Woman in a tub pastel Degas

Drawn in colour Degas from the Burrell Collection at the National Gallery, London

Preparations for the class pastel Degas

Preparations for the Class (detail) Degas (about 1877) pastel on paper

 Jockeys in the rain pastel Degas

Jockeys in the rain (detail) Degas (1883) Pastel on tracing paper

Degas and his use of pastels  National Gallery London

This was a fascinating exhibition of Degas drawings, which showed  how working methods change with fashion and with available materials. During the second half of the 19th century, new dyes became available which were used for paper and pigment.  These materials were quickly adopted by artists and altered the way they worked.  This exhibition focused on Degas and his use of pastels.



Degas always started his work with charcoal drawings, but although at first he was a master in the traditional use of pastel, with a single layer of chalk, carefully blended and left unfixed, plus a few highlights (“Preparations“), gradually he became much more experimental, building layers of pastel with fixative until the surface was firm and translucent. On this surface he could then draw more texture and detail, often with rough scribbly strokes, unlike the traditional blending, and with brilliant colour (“Jockeys“)

Dancers on a bench pastel Degas

Dancers on a bench (detail) Degas (about 1898) Pastel on tracing paper

Woman in a tub pastel Degas

Woman in a tub (detail) Degas (1896-1901) Pastel on paper

Eventually Degas began to draw with charcoal on tracing paper. The transparent paper allowed him to play with his drawings, to reverse them, take monoprints from them and to create multiple images, and to experiment with composition. It was a free starting point. He would then fix the charcoal drawings and have them mounted on a rougher textured board to create a stronger drawing base which also gave more tooth to the tracing paper. At the same time he often asked for the mounter to add more sheets of tracing paper to the original so that the whole drawing space was extended. On this he would work with pastels to create the whole layered surface, often covering the original charcoal completely. Final brilliant detail was added in relief by dipping the sticks of pastel into water to liquefy them and leaving the marks unfixed.


I was amazed and inspired by how unconventional and innovative Degas was, over 100 years ago, also so interested to learn just how his work looks how it does. These are (apparently) simple processes which I can and will try. I like the idea of creating multiple images and also experimenting with pastel in new ways. I later went to Tate Britain (“All too Human” exhibition) and discovered that pastel is the preferred medium of Paula Rego.  There is an excellent catalogue accompanying the Degas exhibition:  Drawn in Colour – published by the National Gallery.  Thanks to Catherine Froy for telling me about this show.