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Conte Crayons 101

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

What are conte crayons?

Conte crayons are a drawing medium that are made out of a combination of graphite or charcoal and clay. They are harder and more rigid when compared to pastels but also softer than graphite.

Drawing By Odd Nerdrum

If you are familiar with Odd Nerdrum and the incredible drawings that he makes - these are what he uses to make them.

Conte comes in different shapes - mostly pencils or small rectangular sticks. The combination of graphite or charcoal and clay makes a unique mixture that is difficult to understand if you've never tried using them.

What makes conte better than other drawing mediums?


It has a much wider range of use compared to graphite or pastels and allows for different techniques and effects that can’t be achieved as easily with any other drawing medium. The substance is softer than graphite but harder than pastels. This gives it a unique stickiness like pastels but maintains the dustiness of graphite. It's much easier to draw quickly using conte crayons when compared to other mediums because of this flexibility. The textural quality of conte allows for many unique effects.


One of the most impressive effects is creating transparency. Graphite and charcoal are quite similar in this regard but do not lead to the same end result so easily. Additionally the conte has more color and can be layered in a variety of colors to reflect nature. Pastels, while colorful, are very opaque and will usually be quite fixed due to their stickiness.


Conte can be added in a dusty layer to tone paper. The big advantage to conte in this regard is that it can be reworked and layered many times. Graphite is too hard to do the same because it will destroy the paper. Pastel is too sticky and will usually just build opaquely on top of itself. This is where conte reigns supreme, in the middle ground that allows for the best effects of both pastel and graphite.

What kind should I buy?

Conté crayons and conté pencils are available in a very wide range of colors. The colors you choose should reflect your subject and what you want to achieve with the drawing.

Colors I recommend

My recommendation for anyone starting out would be to buy the small variety package offered by Conte A Paris. With this you will get black, sanguine, and umber. These colors are the best for learning how to use the medium.

Don’t use too many colors

The problem with using other colors, like blue, green, or red, is that they make it more difficult to achieve liveliness. With the simple combination of earth colors you will be able to try out different techniques and effects in a simple way.

Learn from Odd Nerdrum

Use a Cohesive Color Scheme

Odd Nerdrum usually chooses a specific color combination - even for his most colorful drawings. These combinations usually end up looking as if they're monochromatic.

Even when he is using a color like blue he does not add in other colors that will distract or inhibit the monochromatic theme.

One example of analogous colors that end up appearing monochromatic would be using a combination of green and blue. When combined together the green acts as a lighter warmer tone while the blue is cooler and darker. Still, in the end the overall monochromatic theme will be blue, green, or blue green (they don't appear like separate colors). This is because they are analogous colors, or colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. The overall blending will always result in the colors remaining within one third of the color wheel.

Why Use The Analogous Color Scheme?

Making drawings in this way ensures that it will maintain a certain liveliness, and that the colors will not become distracting. This is a major reason that Nerdrum does not use a wide range of colors in his drawings. He typically sticks to a monochromatic theme or uses two analogous conte colors.

No White Conte!

In addition he does not use a white conte as that would mute the other colors. Instead he uses a kneaded eraser to place highlights, or a combination of a kneaded eraser and toilet paper to make lighter tones.

Analogous Color Schemes & Drawing With Conte

The Best Analogous Combination

My favorite combination is sanguine and umber. First I will prepare the paper using sanguine. Using a crayon and sandpaper I sand the crayon to get dust on to the paper. Once the paper is covered in dust I wipe it around using toilet paper to get an even grade. I do the same thing for a second toning layer using the umber.

Why Tone the Paper?

This creates layers that make filling in the first shapes and creating effects easier. By gently removing the top layer while drawing I still have sanguine underneath. Remove even further and I will have the white color of the paper.

This makes it much easier to achieve liveliness quickly. It covers all of the mid tone colors so that primary focus is on shadows and highlights.

Starting a Drawing With Conte & Basic Techniques

Drawing With Conte & More Tools

Sanguine (Lighter Color)

I focus on drawing with the sanguine first to place the facial features and shadows. Using the lighter sanguine color for this allows me to more easily cover up any mistakes.

Kneaded Eraser

I also use a kneaded eraser to create highlights and the broadest lighter tones.

Toilet Paper

Toilet paper comes in handy for making lighter tones, blending, and removing mistakes.

Umber (Darker Color)

Only towards the end of the drawing do I go back over my darkest lines and shadows using umber to create more contrast.

6 Secrets To Soften Your Drawing

More Color Combinations

Once you start to get a mastery over the medium and its possibilities, then it would be more appropriate to try expanding with other color combinations. I would recommend you try to use the main color combinations I talked about as your foundational practice with conte. My favorites are sanguine and umber, orange and sanguine, umber and black, and black by itself. If you want to use other colors just think about using analogous colors such as blue and green, orange and red, yellow and green, etc.

The Best Drawing Practice:

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