Sanguine, Conte and Trois Crayon – Variations in drawing

Sanguine  is chalk of a reddish-brown colour, so called because it resembles the colour of dried blood. It has been popular for centuries for drawing (where white chalk only works on coloured paper), and the term also describes a drawing done in sanguine. The word comes via French from the Italian sanguigna and originally from the Latin “sanguis”.

Sanguine lends itself naturally to sketches, life drawings, and rustic scenes. It is ideal for rendering modelling and volume, and human flesh. In the form of wood-cased pencils and manufactured sticks, sanguine may be used similarly to charcoal and pastel. As with pastel, a mid-toned paper may be put to good use. A fixative may be applied to preserve the finished state of the drawing. The pigment used in sanguine sticks comes from red earths such as red ochre. Sanguine is also available in several other tones such as orange, tan, brown, beige.


Also known as Conté sticks or Conté crayons, are a drawing medium composed of compressed powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base, square in cross-section. They were invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who created the combination of clay and graphite in response to the shortage of graphite caused by the Napoleonic Wars (the British naval blockade of France prevented import). Conté crayons had the advantage of being cost-effective to produce, and easy to manufacture in controlled grades of hardness.

Conté crayons are most commonly found in black, white, and sanguine tones, as well as bistre, shades of grey, and other colours. Currently in the USA, sets of 12 assorted portrait and landscape colours are available as well as a sketching set, plus sets of 18, 24 or 48 colours. In Europe, 22 more colours are available and the colours other than sanguine, bistre, grey, black, and white are available open stock.

Colours sets are especially useful for field studies and colour studies. Some artists create entire paintings with them, using them more like paste

Portrait of Paul Signac

ls than like a drawing medium. They are also used often to sketch under pastel paintings or lay down initial layers before using dry pastels. The colours sets lean toward very bright spectrum hues that mix well; even the 12 assorted colour set can be layered to produce any hues or values desired. Colour Conté mixes better on paper than many hard pastel products.


Trois Crayon

Trois crayons (French for “three chalks”) refers to a drawing technique using three colours of chalk: red (sanguine), black, and white. The paper used may be a mid-tone such as grey, blue, or tan.

Among numerous others, François Boucher and the French painter Antoine Watteau drew studies of figures and drapery aux trois crayons. The technique was, most notably, pioneered and popularised by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens.

Aux deux crayons uses only two colours, frequently black and white, as seen in many of Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s drawings.




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