| | |

Capturing Action like Degas

Edgar Degas Art lesson planWhile Degas was considered an impressionist, he really didn’t act like it. While most of the impressionists were doing their plain-air thing, Degas was sketching ballet dancers as they practiced or translating his sketches into paintings inside his studio. He just wasn’t one of those landscape kinda guys. However, he become a master at sketching and painting people in a way that you could sense the motion of the moment. Keep in mind, this was in a time when most artists were painting people in very posed, formal, positions.

Aside: This reminds me of the transition I’ve seen in my own lifetime in portrait photography. I have these nice little school or family portraits some professional photographer took of me as a kid. My posture is about the same in each one with my body at a forty-five degree angle and my head turned toward the photographer. However, today’s professional photographers have become experts at capturing everyday action in an amazingly beautiful way. This is what Degas did. He captured the emotions in the everyday moments of life.

One of the skills Degas is known for is his ability to capture a still frame of an action shot. I liken this to the sports photographers of our day. We all love to see a photo of a person right in the middle of their jump, kick, or twirl. Degas mastered this while he was drawing the dancers. He often painted people in an action pose and that’s what we’ll focus on for this week in fine arts.

The Original Projects

The wonderful resource Classical Conversations suggests for third quarter fine arts, Discovering Great Artists, by Kohl and Solga, suggests two different projects for our Degas week. The first one involves cloth, milk, chalk, and hot iron. That won’t be very practical for how our community is set up, although I hope to try it at home.

The other suggested project has you use a stencil to draw an object multiple times, overlapping as a way to create the look of action. If you want to use this project, you might think about having the students draw only a certain part of the person or animal multiple times. For example, if you wanted to show a dog wagging it’s tail, you could drawing a light sketch of the tail to the left and to the right of the actual tail. (Check out this post and video for a great example.) In this animated way of showing motion, to show a whole person moving, you might draw the whole person again, very lightly, behind the first drawing.

We tried the stencil project three years ago when we did cycle 2 and it was fun, but the more I think about it, the more I’d rather use this time to teach a short lesson on how to actually draw a person like Degas did.  Degas became a master at showing the human body in a position that conveys motion. Think back to those sports photographs. The reason you know the person is in motion is because they’d be totally off balance if they weren’t! Am I making sense here? We want to capture that off-balance look of motion without creating an animated effect.

The problem, of course, is that it’s really hard to draw people, much less people in motion. Never fear! We’re going to break it down like the good classical educators that we are.

Our Degas Project

A great way to draw someone or something in action is to start with an understanding of what’s going on at a skeletal level. Almost any drawing book on people or animals will show you a skeletal drawing of the subject for just this reason. If you can get the sizes and angles of the skeleton accurate, you’re well on your way to drawing a human. Plus, little stick figure drawings are really cute and a lot of fun! (Think about the whole Life Is Good brand!)

So, we’ll start with the most basic stick figure, then add dots for joints, talk about human proportions, and then draw a few stick men in action.  Those who want to, can color in some clothes or just draw more stick men- It’s addictive I’m telling you!

My sons and husband all thought it was going to be too hard, but once I walked them through it, they all thought it was pretty easy. MUSIC to my ears!!! Check out my son’s stick men. (I had to help him a little with the Roman warrior.)


Here’s the Full Lesson Plan

I wrote this whole lesson plan out for my tutors and for you. It includes everything you need! This 22 page lesson plan includes the following:

  • A condensed background on the artist,
  • 11 Printable pictures of the artists’ work (including a self-portrait),
  • A pair of carefully crafted sentences about Degas (ideal for memorization),
  • Vocabulary words and definitions
  • Materials list
  • Simple instructions that any artistically- challenged teacher can understand and use,
  • Suggestions for scaling the project to different ages,
  • A circle and line template and 7 Tutor Cheat Sheets
  • References to the pertinent Classical Conversations Acts and Facts cards.

Purchase the full Degas lesson plan here

Capturing Action like Degas Lesson Plan

A Word of Warning

If you get books about Degas from the library, be sure to preview them. Degas also drew and painted a lot of nudes. Honestly, this seems to be true for any artist who frequently paints people. So if you start doing google searches about how to draw the human form, be prepared for some risqué art …

Want More?

This blog post is part of a seven part series about the amazing artists we study in cycle 2 of Classical Conversations. Here are links to the whole series:

  1. Saving Christmas with Amazing Artist Lesson Plans
  2. Drawing Facial Expressions Like Rembrandt
  3. Drawing Botanicals like Linnaeus
  4. Painting Landscapes Like Gainsborough
  5. Plein-Air Painting like Monet
  6. Capturing Action Like Degas
  7. Glob it on like Morisot


Leave a Reply