Conté crayons were developed in the 18th century by Nicolar-Jacques Conte, a French scientist, in response to graphite shortages. He set out to design a pencil that could be made with a small percentage of graphite, allowing it to be fabricated from materials obtained within France. The result was a mixture of clay and graphite that was kiln fired to achieve a hard texture. Artists adopted these crayons, which are readily available today in many art supply stores.
The traditional colors for Conté crayons were black, red, and brown. The reddish sepia tone is sometimes called sanguine, and was used by many Old Masters in sketches and preliminary drawings. Modern versions come in an assortment of colors, although some artists prefer to stick with the traditional colors, focusing on nuances of shading and design rather than bold coloration. A skilled artist is able to achieve very subtle shading, creating almost photorealistic work with these drawing tools.
The design of Conté crayons is sometimes compared to pastels. Both are sticks of solid pigment that are applied directly to the paper. However, crayons are much harder than pastels or charcoals, yielding crisp, tight lines, rather than the more smudged look familiar to pastel users. Using Conté crayons, an artist can achieve subtle variations of shading in clear, distinct drawings. Also like pastels and charcoals, they can stain the fingers, and art produced with them is usually treated to prevent the pigment from rubbing off.
Coarse papers are usually used with Conté crayons, since they pick up the pigment better than smooth or glossy papers. They are also used to make sketches on canvas that will later be painted over. Artists may also use one like a drawing pencil, if they desire a distinct color or level of hardness. Some artists may also choose to use colored paper for a specific desired look.
The modern Conté crayon is long and square in cross section. As it is used, the stick will slowly erode, and it should not require any sharpening. Manufacturers also offer them in varying degrees of hardness, allowing artists to use the crayons for softer lines and more delicate shading. They are sold both individually and in boxed sets, with many art supply stores carrying an abundance of individual black, brown, and red Conté crayons, since these colors are in high demand.