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NICOLAS CONTE AND
THE INVENTION OF CONTE CRAYONS

This article was written by Jean Vincent
Posted: February 19, 2007

Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755-1805, France) was a very talented man - an artist, balloonist, army officer, chemist, and "mechanical genius." He was the inventor of the modern pencil, as well as the inventor of the Conté crayon.

THE MOTIVATION FOR CONTE'S INVENTION

Nicolas Conté happened to be in the army during the French Revolution -- in other words at a time when France had to find its own way of providing the basic products its people needed because the country was in the middle of a popular uprising that affected monarchs in other European countries who feared their own citizens might revolt against the status quo as well, and so in this unstable (to say the least) environment it was very difficult or impossible to import some very basic and necessary products. Nicolas Conté (the artist/chemist/inventor) would help out in one of his areas of expertise by finding a way to make very good pencils that didn't depend on having graphite imported from England, its main source.

ENGLISH PENCILS
What pencils were like before Conté invented his own

Pencils had been around since the 1560s, when they were "invented" in England. When it was first realized that naturally-produced graphite which was literally lying around on the ground made very nice marks and could be used for writing, pieces of the graphite were broken off and held in the hand in order to do that writing, but it made an awful mess, so they figured out ways to keep the graphite away from their hands.

The answer to the messiness problem was to encase the graphite in something neat and clean that fit comfortably into one's hand in such a way that it could be used for writing (or drawing ... certainly people drew with these things). At first they achieved some degree of cleanliness by putting a lump or a sharpened point of graphite in a metal holder (ref: Harvard University Art Museums - Fogg Art - "A Drawing Glossary" - see URL below this article). An even better way was to slice off a "stick" of pure graphite and wrap string around it - The string was pulled to reveal more graphite as the point wore down. Another way to encase the graphite was to insert it into a wooden cylinder.

GERMAN PENCILS
A German invented (in 1662) pencils superficially similar to Conté's (invented in 1795)

About a hundred years after the first pencils were made in England, a German figured out that he could make pencils with graphite by grinding it into a powder and mixing it with binders. This allowed him to use graphite that wasn't of as good quality as the English kind. Being encased in wood the "fragile contents" were secure.

On the "Tale of the Pencil" page (see URL below this article), it says this about the German pencils (note that the article is written from the point of view of a pencil, and that's why it says "my ancestor pencils"):

"In 1662, in the city of Nurnberg, Friedrich Staedtler opened a small pencil shop. Nearby in the village of Stein, my ancestor pencils were assembled and commercially marketed for the first time by Kasper Faber in 1765. He perfected the technique of binding the graphite with Bavarian clay and encasing it in wood and today his descendants are still making pencils in Nurnberg, Germany as well as near Wilks-Barre, PENCILvania."

HOW CONTE'S PENCILS WERE DIFFERENT
- AND BETTER

Also, What his pencils have to do with Conté Crayons

Nicolas Conté, then, whose invention in 1795 was a pencil that contained, inside its wooden exterior, a composite made of powdered graphite and clay which he made into "sticks" that were encased in wood was not the first to use a powdered graphite and clay mixture inside wood for pencils. So what was new? Why is he called "The Inventor of the Modern Pencil?" (And how is this invention connected with the invention of the Conté crayon?) This is what it says on the "Tale of the Pencil" page:

"Conte's materials included powdered graphite mixed with clay and waxes and were kiln fired, producing a superior writing and drawing material that could be modified to include earth colors in addition to black. His factory opened in 1793 with his brother, Louis, as supervisor and later became Blanzy-Conte Gilbert. Material descendants from the original formulations are still used today, worldwide."

So maybe the difference between the way Conté made them and the way they were made before was that the mixture was fired, or possibly it was the quality of the clay, possibly also the addition of the waxes (which I have only seen mentioned in the article referred to above and in the short item on Conté crayons on the Blick Art Materials site at http://www.dickblick.com/vendors/conte) - or all of these things. The quote in the last paragraph does tell us about how Conté's product could be modified to include earth colors in addition to black - So now we know where those "earth-colored" Conté crayons had their beginning.

In "A Drawing Glossary" - see URL below this article - it says that "[Conté's] process of manufacture used less graphite and, by altering the proportion of lead to clay, allowed the degree of hardness of the crayon to be altered."

_____

ASIDE - THERE IS NO "LEAD" IN LEAD PENCILS

It's odd to me that on the same page where the last statement was made it is explained that there is no "lead" in "lead" pencils.

It says (in "A Drawing Glossary"): "The strokes produced by graphite leave a line that has a relatively dark metallic luster, similar to lead point. The early misidentification of graphite with lead was not to be scientifically disproved until 1779, by which time the misconception that lead and graphite are one and the same had already entered modern-day usage--hence the confused nomenclature of lead pencil."

