People naturally shy away from things they do not know about or understand well. And perhaps this explains why Conte crayons are familiar to many fine artists, but the majority are clueless.
Conte crayons are unique and far different from the usual wax crayons. Everything about them stands out, from the bar shape to the composition and lay down.
So then, what are Conte crayons? Conte crayons are a drawing medium made from graphite, charcoal, clay, and wax. They come in square sticks and bear a close resemblance to chalk pastels but are harder, more vivid, and slightly waxy.
If you pass up Conte crayons whenever shopping for a new drawing medium because you do not know much about them, here’s a fantastic opportunity to learn more. And who knows – you might just fall in love with them!
This article will be your detailed introduction to this mystery medium. We’ll explain what Conte crayons are, what they are made of, how to use them, the results to expect, the best type of paper to use, and more.
The History Of Conte Crayons
Let us begin with a little back story on how Conte (pronounced as con-tey) crayons came to be. It started with a famous French painter and artist Nicolas Jacques Conte, the ingenious mind behind the invention of the lead pencil and other remarkable fine art tools.
During the French revolution in the 18th century, there was an acute shortage of supplies in Paris, which was under siege. This included English graphite, a core component of fine art.
Consequently, fine art, being a major part of French culture, would begin to suffer. Luckily, in 1795, Conte conceived an idea to save the day by combining the little available graphite with clay and a binding wax, and Conte crayons were born!
Two centuries later, Conte crayons, or “sticks” as many refer to them, are still relevant and available beyond Paris. Who knew an invention that was less intentional and more of necessity would end up receiving global recognition?
Today, they are available under the name Conte a Paris and are available in more diversified sets of colors.
Are Conte Crayons The Same As Pastels?
Conte crayons are not pastels. Fitting them into a single class of pastels would be misleading as they are unusual compared to the rest and borrow a thing or two here and there.
The first step to understanding what Conte crayons are is to demystify the label crayons. In the US, crayons are beginner mediums made from wax and pigment.
Conte crayons are nothing like that. In the French language, crayons refer to hard pastels, which is why they look so much like pastels, the upgrade of crayons.
So then, are Conte crayons pastels? Not quite. Conte crayons are different from pastels, despite looking so much alike. They are distinct in composition, feel, and results.
What makes Conte crayons different is that they are much stiffer than soft pastels and not as greasy as oil pastels. They can’t be chalk pastels either because Conte crayons are harder, pigment intense, have a waxy appearance and produce very little dust.
The results of a Conte drawing look different from a pastel drawing, though could easily pass for a charcoal drawing. But unlike with charcoal, you can pull off crispier lines with Conte crayons because they are much harder.
Therefore, Conte crayons are just that; a unique medium in a class of its own. If you’re interested in trying them out, we recommend this awesome set of 12 colors to get you started!
What Are Conte Crayons Made Of?
Conte crayons are made of a graphite base, some fine clay like kaolin, a bit of wax and gum as binders, and charcoal for a natural pigment.
The dry components are crushed into a fine powder and combined with the gum and wax or some grease. The bound mixture is then shaped into square bars and baked till hardened.
The formulation of Conte crayons hasn’t changed much since the original. If anything, there’s more color variety now.
Initially, Conte crayons were only available in black, and a couple more earth tones later. That’s because the natural pigment variety was narrow, and for a long time, carbon (charcoal), titanium dioxide (white chalk), and iron oxide were the only ones used.
As a result, artists would only make grayscale and sepia sketches and drawings. But all that has now changed as Conte crayons carry more colors for lovers of flamboyant pieces.
Today, Conte crayons are available in a full color range set with blues, greens, pinks, yellows, and purples. The traditional color sets like sanguine, white, bistre, and black have been retained as well for those who want to keep it classic.
What Can You Do With Conte Crayons?
You might have overlooked the capabilities of Conte crayons before. But once you try these small sticks, you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve.
