Of the many striking portraits to be displayed in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s upcoming exhibition, “What’s in a Portrait?,” the work pictured to the left is a staff favorite. Depicting a Past Noble Grand of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in his top hat and collar, the portrait possesses a simple grace—not only in its subject’s facial expression, but also in its delicate artistry.
But, you may be wondering, what is it—a photograph, or a drawing? It's a crayon enlargement, or a print enlarged from a photographic negative and then highlighted by hand with chalk, graphite, and pastel. Also referred to as a crayon or pastel portrait, the crayon enlargement was a popular medium between the 1850s and early 1900s. Born out of the carte-de-visite, it allowed people to have their favorite carte images of loved ones blown up for wall-sized display.
While there came to be a number of methods through which this type of image could be achieved, the process generally involved a camera with an angled mirror attachment which captured and directed sunlight first through the photo negative, and then through a special enlarging lens onto a piece of treated paper. These images, called solar enlargements, required several hours’ exposure time and repeated readjustments to keep the mirror aligned with the sun’s movement. (See the details of this process and its fascinating evolution in this article.) As illustrated by the example above, one of the process’s tell-tale signs was the fading circular outline around the image where the edges of the lens rendered the image blurry.
Photographers quickly discovered, however, that not only did this process magnify imperfections on the negative, but also that images that looked fine in their original, small size needed to have their contrast, depth, and detail enhanced to produce pleasing wall-sized images. These problems could be addressed with hand coloring, which was done with crayon, pastel, charcoal, gouache, and watercolor. Artists favored easily blendable materials and matt papers for the softer-looking end result they produced.
While some photographers did the coloring work themselves, many hired artists who specialized in photographic coloring. An artist with a practiced hand enhanced the portrait of the G.U.O.O.F. Past Noble Grand. Below is a different, and earlier, crayon enlargement from the Museum’s collection; in this portrait of a member of the Amoskeag Veterans' Association signed by New Hampshire photographer Henry P. Moore, stark white tones highlight the subject’s shirt and buttons, creating vivid contrasts.
If you are curious to see more portraits from the Museum’s collection, you can view the online version of "What's in a Portrait?" here. We hope you’ll find time to enjoy it while the Museum & Library is closed due to the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts. Also, please join us on Facebook and check out our other online exhibitions and online collections. As always, we welcome your comments below.
“Crayon Portrait.” A Visual Glossary of Photographic Techniques. Parisphoto.com. Accessed April 27, 2020 at https://www.parisphoto.com/en/Glossary/Photochrome1/
Gary E. Albright and Michael K. Lee. “A Short Review of Crayon Enlargements: History, Technique, and Treatment.” Topics in Photographic Preservation, Volume 3. 1989, Photographic Materials Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works. Pp: 28-36. Accessed April 27, 2020 at http://resources.culturalheritage.org/pmgtopics/1989-volume-three/03_05_Albright.pdf