_____

BACK TO THE SUBJECT - HOW CONTE'S INVENTION WAS BETTER AND WHAT IT HAD TO DO WITH CONTE CRAYONS

So I am assuming that "altering the proportion of lead to clay" actually means "altering the proportion of graphite to clay." They also refer to the different proportion of "graphite" to clay on the "Pinceladas" page - see URL below this article - where it says: "Conté se mejoró el crayón el cual empleaba menos grafito y más arcillas, produciendo así diferentes durezas y tonos de color." ("Conté improved the crayón, which contained less graphite and more clay, thus producing different hardnesses and tones of color.") So, there you have another major difference (or possibly this is THE major difference) in Conté's pencils -- they were apparently made in different grades, according to how much clay was added, giving "softer" to "harder" grades of graphite/clay mixtures (I'm assuming "tonos de color" refers to shades of black to gray, not to actual "colors").

NICOLAS CONTE BEGINS TO MANUFACTURE PENCILS (AND CONTE CRAYONS)

Mr. Conté's pencils were very fine indeed, and so in 1795, he (Conté) formed the la société Conté to manufacture his "crayons." (This last fact I found in the Wikipedia article on Conté crayons, but I added the quotation marks around the word "crayons" because it had been talking about pencils and suddenly the word "crayons" was used -- It makes you wonder about whether the pencils were called "crayons" - or the "crayons" were called "pencils" - or what.)

SOME QUESTIONS - SOME ANSWERS

ARE CONTE CRAYONS MADE TODAY THE SAME AS THE EARLIEST ONES?

I have wondered whether Conté crayons made today contained exactly the same ingredients and were made in the same exact way as the Conté crayons Mr. Conté first made in his factory. I have also wondered if today's Conte crayons (not including the "colorful" kind) were made in the very same colors that Conté started with? Also, were the sticks the same size and shape?

In a quote shown several paragraphs above (from "A Drawing Glossary") it says: "Material descendants from the original formulations are still used today, worldwide." This is a little confusing as it is not specific. It seems to imply that all of the Conté "sketching" crayons are exactly the same in formulation as they were when Conté started up his factory in the 1790s. Maybe the statement refers to regular Conté pencils used mainly for writing, not Conté crayons. From some articles I've read, I've decided that Conté crayons are NOT the same as they were. For instance, at

Drawing Techniques: a Guide
it says: "The sticks sold as conté crayon today are actually a variety of fabricated chalk."

What I found at
"Chalk-Based"

is even more interesting. It says that Conté Crayons "were originally a mixture of graphite and clay formed into hard drawing sticks. The process Conte used was similar to that used for his pencils. Today, Conte crayons are made with an alumina chalk (aluminum oxide) base. Because they are readily available in differing degrees of hardness, a range of effects can be consistently produced with these crayons. The white crayons are pure alumina chalk; the blacks and grays are carbon and alumina chalk. The reddish-browns, or sanguines, are ferric oxide (rust) and alumina chalk."

WHO WERE THE VERY FIRST ARTISTS WHO USED THE NEW CONTE CRAYONS?

I'd still like to know (I will keep trying to find out) who the very first artists were who used the new Conté crayons for their drawings (some "look" like Conté drawings but apparently were made with chalk). I know that Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863) drew at least at times with Conté crayons, but who used them first, besides Conté himself? After all, Delacroix wasn't even born when they were invented. Did Conté give out free samples to artists to get them to try them?

WHEN WERE THE "COLORFUL" CONTE CRAYONS INTRODUCED?

I would also like to know when they introduced all the "colorful" colors which are sold these days as "Conté Crayons" (These are the ones I use most) - I will write a different little "article" on the "colorful" kind of Conté crayons in the future -- There are several articles on subjects to do with Conté drawing products that I will be writing about. I will "revisit" and edit them as I gather more or better information.

_____

MAIN SOURCES FOR THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IN THIS ARTICLE:

A Brief History of Writing Instruments - Ink and Letters
http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa100197.htm

"Chalk-Based"
Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk
http://trueart.info/chalk-based.htm

Harvard University Art Museums - Fogg Art Museum - "A Drawing Glossary"
http://www.artmuseums.harvard.edu/fogg/drawingglossary.html

Pinceladas - Abril 2003 - Page 2 - Under "Apuntes de Arte" ("Tecnicas de Dibujo")
http://staff.oas.org/pinceladas/2003/abril/abril2.htm

The Tale of the Pencil
http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/waac/wn/wn10/wn10-1/wn10-106.html

Wikipedia article on Nicolas Conté
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolas-Jacques_Conte


OTHER CONTE CRAYONS PAGES

TIPS - CONTE CRAYONS & DRAWINGS
USE, STORAGE, MAILING, ETC.

SECOND PAGE OF TIPS

THIRD PAGE OF TIPS

WHERE TO BUY CONTE CRAYONS

WHERE TO BUY INDIVIDUAL CONTE CRAYONS

CONTE CRAYON COLORS AND SETS

PAPER

THE RUMOR ABOUT NOT MAKING
CONTE CRAYONS ANYMORE

CONTE CRAYONS WITH DIFFERENT NAMES
ARE THEY ALL THE SAME PRODUCT?

LINKS TO SITES WITH CONTE DRAWINGS

CONTE CRAYON COMMENTS BOARD

CONTE CRAYON MISCELLANY

CONTE VIDEOS - SAMPLES OF CONTE
CRAYON DRAWINGS BY JEAN VINCENT

OTHER PASTELS VIDEOS

TERMINOLOGY

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