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5 Tips for Trois Crayons Drawing Technique

My attempt at the Trois Crayons technique.

As someone used to monochrome drawing, I got interested in learning the Trois Crayons technique this month to introduce myself to the world of color drawing. In this post, I give a basic overview of the method and share the five tips I found helpful in drawing with the Trois Crayons technique.

An Overview of the Trois Crayons technique

Sketches by the French Painter Jeune Antoine Watteau from the early eighteenth Century.

Trois Crayons is a traditional drawing method involving three chalks of white, black, and another primary color (usually red) on a grey or tan toned paper. The technique was popularized in the 17th Century by the Flemish master Paul Rubens and is since used by artists to draw expressive portraits and figures.

Trois Crayons, which translates to three pencils, is an excellent way of quickly conveying the basic structure, texture, and tones of a drawing using minimal tools, especially as a study for a more detailed drawing, painting, or sculpture.

Drawing values in this medium is quick because the paper’s tone does a good job of indicating the major midtones of a drawing, enabling the artist to observe and shade only the significant shadows and highlights.

Although most old masters used chalks of different colors to draw in Trois Crayons, you can use charcoal, pastels, colored pencils, or any other dry medium that you are comfortable drawing with to try out this technique.

Learning the Trois crayons technique is slightly more challenging than drawing with graphite because of the added dimension of color. Still, it can be enjoyable and rewarding, especially for beginner artists like myself who wish to draw with colors but have yet to get around to doing so.

Here are five tips that I have found most helpful in learning the Trois Crayons technique.

Tip 1 Use watercolor or drawing ink to tone the paper yourself.

A drawing by Paul-César Helleu drawn in black, red, and white chalk on buff paper.

Commercially available toned papers and sketchbooks like the Strathmore Toned Sketchbook Series are ideal for trying out the Trois Crayons technique because of its texture, tone, and ability to withstand multiple layers of colors.

However, if you don’t have access to a toned sketchbook or wish to avoid buying one, don’t let that hold you back from trying out the Trois Crayons technique. If you have watercolor or ink in your art supplies, you can use those to tone any white sketching paper weighing more than 120 grams. 

The best part of toning the paper yourself is that you can try different colors than the usual grey and tan colors that are commercially available, allowing you to create different moods in your drawings.

The only real problem with using watercolor-or-ink-toned paper that I have encountered so far is that the white highlights created with dry media like charcoal, chalk, and colored pencils tend to be not as bright or intense as on a pre-toned paper unless the highlights are protected from the brush using a masking fluid or tape (which can be too much work) or by just being really careful to not go over the highlighted sections when handling the brush. This obviously depends on your level of patience and the accuracy of the drawing’s outline, which can be challenging for beginner artists to tackle.

So if you plan to draw loosely on watercolor or ink-toned paper, I do recommend finding references with minimal highlights or drawing highlights with white ink instead of dry chalk or pencils.

Tip 2 Use black for the darkest shadows, white for the highlights, and red for midtones and outlines.

Here is a value chart for the Trois Crayons Technique showing the range of possible values in the medium that I made for my own reference.

You could experiment with all sorts of different colors in your drawings, but if you’re going for a traditional look that is reminiscent of the old masters’ work, I suggest you use red (sanguine), black, and white colors which is the most popular combination because it then makes it easier for beginner artists like me to learn, compare and apply the techniques used by the old masters.

Personally, I use these three colors in the following way:

  • White is obviously reserved for the highlights.
  • The black color is for suggesting the shadows.
  • Red can be used to create an outline, darken some midtones, suggest a different texture, add contrast to the background, and emphasize the highly saturated areas of a drawing.

The key to mastering the Trois Crayon technique also lies in balancing the use of different colors with blank sections of the toned paper.

Tip 3 Use hatching to blend the different colors and tones instead of using blending tools.

This sketch by Paul-César Helleu is a vibrant demonstration of the Trois Crayons technique.

While blending stumps can be used to smooth out the color variations, overusing it can tone down the energy of a drawing when attempting the Trois Crayons technique.

Hatching lines of different colors is a better way to blend colors in a drawing without reducing the overall intensity of a sketch. The French painter Paul César Helleu was a master at this, and you should definitely check out his sketches to get inspiration.

Tip 4 Experiment with your workflow to suit your drawing style.

My process for drawing a portrait in Trois Crayons.

While I don’t think it matters too much which colors you opt to use first, it is helpful to try different combinations to find a workflow that suits your particular art style.

From my experience, defining the highlights in white early in drawing can be problematic for beginner artists like myself, who often need to rework parts of the sketch because erasing white colored pencils or chalk can be tricky.

Although I frequently change the three colors throughout the drawing, my basic process for Trois Crayons drawings is to:

  • Start with an outline in red color, 
  • Shade in the dark midtones and primary shadow shapes in red,
  • Block in the shadows in black,
  • Mark the highlights using white, and
  • Bring it all together by using all three colors.

When I’m unsure in the outline phase, I find it helpful to draw a faint outline using my trusted HB pencil that I usually draw with so I can draw over it with colors more confidently.

Tip 5 Aim to draw confident, vivid lines and leave some details for the imagination.

I need to practice drawing in Trois Crayons more often.

As someone who likes to draw precisely, drawing with Trois Crayons has been particularly challenging for me because it seems more suited to more loose sketching. One thing I have learned from my admittedly limited experience in this medium is that trying to push the details too far can lead to underwhelming results.

Based on what I have studied from the artworks by the old masters that excelled at this technique, like Watteau, Rubens, and my favorite, Paul César Helleu, I think the best way to go about Trois Crayons technique is to go for a loose, unfinished kind of aesthetic. Achieving such an art style involves the use of minimal but confidently hatched patterns of the three colors to suggest the essential forms and tones while leaving out minor details for the viewers’ imagination.