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Friday, April 26, 2013

Crayon Art

Not your childhood crayons anymore.
In my book, Art Think, I speak disparagingly of crayons: "...we put them in the hands of two-year-olds, the only art instruction being, 'don't eat them' (not that it would hurt them if they did)." Perhaps I should have been more respectful. There's probably not an artist alive today who didn't encounter the waxy little sticks as their very first art medium. In teaching art in the public schools, I pretty much discarded them around the sixth grade in favor of colored pencil, which I considered a more legitimate adult art medium. Maybe I shouldn't have been so hasty. Maybe I should reconsider the "waxy little sticks" in lieu of some of the incredible ways in which they've been adapted today into the ingredients of fine art.

The gold medal refers to a
prize won at the 1904 St.
Louis World's Fair
First, a little history. There's nothing knew about pigmented wax. The ancient Egyptians used it to color their stone wall carvings. The Romans used to paint with it (called encaustics), while their descendants found they could combine wax with charcoal to make a dandy drawing implement. During the 17th and 18th centuries, wax crayon development was tightly interwoven with chalk, and later, oil pastels. It wasn't until the 1800s that various European manufactures created a "cottage industry" in making them for color sketching as a replacement for "messy" and highly temperamental chalk pastels. A Paris lithographer, Joseph Lemercier, as early as 1828, opened a business to manufacture artists' crayons. In the U.S., it wasn't until around 1902 that Dixon Ticonderoga and Binney & Smith (now Crayola) began making and marketing crayons for children. Within two years, Crayola's color selection grew from a mere eight to twenty-eight (now up to sixty-four or more).
Runny colors
Herb Williams--gluing crayons
by the thousands.
For years, one of the problems with crayons has been, they melt (not to mention break). Both these "shortcomings" have been employed by Crayola artist, Herb Williams, into various two and three-dimensional applications that have broaden both our definition and our appreciation of crayon art. Williams and others have demonstrated the use of crayon by using them intact, straight from the box (albeit boxes of a thousand or more), as well as cutting, carving, melting, and gluing them in ways that are as eye-catching as they are revolutionary. Even school-aged children, using a common hair dryer, can safely create amazing images by melting crayons. Older school children attach them to various underpinnings while adult "children" employ computers to create crayon-tip pixelated images, or by chipping and reshaping multiple colors into crayon sticks, produce ever-changing streaks of color as they "color." Today, it's goodbye coloring book, hello hairdryer.

Random streaks of color.
Crayons are not just for coloring.

Using just the crayon tip.

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