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Escaping Mechanical Pencils: Three Dry Mediums for New Artists

Every great artist’s career begins in the margins of their history notebook. Their first tool? Number 2 lead, gummy gel grip, and approximately four grams of plastic and spring.

You can drum with it, use it to poke your classmates, and—more to the point—outline, draw, shade, doodle, and detail. It’s your first companion as an artist, and as a tool you could do a lot worse. It’s respected throughout the art world, and it’s one of the most common artistic instruments.

If anyone ever asks you if there’s a such a thing as a mechanical pencil that costs more than a hundred dollars, tell them there is.

The World Is Bigger. So Are You.

That being said, you won’t grow as an artist until you practice and experiment with other dry mediums. There’s a world of other ways to create images, and each one comes with its own unique ways to express line, shape, and shadow.


Produced by burning wood in an airless kiln, charcoal combines the age-old fun of getting your hands dirty, with flexible shading and clear bold lines. It’s popular because it’s affordable, friendly to beginners, and easy to manipulate. There are two common types:

  • Vine charcoal is easy to erase and irregularly shaped—use it to lightly block the lines and general shape of your subject before applying heavier lines or paints.
  • Compressed charcoal is much heavier and more difficult to erase, and it can be bought from art stores as a pencil-like square or round stick—use it to shade and detail your work.

Both types of charcoal come in different levels of hardness, which changes the darkness of your lines and the ease with which you can smear it for shading.

Watch an in-depth video explaining the difference between vine charcoal and compressed charcoal.

Pro tip: After you’ve laid down your lines and shading, use a conventional eraser to create clean lines.

Pastel Pencils

You know those chalk rainbows and pretty green trees you see on the sidewalks of your neighbors homes? Pastel pencils are the grown-up version. They’re surrounded by wood like a conventional graphite pencil, and, like a pencil, can be sharpened or dulled to control the thickness of your point.

Best thing about them? Colors. Like charcoal, they’re great for beginners. Unlike charcoal, you can use them to create rich colorful pieces.

Pro tip: We love to sharpen normal pencils to razor-thin points, but with pastel pencils, you should sharpen them strategically. Rounder edges can be used to create smudged or blurred lines, while dull edges are great for blending and shading.

Conte Crayons

Conte crayons (named for Nicolas-Jacques Conte, the guy who patented modern pencil lead in 1795), are a hard, waxy medium you can find near pastels in most art stores. Like soft pastels, they can be blended with a blending stump and used to create a wide variety of colors. Unlike soft pastels, they’re clean, exact, and excellent for small details and hatched lines.

Although they’re tricky to master, conte crayons are similar enough to children’s wax crayons that, for most people, they feel pretty familiar. Because of the amount of chalk used in their composition, they require more pressure to cover and shade areas than charcoal or pastel pencils.

Pro tip: Use them on rough paper with more grain or texture to better hold the pigment.

Looking for a future in the visual arts?

>Check out BEAU’s Visual Design Program