Conte crayons can be anything you want, from something as basic as a pencil for sketching to the primary medium for a detailed fine art piece with effects. It all depends on the results you want, whether defined linework or a painterly drawing.
You can create nice hatched drawings using Conte crayons alone. Hatching is the technique of creating tonal variation or depth using parallel lines.
The hard sticks are capable of producing very crisp lines when the tip is sanded or sharpened with an X-acto into a chisel shape. At the same time, making a vast solid color block is as easy as dragging the side of the same stick.
You can also create gradients and smooth transitions. Layering, blending, and smudged effects are particularly effortless and refined using a finger, blending stump, or tortillion.
And the thing with Contes is that they erase cleanly like ordinary pencils, except when you combine multiple colors.
In addition, Conte crayons can be a preliminary sketching tool for pastel drawings or paintings. They combine well with other mediums. Before painting, you can use Contes to transfer sketches to the canvas.
It has no problems under oil or acrylic paint as opposed to graphite pencil marks, which may migrate to the top layers. As long as the paint is opaque enough, the lines stay invisible.
What Is The Best Paper Conte Crayons?
The best paper for Conte crayons is medium to heavy grained paper. Because the crayon is characteristically hard, unlike pastels, it requires some tooth to hold better.
In addition to being textured, the best paper for Conte crayons is also tinted paper. The colors show brilliantly on toned paper rather than stark white sheets.
Cold-pressed watercolor paper, bristol vellum, and newsprint are a few ideal options. You can also use primed canvas or canvas paper.
Basically any toned textured paper designed for pastels or chalk, like the Canson Mi-Teintes Pastels Paper in assorted colors, will work wonderfully with Conte. The trick is to try out different papers already in hand, make swatches and see what works.
What Colors Do Conte Crayons Come In?
Conte crayons come in very many colors. However, the colors are grouped in sets because the emphasis is on tone and texture.
The classic set consists of 4 original earthy colors. There’s bistre (brown), sanguine, black and white colors. These can be used for outlining, creating mid-tones, shadows and highlighting respectively.
You can buy the classic colors as individual sets too. A basic black, bistre or sanguine set will do for any grayscale or sepia sketch work or drawing.
A white set is also a lifesaver, especially for beginners who are likely to make many mistakes. It enables you to blend effortlessly, tone down some colors, highlight areas, and reshape your lines and forms. However, all the other colors are only available in sets depending on the type of drawing.
Perhaps landscapes are your thing. Well, Conte makes more vibrant colors today. The 12 piece landscape set will get you sorted with primary colors and different grades of blue and green.
You can find the full range of warm and cool colors for those golden sunsets and dramatic skies in their giant 48 piece set. If 48 seems overkill, there’s a smaller 24 piece set with great variety too.
The portrait set has a nice selection of flesh tones to offer including, cream, yellowish, and tan colors for portraits and figures.
If your artwork involves extra fine details, or you just hate the square shape of Conte crayons and prefer the pencil format, Conte drawing pencils are an option.
They are similar to the crayons, and the only difference is the design. You can sharpen the Conte pencils with a sharpener similar to a lead pencil into an extra-fine tip for detailing.
Here’s a great tutorial from Rossitza Todorova on YouTube explaining how to use them.
Are Conte Crayons Good?
For a medium that renowned artists have used for 200 years, including Picasso, good would be an understatement. Conte crayons are great tools, just misunderstood.
They are easy to work with and need no special preparation or fixative to stay. In fact, they come in convenient compact, pocket-sized packs you can carry around to sketch and draw on the go mess-free.
You can do anything from simple sketches to detailed drawing, underdrawing, highlighting, and mixed media work. They are not just versatile but forgiving too and allow erasure of mistakes. The color assortment is amazing.
Most importantly, they are made from natural components like clay, graphite, beeswax, etc that are generally considered non-toxic. Plus there’s virtually no dust to inhale.
These are all valid reasons to avoid overlooking Conte crayons and instead give them a chance to be part of your fine art arsenal.
Up Next: How To Blend Oil Pastels