Drawing with coal
Before the industrial revolution paint and colour pigments were extremely expensive and not easy to come by. During the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, France was cut off from the rest of Europe because of all the wars and many materials were even harder to obtain including paint and colour pigments. A man named Nicolar-Jacques Conte solved this problem by inventing the conté crayon.
Conte crayons, or simply conté, are a drawing medium that is made from mixing powdered charcoal or graphite with clay or wax. The mixture is then fired in a kiln where it hardens and can be used to draw and sketch. Since graphite and coal were readily available within France even during the time of war, this medium flourished even though there wasn’t paint or pigment.
The first conte crayons were black, red, and brown but now they are available in a variety of colours. Early masters would use this medium to do preliminary sketches as well as finished pieces. The skill of the medium is to achieve a photo-realistic effect through skilful shading.
The texture of the crayon is hard and so you have to use a coarse paper because it holds the pigment better than a smooth or glossy type. One of the techniques used in conté is smudging the pigment to give a shadowy effect. This property can be a nuisance once the artwork is complete and so it must be treated with a chemical to prevent the pigment from being able to rub off or smudge. After the Napoleonic wars ended conté continued to be used by artists in different ways but it had already distinguished itself as a medium of its own.
Do it yourself
See if you can get your hands on some charcoal and use it to sketch a portrait of a friend, a parent, or any object that gets your fancy.
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