Last week I was putting together a short slide talk for my Beginners art classes(visit www.paintanddraw.co.uk for more information) on various artist’s who’ve used pastel. Degas was there, of course but as an example of a contempory artist I also chose to include Paula Rego. In one or two ways there seemed to me to be suprising similarities.
I’ve frequently read that Degas chose pastel because he felt that his understanding of oil paint was very limited. Compared to the artists of the past that he loved he felt he and artists of his own time were performing the equivalent of puddling around in mud . This may seem a strange thing to say when his paintings as well as his pastels are almost universally admired but it goes to show that a sense of declining standards is not something exclusive to our own time. Degas also suffered from poor eye sight and I wonder if the more tactile nature of pastel may have been an issue here. He also experimented with sculpture as he grew older which he once described as learning a “blind mans’ trade. When you look at Paula Rego’s pastels there seems to be a painterly quality almost completely lacking from her earlier paintings which are either coloured sketches or blocked in areas of flat colour, not that I object to that myself.
When Degas was young his method of producing paintings was very typical of his time. He’d begin with a rough sketch and then produce a series of life studies in order to make the figures more anatomically convincing before transferring those drawings onto canvas. His later work is much more open. An idea such as “Woman Bathing” is open to many different interpretations and would really begin with the countless studies of figures which he would produce in his studio and then work up into larger pastels. Many of these drawings were produced on tracing paper, an excrutiating surface on which to put pastel (rougher surfaces are much better) but which provided him with the freedom to continually trace and retrace images, sometimes combining several separate drawings onto one sheet. He could also turn the traced image over to reverse an existing pose. Take a look at the figure on the bottom right hand corner of “Medieval War Scene” below, the pastel that Degas produced much later that you can also see below is a mirror image of the same figure.
I’m not saying that Paula Rego’s work is quite as experimental but many of her later pastels seem to have the same improvised quality. Contempory critics of Degas also used to talk about the animal qualities in his images of his women, which is something that Rego also seems to exploit in her work