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As most artists know, pencils aren’t just for kids; high-quality versions are a staple of drawing in many adult toolboxes. Perhaps the best known are the ContÃ© pencils, invented at the end of the 18th century. Composed of compressed graphite or charcoal mixed with clay and then colored with pigments, these sticks are ideal for creating designs with intense tones. Although traditionally available in darker tones such as grays and browns, today they are sold in many colors. ContÃ© sticks are just one choice from a variety of artistically grade pencils that can be used for a soft, smooth drawing. Explore your options by reading our top picks below.
From France come the original ContÃ© pencils, versatile drawing tools ideal for spontaneous sketches, figure drawings and other expressive marks. Slightly firmer and less dusty than soft pastels, these compressed sticks of pigment, graphite and clay give artists greater control over their strokes. Their slim rectangular shape allows for wide coverage and equally achievable thin edges. Available in a variety of colors, these pencils are ideal for adding highlights and other details to charcoal drawings, and the colors blend easily. They come in sets of 4 to 48, with a few packs of two available for popular neutrals such as bistre and several sanguines.
Buy: ContÃ© Crayons, $ 2.98- $ 59.77 on Dick Blick
WE LIKE TOO
Faber-Castell Pitt pencils
Available only in Black, Dark Blood, Roman Sepia, and Van Dyke Brown, these Faber-Castell pencils are perfect when you need a reliable range of earthy, mid-spectrum colors. The firm sticks are oil-free but move smoothly across the page without scratching, and you can smudge the strokes while still retaining some definition. Like ContÃ© pencils, these are narrow blocks that can be turned sideways to quickly cover large areas, but also have defined edges to create fine lines.
Buy: Faber-Castell Pitt Crayons, $ 2.50 to $ 3.50 on Dick Blick
ANOTHER GOOD OPTION
Although technically hard pastels, NuPastels work the same as ContÃ© pencils and are a great alternative to these drawing sticks if you want to work with colors that are a bit more pop. The sticks are rich in pigment and display amazing color strength, and thanks to their slightly creamy consistency, they blend effortlessly. They’re also pretty tough – you can exert decent force to produce hard lines without having to worry about them collapsing or worse, breaking.
Purchase: Prismacolor NuPastel, $ 13.39 â $ 123.99 at Amazon
TOP OF THE LINE
Caran d’Ache Neocolor I Wax Pastels
Artists who enjoy working in mixed media should consider these top-notch tools, often affectionately referred to as “Adult Crayolas.” These are actually the best water resistant pencils you can get. Loaded with pigments and a buttery sweetness, they have a personality similar to pastels in terms of blend and smoothness, but have a firmer structure that resists chipping. THey, apply a color that stays put even when covered in paint, so yyou can use them for the undercoat of inks, watercolors, acrylics, etc. Caran d’Ache offers a generous assortment of colors, and you can buy your favorites individually or in sets of 10 to 40 pieces.
Purchase: Caran d’Ache Neocolor I Wax Pastels, $ 2.25 to $ 75.66 on Dick Blick
Classic Yarka Assorted Sauce Drawing Pencils
Never heard of sauce? You’re not alone. This centuries-old medium – a mixture of pigment with Hasov-Yar clay and industrial carbon – is relatively well known today in Russia and nowhere else. It behaves like the child of ContÃ© and soft pastel, with a chalky but velvety, almost silky texture. Each pack comes with 10 colors, including black, gray-green, gray-azure, ocher, bistre, and white. Many artists like to grind the sticks into powder, wet them, and use them to create washes in beautiful tones. A secret sauce, indeed.
Buy: Classic Yarka Assorted Sauce Drawing Pencils, $ 17.42 at Dick Blick