Capture Candid Moments with a Pastel, Conté or Charcoal Portrait

drawn charcoal portrait of a young boy with dark hair


Commissioning a portrait is a special, exciting opportunity to partner with an artist to create something entirely unique. The medium of a portrait plays a significant role in defining the tone and expression of the work - so how do you choose the perfect medium for yourself and your family?


In this article, we'll share with you some of the defining features of hand-drawn portraits, such as pastel, conté, and charcoal drawings, so that you can determine whether they're the right fit for your portrait.

Charcoal: From Sketches to Finished Works

Using charcoal made from charred wood, early artists captured the essential aspects of their lives on cave walls. Today, charcoal drawings still follow a similar principle - broad lines capture only the most important features of a subject rather than the minute details. Under expert hands, charcoal can be used to create multi-tonal, beautifully blended portraits that create a sense of movement and a feeling of levity.


Charcoal was historically used in preparatory work rather than for finished pieces. Muralists and oil painters used charcoal to trace their works or to conceptualize and hone their ideas quickly. One reason for its use in prep work is because, without a fixing agent, charcoal is easy to erase and smudge. Not until the 15th century did artists begin dipping whole works in gum to give them permanence.


One of the first artists to use charcoal for finished works was Albrecht Durer of Germany. He experimented with virtually every medium during his lifetime. Charcoal began to see regular use as a finished medium when virtuosos such as Picasso and Matisse brought it into prominence in the 20th century.


cont´┐Ż drawing of a young boy and his older sister


Conté: Classic and Tonal


French scientist and artist Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented conté crayons in the late 18th century because of graphite shortages during the Napoleonic Wars. The pencils are harder than charcoal and were originally black, grey, and red toned. Modern conté crayons come in a wide variety of colors, but many modern portraitists use the more traditional hues to capture an aged, classic feeling.


Artists can blend conté without it erasing like charcoal, creating precise tonal variation. Hard conté creates finer lines with more detail than charcoal, so the feeling is less fleeting. However, it's still a much quicker medium than oil paint, so it lends itself to candid portraits and works that highlight an impermanent phase of life, such as childhood.


pastel drawing of a young, blonde girl in a blue dress


Pastel: From Details to Finished Works


Pastel is an art medium consisting of pure powdered pigment rolled into a stick and held together with a binder, often some sort of gum. The powder only adheres loosely to paper, especially without a binder, so the work can be fragile.


During the Renaissance, pastel was primarily used to add color and detail to oil works. However, Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera, one of the most successful female artists of all time, used pastels for her finished works in the 17th century. Many credit her with bringing pastels to prominence as a finished medium rather than just a preparatory or detail tool.


Pastel works often contain more detail than charcoal or conté, emulating the fine precision of oil paintings. Many people favor pastel for its quickness, as it does not require drying time, and potential for capturing essential, fine detail.


drawn portrait of a young girl with a bow in her hair


How do you decide which medium is right for your portrait?


Pastel, conté, and charcoal drawings are an ideal way to capture movement or snapshots of a life, a moment, or a feeling. In contrast to oil paintings, drawings can feel more intimate and informal, so they're especially beautiful for children's portraits or for capturing an ephemeral spirit.


Subjects may dress informally to give sketches a cozy, familiar feeling. When you consider different mediums for your portrait, think about the emotion that you want to evoke. Do you want to let the viewer into a passing moment and create an intimate experience? If so, then a drawn portrait may be the ideal medium.


No matter your vision, Portraits, Inc. can assist you in finding the right portraitist to help bring it to life. If you're not sure which medium is the right fit for your portrait, get in touch with us. Bringing your unique artistic concept to life is our passion, and we'd love the opportunity to assist you in memorializing yourself or your loved one.


About Portraits, Inc.:


If you have a vision that can only be served by a fine art painting, then the right time to commission a piece is now. Request more information on commissioning a fine art portrait from Portraits Inc, or give us a call at 1-800-476-1223 today.