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The Art of Sketch

Dry techniques – Trois crayons

By César Medina

October 13, 2023

The trois crayons, or three-color technique, is an ancient dry technique widely used today. It has its origins in portraits from the 16th century. This dry technique is very interesting since with only three colors we can achieve portraits with practically all human skin tones.


Its name comes from the French language, which literally means three pencils. These three tones are the black of charcoal, the white of chalk and the sanguine (blood) which can vary from red to sepia. Black predominates in dark areas, chalk in light reflections and sanguine mixed with the previous ones allows different skin colors to be achieved. This can also be used for work on landscapes or animals, as long as we tolerate the result with ocher or earth tones.


dry technique trois crayons


The color of the paper can be white. However, it is preferable that the background be slightly dark to be able to highlight it with the chalk. The paper can be hand-toned or purchased in gray, mustard or earth tones.


Among the most renowned artists who used this technique are Rubens, Caravaggio, and Tintoretto.


How do trois crayons work?


The fundamental color here is sanguine, which as we already said can be found from a fiery red, through a dark sepia, to a purplish brown, all accents found in human skin. This quality serves very well for still life works.


Mona lisa version dry technique trois crayons


The sepia tone can give works of art a nostalgic and ancestral atmosphere, with a warm and sublime temperature.


This practice gives a lot of character to the mastery of colors that the artist develops, since dealing with only three tones and trying to mix them to obtain dozens of different colors is a very particular challenge. In these circumstances, you learn a lot about the technique and strengthen the path towards the use of more colored pencils (or sticks), such as pastel colors.


Obviously, all this provides instant chromatic harmony. And the balance of light is achieved by controlling the use of black charcoal and white chalk, thereby achieving works that are either very dark or very illuminated.


Personally, I prefer to start my trois crayons art works with sanguine, which, being a light color, can fade the initial strokes and lines. Then, add the charcoal with a light stroke and begin to combine it with the white chalk. After multiple layers of the above, the mixture gives me a unique interweaving of tones.


Lanscape in dry technique trois crayons





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