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  • Jane Robbins

At the Window by Mary Cassatt, circa 1889



For this year's Fakes and Forgeries Show I did a copy of Mary Cassatt's At the Window. I am not a huge fan of Cassatt, but came across this painting, which is one of her many works that owes a lot to Degas. I decided to try it instead of doing another Degas.


I was a little late getting started so scrounged around for a large piece of paper, and found a 21x28 sheet of UArt 320--not the paper I might have selected, but so be it, and proportionally worked (the original is a bit larger). Because I didn't have a lot of time, I couldn't do a study or plan the painting out, so just started in with a freehand drawing and quick block-in:



The proportions of the baby were a little off, and I knew it, but plowed ahead--no time!--and struggled with the baby's body the entire time. Sigh. Here is the underpainting--I can see already that I am going to have to be mindful of getting my background to a darker value--and the first layer, where I started testing colors and trying to get the baby's head a little bigger--babies' heads are big!--and the mother's head a little smaller and more carved out.


I start working on the skin tones, getting some background in, and working on the mother's dress, correcting some of her proportions. She is a pretty strapping girl. I am careful to keep Cassatt's visible scribbling.


I work more on the skin tones, the curtain, the hair and baby's necklace, and the background, which I keep wanting to be darker in some places, lighter in others. As I do, I start losing the mother's profile, which I thought was looking pretty good, as I work the background around her face. Aarghh!!



I fool around with it until I run out of time, softening a few things, sharpening a few things, doing the best I can with the values and--the real goal--trying to capture the spirit of the Cassatt painting, even if it is not a perfect copy. Here too is the palette: lotsa blues!



Here is the submitted painting, and a pic of it hanging in my stairwell--with last year's Degas painting below it. I came to really enjoy how Cassatt's drawing, and redrawing, are part of the picture, and how the mother's and child's heads merge into one--and though you don't really see them from the front, they both look happy and content. I like how the baby sort of glows, and the mother, except for her face, is almost part of the background. I think I did a really good job of forging Cassatt's signature (ha; not to worry, it's clearly marked on the back as a copy by me after Cassatt, and who wouldn't be able to tell it was fake anyway). Aside from the actual drawing--which I should have spent more time on from the start--the background was the most difficult thing. Ain't that always the case?



Updated: Jun 29, 2019


Beginning is the easy part. And the most conscious.

For artists, the existential question is not, What is the meaning of life? It’s: Is this done??


How do you know when to stop? And do you actually know, as in possessing a fact or piece of received wisdom, that a painting is done? Or is it something else that makes you put the pastel down?


People tend to angst over when to stop. I do not. I just do it. I’ve come to realize that paintings are stopped rather than finished, and that we stop for many reasons, all legitimate. So while I am not the angsting type anyway, I think that my little way of classifying stopping has been useful to me in understanding my own work. Perhaps it will be useful to you as well.


So far, I’ve noticed five ways of stopping. For brevity, I’ll call them: decision; intuition; expedience, ennui, and warning. I describe each below (with an example from my work), then make a few remarks about how they can overlap, and how being cognizant of what makes me stop a painting has actually helped my painting.


Decision

In the ideal world, we know when our painting is done. We are working in a goal-oriented way, in the sense of trying to achieve a particular thing or plan for our painting, and when we do, we say, “Great, that’s what I was going for. I’m done.” We stop, satisfied.


Deciding to stop is a proactive judgment. Judgments require criteria--as I said, a plan with parameters, and/or goals or objectives subject to evaluation as to whether or not they have been met. Let me say right here that I am talking about goals beyond the standard criteria of value, color, composition, edges, and so on; these are fundamentals for any painting that we work on and strive for. I’m talking about goals for a particular painting.


I think this sort of decision to stop is pretty rare, or at least, it is for me. First of all, I’m not much of a planner. I do however, have goals for the look and feel of what I’m doing. Even so, deciding something is done because it achieves what I wanted is unusual. Why? A lot of my paintings, like characters in a novel, take on a life of their own as the work proceeds. Their development is not completely under my control, and the idea I had in mind when I started is no longer completely applicable.


Without specific goals, I have no real basis for judging, in the sense of deciding, anymore. But I do have a basis for intuition.



"The Queen." This painting is exactly what I intended it to be, and I stopped when my objectives for it were met.

