Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Venice Canal walkway
I am sure you know that there are lots of different materials you can use to sketch with.  Regular graphite pencils tend to be the most popular choice;  easy to rub out! (tho perhaps a bit too easy to rub out, I have watched many an eraser-happy artist spending more time scrubbing away their drawings, than drawing.  As a student I was not allowed to use an eraser.  That focussed the mind and sharpened up the observation, I can tell you!) 

In days of yore (love that phrase) artists frequently sketched using SANGUINE, a rust-coloured chalk – just look at the fabulous sketch below by Augustus John.

 Those artists of the past often used blocks of sanguine for their lovely images.  then, in the 18th Century, in response to the graphite shortages caused by the Napoleonic Wars, CONTE STICKS were invented by Nicolas-Jacques Conte (interestingly, the British naval blockage of France prevented the import of graphite).  Conte is a drawing medium composed of compressed charcoal (or sometime graphite) mixed with a wax or clay base. 

Today’s artists are lucky enough to have a huge choice of either sticks, or pencils, in these mediums,  to use.  And use them I do…..I absolutely love them .

The choice is a bit mind-boggling, and I don’t want to bore you with over-wordy blogs,  so I will give you a brief rundown of the main types of “monochrome” PENCILS – you can buy sticks, but for sketching, particularly on location, pencils are cleaner to use. Sharpen carefully with a craft knife, ideally.

CONTE PIERRE NOIRE is a soft black that is rich, intense and matt.

CONTE CARBON PENCIL has a core derived from traditional charcoal, but is stronger, waxier,  and does not crumble.  I often use these.

CONTE CHARCOAL PENCIL is intensely black, and blends will with the red and sepia pencils.  It will give you finer control than traditional charcoal sticks.

CONTE SANGUINE PENCIL is a deep rust colour, which blends easily.  Lightly drawn, the texture of the paper shows thro.  Opacity increases with pressure.

CONTE SANGUINE MEDICI is a darker red, with less red oxide. It behaves similarly to the Sanguine pencil.

CONTE SEPIA PENCIL is like burnt umber. Gorgeous for shading.  With a sharp point, you can achieve accurate, delicate lines;  with a half-worn lead, the finish is more opaque and pressure gives dark lines.  It also blends well with sanguine, white, charcoal or Pierre noire pencils.

You can use any of these pencils onto white sketchbook papers, except the white conte obviously…but beautiful drawings can be achieved on a tinted paper, using the white for highlights, as I did for the peppers on the right here, drawn with black conte, and white conte, onto grey paper.

If you are well up with the technological revolution, and would like to see some stunning master drawings, for inspiration, believe it or not there are two APPS available, showing many of the sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci 75 drawings, and Antoine Watteau, 100 drawings.  Click on the names to go to the itunes webpage for the inexpensive apps.

Managed to get this far before the wretched thing spat right at me!

If you do decide to try these pencils, do remember that your drawings are smudgeable…handy when you want to soften lines or add a bit of judicious tone…but not so good when it comes off on the opposite page. You need to spray fix your work…or find sketchbooks with tissue/glassine/crystal interleaves.  The latter means you can only work on one page, whereas I often like to work across a double-page spread, so I fix my drawings.

Venetian market seller, enjoying an icecream.  Molto Bene!

There is something very seductive about these materials;  the lines can be sharp, or velvety soft;  the darks are really dark and matt and opaque, without the sheen of graphite.  Do try them, they are really delicious to use.


  1. Hi Jackie, I love your blog ,it is so full of interesting and useful information and your sketches are brilliant.Thanks for taking the time to impart some of your wisdom and experience.

  2. Hey, thanks Phil, I am so glad you enjoy what I have to say! Makes the time spent feel really worthwhile.

  3. Beautiful peppers, but sorry about that rude camel! This post brought back wonderful memories of college art classes many years ago. We often used conte crayons and I loved them, but I think I'll have to find some conte pencils now!

  4. Delicious indeed! Your sketches are beautiful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge through your blog it is appreciated.

  5. Gorgeous sketches! I love the warmth of the earth toned drawing mediums...they give the sketches more life, somehow.

  6. Jackie, wonderful post! Your sketches make me want to go get busy sketching. Thanks for the info on the different conte pencils. Your thoughts and sketches are very inspiring, so please do keep posting.

  7. I came over to see your blog after seeing your sketchbook thread on WetCanvas. Wow! You have lots of info here. Being a person who is always out with my sketchbook, I just love seeing how other people work outdoors. I am going to put your blog under the links on my blog so that I can find it again easily. Keep up the good work!!!

  8. so nice to hear from you all, I read every comment and appreciate every one, and yes, please do link me, and I will try to do the same once I work out how to do it! Still learning here!

  9. Such useful information this post has =) I am still a big fan of monochrome sketches and I use graphite way to extensively sometimes. I'd love to give Conte a try and yes I am a eraser happy guy(I somehow regard erasers as tools more than just the means of erasing mistakes, is that right at all?)
    Thanks again, and love your blog!

  10. Alex, yes, I sometimes use an eraser as a tool, to soften a drawing....but the danger is to become dependant on it for "correcting". You can correct, and do it again, and correct, and do it again, indefinitely! Degas used to "correct" but used to leave the original line in place, rather than erase. It makes a mess of the drawing and it loses flow.

  11. Another wonderful article, Jackie! I love using Conte crayons and the pencils, as well as similar products from other brands. One of my favorites is a Cretacolor lead holder kit with six extra-wide leads - it has charcoal, graphite, sanguine, sepia, white and dark sanguine leads.

    I can use the sticks separately like sticks and turn pieces on their sides or load them into the extra-wide lead holder to draw with the tips. I tend to sharpen those by wearing them down rather than sharpening. There's always some area that needs filling in enough to get a sharp chisel edge or point.

    That sketch technique of light and dark on mid tone paper is wonderful. It's easy to be concise when the paper color is all your mid tones so all you need to draw are shadows and highlights.


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