How Crayons Work


Crayons are ubiquitous with childhood. It's hard to imagine growing up without them. Jennifer Smith/Getty Images
Crayons are ubiquitous with childhood. It's hard to imagine growing up without them. Jennifer Smith/Getty Images

Duncan's just a typical kid who likes making pictures. He scribbles and colors and draws with no thought to the consequences for his chosen medium — the humble crayon. But the crayons have had enough. Tired of being taken for granted, the little sticks of wax and pigment band together and find it within themselves to compose a series of letters explaining how ill-used they feel. While they stop short of actually unionizing, there's no doubt that this is a form of collective bargaining as each color takes a moment to enumerate its particular woes.

Red Crayon is first, pointing out that being Duncan's favorite color has significant downsides: namely fatigue. Tidy Purple Crayon protests being scribbled outside the lines and beige would like to be used for coloring more than just roasted turkeys or shafts of wheat. Like Red, Gray Crayon feels overworked due to the large animals it pigments (elephants, hippos, rhinos). White is experiencing an existential crisis, Black is tired of being featured only in outlines, Yellow and Orange dispute the true color of the sun, Blue is a dwindling stub thanks to endless representation of large bodies of water, Pink feels type-cast as a "girl's color" and Peach would like its wrapping back. Only Green is content with its lot in life.

This is the storyline of the already classic kid's book, "The Day the Crayons Quit," by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. Charming and hilarious, the book is indicative of how completely crayons have been established as the media of choice for kids' art. This association has been so thoroughly baked into the collective culture that it's nearly impossible to imagine a time before kids had ready access to a nearly endless array of colors in a box of crayons. But that time did exist, and it wasn't all that long ago.

The Precursors to Crayons

The Conté crayon is an offspring of pastels (seen here), which are based on mixing pigment with chalk rather than wax. Alice Day/EyeEm/Getty Images
The Conté crayon is an offspring of pastels (seen here), which are based on mixing pigment with chalk rather than wax. Alice Day/EyeEm/Getty Images

When you get right down to it, crayons are just sticks of colored wax. Given their simplicity, it's understandable you'd think they must have been around forever. But crayons as we know them only appeared on the scene sometime in the latter half of the 19th century. That said, the combined use of wax and pigment has a long and illustrious presence in the history of arts and crafts. Some people trace the origins of the crayon right back to the beginning of art itself, pointing out that the Paleolithic works found in the Lascaux caves in France are made of a combination of pigments with animal fat, a substance not unlike wax [source: Bell].

The gorgeous tradition of batik has an ancient pedigree in Southeast Asia. It's most closely associated with the island of Java in Indonesia. The word batik is Javanese, although nobody's exactly sure of its etymology. Batik is a method of dyeing cloth. The practitioner can create dye patterns by spreading hot wax in whatever design form they wish on areas of a piece of cloth. Once the wax cools, the cloth can be immersed in dye and the portions of cloth covered in wax will resist the pigment. Once the cloth dries, the wax can be removed by heating it again [source: The Batik Guild].

According to The Batik Guild, this idea of using wax as a method of resisting dye has probably been around for at least 2,000 years. There seems to be evidence of its use in ancient Egypt as well as in China, India and Africa. As early as 2000 B.C.E. the ancient Greeks were using beeswax to waterproof their ships. It was a natural step to mix in some pigments and use the combination to ornament those boats [source: Bell].

A closer precursor to the crayon is a practice known as encaustic art. Encaustic painting uses beeswax mixed with a pigment and heated until liquefied or in paste form so that it can be applied to a surface. This method has been around since at least the first century C.E. when artists in Greco-Roman Egypt used it to paint portraits of the departed on their mummy caskets [source: Rankin].

In Renaissance Italy in the late 1500s, no less a figure than Leonardo da Vinci seems to have been dabbling with a crayon-like medium. He writes of using wax-based colored sticks to draw [source: Bell]. Crayon expert and collector (yes, there's such a thing) Ed Welter confirmed that da Vinci fabricated his own crayons.

"Pretty much everyone did up until the mid-1800s," Welter says in an email. "The ingredients were varied and contained a lot of non-safe ingredients as it was used for artistic purposes, industrial purposes and business." Welter also notes that the Norwegian expressionist master Edvard Munch created his own crayons in the late 1800s.

