Conté crayons and pencils

Named after Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who invented them in the eighteenth century, Conté crayons are made in a range of traditional colours: white (made from chalk), sanguine (from iron oxide), sepia (from the ink of the cuttlefish) and bistre (from the soot of burnt beechwood). Terracotta, umber and black are also available, as are sets that provide a range of greys and browns.

The crayons are also known as carré sticks — carré being the French word for ‘square’, referring to the square profile of the sticks. The best way to use Conté crayons is to snap off a small section about 2-3cm (1 in) long and use the side of the crayon to block in large areas, and a sharp edge or the tip to make more linear marks.

The pigment in Conté crayons is relatively powdery, which means that, like soft pastels and charcoal, it can be blended by rubbing with a finger, rag or torchon. Conté crayon drawings benefit from being given a coat of fixative to prevent smudging.

Christine Magliocchi, Drawing, ‘Woman Contour’ (Saatchi online gallery)

However, Conté crayons are slightly harder and more oily than soft pastels, so you can lay one colour over another, allowing the underlying colour to show through. Conté is also available in pencil form in a similar range of colours. The pencils contain wax and need no fixing (setting); the other benefit is that the tip can be sharpened to a relatively fine point. Pencils and sticks are particularly effective when used together, the pencil being used for precision and detail and the sticks to block in wide areas of tone.


Drawings made using both pencils and sticks can be seen to best advantage when made on a light-coloured paper. Most of the colours that are available in pencil and stick form can also be found in short ‘lead’ form intended for use in a holder. Different manufacturers make ‘leads’ in different diameters, so not all are interchangeable. Many of the holders have a sharpening mechanism in the end. Similar square holders are made to hold small pieces of the broken sticks.

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