How Crayons Work

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

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.