When is a Crayon Not a Crayon?

The history of Conte Crayon is interesting. During the French Revolution, when Paris was under siege, much needed supplies of English graphite were permanently embargoed, creating a problem for the French pencil-maker, artist and scientist Nicholas-Jacques Conté. Conté had opened his pencil factory with his brother, Louis in 1793. For his business to survive, he had to find another way to produce a workable writing medium with a minimal amount of graphite that could be manufactured in France.

In 1795 Conté developed a method that involved mixing powdered local graphite with clay, waxes and water, firing the mixture in a kiln and forcing it into wooden casings. This process allowed the French to produce their own pencils and control the hardness of the leads, which in turn controlled the darkness of the mark made by the pencil. The process was so successful that Conté became synonymous with pencil, and Conté still manufactures high grade writing and drawing tools.

To this day Conte is still a major supplier of fine drawing and writing pencils and crayons which come in a vast range of rich, vivid colors. Conté crayons traditionally were black, red, and brown. The reddish sepia tone of Conté crayons is sometimes called sanguine, and was used by many eighteenth century artists in sketches and preliminary drawings. Modern Conté crayons come in an assortment of vibrant colors, including blues, aquas, greens, violets, pinks and reds. Although some artists prefer using the traditional colors, focusing on nuances of shading and design rather than bold coloration. Regardless of color use, a skilled artist is able to achieve very subtle shading, creating almost photorealistic work with Conté crayons.

Most often, Conte Crayons are used on rough-textured or high-grained paper that holds pigment well, permitting rich textures and wide ranges of tonality. Conte crayons work well on prepared primed canvases as well, for the purpose of underdrawing for a painting. The Conte Crayon stick, being square and small in size, is suitable for detailed work, especially if the tip is beveled to a point by rubbing it on a sandpaper pad.

Conté crayons are waxier and firmer than soft pastels, so they produce little dust and are easy to control. The sticks, which are 2 1/2″ x 1/4″ square, can be broken into shorter sections for ease of use for detail and shading. Today, Conte Crayons come in small sets of earth toned colors or larger color sets which include tans, violets, blues, reds, greens and yellows in rich, vibrant shades. The purity of the pigments used in Conte Crayons assures their permanence and longevity in art work. Some artists choose to use colored paper for their work with Conté crayons because the density of pigmentation in the crayon holds up well on a dark or colored paper surface.

Conté crayons are often compared to pastels. Granted, both are an artistic medium stick of solid pigment applied directly to the paper. However, Conté crayons are much harder than pastels or charcoals, yielding crisp, tight lines, rather than the more softer, less defined lines characteristic of pastels. Using Conté crayons, an artist can achieve subtle variations of shading in clear, distinct drawings. Conte crayon is quite permanent and artwork produced with a Conte crayon is often treated with a sprayed fixative for added longevity.

As a Conte Crayon is used, the stick will slowly erode, and it should not require any sharpening unless detail is desired. Manufacturers also offer Conté crayons in varying degrees of hardness, allowing artists to use Conté crayons for softer lines and more delicate shading as well as strong, precise lines for delineation. Conte Crayons are sold both individually and in boxed sets, with many art supply stores carrying an abundance of individual black, brown, and red Conté crayons, since these colors are in high demand.

Conte Crayons are readily available online, as well. Perhaps you want to start using Conte Crayon and discovering this wonderful drawing medium. Lessons and videos are with information-rich, step by step instruction are available at my Free Online Art Classes website.

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