Intuition

Intuition is a kind of tacit knowledge. It can come from experience, but also (in the secular sense) in the form of a revelation: a sort of Eureka! moment. For me, this is distinctly different from a decision to stop. In this case, I just do. I feel as if I’m done; I know I am. It comes to me, and I lay down my pastel. As opposed to feeling satisfied, or that I’ve accomplished something, as I do when I’ve “decided,” I feel . . . happy, content. Something that took on a life of its own in my hands has come to a natural end, and let me know. Things have fallen into place, whether as I originally intended or not. My painting and I share a moment of mutual admiration. We worked it out together.


Sometimes this happens after making a single mark while working and then seeing, realizing, that the painting is now done. Sometimes that single mark will lead to one or two additional, intuitive marks or adjustments. But I can feel it when it is coming to an end in this way, and know that it will be done in a jiffy.


I think the paintings that I like and enjoy the most are those that I intuitively stopped. I think they truly are “finished.” They are often among those I consider my best, even when I least understand how they got like they got. I love the intuitive stop. It occurs more than pure decision, and I wish it happened more.


"Suddenly, Late Summer." An unusual underpainting set this painting on a happy path.


Expedience (or Tick-Tock)

I stopped because I had to, or it was practical to do so at the time. A deadline to submit to a show, the need to move on to some other scheduled item (which may or may not have to do with another show deadline), changing light outside. Parts of the painting therefore may have been rushed, or altered, or left undone, or pursued frantically up to running out of time. I didn’t necessarily want or choose to stop, but I did out of necessity.


Most of my plein air falls into this category. For me, the essence of plein air is trying to capture a moment in time, so I don’t spend more than 1 ½-2 hours on a painting because the light changes too much; I consider the painting “finished” when I walk away from the painting location. In the studio, a race against the clock doesn’t happen too often, because it is rare that I feel I must finish something according to schedule--that I was so motivated to enter a particular show and therefore had to finish. I rarely paint specifically for a show and almost never do to a theme--but do occasionally. My Degas copy is a rare example.



"Morning, Holyoke Ave." 1 1/2 hr pure plein air.

Ennui

I should probably have called this category “Apathy,” but I like the word ennui, so . . . . Sometimes I stop because I lose interest, and sometimes I’m outright bored with something. I lose motivation to continue. In most such cases, I just don’t care enough about the painting to keep working on it; I’m not attached to it, or challenged by it, or curious about where it might go next. I suppose we all have paintings we just don’t like all that much (even if others do, and even if they are “good” paintings). For me, the paintings that I feel indifferent toward invariably are ones I stopped because I lost interest in them.


I make a distinction here between those I’ve stopped because I’ve lost interest and those I put aside and eventually come back to. When I stop the ones I’ve lost interest in I never come back to them: I abandon them. When I put something aside, it’s for a reason: to stew on some problem with it; to wait until I have the time to really get into it the way I want; or to start another idea while it’s fresh in my mind.


There’s nothing wrong with stopping a painting you’ve lost interest in. You don’t have to be wildly excited about every painting (were it only so!), but you should feel committed to and curious about the process and the outcome if you are to continue. Working on something you’re indifferent to is a waste of precious time.


"Dawn, Land's End." I lost interest in this. But I framed it anyway and it's been in a show.


Warning

Think of this as a corollary to the blissful intuitive stop. Sometimes, my hackles come up, like some primal alarm going off, warning me that if I don’t stop I will ruin it or otherwise do something irreparable. This happens when I intend to keep going, and am working merrily away, and then suddenly: warning! I may hesitate, doubting it’s actually done, even think it is not. But when this happens to you, you have to listen. Put the pastel down. Could it be a false alarm? Maybe. But as my mother always used to say, better safe than sorry.


"Heirloom Hotties." The hair on the back of my neck told me to stop this one.


Stops and Starts

Are these ways of stopping really different? One could argue that each is a kind of decision, but I maintain that a true decision requires an affirmative judgment of completion based on goals specific to the painting in question. It’s glorious when that happens, but rare. It does not necessarily produce our best paintings. And of course, our personal judgment could be wrong (and certainly different from another's). That’s why I love the intuitive stop; I think this is the one where the implicit measures of every good painting--values, color, composition, edges--have found their way into balance, giving rise to a liveliness that cannot be forced. In a painting where we decide it’s done, we’ve probably labored much more consciously on the fundamentals, as we have at achieving the more specific goals we had for the piece. A warning has some of the characteristics of intuition but is telling us we haven’t been paying enough attention to our instincts; there’s a good chance we’ve already made some error that cannot be easily corrected, or gone too far.


