Friday, 4 November 2011

Degas and the ballet

Our second artist study was about Degas, focusing specifically on his work about ballet dancers.

Picture Study
To get ourselves aquainted with Degas' work on ballet dancers, I blue-tagged the cards on the door of the cupboard in our lounge (where we spend the bulk of our time) so that Tiger could look at them.  These cards were part of a 'famous art works greeting cards' set that I had bought years ago in a bookstore.

We also watched the following documentary that focuses on a one specific piece of work -- The Little Dancer aged Fourteen.  The documentary gives a detailed background about Degas' life and the circumstances surrounding his making of this sculpture, as well as the personal story of the actual dancer, which I found to be very insightful and useful to understanding the artist and this particular sculpture much better:

I took this opportunity to look through the following books for myself.  Although Degas has always been a very familiar name, I did not know in detail about his work on the dancers or his life. 

Hands-on Activities
I used Discovering Great Artists for both activities described below.

The first activity, a crayon resist,  has to do with how Degas captures movement.  The idea is:
1) to draw the outline of a moving object (it can be a car, a human being, an animal) onto a strong piece of card,
2) cut that out to be used as a stencil,
3) use the stencil to draw overlapping shapes on another piece of paper, using wax crayons
4) give it a wash.

Since we want to focus on ballet dancers' movements, I asked Tiger to choose one posture that best represents movement from the library book I borrowed specifically for this project.

Tiger took a while to look through most of the pages until he finally decided upon his favourite pose.  He liked it so much that he even tried to do it himself.

Since the goal at this stage of the project was to create the stencil, I did not expect Tiger to draw the outline of what he saw so I let him trace it on a piece of tracing paper before transferring the outline to a piece of card, and cutting it out.

Next steps: create the movement with overlapping figures, then give it a wash.

I modified the second activity slightly since the suggestion in the book was too complicated and too fussy (for me).  Instead, I gave Tiger a small square canvas and my box of chalk pastels and let him got on with the exercise.  The original idea in the book was to brush a piece of cotton cloth with milk, which I assumed was to prime the cloth to help the pastels bind better.  Tiger thought using milk as a primer was an interesting idea to try out, so that was the only part of the book's suggestion that we used.  Tiger also decided that he wanted to do a copy of his favourite Degas piece, so he pinned it beside the canvas for reference.

Field Trip
The Royal Academy of Arts is currently holding a Degas and the Ballet exhibition, which has generated much interest in the world of art lovers, since the RA has managed to borrow quite a number of rarely-seen-in-public pieces of Degas' work from all over the world (including from private collections).  Look at the queue outside the RA for tickets to this exhibition.  I took this photo outside the RA when it opened at 10a.m., and the queue had become much longer in the afternoon.

We were there primarily to take part in a family workshop based on this exhibition.  Interestingly, Tiger was one out of three boys in this workshop, the rest (about 20) were girls.

The workshop started with a very informed and detailed slide presentation of Degas' life, the influences of his work, and his major works, by a very animated artist.  The presenter was very engaging with the workshop participants, and he had obviously did a thorough research on the subject matter.  As a precursor to us actually seeing the exhibition, he covered aspects of (1) how the ability to capture movement was made possible with development of photography and its influence on Degas' works, (2) how the Parisan society at that time saw the notion of ugliness versus beauty in art and in people of different social classes, (3) how Degas' fascination with the different classes of people affected his choice of subjects and how he portrayed them in his paintings.


After the slide show, we were ushered into the actual exhibition with a volunteer guide.  The guide we had was a very friendly elderly lady who was very enthusiastic about the exhibition and who was also very patient and kind to the children.  She showed the children many of the most famous pieces of art work and briefly explained their significance while at the same time engaging the children by asking interesting questions related to the art pieces.  This 'kiddy exhibition tour' lasted 45 minutes.

Then we went back to the workshop room for hands-on work.  First, we were each given a black-and-white photocopy of Degas' charcoal work, Dancer Leaning on a Pillar.  We were to fill in the colours using chalk pastels.  This part of the workshop was to acquaint us with pastels and the use of colours.

Tiger's version
Mum's version
The next part was really wonderful.  RA actually hired the top ballet dancer from the English National Ballet to pose for us!!  Tiger was really pleased that he got to draw a live model.  Everyone, especially parents, was instructed to do his/her own work and not to interfere with someone else's creation.  We were given charcoal and chalk pastels to work with.

The ballerina did four poses of 1.5 minutes each, while everyone sketched furiously with our charcoals to capture whatever was significant to each of us.  After the initial sketching time, we were then given 10 minutes to fill in our colours with pastels.  I decided that I liked my drawing as it was, so I left it at the sketching phase.

Tiger's ballerina

Mum's 1.5-minute sketches
After the workshop had ended, Tiger and I went back into the exhibition and spent another 2 hours looking at all the art pieces, including a bronze copy of The Little Dancer.  The audio guide that we used was really useful to explain about the background, significance and relevance of most of the exhibited pieces.

This post is linked up to:
1) several blog hops, where you can visit to see what other homeschoolers have been busy with;
2) the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival: Religious Studies edition; and
3) the November edition of Carnival of Homeschooling.


  1. Wow! Some great activities and what an amazing field trip for this unit! Our kids watched the movie "Degas and the Dancer" this week, but we didn't go even one one hundredth as in depth as you did. I am inspired!

  2. Love your ideas! I really love the art work. It is such an inspiration!

  3. You and your son are talented. What a great study!

  4. WOW so lucky you live closer to London to do these types of activities. We are over an hour away and just can't make it in often enough. Great art lesson and field trip. Degas is on my list of artist to study we just finished Picasso. Both of you did great work:)

  5. What a awesome study! I'm pinning this post, so we can come back to it when we study Degas.

  6. I so love Degas!
    What a lovely study... the one and-a-half minute sketches are wonderful, and Tiger's Dancer Leaning on a Pillar is fantastic!

    Did you both just love this study?? :)

  7. Great Degas Study! I have added some of this to Pinterest and listed and linked to your blog.
    Have a great day!

  8. What a fantastic field trip! I am so jealous! Thanks for sharing with us!

  9. WOOOOOOWWWWWW!!!! Those pieces of art are fantastic! And talk about a great field trip! Awesome!

  10. Love the "Dancer Leaning on a Pillar" renditions you two did- wonderful! What fun this must have been for you guys!

  11. What a great study and beautiful art!


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