Side project – copy a Degas

Sometimes I just need to break out of a planned route and go off piste. At this point in the execution of the final assignment for UPM, I’ve a) had about enough of cartridge and building work, conservatories and mud, and b) I can’t do the last pair of paintings until there’s been another step towards completion which will give me a different configuration of the micro-landscape. So I’ve begun a copy/interpretation of Degas’ The Star’ (1880).

Whilst I have some misgivings about his propensity to lurk in the dressing rooms of young girls, a view not without substance according to Greer (2009) in her article for the Guardian, I’ve long been drawn to the way he depicts the lightness and fuzzy fragility of the nets and tulles of the dresses, and the way the dancers hold themselves both when performing and when backstage. And from the age of four to nineteen, I took ballet classes so I feel an affinity with the spirit of dance and appreciate perhaps more than someone who has not danced just how accurate these shapes are.

There are so many to choose from but I decided to have a go at The Star because it’s relatively simple, there’s a challenge in the angle of her face and perspective of her body, and it looks amenable to my style, or a variation of it.

This is the first pass, as it were, and she’s already had several arms.

The support is duck cotton primed with transparent acrylic gesso then washed with dilute process magenta (transparent) which I’m hoping will pop out some of the colours in subsequent layers. All the paint is acrylic but I’ve also painted with soft pastels in places such as the skirt and the flower decorations, and in areas of the background. This medium, I’ve found, can leave a strong pigment when wetted and washes quite easily into subsequent paint layers.

For now, I like the pink better than the muddy green original so I may keep it. Perhaps my girl is more Mardi Gras than Swan Lake. I also want to be sparing with the background dancers and scenery – and the lurking man.

23rd January and following a stream of compliments via Facebook and Instagram, all of them advising me not to touch it, to leave it as it is, to put it on the wall, to sell it even, I made some tiny changes. That left hand, her face, the unfinished – and not in a deliberate way – appearance of the ‘back row’. Some of it needs muting a little, and that hand is still not quite right, but I think I’m closer to having done the original justice.

I’ve used very dilute colours, some touches close to impasto, and some scrapes of soft pastel painted in with water. I think the face is better, the hand is closer to where I want it to be, and the background area has the kind of substance that should respond well to being slightly muted.

Final iteration I think. Except for pinking up the bottom edge and maybe a coat of varnish.

My dancer is definitely older than Degas’s (reputedly) fourteen year old. Not quite as caught up in the moment but more assured and with the confidence of experience rather than youth.

I’ve really enjoyed doing this, partly because of its contrast with the subject matter and palette of my assignment material, but also because it’s surprised me with its challenge and that I’ve been able to meet it to a much greater level of satisfaction than I’d expected. And again, there are shapes and shades I wasn’t aware of making but that have fallen ridiculously well into place – the dancer’s mouth for instance, and the flowers. I’ve also appreciated the way soft pastels integrate so well into an acrylic paint environment on a canvas surface – each of them providing a platform for the others.

There’s a lot that’s wrong, but arguably some of it is only wrong because it isn’t a pixel by pixel copy and who knows what Degas got ‘wrong’ when he was painting the original. This one’s mine; the colours are from the same palette but different hues dominate, and the dancer is older. It’s an ‘after’ Degas, not a copy. That said, his was the idea, the concept, the choice of composition and as yet I’m nowhere close to being in that league.

24th January. Because I rather enjoy bringing my copies into the 21st century (I gave Amelie Matisse a pair of earbuds), I have run this painting through Rebelle4 and Paintshop Pro to deal with the pigment at the bottom margin and add text.

‘Petit Rats’ refers to the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera which, according to one explanation, was the term for ‘young ladies’ or demoiselles of the opera, and to another as deriving from the sound their pointe shoes made on the floor. Either way, it doesn’t seem very complimentary. [See Petit rat — 350-years – Opéra national de Paris (operadeparis.fr). accessed 24th January 2021].

Not exactly the aspect ratio of a wide screen TV but maybe a subtle hint that this is more contemporary than it might appear. It definitely deserves an animation …

… So here it is.

Text in Paintshop Pro, animation in MotionLeap, video in Filmora 10 with audio from Epidemic Sounds.

Greer, G. 2009. ‘Degas’s dancers are studies in cruel reality. But don’t go thinking he felt compassion for them’. The Guardian. [online] Available at Degas’s dancers are studies in cruel reality. But don’t go thinking he felt compassion for them | Art | The Guardian. Accessed 22 January 2021.

5 thoughts on “Side project – copy a Degas

      1. And again – thank you! Oddly, Instagram stripped the audio from it so I made another with a DIY track to see what happened – that stayed put. My theory is the insta algorithm didn’t recognise the first one as s being licenced for use, which it was. Looks like I’ll need a crash course in music composition alongside everything else!

        Liked by 1 person

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