View Full Version : Degas and Steam

10-08-2012, 11:12 AM
Hi everyone!

First let me take this opportunity to say how much I love this place and more specifically the wonderful artists on it. I'm new to pastels, and I have so many questions; but I typically find that with a quick search, there is already a thread that addresses my problem. This is an incredible, unique community where people with a similar passion gather together to share their thoughts and tips without trying to "sell you something". - Something that I think is really rare in the world today.


Here's a question that I don't believe has been addressed yet. Numerous sources report that among Degas' experimental techniques was the use of steam. Now I realize that at least 1 pastel artist here on WC uses steam as a fixative, (without, I assume, altering the look of the pastel to which it is applied), but apparently Degas used it for a different purpose. According to one scholarly article I read which contains the most detailed description of Degas use of steam:

"Degas devised an ingenious method of blowing steam over the initial layers of a pastel drawing either to dissolve them into a vaprous film that would seem to float on the surface or, on the contrary, to melt them into a paste that could then be reworked with visible strokes of the brush."

Does anyone have an idea of what the author of this quote is talking about?

10-08-2012, 12:02 PM
That's a new one for me. Where did you come across it. I'd be interested to read it myself.

10-08-2012, 01:57 PM
Tossing out a few guesses here.

He also dipped his pastels in water, fixative, or other liquids. That'd give you a paste-like consistency which can be brushed if desired.

I'm wondering if the author is a pastel painter? I only mean it sounds a bit like art-speak to me, and I may be totally mistaken.

"... vaprous film ... float on the surface..." Sounds to me like a light application of pastel, thinly smeared out. Which he often did when starting a painting.
Or, it could be a monoprint which he used to duplicate paintings. A drawing with or without an underpainting would be moistened (I guess steam would be rather perfect for this), and then a clean sheet of paper would be put on top of the drawing/painting, pressure applied to it, et voilà there would a reversed print on the new paper, more 'ghost-like' than the first one.

Are there any visuals?

10-08-2012, 03:32 PM
My uncle (born in Europe) taught me to do pastel on moistened paper. Steam would accomplish the same thing. I agree with Colorix about the artspeak aspect of the 'scholarly' article: It's not at all clear. Actually, the article is quite vaporous itself!

10-08-2012, 04:02 PM
Oh, scholarly, that makes it clear. (Missed it the first time.) Usually, those scholars have no inkling about practical painting. Not saying that this one doesn't, but a lot of misunderstanding could be avoided if they consulted an expert = pastel artist.

For the record, I nearly became a scholar... which is why I say that about them.

I'm pretty convinced that the "big secret" of Degas' painting style was not his wetting and steaming or "secret formulas" of fixatives, I'm pretty sure it was his impressionist handling of colour, and the very brand of sticks he used -- Henri Roché, which gives those characteristic marks. And his use of photographs as references. :-D

Deborah Secor
10-08-2012, 11:45 PM
Ah, I recall quite a discussion of this years ago... Let me look

Steam Fixing of Pastels (2003) (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=99974)

Steam as a Pastel Fixative (2006) (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=330893) Check Donna Aldridge's link.

Steam Fixing Experiment (2008) (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=538116)

There you go!

10-09-2012, 09:14 AM
Oh, scholarly, that makes it clear. (Missed it the first time.) Usually, those scholars have no inkling about practical painting.

Oh, I agree 100%. I nearly became a (music) scholar, too, and most of these academic articles are all but useless in the practical world of creation. But the article struck me, because I'd heard of Degas using steam before, but no one ever elaborated on it the way this article did.

So maybe Degas' steam is largely based on myth; maybe it's more like Donna Aldridge says in the link provided by Deborah Secor: that Degas merely attempted to use it as a fixative (but wasn't happy with the results).

The author is Theodore Reff, professor of Art History at Columbia University. I'm not sure which journal it is in specifically, but I found it on JSTOR, which is a site that collects scholarly journals.

As an example of Degas' steam technique, Reff refers to the "background" (I assume he means the floor) in "Dancer with a Fan", where he claims that Degas used steam to turn the pastel into a paste, which he then ran over with a brush, thus creating brush marks:


How else do you think Degas may have created these "brush marks"?

10-09-2012, 10:03 AM
This is purely conjecture, but since artists today use water (or alcohol or mineral spirits) to wash over pastel to create wet underpaintings, it seems possible that Degas used steam to do the same. Perhaps, since he did a lot of his pastels on tracing paper and other thin, slick surfaces, using water itself would have been too much liquid - but, using steam would have made the pastel wet and workable without it running right off the paper. Just a guess.


10-09-2012, 11:01 AM
Another lovely Degas! Thanks for the treat, JCorbet. This looks rather tonal, so I'm guessing it is one of the earlier ones. The far floor has marks that are both very flat and have sharpish edges, and they look like they've been wet at one point. Possibly smeared out with a finger, but a brush is likely. Or a finger and chamois.

The marks where the bottom dark band of the far wall meets the floor look very brush-like. It looks like he put the dark over the olivy greeny. Wet/moist pastel works much like watercolour.

It is very likely that he brushed now and then, especially at the start of a painting, and this one looks like it is unfinished. Brushing wet, moist, or dry pigment are old techniques for pastel paintings. Or using wet, moist, or dry brushes. Sometimes the Roché pastels leave a mark that looks 'brushy'.

Don's conjecture makes eminent sense.

I find steaming doesn't work all that well as a fixative (or I do it wrong, as I don't have one of those "steam guns", I tried my steam iron -- from a distance of an inch or so). First layers of pigment go beautifully into the paper when brushed with water and get fixated, but steaming a finished painting doesn't work for me.

I do think he used casein based fixative, as he did manage to keep his marks isolated.

Anyhow, I think the scholar simply means that some layers (indeed wet ones) were thin (vaprous), and some were thick impasto, and yes he sometimes brushed.

Esoterica: A way to get a 'fake brush' look is to have a pastel with bits and crumbs in it. I recently took my nubbins, crushed them, wet the mess, formed pastels -- and as the crushing wasn't all that thorough, I got tiny bits in the sticks, and some are darker, some are lighter, and the effect is close to a brush-mark. Sort of like the TL confetti sticks, but much smaller crumbs.

10-09-2012, 05:41 PM
Thank you so much for your analysis.

10-11-2012, 11:50 PM
Somewhere in the labyrinth of this forum there is a thread on steam. I ran a test a few years back and even got a steamer, though my tea kettle works just as well. I have read that Degas steamed the back side of the pastel painting.

Does it work? Well, yes and no. Better on some surfaces, not so good on others. I can't remember which surfaces I tried, but the thread should be in the archives somewhere. I don't know who started the thread--don't think it was me.