by Nancy Lilly, July 2017
I don’t know about you, but when I admire a masterpiece of any kind in any gallery, the first thing that comes to my mind is, “How did they do that?”
As an artist, technique is important to me. It is my “tool,” my “power” to render an image the way I want. Oh, let’s not take anything away from “seeing.” Being able to really see the gradations of a shadow, the relationship of shapes, and how a composition works is really important. But when I hold that chunk of pastel over my sanded paper, I want a plan on what technique is going to work. Technique to a great extent provides you insight on how the human eye works. What makes us think a realistic painting looks realistic, and why a portrait looks like not only the face of someone but actually who that person really is.
When it comes to studying technique from an online image, I’ve got my nose really close to the screen of my computer and I’m always hoping I can enlarge the image. Fundamentally, nothing replaces looking at art in person. When I’m in a museum, I look around to see if a guard is watching me, and I step as close as I can up to a painting, adjust my glasses and study that half inch area that I’m so impressed with and step back. If I’m still not blocking anyone’s view, I go back up. The other thing I do is research. I’m constantly buying books on technique.
Technique and the Progression of Art
There are reasons why styles of art change. A big part of evolving ‘periods’ of art has to do with the quality and availability of materials, and exactly how the materials are applied. Jackson Pollock wouldn’t have been Jackson Pollock without house paint. William de Kooning’s work would never look as it did without his heavy use of drying extenders. And Edgar Degas’ work could not have achieved its surface complexity without a lot of experimentation in pastel. Knowing how you can use the medium, the technique, really counts.
A Master for Making it Sweet
Pastels were first used as a medium for preparatory drawings. Think late Renaissance. But starting in the 1660s things began to change. Pastel manufacturing improved, and with the softer, creamier, more spreadable colors, artists changed how they ‘used’ the medium. They began to make softer, thicker applications of color that covered the whole support. Instead of making lines, like in a drawing, they began to use their fingertips to smudge marks made with the pastel stick. This ‘technique’ was known as “sweetening.”
When it came to making a ‘sweet’ picture, hats go off to Rosalba Carriera. That’s right, a FEMALE artist, who by sheer talent and tenacity, three hundred years before women had the vote, rose to become a driving force behind the Rococo period of art and who in 1720 would become the acclaimed peintre du roi (painter to the French King).
If you are painting with pastel in 2017, you may be thinking to yourself, “Oh, you mean that ‘sweetening’ was to use the SIDE of the pastel.” You would be right, to a point, but what Carriera did, and what became so popular a technique, was the softening of the medium, the blending to cloudy, misty, ‘sfumato’ effect that promoted a particular style of pastel portraiture. She used a stump or her fingers to lightly ‘smudge’ certain passages. You could think of it as an “HD” effect. Remember, in 1720, no one had a camera and everyone wanted to look really, really good. Getting your portrait done by Rosalba Carriera would be something akin to getting onto the cover of Vanity Fair today. You would look flawless.
Getting Out the “Max Factor”
Carriera would begin her pastel paintings on blue paper (known then as “turchina,” or Turkish paper) commonly used at the time by other Venetian artists to establish a middle tone. Then she would go about creating the face. She would do this very much like women applied cosmetics, then and now. She would wet white or ivory colored pastel and paint on a ‘base skin tone’ over the area of the face. Then once dry, she would revisit the area with dry, powdery pastel to suggest the surface, or ‘bloom’ of a cheek. She had great skill for creating the illusion of flawless skin and a considerable knack for flattering likenesses. This ability eventually led her from quick portraits of tourists making the Grand Tour through Venice, to going to Paris to painting members of the royal court.
Degas Stands Apart
If you love pastel painting, it goes without saying, it is probably because of Edgar Degas. Who has not viewed at least one of his over 400 depictions of ballet dancers?
Born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas in 1834, he is especially identified today as the founder of the French Impressionist movement. He rejected this term however, and preferred to be called a realist.
Staying in the Studio
Painters of the Impressionist movement wanted to convey their visual experience of an exact moment. It will probably surprise you to learn that Degas was often very anti-impressionist in his critique of his fellow artists’ landscapes. He consistently belittled the practice of painting en plein air. In 1869, he did indeed paint a series of landscapes of the Normandy coast in pastel. With their sweeping flat horizons and plentiful skies, they are clearly linked to the pastel cloud studies of Monet and Delacroix. But, Degas drew his landscapes in his studio from his imagination.
