Chalk and Conte Sketching

I had no idea that the reddish brown stones and bits of clay you see lying around outside are actually what the modern day pastel stick or pencil evolved from. Chalk is calcium carbonate and can be used in its most natural, organic form straight from the earth to draw, although in this form it’ll probably contain impurities that make it scratchier and less reliable than branded drawing media. I did the portrait of Missendei below using mostly pastels (a bit of charcoal whilst sketching). I always assumed pastels were a bit inferior, a kind of jack of all trades in that they’re not as good for sketching and drawing as proper graphite pencils, and not as good a painting medium as watercolours or oils. But they’re very good for studies and sketches which involve a consideration of colour, something that strikes a balance between the broad, sweeping strokes of a painting and the rough, sketchy detailing of a pencil.

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Conte sticks are a bit different, but equally interesting to draw with. They’re scratchier and not as creamy as pastels or refined chalk, but the feedback can be useful in the early stages of sketching. The same way a more tactile fountain pen is sometimes better for sketching than a buttery smooth one- it gives greater control once you get used to the roughness. They’re easy to scrub around the page to get a lot of cloudy rust- coloured dust, so it’s easy to just have fun with them and lose focus!

Browsing through the work of accomplished dry media artists online, there’s one thing that struck me. The best works (or my favorites, in any case) tend to have a focal point that’s beautifully and accurately rendered in great detail, but the rest of the image contains only sketchy indications of form. Lighting is crucial, and white spaces are absolutely vital. Erasers can only get you so far- the pure, crisp white highlights in the most skilled pieces are carefully planned, not rubbed out as an afterthought. Layering hues is also a fun way at arriving colours, and running over grainy patches with a white chalk pencil won’t always lighten, but will blend excellently. The end result is somewhat reminiscent of oil paintings.

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I never really considered this before- my approach to all things art is usually to go on a rampage with my materials in the beginning and then get overthink once I have the basic form in place, and a hint of the subject emerges. Looking particularly at the works of Ben Fenske and Marc Taro Holmes, both artists that I admire greatly, it’s clear that they’ve mastered walking the fine line between spontaneous and calculated strokes, resulting in that effortlessly sketchy look most draughtsmen hunger after. The sketch above was just something I did while trying to draw with conte sticks without smudging them too much. The sketch below is also a conte drawing, done whilst the TV was on…

(Okay, okay yes it’s Robb Stark from that TV show I love doing study sketches from).

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