I know I've said it before, but Degas Made Me Do It...exploring his pastel technique in order to write the book, taught me an enormous amount about this medium. Well 18 months later I have found that chalk pastels layered over a charcoal drawing are exactly what I have been looking for to help me develop and resolve images that I can then use as a basis for oil paintings. So I'm converted and will happily share some of these insights at a Pastel Workshop on Saturday 19th March at WASPS studios - read more
This week I am having a rare quiet time sitting in on my Pop-up exhibition 'Painting the Peats'. The gallery is at the foot of Dundas Street, in the Newtown and between The Botanics and a few select cafes, so I've had quite a number of passers by drop in and the response has been very positive. But regardless of feedback, I know that it has been essential for me pull all this work out of a messy, chaotic studio, dust it down, wrap it in a fresh mount and frame and give it some space on a clean wall, where others can see and appreciate it. The point being, that I can finally appreciate this work myself. Some of it is as good as I had hoped it might be - and some isn't. The best pieces are the ones that I hadn't expected much from at all, the ones that in this environment (frame, mount, wall, spotlight) suddenly shine out in the way that I had hoped as I did battle with the materials to try and make something happen. Making art is basically a performance - an attempt to communicate with others and, I believe with ourselves. Every now and then it is necessary for an artist to pause, like a piece of punctuation, and take stock. What was it I was trying to say...what did people hear me say...?and now that I hear it, or see it for myself, is it what I meant to say?
As far as I'm aware, Degas never visited The Outer Hebrides; but, like his friends The Impressionists, he was fascinated by light and finding ways of representing light in paint and pastel. Having written about Degas' pastel techniques for drawing his ballerinas and bathing women, I found chalk pastels incredibly useful for capturing the ever-changing light and water on the Hebridean islands of Berneray and Harris. The general approach involves laying down some black areas of charcoal, then sealing it with fixative, before applying layers of colour. However in the breezy climate of The Western Isles, hairspray was out of the question, so I rubbed the charcoal into the paper and layered the colour straight on top. The great thing about pastel and changeable weather is that you can smudge and soften and then suddenly, just when the moment strikes you and the light is clear, you can put down a few bright, crisp marks and make your final emphasis.
A number of small plein air pastel studies will be on display (and for sale at 'stocking-filler' prices) as part of the 'Painting the Peats' exhibition next week. www.damiancallan.com/events
Since returning from The Outer Hebrides at the end of August I have been developing a series of drawings and paintings based on a crofter friend and his peat bank. It has given me the opportunity to revisit some drawing techniques, such as ink and wash, as well as the the pastel techniques had to explore when writing 'Paint Like Degas'. These studies have been developed into a number of oil paintings and charcoal drawings which will be exhibited 14th - 20th December at The Art Club (next door to Coffeeangel, Canonmills).
The Saturday Art Club for young artists (7 - 14 years) got off to an excellent start at Gorgie City Farm on 19th September. This first 3 week block was begun with the children making drawings of a variety of new animals using different media. The recently arrived horse was sketched in conte pencils and chalk on grey paper, the lambs and kids were drawn in pastels on textured pastel papers with an occasional spraying with fixative between the layers. Then after a well earned break, the hens and cockerels were tackled in ink and oil pastels and finally the children chose which media they wanted to use to capture the sow and her nine piglets. Printmaking and sculpture still to come in the next 2 weeks. Block 2 - AFRICAN ANIMALS - begins 10th October read more
A remarkable thing happened this week: first at Edinburgh Zoo on Monday and then again today at The Museum of Scotland, Chamber Street. A group of children and young people were given a selection of drawing materials and set themselves to observing the living (and therefore moving) birds at the zoo and the more cooperative static bird displays at the museum. The results were a series of stunning pastel and charcoal and ink drawings- precise, yet animated and full of life. Furthermore this team of young talent then retired to the studio in Dalry and produced a number of linoprints and papier mache sculptures of their favourite BIG BIRDS AND LITTLE BIRDS.
