The Art of Learning. Thank you Mr. Degas.

Over the course of the year, I make a study (sometimes brief, other times in-depth), of artists both current and those giants of the past. As artists we typically develop a style over time, but that doesn’t mean we should shut down to gaining insights from other artists. I recently completed a look at Edgar Degas. His use and application of color coupled with his eye for composition prove superb as a study. His unique style and experimental approach to painting, using oils, pastels and mixed media, make him an artist that any painter can learn from.

Artist Damian Callan has written a book which breaks down some of the painting techniques of Degas. Paint Like Degas: Learn the Secret Techniques of the Master of Movement and Light. Callan observes: “Degas was stunningly inventive with composition. Movement characterizes many of his subjects–the dancers, the racehorses–and this was in turn emphasized by his choice of composition. For instance, the long, wide, double-square format with figures arranged along a diagonal from one corner to another would enhance the sense of movement of the figures arranged within it. He was also interested in photography and the accidental cropping of figures in a snapshot. This cropping tended to give a more natural or authentic arrangement of people–much more like real life, and therefore more dynamic and unpredictable. In these moving subjects he also employed a wonderful approach to the pattern and rhythm of repeated figures, whether dancers in a line on the bar, or horses in a line at the start of a race.”


“The Dance Lesson. The format is long and narrow, and the figures are spread out from left to right (the direction in which we “read” a painting), from the bottom left corner up to the top right corner. These figures get smaller in scale as we look along the painting, decreasing in size as they get farther away. Hence the movement across the painting is also a movement away from us, deeper into the picture plane. This is further emphasized by the cropping of the first seated dancer in the foreground–effectively she is so near that she doesn’t even fit into the picture frame. Meanwhile, off in the distance another figure at the opposite end of this line is also cropped severely so that her face and hands are all out of the frame. Each dancer is turned in a different direction from the next– there is almost a spiraling motion from the first through to the last. The architecture with a dado line runs diagonally straight up the painting–but the figures themselves create a broken line with varying distances between each group, creating a more interesting and natural rhythm.”


The only issue I have with the book is the title. That is to say, I’m always taken back with this idea of “painting like” and “secrets of,” approaches. My feeling is that we can learn from Degas but we should want to paint like we paint but applying where appropriate, Degas’ techniques. These types of titles sell books, I understand the marketing ploy. Still, in reality, you can read Degas books all day long, observe every painting he ever did, and he is still Degas and you are still, you! Learn. Learn, learn and improve by anything Degas has to offer and leave it at that.

About the Author

Al Pirozzoli’s career has served on two fronts. In the business world, where he serves as a Creative Director and Marketing Consultant, his writing has garnered many awards including the International John Caples Award, and he has won 7 International Telly Awards. His work has covered many business and product categories from chocolate chips to computer chips. On the ministry side, he has been involved as a licensed and ordained, Marketplace Chaplain and has served in volunteer capacity as a minister. Al’s creativity rarely rests, he authors numerous blog posts on He is also the co-founder of where you can find ebooks written by Al Pirozzoli.