A crayon (or wax pastel) is a stick of colored wax, charcoal, chalk or other material used for writing or drawing. A crayon made of pigment with a dry binder is a pastel; when made of oiled chalk it is called an oil pastel.
In the modern world, the term crayon is commonly associated with the standard wax crayon, such as those widely available for use by children. Such crayons are usually approximately 3.5 inches (89 mm) in length and made mostly of paraffin wax). Paraffin wax is heated and cooled to achieve the correct temperature in which a usable wax substance can be dyed and then manufactured and shipped for use around the world. Paraffin waxes are used for cosmetics, candles, for the preparation of printing ink, fruit preserving, in the pharmaceutical industry, for lubricating purposes, and crayons.
The first wax chalk consisted of a mixture of oil to give it a consistency, and charcoal to give it a black color. Later, different pigments replaced charcoal. Subsequently, the oil was replaced by beeswax, to make the sticks more robust and easy to handle. Today, wax chalk is generally made from cheap paraffin, to which is added a fatty acid and pigments. The size of these rods is 12 mm in diameter and 83 mm long. In order to protect the hands, each stick is wrapped in paper.
Crayons are available at a range of prices and are easy to work with. They are less messy than most paints and markers, blunt (removing the risk of sharp points present when using a pencil or pen), typically nontoxic, and are available in a wide variety of colors. These characteristics make them particularly good instruments for teaching small children to draw in addition to being used widely by student and professional artists.
The notion to combine a form of wax with pigment actually goes back thousands of years. Encaustic painting is a technique that uses hot beeswax combined with colored pigment to bind color into stone. A heat source was then used to “burn in” and fix the image in place. Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, was thought to describe the first techniques of wax crayon drawings.
This method, employed by the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and even indigenous people in the Philippines, is still used today. However, the process wasn’t used to make crayons into a form intended to be held and colored with and was therefore ineffective to use in a classroom or as crafts for children.
Contemporary crayons are purported to have originated in Europe where some of the first cylinder shaped crayons were made with charcoal and oil. Pastels are an art medium having roots with the modern crayon and stem back to Leonardo da Vinci in 1495. Conté crayons, out of Paris, are a hybrid between a pastel and a conventional crayon; used since the late 1790s as a drawing crayon for artists. Later, various hues of powdered pigment eventually replaced the primary charcoal ingredient found in most early 19th century product. References to crayons in literature appear as early as 1813 in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Joseph Lemercier (born Paris 1803—died 1884), considered by some of his contemporaries to be “the soul of lithography”, was also one of the founders of the modern crayon. Through his Paris business circa 1828 he produced a variety of crayon and color related products. But even as those in Europe were discovering that substituting wax for the oil strengthened the crayon, various efforts in the United States were also developing.
In 1864, Joseph W. Binney founded the Peekskill Chemical Company in New York. This company produces a black dye made of coal and a red paint containing iron oxide. And succeeds in improving the black color by adding carbon. Around 1885, Joseph’s son Edwin Binney and his nephew, C. Harold Smith, formed a partnership called Binney & Smith. The cousins, the company’s new owners, are expanding the product line to include shoe polish and printing inks and are starting to produce a list of pencils for schools. They have therefore developed a new type of non-toxic colored chalk. At the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904, they won a gold medal for their new chalk for teachers: the first chalk dust. It is around 1903 that will appear the first non-toxic version of the crayons “Crayola”. The name Crayola was created by Alice Stead Binney (wife of E. Binney), combining the French words: chalk (chalk) and fat (oleaginous). The first colors were black, brown, blue, red, violet, orange, yellow, and green. Today, there are more than a hundred different types of pastels made by Crayola including fluorescent colors created in 1973. In 2012, more than 2 billion pencils are sold per year in 60 countries. On February 6, 1996, Crayola made its 100 billionth pencil.
Early French artists, including Francois Clouet (1510-1572) and Nicholas L’agneau (1590-1666), used crayons in their early art projects. Clouet used crayons for his modeled portraits, which were so elaborate that he caught the attention of Henry V, who knighted him. He became court painter for the royalty, and his entire art career began and consisted of some wax crayon art. L’agneau illustrated his portraits with outlines in wax crayons, and with tints of watercolor. His portraits were often of people who looked surprised or unaware of their surroundings.
Sister Gertrude Morgan was most known for preaching the Gospel around New Orleans with simplicity and easy-to-understand crayon drawings. Morgan caught the eye of a gallery owner E. Lorenz Borenstein, and was allowed to show her work, play her music and spread her word of God at the gallery. Her early drawings were that of just very modest and simplicity crayon drawings, depicting biblical text to provide a clearer image to those who were unfamiliar with the Bible. Morgan went on to publish a record of her biblical songs and has artwork featured in the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
Modern artists working at a professional level with crayons include Don Marco, Kristina Nelson, and Jeffrey Robert.