I’m actually OK with all kinds of stopping because they are, in their own ways, what makes me start again. I like to consciously reflect on what, exactly, was the reason I stopped something. It has helped me see both what I need to be more mindful of as I work, and what makes my own paintings mine. Stopping, by whatever means, provides insight into your working methods, your style, your willingness to experiment, your strengths, your weaknesses, your artistic personality, your life. So don’t worry about whether it’s finished by some set of criteria that we all know and take for granted and are (or should be) evaluating throughout every painting, because the technical holy grail is not, in practice, what makes us stop. At the meta level, we stop when it's time to move on using what we've learned. Always a good reason, whether it's done or not.

  • Jane Robbins

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

How I approached making a copy of The Blue Dancers by Edgar Degas, what I learned, and what I would do differently.




My finished copy of The Blue Dancers by Edgar Degas

When I saw the call for entry for a Fakes and Forgeries show at Spring Bull Gallery in Newport, I thought, that might be fun. I quickly decided to do a painting by Degas, whose work I have loved since long before I took up painting. Looking online at all his work, I gravitated to the dancers--after all, I was a ballet dancer myself--and quickly was captivated by the composition and color in The Blue Dancers. My decision was, to my ultimate regret, purely visceral. I gave not one thought to what would be involved in actually painting it. Why couldn't I have picked L'Etoile? Only one figure! By the time that occurred to me, I was, to paraphrase Macbeth, in blood so far that to turn back would be to go twice over.


The original of The Blue Dancers is in the Pushkin Museum. I visited their excellent website and was able to zoom in on the painting on the wall to see the the colors as true as possible (posters and prints are notoriously unreliable). I downloaded a copy to use as my reference.


Before tackling it, I decided to try a freehand sketch, and a color study, shown below. I did them very quickly, but it didn't take long to discover two things: this was a very complicated composition, with body parts and tutus colliding to carve out shapes; and many of the values were very similar, almost running together. I realized then that it was going to be tough to capture the combination of unification and distinctiveness in the original, and that I might actually have to plan this out in some detail to get it right. Not my usual quick-and-dirty style. But I can be disciplined when needed, and this was the time.



Quick freehand study. You can see the drawing is all off.

Quick freehand color study; all the values run together.

Before starting in earnest, I had to make some choices: Size? Paper? The original is 25"x25," but not quite being able to face that, I settled on 16"x16." I chose Pastel Premier Italian Clay for my support; it was really more of an instinct than a decision. I then decided, also intuitively, not to do a wet underpainting, which I almost always do. I think part of me wondered whether Degas would have done a wet underpainting. Maybe I could have pinned that down through research, but I didn't.


I had printed out my photo of the painting for my reference, and had to scale it. I had never done this before, so I researched online how to scale a painting, and made a grid, first using my grid app on the photo and printing that out, then enlarging it onto the paper so I could do the drawing. Here is the grid on the printout and the drawing I did from an enlarged grid on my paper.


Grid marked on the base reference photo

Drawing. I did it on an enlarged grid, then erased most of the grid lines.

I had to do the drawing twice to get it right--my enlarged grid was a little off--and it took me several hours of the kind of detailed attention I don't love. When I finished it, I thought the hard part was over. Ha. I began laying in the color, putting in big patches of the dominant blues, greens, and orange to mark their places. Knowing that the value transitions were going to be difficult, I had printed out a black and white version, as well as a clean, ungridded version, to use as I worked. I thought I was prepared.


I printed out a grayscale version so I could better check the values.

As I began to lay down the color, I noticed a few things. First, which is rather fun, I discovered that most of the colors I was picking up, and that seemed to be closest to my reference, were Senneliers and Giraults. Was that a coincidence, or was it because those are what might have been available to Degas, even those same colors? I preferred to think the latter, as they were perfect in ways that others were not. I did use some Terry Ludwigs for the intense blues and some Unison yellow-greens in the background along with Senneliers and Giraults.


