This is two stories in one, and it began with a trip to the grocery store this week. I stumbled across the “school and office supplies” section, and staring me in the face was a set of 96 Crayola crayons for $7.97. I almost bought it.
You see, when I was a little girl, every August when Mom bought me new school supplies for the year, I begged for a big set of Crayolas. She insisted that a set of 24 colors was enough, so that’s all I ever got. I watched with envy as some of my classmates–whose families were no better off than ours–showed up on the first day of school with the 48 box, or even the gigantic 64 box with built-in sharpener. I watched in dismay when they carelessly broke or dropped colors that I’d never have–if those were mine, that wouldn’t happen! Oh what I could’ve done with all those strange and wonderful hues which went unappreciated by their owners, who mostly stuck to the basics. For them, a set of 24 really would’ve been enough.
Of course I eventually outgrew crayons, as we all do. I learned how to use many other media in art classes in high school and college. I forgot all about Crayolas. Until this week’s trip to the grocery store. There it was, all 64 colors I’d always wanted, plus 32 more! What magical hues could they be? Would they have that familiar and comforting waxy smell that I remember? Would they be any good? I almost bought the set, but put it back on the shelf as I imagined Mom’s oh-so-practical advice in my head, “You don’t need those. Save the $8 to buy something you need.”
I posted a photo of the box on the shelf to Facebook. To my surprise and amusement, some of my friends confessed they had similar experiences when they were a kid, and bought those objects of desire as an adult just because they could, and were glad they did. One friend pointed out that the largest set of Crayolas is now 152, for only $14.88. Another suggested I should go buy it to satisfy my old want and then donate it to a needy child. So last night, I did it. I bought the biggest honkin’ set there is. I opened it up, inhaled and smiled–they smelled exactly as I remembered. I enjoyed looking at all the fabulous colors and their creative names, like “macaroni and cheese”, “cotton candy”, and “shamrock”. The kid in me excitedly said “MINE MINE MINE!” and I was satisfied.
Here’s where the second story begins.
Today I got the Crayolas out to see how well they work. My brain was whirling with ideas for how I might use them for a painting that was a commentary on my childhood desire. I pulled six crayons at random and made blurry blobs to find out what range of pressure I needed to get from a whisper of color to a solid color. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Although the colors look very strong in the crayon, when applied to paper they are pretty washed out, and even with quite a bit of pressure applied, I got more blobby wax without much more color. There were crumbs.
Out of curiosity, I pulled out my 120 set of Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble wax pastels. They are basically adult artist’s crayons; they have far more pigment saturation, and a much higher price. (The 84 set retails for $230.) I picked out approximately the same colors based on the crayons’ appearance, and repeated the exercise.
Wow! What a difference! The Neocolor II crayons required almost no pressure, and quickly created lush, saturated, solid color. Very little crayon was needed, and there were no crumbs. Here they all are, on Canson XL Mix Media paper. (By the way, the Neocolors were already dull from use before this exercise.)
But wait, there’s more! Neocolor IIs are also water-soluble, so they’re more versatile than mere crayons. You can use them like watercolors or as an underpainting for other media. And since they’re waxy, they also respond to heat, which makes it easy to create painterly effects as they become buttery.
Although I didn’t set out to do this, the lesson is clear: you get what you pay for. If you’re trying to get better at your art and you’re frustrated with the results you’re getting even though you’re pretty sure you’re following all the instruction you’ve picked up from books, videos, classes or workshops, it’s time to take a hard look at your materials. Cheap is fine for getting started when you don’t know whether that medium is for you, but as you get better you should consider “graduating” to better-quality materials. Yes, they cost more (sometimes a lot more), but generally they go farther so you’ll need less of them, and their quality is higher so you’ll be much happier with how they work. This is true not only for consumables like paint, pencils, paper and canvas, but also things like brushes and easels. Take the time to do enough research to buy the best quality supplies you can afford.
What’s next for my big set of 152 Crayolas? Well, I’ve also learned that they’re not lightfast, which means they’ll all fade away or change color when exposed to light over time. So I’ll keep them for a few months, occasionally open the box to smell them, and donate them to a needy child come Christmas. There will be one less kid who grows up wishing Mom would buy him/her the big set.