7. Start your paintings or pastel drawings with a tonal underlayer. When working with chalk pastels dark colours can be hard to achieve. Degas solved this by drawing in charcoal first, with strong dark contrasts. he then sealed this layer with fixative and applied colour on top. The same approach can be taken with oil paint - a dark tonal layer can help clarify the drawing and strengthen the use of colour in subsequent layers.
8. Scrape down your first blocking in of an oil painting. By pressing the paint into the weave of the canvas the colours are softened and smudged. This allows the painting to be redefined in a more selective way. You can reconsider what to strengthen and what to give extra emphasis to.
9. Explore ways of applying oil paint in a lively and textured way, e.g with fingers, a roller, a palette knife. Experimenting with a variety of pastel marks such as hatching, scribbling, dotting and dashing helped Degas to find new ways of creating different textures in oil paint.
10. Try combining several figures into one composition, particularly dynamic ones. If you experiment with different arrangements you will discover how they influence each other to produce a sense of movement through the picture.
A FEW SPACES ARE AVAILABLE ON THE PASTEL WORKSHOP SATURDAY 28TH MARCH - see website for details.
4. Use unusual formats to inspire composition. Looking closely at many of Degas’ pastel paintings you can see where he has added strip of paper to alter his format from a rectangle to a square. There are also a number of long narrow canvases - almost ‘double squares’. In each of these less common formats both the abstract arrangement within the frame and the way spaces need to be used imaginatively result in much more dynamic and exciting compositions than are often made using a simple rectangle.
5. Draw what you want others to see. Not what you see, but what you would like to show others, is what Degas advocated when drawing from observation. The difference lies in how you select what to include and what to leave out, as well as in what you choose to emphasise.
6. Limit colours. Degas' use of colour was often spectacular - yet this could be achieved with a limited palette - meaning fewer colours are involved in the colours scheme, eg. blues and yellows, plus the various related greys and neutrals made from these two main colours. A more intense colour effect can be created by restricting the palette in this way.
PASTEL WORKSHOPS 28TH MARCH/25TH APRIL/23RD MAY - see the website for further details of these Saturday sessions which will explore Degas use of chalk pastels in capturing the clothed human figure.
I thought I knew Degas' work quite well. Over the years I have returned again and again to his vast collection of drawings and paintings to look for new of ways understanding how to depict the moving figure. Then I was asked to write 'Paint Like Degas' for Ilex Press (now Octopus Books) and I found I had to look closer and harder if I was to be able to explain some of the master's methods. Here are 3 of ten things I learned in the process :
1. Draw plenty of lines to start your drawings (or paintings). Degas was famously advised by his master Ingres to 'Draw lines young man, plenty of lines'.
Try either a thin stick of charcoal gently searching for the best flowing lines to describe the figure - or dilute oil paint doing something similar with a thin sable brush on a prepared canvas.
2. Work on a tinted surface - off white paper for pastels and a mid-tone ground on canvas for oil paint. This allows both lighter and darker colours to stand out, particularly when they are opaque (as chalk pastels, or thicker oil colours are).
3. Build up colours in broken layers - Degas' innovative use of chalk pastels was characterised by hatched/scribbled broken layers of colour. When he returned to oil paint he emulated the pastel style and layered his colours in a similar way - sometimes scraping down a wet layer into the weave of the canvas, allowing a second layer to be floated on top.
4. ...coming soon...
In order to write and illustrate ‘Paint Like Renoir’, I was required to produce a series of paintings that would emulate the Master’s technique and allow me to deconstruct his methods in a step-by-step way. My first attempts, based on a few comments that I had read and some preconceptions about Renoir’s approach were woefully inadequate, lacking the luminous colour and the daredevil paint handling of the Frenchman.
I had to look much closer at the Master’s work and read between the lines of his and other’s reflections on his technique. Here are 10 things that I learned in the process that have changed the way that I approach oil painting.
Damian Callan is a practising figurative artist and tutor based in Edinburgh.