Second, as I worked, I started to see that there were many layers of color, and that I had perhaps started with the wrong ones. I began dabbing color in on top of things that probably

should have been underneath. As you can see from the progress shots below, I had begun blocking in the background and the dresses, deciding to leave the skin of the figures, except for marking out some patches of color and highlights. As I progressed, I saw so many color nuances in the skin tone, which I had to try to retroactively incorporate; by the time I was between shots 5 and 6, I was working on the skin with abandon, very aggressively, just moving closer to what felt right rather than trying too hard anymore to figure it out. By then I think I had, but it had taken me too long, so now I just had to make it right. The last thing I did was finish the background, toning it down so that it was clearly the background without divorcing it from the figures, as this painting truly has an intensely holistic feel.



Progress 1.

Progress 2.


Progress 3.


Progress 4.


Progress 5.



Progress 6.

Because of this unity of composition, one of hardest things was to actually see where one figure left off and another began; until you actually start trying to paint this, it is hard to appreciate how elusive this was. I found I had to tackle the figures one by one to get them straight. For example, I completed the partial bottom figure first (progress shot 2), working to make sure that her shoulder ruffles and the tutu of the large dancer on the left could be distinguished. I then moved on to the dancer with both hands to her shoulders. It seems obvious now, and will be as I am pointing it out explicitly, but it took me a bit to figure out that it is the shadow of that dancer's elbow that is carving out the other dancer's waist. And so on. The ruffles and tutus shape the other figures, and determine what is in front and what behind. The dancers are crushed up against one another, bits of the tutu of one figure who is further behind coming in front of the back of another dancer who is further front. If that sounds a little confusing, it's because it is. It required very close looking to see how these figures, all jumbled together as if in a tiny area behind the scenery, were distinct.



Framed copy of The Blue Dancers hanging in the gallery.

Ultimately, I came up against a deadline, and had to stop and submit it. All things considered, I was happy with this first effort at doing a master copy. I found a really nice frame for it that brought out the orange in the painting and suited the period.












What I Learned, and What I Would Do Differently



After doing this painting, I can't help but believe that Degas was a terrifically free-spirited, supremely confident and fearless painter. There is nothing tight or cautious about this painting, and it feels very much as if it was joyously worked out as he went along from a general concept. Whether this is true or not, I found myself worrying less about every mark the further along I got, and feeling emboldened by his work to be more bold and carefree about the painting myself.


But since Degas was a genius and I am not, here are some things I wish I had done and that I would do differently were I to try this same painting (or perhaps other Degas work) again.


1. I would have spent much more time studying this painting than I did. I thought I had, but really, I think I might have saved myself a lot of correcting and back-and-forth had I just stared at that painting longer, and really noted how all the pieces fit together: the painting is a puzzle. There is nothing formulaic or even that familiar about the way it's put together. This may be the biggest lesson I take away from this.

The palette

2. I would have covered the entire paper with orange in a sort of dry underpainting, and drawn the angled line of the scenery, before doing anything else--that is, I would have done the sketch over the orange. Here is the palette (a few of these could have been let go). That little piece of orange is the most important color in the entire painting, and it lies beneath everything else. I had to work it in and on top of things in places where I had not first put it down.



3. I would have pulled blue through the painting from top to bottom, early on. I worked at pulling the blue lines through in little sections--on the scenery, on the skin, and so on--and mostly toward the end of my painting. I ultimately realized that most of these lines are continuous and integral, much like the orange. I also would have laid in a little yellow early on; dragging the blue through it creates some of the greens.


4. Consistent with 2 and 3 above, I would specifically experiment with the skin tones, as opposed to doing them trial and error as I went. One of the figures is a little overworked as a result. Probably I would do little color studies of arms, for example, experimenting with a mix of warm and cool colors.


I will be interested to see when I try another Degas whether this experience has put me high enough up the learning curve that it will take me less time than this one did. I suspect so. Degas was a sly magician, but I think I've figured out a few of his tricks. And I plan to use them.

______

P.S. Good news! Pastels are incredibly hardy! I left my barn door open by mistake for two and a half days during our little polar-vortex storm of ice and wind while painting this, maybe around progress shot 4. When the storm was over and I went out to paint again I had a moment of horror: the painting exposed to the elements, protective covers blown off, references scattered to the winds, water all over the floor, and just plain damp air. With some trepidation, I put pastel to paper and . . . it was fine. Phew.