Degas’ Atelier

Article by Darren Rousar.

the-painter-in-his-workshopAdriaen von Ostade, The Painter In His Workshop, detail (1663).
He’s working on a landscape using a drawn sketch and memory as his sources.

Imagine the following scene. You’re a 3rd or 4th year student at an atelier. Upon entering the figure-room one day your teacher tells you to take your easel and materials to another room. You’ll be working from there, but still using the model posing in the figure-room. Could you do it? Degas thought so, and he imagined such an atelier.

If I were to run an art-school I should take a tall house, and I should put the model and beginners in the top-story; and as a student’s work improved I should send him down a floor, until at last he would work upon the level of the street, and would have to run up six flights of stairs every time he wanted to look at the model.1

Edgar Degas

The quote above is one of many similar statements attributed to Degas. Here’s another.

“For portrait-studies, pose the sitter on the ground floor while the students work upstairs, so as to train them to remember shapes and never to paint directly.”2

Homeward Bound

Odds are you do not attend such an atelier, nor will there likely ever be one. And yet the premise is nevertheless a sound one. The main idea, that a trained visual memory is of immense help to the artist, stands without question. Might there be a work-around?

There are many.

If you do nothing else regarding memory drawing, make it this. When you get home you should attempt a memory drawing of the day’s pose. Try to make the drawing as accurate as possible, including its overall size. Take it with you to school the next day in order to compare it to the live model.

figure-memory-group-1987Here are three examples of the kind of memory drawings I did in the evenings while at school. They were from the day’s figure pose.

Using your daily figure drawing sessions as memory drawing sources should begin with your very first figure drawing. Just don’t let discouragement impact the habit. As time goes by, persistence will pay off.

Another idea works only if you watch a fair amount of television or YouTube. Pick your favorite newscast or YouTube channel (as long as their videos frequently show the same face). While watching, do your best to analyze the overall shape of their face, hair, and features. When the show is over, get your pencil and attempt a drawing of that person.

In Another Room

You can also arrange your own version of Degas atelier. All it takes is another room.

Choose a simple arrangement, or a cast if you own one, and set it up under a single light source with a nondescript background. In another room, arrange your easel. Then, begin to analyze your subject.

After a few minutes, go into the room with your easel and begin drawing. Once your mind runs out of information, go back to the room where your source is.


That’s exactly what Richard Lack did for the painting shown on the left, below.

lack-memory-cast-pairOn the left is a cast painting done by Richard Lack. While painting it, the cast was in a different room than the painting. He had to walk to the room with the cast in order to see it, and then walk back to the other room to actually work on the painting. Another aspect which is not clear in the photograph is that this painting was also done in color. Photograph courtesy of Kirk Richards.

Slow Down

That last idea is well beyond the capabilities of the beginning atelier student, hence Degas’ limiting the memory requirements until they had first learned how to accurately see nature. In fact Mr. Lack did his painting after his studies with Gammell were finished.

That said, all atelier students should regularly practice a memory drawing habit regardless of their present level of training. Besides the ideas given in this article, you can look into creating your own sources, and for further help, let me guide you.

1 Edgar Degas, as quoted in The Training of the Memory in Art, by Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, 1914, page xxxii.
2 Edgar Degas, as quoted in Degas, Sa Vie et Son Oeuvre, by P.A. Lemoisne, Paul Brame, C.M. de Hauke aux Arts and Metiers Graphiques, Paris, 1946.

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