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From: Joseph Scarborough <>
Subject: [PATE] Crayon Portraits
Date: Mon, 16 Nov 2009 21:38:57 -0500

Many of you have seen them. Some of you have wondered, as I did, WHAT
they are. Perhaps you have one hanging on the wall, or stored in a
safe place. This is a discourse into the fascinating world of the
Crayon Portrait. Not all details are included.

Take a look at one here:

These apparently photographic quality charcoal portraits were made of
your ancestors during the mid to late 19th century. They are what
appears to be a charcoal portrait of such quality that you may have
commented on the abilities of the artist. Tales abound of their origin.

Earlier versions are of lesser quality than the example, later
versions can have an eerie lifelike quality. But how were they
produced, and how did the family come by them?

Typically, unless your ancestor lived in, what was to them, a
metropolitan area, these were mail order items. An ancestor would send
in a daguerreotype, possibly a tintype, and the firm would make a
negative from the original print. In the later years nearing the end
of the 19th century, and the early years of the 20th century,
photographic technique improved and so did the crayon portrait.
Occasionally, traveling Crayon Portrait artists would travel around,
setting up a temporary shop in a community store, the owner using the
presence of the artist as a promotional gimmick. Regardless of how the
service was promoted, the process was the same.

In the early days of photography, think after 1843, prints were the
size of the original negative. Imagine the man with his head under a
black cloth, behind a large box like camera, with a flash bar of what
is perceived as being gunpowder, in the Hollywood version of Wyatt
Earp. The photographs produced were of a handy size that could be
carried in a purse or vest pocket. But the public wanted larger items
that could be displayed in the home without the expense of hiring a
portrait artist.

Enter the solar enlarger.

By utilizing the solar enlarger, somewhat akin to a camera obsura
dating back to the days of Leonardo DaVinci, the artist would use the
sun to project an image onto the "canvas" where he would sketch the
image thus produced. We can tell these earlier works by the lack of

Later, papers were coated with salt and then silver or potassium
chlorides wherein they became responsive to light. Because of the
nature of the chemical reaction, this would produce a faint image on
the paper. The artist would then fill in the details with conte
crayon, hence the name crayon portrait, and send the finished product
back to the client.

As the process progressed, artist would enlarge the smaller image
using longer exposure times and thus impart more detail onto the
paper. Still, he "enhanced" the image using the conte crayon. A simple
description of a conte crayon is a mixture of wax and charcoal, and
they are still available today.

Because of the chemical properties of silver chloride and salts on
paper, it wasn't necessary to have a completely dark room to produce
the product. In fact, if you were so inclined, you could replicate the
process using a yellow bug light, or simply a dimly lit room, and a
projector of the appropriate configuration.

Thus, in a time when original photographs were small in size, your
ancestors could have a nearly life size portrait produced, at a
reasonable cost, and of, for the time, astounding quality. So... those
portraits of ancestors that appear to be charcoal drawings of
incredible detail are indeed a hybrid of techniques.

The caution is - when having the portrait dated, you are having the
original dated, not the Crayon Portrait. The Crayon Portrait could
have been produced from a photograph taken years before. Also, it is
not advisable that these Crayon Portraits be exposed to strong light.
Deterioration of detail, and continued chemical reactions can
eventually destroy these precious items of our heritage.

--Joe Scarborough

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