“…no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” Edgar Degas
Pushing the Possible with Pastel
In the last few decades of Degas’ career, pastel became his preferred medium. The preference for pastel has been attributed to his declining eyesight, but the calculation and complexity of a late pastel such as Waiting (above) and Two Dancers (below) demonstrates that he could see when and what he wanted to perfectly well. He preferred pastel because he could draw and color with it at the same time. In the mid-1870s, reversals in the Degas family banking business compelled the artist to produce pastels, which he could make and sell more quickly than oil paintings. Eventually, he produced more pastels (over 700 of them) than paintings.
Monotypes and Steam
Degas experimented with methods of making images, pushing pastel, used alone or in combination with other materials, including fixatives, on various types of supports, to achieve new visual effects and textures, creating technically the most complex pastels of the 19th century.
In the late 1870s especially, he reworked over 80 monotypes with pastels. The monotype underneath Two Dancers Entering the Stage, (above) is an early example of the procedure, is visible in the upper and lower left corners and in the torso of the foremost dancer. To color his monotypes, Degas often experimented with moistened pastel sticks, a technique first used by Rosalba Carriera. (Degas had developed an intimate knowledge of 18th century pastel technique as a young man, as his father collected works by the 18th century artists La Tour and Chardin.)
Degas sometimes pulverized pastel sticks and mixed the powder with water to create a paste, which he applied with a brush. He often combined dry pastel with applications of gouache or, in this case, distemper—pigment mixed with animal glue or casein (milk protein). The strokes of turquoise to the left of the dancers in the painting shown above seem to have been manipulated with a brush.
Theater sets and ballet costumes always gave Degas the opportunity to willfully exploit color. By the end of the nineteenth century, when he painted Dancers (above), the element of color seems to have become as important to him as that of line. He deliberately designed Dancers around a harmony of the three secondary colors: orange, violet, and green. Furthermore, very much like the paintings of Monet, he broke surface areas into separate touches of contrasting color. The result is a shimmering surface texture of vibrant color.
Undoubtedly, a charcoal drawing lies beneath the layers of pastel in Dancers. With his pastel sticks, Degas methodically drew most parts of the figures with downward, parallel strokes. In contrast to the figures, the background is a jumble of squiggles and crosswise hatch marks. He modeled the figures and their costumes with color rather than with a shade of the original color.
To impose one layer of pastel over another, without the second color tearing up or mixing with the first, Degas applied a fixative to the first layer. It was a secret formula, given to him by Luigi Chialiva. The fixative did not give the matte appearance of pastel a gloss, a flatness or change the appearance of the color itself. Unfortunately, the secret recipe did not survive for us to employ today.
Following in Degas’ Footsteps *
One of the techniques Degas employed was the application of steam. A kettle of boiling water provided the fine water vapor and he reportedly applied it—in a variety of combinations of pastel and mixed-media—to produce different effects. At times, the stream was gently misted over the pastel surface to settle the outer layer of pastel. This didn’t produce a hard “fixed” surface like an application of resin-based fixative. Instead, it helped to bind the delicate outer pastel layer, making it less prone to migration and less fragile. He also applied the steam to thick passages of pigment, creating a pastel paste. This was then manipulated, either with a painting knife or brush, as the paste dried. Spraying water would have created a similar effect but steam was easier to regulate, allowing him to create a viscosity that met his needs. At other times, he would combine charcoal, watercolor or gouache with the dry pastel and then steam them together, creating interesting textures.
Today, instead of a kettle of boiling water, we can utilize a travel steamer or the steam function of a clothes iron. These appliances can be positioned next to a studio easel, providing ease of access while painting. It’s best to use distilled or filtered water; otherwise, impurities may be embedded into the pastel that can lead to eventual discoloration and mold or mildew.
Remember to test the steaming process on a failed painting before trying this out on a precious masterpiece to see how it will respond. Different surfaces will react in various ways to the addition of water, even the minimal amount produced by steam. Don’t be surprised to see a slight darkening of the pastel surface when the stream is applied. This should dissipate as the water evaporates, but some diminishing of subtle nuances may occur. Steaming is not meant to replace or duplicate the usefulness of workable fixative. No matter how wet the pastel surface is made, once the water evaporates, a soft layer of pastel will emerge.
*Note: The Following in Degas’ Footsteps section above is from the ArtistsNetwork website.
It Never Stops
Being an artist means you are always an artist. Artists never retire. Artists never stop. Artists evolve. You can see it in their technique and their subject matter. And that is why as an artist I never tire of learning about technique. I know that the more I learn, the farther I’ll go on this challenging and fascinating art-making journey.
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