An artist's sketchbook is an illuminating place. Revealed in the simple lines and erasures is the scaffolding of a thought, the first flicker of an image, and the artist's method at work. There's an appealingly raw element to such pictures, both in the unfinished idea itself and the materials used—simple pencil, messy charcoal, quick watercolor washes. Because sketches are typically done for the artists themselves, not the general public, they offer art lovers a peek-behind-the-scenes fascination. In its new exhibit, "The Essence of Line: French Drawings From Ingres to Degas," the Tacoma Art Museum presents a sampling of sketches and watercolors by some of France's greatest 19th-century artists from the vast collections of Baltimore's Museum of Art and Walters Art Museum. Highlights include Edgar Degas' Ballet Dancer Standing, which shows the artist's attempts to work the piece, with an extra leg still visible and multiple lines gradually defining the arms. Daumier's Grand Staircase of the Palace of Justice shows a self-important bewigged judge marching down the stairs, while The Good Friends captures the unvarnished familiarity of two weary gentlemen talking over a pitcher of cider. (Pictured: Daumier's The Omnibus.) These pieces aptly demonstrate how the wry social observer's work transcended mere caricature to capture hypocrisy, injustice, and pathos in the hearts of the recognizable people he depicted. Ingres' study for Venus at Paphos is a delicate preliminary portrait in pencil that already contains much of the body language that would be set in oil in the final painting, although the woman's eyes in the sketch have a more natural wary expression. Indeed, in some cases, an artist can overwork a thought in the final painted version, and lose the initial raw impulse of the first sketch. Sketches can reveal whether an artist met this challenge—they can also be complete and fine works unto themselves. Opens
Sat. June 10. Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253-272-4258, www.tacomaartmuseum.org, www.frenchdrawings.org. Every third Thursday free and open until 8 p.m. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. Ends Sept. 17. $6.50–$7.50.