Handheld Arts Blog/Drawing/All About Crayons

All About Crayons

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Crayons are my preferred mark-making tools for drawing with young children.

By the age of six most children will have used them extensively, both at home and in school. They are clean and portable. They come in so many colors, all in different shapes, sizes and qualities. Most commonly crayons are formed into “sticks,” usually long pointed cylinders or into “blocks,” cuboid shapes with varying width surfaces, which can be used to make many different sized marks. In the schools where I have worked, the students have access to both sticks and blocks in a range of colors. My task here is not to promote a certain type of crayon for this work. You must be free to make your own choices based on your preferences and circumstances. When considering what crayons you make available to the children, you will need to consider color quality, durability, cost, and availability.

Color Quality and Durability:

Crayons are made out of wax and pigment. Every crayon manufacturer has a “secret recipe” that formulates the unique quality and feel of their crayons. In the crayon making process, wax is melted and blended with finely ground pigment powder. Stronger colors require more pigment, lighter colors need less. Once blended and then hardened, the pigment is held in suspension within the wax.

When you run the crayon over the surface of the paper, the combination of pressure and friction causes the wax to melt slightly. As it glides across the paper, it will leave behind a trail of color. This is called the “rub-off.” If the wax is too soft, the crayon will tend to break easily, clump or smear on the paper. If it is too hard, the crayon will not leave enough color on the paper or it will crack and crumble with too much pressure. Paraffin wax, made from petroleum, tends to be softer, easier to melt and is less expensive. Beeswax, when refined to colorless wax, tends to be harder and more expensive.

Different crayon makers balance their ingredients to manage costs. They may include additives to extend the wax (making more crayons with the same amount of wax), strengthen the wax, reduce the stickiness of the wax, or improve the “rub-off.” Better quality crayons will have a semi-firm waxy consistency with high pigment content to create bright, strong color. It is very hard to avoid breakage with stick shaped crayons. Even the more expensive ones will break when used with too much pressure. Stubbier stick crayons are available on the market, but they do not allow for good hand grip in larger hands, sometimes causing control issues, so are not recommended for the kind of work we will be doing together. To avoid some of the frustrations with breakage, block-shaped crayons have become my favorite. They are very durable. When used with dexterity, they easily create a variety of line qualities (many more than you would get with a stick crayon). They also last a significantly longer time because of the amount of wax they contain.

Cost:

When making art with children it is not necessary to use the highest quality or the most expensive art materials. You need to balance your budget with your ideals. If you want to have a learning environment where natural, homemade or handcrafted supplies are more important, recognize that you may have to spend a little more money. If you expand your scope to include non-toxic, you will have a broader range of choice that will include manufactured crayons. Most manufacturers who make art supplies for children meet this non-toxic requirement.

There is nothing more affordable than a box of Crayola crayons. These non-toxic crayons were first developed in 1903. If you color on a daily basis, primary and secondary colors (blue, red, yellow, green, orange, violet, black and brown) will get the most use. Sticks of these common colors may be reduced to nubbins in no time. To solve this, don’t depend solely on the large box with 64 colors, but rather focus on the basic colors. You may need to have a supply of the 16-24 basic colors in the cupboard. Crayolas break easily when the activity of coloring is vigorous, so save the pieces and continue to use them by peeling off the paper coverings and using the sides for drawing swathes of color. Use a muffin tin or a craft box with dividers to store your broken pieces in color “families,” where they can be easily retrieved when needed rather than letting them get lost at the bottom of the box. Some artists I know save the pieces, melt them together and create new ones. Look on the internet for DIY ideas.

Many craft, art and teacher supply stores also sell generic, lower cost, Crayola-like crayons. I recommend that you avoid these crayons because manufacturers include more additives, called fillers, to make more crayons with less wax and often reduce the pigment (color) content to reduce the overall cost of the product. This gives your color a thin, waxy look. They also tend to create lots of waxy “crumbs” when the children draw and are just not as satisfying as other varieties on the market. Waldorf style block and stick crayons may be surprisingly expensive in comparison to Crayola type crayons, but they more favorably meet the other factors such as color quality and durability and are worthy of your consideration. With this in mind, take the time to test and experiment with the crayons you already have and purchase other types to make comparisons before purchasing additional crayons for the children. You will want to find for yourself the right combination of strong color, smooth “rub-off” and durability for the price that you can afford.

Availability:

With the advent of online shopping, items that were often hard to find are now at your fingertips. Any sort of crayon you desire from the top-of-the-line crayons to their lesser-cost competitors can be found and delivered to your doorstep with one internet search. I have found Etsy.com to be a wonderful marketplace with loads of options. You can purchase sticks and blocks from retailers offering name brand crayons like Stockmar and Filana, or you can purchase crayons in various shapes and sizes from individual craftspeople who make them from scratch using different kinds of waxes and pigments.

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Hi, I am Kelly Beekman

Artist, Teacher, Mentor

"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together"
- Vincent Van Gogh

© 2024 Kelly Beekman
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