Interest in encaustic art renewed in the 18th century and has been growing ever since. Simultaneous with its return was the development of the Conté crayon in late 18th century France [source: Welter]. The Conté crayon is an offspring of pastels, which is based on mixing pigment with chalk rather than wax. Conté crayons, named after French scientist Nicolas-Jacques Conté who invented them, are made by combining clay and graphite and usually available in black, red or brown. The Conté crayon offered a way for artists to create new works with handheld colored sticks that required no heating, cooling or drying times. It was one step closer to the modern wax crayon.

Modern Crayons

In the wake of the U.S. Civil War, several American firms jumped into the crayon business and a Massachusetts manufacturer named Charles A. Bowley became the first to use a material called paraffin. Garry Gay/Getty Images
In the wake of the U.S. Civil War, several American firms jumped into the crayon business and a Massachusetts manufacturer named Charles A. Bowley became the first to use a material called paraffin. Garry Gay/Getty Images

Who manufactured the very first wax crayon is unknown, but a Parisian arts supply manufacturer named Joseph Lemercier is a likely candidate. In the 1820s, his company was producing and selling colored wax crayons [source: Welter]. A few years later, in 1835, the German company J. S. Staedler began manufacturing a wax crayon with a wooden casing. The wax, however, was hard and difficult to use [source: Bell]. Up to this point, all attempts at making a crayon were limited to using beeswax, which was both expensive and hard. The next step forward would be a change in material.

In the late 1800s, the growing bitumen coal mining operations in Eastern Europe began turning out a waxy byproduct that became known as ceresin. Ceresin was cheaper and softer than beeswax and the Czech company Offenheim & Ziffer began using it to produce a new kind of crayon that was soon praised for the durability of the marks it made [source: Bell].

In the wake of the U.S. Civil War, a number of American firms jumped into the crayon business and a Massachusetts manufacturer named Charles A. Bowley became the first to use a material similar to ceresin called paraffin. Paraffin is derived from coal and remains the wax used in most contemporary crayons today. Bowley was also one of earliest manufacturers to make those colored wax sticks in the round, pencil-shaped form we recognize today [source: Bell].

As Welter points out, the reason for the sudden post-Civil War uptick in crayon-making was, for the most part, because of the rapid industrialization that took place in the second half of the 19th century. This, together with the newly available material of paraffin, created the conditions for the modern, mass-produced crayon.

By lucky happenstance, these innovations in crayon-making coincided with a burgeoning interest in early childhood education. Crayons, easy to store, hold and use without fear of spilling paint or staining clothes, were a natural fit for kids. As kindergartens popped up across the country, the indelible link between children and crayons was forged.

Key to this connection was the creation of new, nontoxic means of manufacturing crayons. "All crayons were toxic up until the kindergarten movement in the 1880s," Welter says. "There were a couple of big documented cases of poisoning that helped further the changes. The combination of paraffin wax being readily available at economical prices, the need to school in the industrial age and the push for art in schools fostered the industry need."

Coloring with Crayons

According to Crayola, the most popular crayon color ever is blue. Michael H/Getty Images
According to Crayola, the most popular crayon color ever is blue. Michael H/Getty Images

For many people, crayons are part of the world of childhood and so they belong in the realm of apolitical innocence we associate with kids. But even crayons can be political. In 2014, a law student in India sued an Indian manufacturer for putting the name "skin" on the label of a pink crayon [source: Reilly]. This is only one of the more recent instances of controversy associated with crayons and color.

For many years the Crayola company had a crayon called "flesh." Crayola maintained that this referred to the more-or-less universal color found on the palm of the human hand regardless of ethnicity [source: Boboltz]. However, researchers in the 1960s noted that kids used it to color in drawings of people, interpreting it as the default skin color. By 1962, Crayola dropped the "flesh" label in favor of "peach" for that shade of its crayon. Similarly, the company changed the crayon name "Indian red" to "chestnut." The "Indian red" named was derived from a plant pigment from India, but there was concern that it would be misread as a reference to racist ideas about the skin color associated with Native Americans [source: Davidson].

