Variations on a Theme:
Edgar Degas experiments with Monoprints by Sharon Himes

Edgar Degas was always interested in the ways that shapes and lines could be organized on paper to indicate figures in movement. Beginning in the 1860s he admired and collected Japanese ukiyo-e prints (Japanese woodblock prints) which were beginning to be popular in Europe. Eastern art viewers would expect to look down, holding the art to see it closely while Western art is generally viewed at eye level and at a distance. As a result Japanese woodblock prints had flat surfaces and oriental artists made no attempt to depict depth or shadows. Degas, who had been trained in classical Western art perspective, saw possibilities for new and interesting compositions.

In 1874 Edgar Degas began to experiment with printmaking himself. He met Ludovic Lepic (1839-1889) and learned about Lepic's process for making what he called "variable etchnings". Lepic would etch a drawing on a copper plate and then, rather than just ink the plate once and making multiple copies, he would create variations by the way he re-wiped ink around the plate or the pressure applied each time a new paper was used . Each etching had a different pattern of ink shading the drawing. Each was based on the same drawing but no two images were the same.

"The Ballet Master" was Degas' first monoprint, created in collaboratoin with Ludovic Lepic, and bears the signature of both artists. The print then had additions of white chalk and wash making it even more unusual. It was not a drawing, pastel or a painting and yet not a print with multiple identical copies. The "monoprint" was a unique combination of various elements and Degas had found a new medium.

Degas etched his drawing and covered the plate with thick oily ink. He wiped and manipulated the inks with a rag, a tool or even his fingers to build shapes on the plate. A paper was laid over the ink and then put through a press to transfer the ink and etched drawing to the paper. Sometimes there were no etched lines at all and only the ink to build the picture. After the first printing some ink would remain on the plate and a second paper could be run through the press. The second print is fainter and called a "ghost". Degas sometimes pulled several prints from the same original image and then, after the ink was dry, used these additional images as underpaintings for his pastels.

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Between 1876 and 1881nearly 70% of his works in color were monoprints enhanced with pastels, sometimes drawing with them and sometimes wetting the pastel to achieve wash effects. He always liked working in a series and the various ghost images let him develop different variations on the same theme. The resulting images were similar in composition but often very different in mood. The earlier impressions would be darker with less detail visible through the ink. The later images could be changed with the addition of extra figures or different lighting effects.

With influence of Japanese woodlblock prints Degas carefully composed his drawings to seem un-posed and accidental. The monoprinting process gave him the opportunity to explore his compositional ideas. The drawing etched on a plate would be reversed on the paper providing an element of surprise. The smearing, or other application of inks or paints would produce unpredictable results when the press transferred the ink to damp paper. It was a method that required the artist to creative, spontaneous and willing to experiement. Some of the results are expressive or realistic while some works are nearly abstract. It seemed to be the very unpredictability of the monoprint techniques that excited Degas.

A picture is first of all a product of the imagination of the artist; it must never be a copy. If then two or three natural accents can be added, obviously no harm is done. The air we see in the paintings of the old masters is never the air we breathe." - Edgar Degas

In 1890 the artist visited Burgundy and was inspired to create a series of color monoprints with oil based inks. Over two years he did more than sixty monoprint landscapes, simplifying the hills and farms of the area and making almost abstract monoprints with the limited colors.

During his long art career Edgar Degas worked with a variety of media from watercolor and pastels to oil paints and lithographs. The influence of his monoprint experiments show in a pastel of a dancer's quick movement or an oil painting of a woman glimpsed rising from her bath. He explored the new medium and expanded its possibilities, one monoprint at a time.

Sharon Himes is an artist and writer who paints Woodland Watercolors.

Read more about the Basics of Monoprinting

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