What Colors?

How did children apply colors to pictures in the past?  Colorful wax crayons were not invented until 1903, so children used watercolor paints, a more messy and difficult method.

As an artistic medium, watercolors existed long before the advent of coloring books, before crayons, before the lithograph.  The word “watercolor,” used generally, refers to any paint pigments mixed with water.  By the mid-nineteenth century, watercolors were widely available to both professional artists and the many amateurs who used the paints for a variety of purposes.

Box (Artist’s Box). Creator George C. Osborne, ca. 1826 – 1860. Philadelphia, PA. Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. 1965.1303A.

Box (Artist’s Box). Creator George C. Osborne, ca. 1826 – 1860. Philadelphia, PA. Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. 1965.1303A.

Prior to the nineteenth century, artists made their own paints.  Squares of pigments were purchased, ground, and mixed as desired.  Colors were mixed in small porcelain trays.  It was a time consuming, delicate process.  If the artist did not mix enough of the desired color, he or she faced the difficult task of recreating the exact hue, a nearly impossible endeavor.  This watercolor tray, from the mid-nineteenth century, is an example of a basic set.

In the 1830s, business partners William Winsor and Henry Newton experimented with selling already moistened pigments, first in tins and bladders (1835), then glass syringes (1840), and finally in metal tubes (1841).  The advent of tubed paint also increased the quality of the paint as machine ground pigments were more consistent and finer ground than those done by hand.  Standardized colors meant that artists no longer had to worry about their ability to recreate a certain color if they ran out.

At the same time, the use of watercolors was expanding beyond the professional field of art instruction or fine detailed work.  Boxes of watercolors, such as those advertised by J. Barnard & Son, enabled professional and amateur artists to take their work outside the studio.  Boxes came in numerous styles, including a line aimed specifically at children.  These were basic sets that often included other important tools such as paintbrushes.  Box sets were easier for children to care for over multiple uses and to store when not in use.  As seen in J. Barnard & Sons’ catalog (ca. 1880s), it was common for these sets to be accompanied by instructions for use, so not everyone had to be an expert.  This image is one of several pages explaining how to mix paints to exact color shades.

Watercolors were the most popular artistic medium when coloring books first were introduced in the 1870s.  Unlike most modern coloring books, these were meant to be painted and were called “outline pictures.”  This picture is from “Outline Pictures for Little Paint Brushes” (published in 1881) and is clearly done in watercolor.

Binney & Smith’s original 8 color-pack of Crayola crayons. Image from Binney & Smith Inc. Records, 1897 – 1998. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Binney & Smith’s original 8 color-pack of Crayola crayons. Image from Binney & Smith Inc. Records, 1897 – 1998. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The advent of crayons at the beginning of the twentieth century was a critical step in the evolution of coloring books.  Prior to crayons, sticks of colored chalk and pastels were used, primarily in classrooms.  Binney & Smith, an American pigment manufacturer and the parent company of Crayola, developed crayons when others failed because they had unique acess to materials, name lamp black, white chalk, and red oxides from iron rust.  These pigments were embedded into a wax base and molded into sticks that were wrapped in paper.  Binney & Smith fiercely protected their recipe to protect their brand.  In 1903, the company debuted crayons as we recognize them today in a unique color pack designed to appeal to children.

Crayons’ popularity escalated at a remarkable pace, due in large part to their presence in classrooms.  Teachers quickly saw the appeal of a drawing implement that did not make a mess.  Even the federal government recognized this: the Bureau of Indian Affairs was one of the earliest purchasers of crayons, using them to stock schools on Indian reservations.  The popularity of the new crayons is easily understood: they require no effort to maintain (unlike watercolors) and could be carried around with ease.

Page from Home Painting Gallery: Painting and Sketching Book. By F.I. Wetherbee. Published by M. A. Donohue & Co., Chicago, 1908.

Page from Home Painting Gallery: Painting and Sketching Book. By F.I. Wetherbee. Published by M. A. Donohue & Co., Chicago, 1908.

Today, crayon sales are stronger than ever.  As of 2008, American children use over 730 crayons by the time they are 10 and spend an average of 30 minutes each day coloring.  Crayola (formerly Binney & Smith) now produces 3 billion crayons per year.  Crayons remain a vital component of coloring books and artistic childhood endeavors.  The company’s continued success as providers of children’s art supplies demonstrates the enduring importance of crayons, coloring books, and creative expression in children.

Understanding the tools children used to color is important in understanding the development of coloring books.  Without easily portable utensils in both schools and homes, coloring books’ appeal would have been limited, but when combined with the revolutions in printing (lithography) and faster national transportation (railroads), crayons allowed coloring books to become a part of life for young Americans.  Children could now easily pick up coloring books and then abandon them.  Through their very simplicity, crayons enabled coloring books to outgrow their rigid approach to art and embrace the disposability of modern coloring supplies.

Forward Forward to: Instructions for the Little Artist

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