint when you are occupying one portion of the space-time and the canvas and tools are occupying quite another.

It’s been a busy month.

And during my unintended sabbatical from painting, I stir my hopes by doing same-size drawings of the motif.  It is almost like being there.  I draw the same shapes, apply the same colors, get some very similar effects, and so have a rehearsal of my idea and satisfy a bit of the longing for the motif.

And if one definition of “classicism” is the desire to perfect an ideal — well, I’m traveling that road.  Not by choice, necessarily, but I’m traveling.  It was forced upon me by the big “Detour” signs I encounter at every turn of an overly hectic days. 

But I won’t complain too much.  As long as my friends permit me to keep posting repetitious views of the same motif.

Koi Rethought

I got new paper for drawing koi.  It’s texture is different from what I’ve used before, and the size is a “middle” size, smaller than what I’ve recently become accustomed to in my “big koi drawings,” and all these changes collectively make doing these drawings seem very strange and different to their author.  Perhaps they do not look as strange to others as they feel to the artist.  Yet whatever the degrees of difference, I find a renewed appeal in visiting motifs I’ve drawn before and finding that the material resists me.

This second drawing is one I already posted.  I reworked it a bit.  It’s also on the new paper.  These feel like sketches for the large pictures.  When you make drawings around the size of 50 inches, a drawing of about 25 inches feels like a sketch, as a guppy in relation to a grown koi, perhaps….

A detail follows.

Revisiting Fishes

These guys made an appearance in the latest koi drawing (of the previous post) and here they are as I had drawn them once before.  I thought it would be fun to repost them and see how they relate to their new twins.

There’s a lot of ideas available in the same motif, even in the same leitmotif of a motif.  And at’s a lot of motifs.

My day at the beach of thought

I needed a day at the beach real bad.  So I went there in imagination by drawing my favorite object of nature.

This was mostly a left-hand day, too.  I wanted to be very carefree.

Looking for all the angles, I turned my shell upside down.  I think.  Actually, I’m not sure it has an upside.

Looked at the lines.

Looked at forms and shadows.

Tried one path and changed my mind.


And then I had to go home.  The beach of the imagination has less sand than a real beach, less of a wonderful breeze, but it still has magic.

La Crème de la Creamers

As advised by her union, Doll has taken another day off.  In her absence I turned my attention to my creamy colored creamer.

The great artist Edgar Degas once said, “il faut refaire la même chose dix fois cent fois”  (you must redo the same thing ten times, a hundred times), but hopefully Doll won’t be gone that long.

I don’t know whether or not another French expression applies here.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change,  the more they stay the same.)

Or whether my creamer metamorphoses or stays the same.

I gave it the most loving attention that could be fixed upon a little creamer.

I even drew what it feels like, drawing without looking at it, drawing with the sense of touch.

I drew it many times, and still it has secrets to share.

Let’s have a nice round of applause for the star of the show, the Creamer!

Il faut refaire la meme chose, dix fois, cent fois ….

So said Degas (Edgar Degas, the great 19th century French painter), “you must redo the same thing, ten times, a hundred times.”  Judging by his works, he meant it too.  Degas revisited the same subjects, the same poses, again and again.  He was the epitome of a classicist, ever searching for the perfect form.

There are lots of ways of redoing the same thing.  Sometimes it means literally redrawing the same motif.  Sometimes it means a continual revisiting of the same idea about materials (say, pen and ink).  Sometimes it’s a series or variations.  In all instances it is practice, the same thing your piano teacher told you.  “Practice, practice, practice!”

To really play your scales, it doesn’t hurt to make some copies after great artists.  The difference between the copy and the original is the introduction of your own identity into the mix.