Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 26, 2014.
Until a few months ago, I hadn’t picked up a crayon in years. To be honest, I’d never really been a fan. When we’re young, crayons offer one of our earliest lessons in the gap between expectations and reality. They look so enticing, in the jumbo set with the sharpener built into the back, and the illustrations on the box make it seem like you can draw like a little Degas. In practice, though, crayons always came off as kind of a pain. They were brittle, the colors were hard to combine, and even at their best, the line you got was blunt and unsubtle. For a kid who was determined to draw exactly what he saw, crayons were a severe handicap, like playing the piano with boxing gloves. As a result, I gave them up early on, focusing on pencil and pen, and for a long time, I’d convinced myself that it was color I didn’t like. Oil pastels, colored pencils, and watercolors didn’t seem much better, and it was only with a pencil in hand—with its potential for fine detail, shading, blending, and erasure—that I felt comfortable rendering the world, even if it had to be in shades of black and white.
I was wrong, of course, although you can’t really blame me. When we put crayons into a child’s hands, it isn’t because they’re a great art medium, but because they’re practical: they’re cheap, relatively unmessy, and even when broken, they still lay down a serviceable line. It’s easy to take them for granted, since we buy them for our kids precisely because we won’t need to think about them again. Really, though, they’re just like any other medium, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and they’re capable of lovely things once we’ve adjusted ourselves to their limitations. (Artists from Picasso to John Singer Sargent have done beautiful work in wax crayon, which offers advantages of portability, vividness, and convenience that go a long way toward making up for its shortcomings.) You find, for instance, that going for uniform fields of color or perfect blending only forces crayons to do what they can’t, and you’ll get better results with a loose, overlapping style. It’s fine if the paper shows through. And trying to imitate the effects of other media, as I learned early on, only leads to heartbreak. You’ve got to let crayons be crayons.
I learned this, or learned it again, while drawing and coloring with my daughter. When you’re shopping for art supplies for a toddler, it doesn’t help to go for subtlety, so I bought the most basic set of tools imaginable: the eight-crayon set from Crayola, designed for stubby little fingers, and a huge pad of rough newsprint that covers half of the living room rug. Beatrix can’t do much yet but scrawl across the page—which gives her enormous pleasure in itself—so I usually find myself drawing things for her, copying pictures from Richard Scarry or another picture book. And I’ve found that those eight chunky crayons really do present limitless possibilities, once you’ve accommodated yourself to their needs. Their fat lines force you to draw in broad strokes, so you have no choice but put as much energy into it as you can. A bold line drawn with confidence looks good even if the result is less than perfect, and you start to revel in those bold, unmixed colors, which few if any painters would allow on a canvas. And if you don’t like what you’ve done, it’s easy to turn the page and start again.
So I’ve found that I like crayons after all, even if it took me twenty years or more to work my way around to it. (The one exception is the white crayon, which still strikes me as a profoundly useless object thrown in only for the sake of making a set.) What I love about them the most is their insistence, like the ukulele’s, on art as part of the fabric of life. Most other art supplies need to be guarded and segregated from common areas; oil paints and watercolors don’t have a place in the living room. Crayons can be kept anywhere, including a purse or diaper bag, and when you’re done, you just stick them back in the box and slide them under the sofa with the drawing pad. They’re aren’t good for everything, or great for anything, and there’s a reason we tend to think of them as kid’s stuff. But there’s a sense in which we lose something as we move on to more sophisticated tools that require more care and preparation. Crayons are the oral poetry of art, a medium that we associate with a period in our lives when we own nothing of our own and have little control over our personal space. The crayons don’t care; they’ll come with us. And they’re still there, as good as always, if we ever want to let them back in.