My name is Judith White and I teach printmaking and life drawing at Colchester ACL. I’ve been asked to write a blog about the subjects I teach. Not having written a blog before, I was not sure how to go about it. After pondering for a while I decided that I would merge the two subjects by writing about the artist Edgar Degas (1834- 1917) and his lovely figure studies in pastel, combined with his printmaking, using the monotype technique often favoured by artists, because it’s both versatile and painterly.
I usually begin my printmaking courses with the monotype: it’s the most instant form of printmaking and there are endless ways of approaching it. We then move on to drypoint engraving, lino cuts, collagraphs and wood engraving.
The most exciting part of printmaking is when you lift the paper off the plate to reveal the finished print, often not being sure if it’s going to be successful or not, and when it is, the feeling of elation and satisfaction is tremendous. I’m sure it’s what makes printmaking so addictive!
By pure chance a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to see an amazing collection of Degas’s monotypes. When returning from a visit to my daughter in America, I had a few hours to spare waiting for a connection to fly from New York to London. I decided that I might just have time to take the subway into New York city, never having been there before.
Leaving the subway, I came out onto a main street, not knowing its name. After walking for a few minutes, to my surprise, I found myself standing in front of MOMA–the Museum of Modern Art! To my delight, they were showing an exhibition of Degas’s monotypes! I wasn’t sure if I would have enough time to see it all and get back to JFK in time to catch my plane. But it was so tempting and I had never had the chance to see so many of Degas’s prints before. I decided to take the risk and buy a ticket, knowing that I would have to run around the gallery at high speed!
I discovered that Degas had observed the work of his good friend Ludovic Lepic (1839-18890), a painter and printmaker, and had become entranced with the possibilities of the creative use of inking and it’s manipulation with rags , brushes, fingers and hands to achieve a fluid and tonal range on the metal plate. The artists called these early monotypes painted drawings.
Degas became hooked by the medium’s unique quality and created more than four hundred monotypes! Many of these derived from printing experiments of his friends and also from early developments in photography, with its light/dark contrast and interplay of positive and negative imagery.
I was surprised to discover that so many of Degas’ pastel paintings were painted over monotypes. He would use a ghost monotype to paint over. Normally, as the name suggests, only one image is produced from a monotype; but if the plate is heavily inked, it is possible to get more than one and these are called ghost images: they are much paler but can still be very beautiful.
It was such a satisfying exhibition, and I would have loved to have lingered over every print for longer, but time was of the essence and I managed to get back to the terminal without missing my flight home!
Last year I had several learners who attended both my printmaking course and my life drawing course. They used their life drawings to produce some very beautiful monotypes. I’ve included a link to the MOMA where you can see a video about the Degas exhibition entitled ‘A Strange New Beauty’ and it also shows how Degas would have produced his monotypes.