Saturday, October 29, 2011

Trois Crayons

The still life I'm trying is on medium tone grey scale paper which I bought because I am enamoured of the drawing technique called Trois Crayons, the three pencils being charcoal, sanguine and white chalk on grey or tan toned paper. The most renowned practitioner of this technique was Watteau.

But of course, it was used by all the great artists either as an art in itself or, more commonly, as a preliminary to painting.

Here is a trois crayon drawing of Sir Thomas Elyot by the greatest portrait master of all time, Hans Holbein.

Trois crayons is the drawing technique that most fascinates me. So far, I've been strictly using pencil to learn to see with. Went to a figure class this week and did pretty well with the proportions and whatnot, so that's coming along.

I also finished my third Bargue this week,

the side-view horse head. This took me about 50 hours all together.

This is Andrea's Bargue horse head from when she was a student at the Florence Academy. It shows how much this course is a handed-down tradition. I once found Picasso's version of a Bargue student drawing, the same one I was working on at the time. Mine was way better. Picasso always sucked.

(Pictured: not mine. Someone else's)
But the fourth class thing is going to be Bargue's Belvedere Torso in charcoal which I'll start on November 21 and work on for three classes until Andrea goes to Australia. I am greatly looking forward to it because I really need instruction in charcoal.

Skills with charcoal and sanguine are what you develop when you do the

trois crayon technique.

One of the main things I wanted at Zecchi in Florence was some chunks of pure sanguine that you can get almost nowhere else. They didn't have much left but the lady brought out a big plastic box that had several fist-size chunks and a whole lot of powder and little broken-off bits. I realise now I should have bought a big bag of the powder and little bits as well.

Pure sanguine - the batch I got at Zecchi has a nice pinkish glow - has some interesting properties, one of which is its great friability and smudginess. As I've been fooling about with the chunks, I've been trying several ways to use it. It blends beautifully. You can take a bit of it, sharpen with a knife and a piece of sandpaper, and use it straight on the paper getting a nice clean line. You can grate it on a cheese grater and mix the powder with water and use it as a kind of red ink that has very pleasing effects. You can apply the powder directly to the paper and blend it all over with a tissue or sponge to tone white paper.

I also picked up a couple of white chalk pastels which lay down a much thicker layer of white than either a conte or a white chalk pencil. White chalk pastel goes over top of other mediums and can be used right over top of charcoal, but someone out there in the art internet said that a little touch of gouache paint does the same thing only better and recommended touching up the chalk or pastel highlights once the drawing is finished. It also happens that I have a little tube of white gouache.

A while ago, enchanted as I am with what I now know is called Trois Crayon technique, I bought some big sheets of grey scale paper. With the Dramatic Tea Pot still life, I realised that it is going to be a perfect subject to do the three colours, the white linen table cloth and tea pot are white with grey shadows ideal for rendering in charcoal on a grey background, and the carved wood screen as background can be all done in various shades of sanguine.

We'll see how it goes.



JamesP said...

Hey Hilary,

How big is the horse drawing? I am amazed that any drawing can take 50 hours! My drawings usually take more like one or two before I feel I have ran out of things to be doing.

Then again, my drawings do not turn out as nicely as your horse, so it seems there are things I should be doing! Or should I simply be going more slowly?

Ho hum. I think I need to do some copying..

Mrs McLean said...

Such a hard-working little pumpkin!

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...


You are probably not observing as closely as you could. When I started, I would look then draw.

Now I look, and look and look, lay down a mark, look again, look some more, do a little more looking, and lay down a mark. Then I usually erase the first mark, then I look for a while longer.

The difference between the way I was drawing before and the way I am drawing now is the intensity of looking. This has created a standard of perfection for me to shoot for.

The issue with the sight size method in learning classical realist drawing is largely about learning to observe incredibly minutely.

Once you have learned to draw with such intensity as to take 50 hours to do a drawing of a horse's head, you will find that the simpler drawings go a lot faster than you ever thought you could go.

I have now spent hundreds of hours doing sight size drawings both in class and at home and I am astounded at how much easier it is to quickly rip off a sketch of a building or a flower or even a person and have it actually turn out looking like the thing I am drawing.

I think it is like any other highly refined skill. In fencing you do drills. You learn foot work, point work, parry/riposte drills. You go to your class and you get together with your friends and you set up a fencing strip on your porch at home. You spend 15 minutes a day skipping rope in a way that teaches you the correct stance. You do this for hours and hours and hours. Then one day, you get on a strip with someone you've never been able to get a touch on, and you are beating him.

I suppose if I had ever played the piano, I would be saying the same thing about scales.

JamesP said...

Hi Hilary,

Well, I've had an interesting evening.

I haven't copied a drawing since, well, ever. I did some upside-down copying as part of a Betty Edwards inspired beginner course but nothing since then. Inspired by your post I decided to copy a drawing from Juliette Aristides' Classical Drawing Atelier, beginning at the beginning I copied "Study for Headless Man on Topless Bar".

All I have so far is a rectangle the size of the picture I am copying and a blocky outline of the figure on the right. This has taken me THREE HOURS - longer than I have ever spent on a drawing yet all I have is an outline! I can well see how doing the full drawing this way is likely to take many, many hours but I can also see how this is forcing me to use skills I have hardly practiced before. I can see what you mean about scales.

Also, copying a drawing rather than sketching from life forces me to be as accurate as possible, I think because the drawing has finite detail and so there is a feeling that one ought to get all of it in. A real life subject seems to have too much detail so my brain kindly filters a lot of it out for me!

The only problem is, I will almost certainly get distracted with some other hobby/project before this is finished!

Jeanean said...

Hello Hillary, Your blog is very interesting. I too, love the trois crayon technique and am very interested in pursing it. I am so envious of the gorgeous sanguine. can you order this from somewhere?

Rubempre said...

Hello, Hilary. A very interesting post. I wonder--does the trois crayons work best on grey-toned paper, or would it work equally well with tan-toned paper?
Thomas King

Unknown said...

Hi Hilary,

This was a great article, thanks so much for putting it together. I've been searching everywhere for a source of pure sanguine and can't find it at any arts supplies stores or online. Do you know of any sources, or any shops in Florence that would be willing to ship to the U.S.?

Yamaplos said...

Got here looking for info on trois crayons, as I make handmade paper with fabulous tooth (see my website at papeltexano ). Because I am not yet successful at selling it, someone gave me the idea that I should bundle it with pastels, so I started experimenting, and so far my black and burnst Sienna "pastels" turned out amazing, and now I need to do a good red and a titanium white, for trois crayons, and since I have yellow iron oxide pigment also, might as well have yellow and orange. Best is that all iron oxides, and titanium white are very, very safe pigments.
BTW, happy about your pro-life interest. Got some missionary friends in Malta, will try to get them connected with it.