In Detail: Fred Dalkey’s Conté Drawings

Sacramento, California artist Fred Dalkey has spent much of his career creating luminous Conté drawings of figures and still lifes. The latest issue of Drawing magazine includes an interview with the artist, and here we’re pleased to share a portion of that article, accompanied by detail views of several of the artist’s works, giving us a better understanding of the countless fine marks that make up the drawings’ delicate areas of tone.

To read the full interview with Fred Dalkey, get your copy of the fall issue of Drawingor download the magazine here.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Diane Seated With Sculpture Stands, by Fred Dalkey, 2003, Conte crayon, 9 1/8 x 7 3/4. Photo: John Wilson White / Phocasso / San Francisco. Artwork this article courtesy the artist and Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco, California.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Diane Seated With Sculpture Stands (detail), by Fred Dalkey

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Diane Seated With Sculpture Stands (detail), by Fred Dalkey

Drawing: In many of your drawings the figure almost seems to dissolve into the background. How do you view the relationship between figure and ground?

Fred Dalkey: That’s a very conscious thing for me. I consider there to be two types of people who draw: those who draw compositions and those who draw objects. And you can trace this back to childhood. I was very much an object drawer, be it a train, a sailboat or a dinosaur. I didn’t think in terms of composition. When I started my art education, and especially in college, the idea of composition was emphasized, and drawing the object was looked down on. I became very conscious of thinking in terms of composition—I’d think, “I’ve got to address composition right from the beginning.” It’s now part of the way I work, creating a sort of light atmosphere.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Woman Shrinking From the Light, by Fred Dalkey, 2012, Conte crayon and white chalk, 9 1/2 x 7 3/4. Photo: John Wilson White / Phocasso / San Francisco.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Woman Shrinking From the Light (detail), by Fred Dalkey.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Woman Shrinking From the Light (detail), by Fred Dalkey.

DR: What are your first steps as you begin a drawing?

FD: It might not show, but most of them start with a very light gestural drawing. This helps me with compositional placement and also with trying to keep some life in the work. Then I start quickly building value, looking for large patterns of lights and darks, which I’ll establish fairly lightly. As that builds, I’ll just keep working and refining that light-and-dark pattern. It’s a very traditional way of working. In earlier works I would use a paper stump to block in lights and darks, but in recent years I rarely stump. It’s almost all built up.

DR: What form of Conté do you use? And do you use other materials?

FD: I draw with a very sharp sanguine Conté pencil—I sharpen it with a knife and sand it into a point. Those big soft tones in the background are actually made from the texture of the paper. I just kind of graze the pencil over the surface of the thing. If I get hot spots in building up tones, I’ll pick them out with a pointed kneaded eraser.

Sometimes I work with charcoal—especially when I was teaching, because with charcoal I can work large—but I’d use it essentially the same way. Occasionally, if I’m working on a paper where it’s appropriate, I’ll use just a little bit of whitening for highlighting. For that I use a General’s white charcoal pencil.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Soy Sauce Bottle and Coffee Mug, by Fred Dalkey, 2001, Conte crayon, 10 x 8 1/4. Photo: Ira Schrank / Sixth Street Studios / San Francisco.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Soy Sauce Bottle and Coffee Mug (detail), by Fred Dalkey.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Soy Sauce Bottle and Coffee Mug (detail), by Fred Dalkey.

DR: What sort of paper do you prefer? Do you like it to have some texture?

FD: I draw on handmade paper that I tear into pieces of various sizes. They’re generally pretty small; I rarely go over 11 inches. I like fairly light papers, not heavy, textural papers. I’ll try whatever I can get my hands on, but I often use hot-pressed Twinrocker.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Model Looking at the Light, by Fred Dalkey, 2011, silverpoint with sgrafitto, 9 5/16 x 7. Photo: Ira Schrank / Sixth Street Studios / San Francisco.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Model Looking at the Light (detail), by Fred Dalkey.

Fred Dalkey | Artist's Network | Conte Drawings

Model Looking at the Light (detail), by Fred Dalkey.

About the Artist

Fred Dalkey, a native of Sacramento, California, was interested in art from an early age. As a teenager he studied with the Austrian painter Abe Nussbaum, and he went on to study at Sacramento City College and Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento). He served as an instructor at Sacramento City College for 40 years until his retirement in 2009. He has held dozens of solo shows, and his artwork can be found in the collections of institutions including the Crocker Art Museum, in Sacramento; the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco; and the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC. For more information, visit the website of Paul Thiebaud Gallery at paulthiebaudgallery.com.

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One thought on “In Detail: Fred Dalkey’s Conté Drawings

  1. jacabo

    I’m not sure whether I approve this interview by Mr. Williams for beginners or anyone. Let me explain: I’ve worked with conte, pencil and charcoal for many years, and I felt that the interviewer could have done better by getting to the real probing question. How can the media (conte) bring out ones passion for your drawing? I could never, in all honesty, be inspired by the lack luster of questions. Granted it represented your typical interview and the artist was very forth coming explaining his techniques but I wanted more! Give the artist reading this article, the passion for carving out a piece of their soul on paper not only with conte but with any media. Sure technique is very important, but it can wait.
    In my early attempts, I’ve taken a small piece of conte crayon and flooded my paper with whimsically, bizarre surrealistic images, never ever as much wondering if my technique, lines, shades were ever correct or representational of life. I felt exhausted after a few minutes of mind and soul searches for images that I could render. I don’t apologize for my tone here only because this so reminiscent of “paint by numbers art” lessons many of us have been expose to.. Mr. Williams, let’s blaze new trails for the new generation. And let’s have fun too. — jacabo

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