Other color changes have been less fraught. Early colors were simply appropriated from the palette of artists' paints. Many of Crayola's colors, such as "raw umber," "cobalt blue" and "Venetian red" have since been dropped from the lineup of classic kids' crayon boxes to make room for new colors. But to replace them, Crayola has worked hard to create new shades. The most recent color to be retired by Crayola was "dandelion" in March of 2017. It was just the third time the company has retired colors from its palette, and the first time it removed one from its box of 24 crayons.

Welter says the company introduced "gold," "silver" and "copper" back in 1903, but they didn't add other metallic until the 1980s. However, they've been busy introducing other colors. Welter has identified 331 distinct colors, although Crayola has sometimes tried to pull a fast one by giving the same color two different names and putting them in the same box [source: Boboltz].

Starting in the early 1990s, Crayola began outsourcing the naming of new colors to crayon fans [source: Boboltz]. Some of the more memorable results have been, "Macaroni and Cheese," "Tickle Me Pink" and "Purple Mountain's Majesty."

The Future of Crayons

You can make your own crayons by melting down those old stubs and pouring the wax into heat-resistant molds in cool new shapes. Lisa Gutierrez/Getty Images
You can make your own crayons by melting down those old stubs and pouring the wax into heat-resistant molds in cool new shapes. Lisa Gutierrez/Getty Images

It would seem that the possibilities for further renewal of the crayon have long been exhausted. At this point, crayons are crayons and so they shall remain. But human ingenuity is tireless. The introduction of metallic colors back in 1903 was a great innovation. More recently, neon crayons and even glow-in-the-dark crayons have made their way onto the market. No doubt the research and development departments of crayon companies will go on experimenting and bringing out new products.

Besides the familiar crayon made specifically for kids, there are crayons for grown-up artists that are softer and more densely pigmented. And for both kids and adults, there's a water-soluble crayon. After coloring in a space, for instance, a little water on a paint brush can blend and spread the pigment. And maybe this practice is a clue to the future of the crayon. Perhaps the most exciting innovations will take place outside the manufacturers' labs.

If you're a parent, you know about the plague of broken or worn-down stubs that can litter every corner of a house. Admittedly, those fragments of colored wax are often too small to use, but before you throw them out, consider an alternative — crayon rebirth! First, strip the stubs of any paper wrapping that might still be clinging to them, then place them in a heat-resistant container and melt them down in an oven on low heat. The result is a new, multi-hued crayon in swirling, rainbow colors. If you want to get really fancy, you can find or buy heat-resistant molds in interesting shapes to create cool new crayon forms.

And, to bring the subject full circle, you can take a cue from the batik craft to create striking paintings. Start by making a drawing or design on paper with crayons. Then paint over it with water colors. The wax marks from the crayons will resist the paint, creating an unusual multimedia combination that, for some reason, looks almost luminous.

Author's Note: How Crayons Work

I love crayons for the same reason I love pens. Being left-handed has its challenges, not least of which is the smudging problem. For those right-handers who don't know what I'm talking about, the smudging problem has to do with how the side of a left-handed person's palm tends to smudge their writing as it moves across the page. Indelible and unsmudgeable, the humble crayon is one the young south-paw's best friends.

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Sources

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  • Crayola. "What is the most popular Crayola Crayon color?" (Aug. 10, 2017) http://www.crayola.ca/faq/another-topic/what-is-the-most-popular-crayola-crayon-color/
  • Merriam-Webster. "Crayon." (Aug. 4, 2017) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crayon
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  • Reilly, Jill. "Indian student sues for $100,000 compensation for hurt feelings after box of crayons contained a pink one labelled 'skin' colour." Mail Online. Feb. 5, 2014. (Aug. 3, 2017) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2552265/Indian-student-sues-100-000-compensation-hurt-feelings-box-crayons-contained-pink-one-labelled-skin-colour.html
  • The Batik Guild. "The History of Batik." (Aug. 5, 2017) http://www.batikguild.org.uk/batik/what-is-batik
  • The Batik Guild. "What is Batik." (Aug. 5, 2017) http://www.batikguild.org.uk/batik/what-is-batik
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  • Welter, Ed. Crayon historian. Email interview. Aug. 16, 2017.