Crayons Rediscovered

By Daniel J. Kaufman

I have loved crayons for as long as I've loved the color blue. Crayons are the fragrance of color, the joy of self-expression, the pretty pictures and abstractions of my child-self.

It took me thirty years to rediscover my love for crayons. That was seven years ago now, a gift brought to me by my darling child Anastasia when I found her trying to melt crayons with a magnifying glass in the sun. That moment gave birth to hundreds of melted crayon paintings, or "waxings", which I have been creating daily long past Anastasia's interest in them.

In one medium or another art has been the theme of my whole life. It all started with poetry and photography as a young teen, and then after graduating from Amherst College in 1973 I received a Fulbright Fellowship to photograph "the visual equivalent to the poetry of Yeats" in Ireland. My book IRELAND: PRESENCES was published by St. Martin's Press in 1980, and those photographs were also exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York City.

Three years and numerous travel photography assignments later, I felt suddenly compelled to answer the call of the muse to paint, to become an Inner Artist without the imposition of the mechanical grain of the camera. In 1983 I was introduced to the internationally exhibited artist of the unconscious, Max Shertz. I told Max I wanted to project my best photographs onto canvas and to re-create them with paint. Max roared at me: "I thought you wanted to become an artist." For the next nine months I worked every day with Max at his studio in Encino, California. He taught me how to move pastels on paper using my fingers, wrist, arms and body as a faithful instrument of Creative Intelligence which he also calls the unconscious. He taught me how to make something greater than and beyond my personal, nail-bitten ego's capacity. Max taught me how to create shape and form from the unconscious, and admonished me when my ego tried to do straight lines or circles or squares; in short, he taught me how to surrender to the unconscious.

(To see the extraordinary paintings of Max Shertz, please visit

After oil pastels I had a long and satisfying relationship with enamel paints, creating hundreds of colorful, intricately detailed paintings on wood and canvas. Among other experiments, I delighted in breaking the rule never to mix oil and water-based paints, with deeply satisfying results. In those years palette knives became my favorite tool. I threaded the oil-based paints through the water-based enamels and just let Nature reveal her diaphanous nets and webs. The result was paintings that I never could have planned consciously and yet were not random.

At this juncture in my life, someone very special died and left me all of the precious bottles of crushed mineral powders and pigments she used for her art and fabric creations. These dyes became my new vehicle of self-expression, yielding up a world of colorful surprises uniquely suited to my temperament: intense explosions of color, variety, instant gratification.

I now understand that if I have a style, that style is my temperament. It is not a gimmick; it is the unique rhythm of the individual artist. To me, that uniqueness, a spark of the Absolute, is the miracle of art.

Unfortunately, miracle or not, it appears that the finely crushed pigments were absorbed through my eyes and temporarily poisoned my liver--a warning to artists who use powders. Not long thereafter my daughter lighted my path back to crayons with her magnifying glass.

At first I melted Anastasia's crayons over the electric stove on flat spatulas without holes or slits. I have found that the color palette and melting characteristics of Crayola Brand Crayons are ideal. I delighted in the liquid wax mixing into lovely colors on half-inch birch plywood well primed with gesso. The wax would cool and harden almost immediately, and I could re-activate it at any time with a hot spatula, or, as I later discovered to my great delight, with a heat gun or flame-less laser torch or tacking iron.

My friend and neighbor Vince Bucci gave me a world-class industrial heat gun made in Germany with which to melt the crayons. I bought old flat irons (without holes for steam) at garage sales. And thus continues my greatest love so far in my life-long search for the perfect media. This Steinel heat gun, intended for removing old wallpaper, gave me a new way to create what one of my favorite artists, Richard Pousette-Dart, called "the cosmos for man." The heat-induced merging of colors creates changes so fast and so beautiful that my ego dissolves and leaves me just a witness to that alchemical magic of transformation.

With joy I discovered that the heft and balance of the Steinel heat gun allows me to channel movement as with a pendulum. My sweeps and gestures with the heat gun make me feel as a dowser looking for water, somehow drawn to the perfect spots of the developing artwork for creating visual magic with heat and air. Loosely dangling from my fingers, the heat gun easily traces what is hidden in the otherwise invisible Infinite. It is a perfect tool to explore the microcosm and the macrocosm of the visual universe. I find myself looking deeper into these wax paintings than I ever have before. The heat reveals the essences of the colors; the single drops of wax disintegrate and then reintegrate into more and more detailed images of beauty and variety. Each painting is a voyage of discovery, a new challenge, a new combination of color I have never seen before.

I have come to understand that a technique or a medium perfectly suited to my individual temperament would have to be fast, controllably random and beautiful. It would have to create surprise images continuously that kaleidoscope me into the Mysterious. I must also be able to return to a piece many times for short periods over weeks or months to make changes. Fiber-reactive dyes, enamel paints, watercolor/gouache emulsions on chromecoat paper, and wax-melting all meet these criteria for me. But encaustic art does something more; it fulfills me. It makes me feel like a magician, flinging wet wax colors off wands.

Each new technique or medium creates new images, shapes, colors and effects. New ways to express beauty and depth. I think that's why some of my most exciting pieces are experimental, where the thrill of a new visual discovery or detail is at its peak.

Now, after twenty years, almost every piece I create is an experiment. A new kind of wood substrate like Kortron coated with plastic, an unprimed Belgian linen canvas, tempered Masonite, fired clay tiles, all hold heat and wax in a different way. Each has its challenge and its charm. Crayola Washable crayons on top of regular Crayola colors is a revelation of scintillating color. Gel FX Crayolas over regular Crayola blue create an amazing cellular effect. Experiment with Pearl-Brites over regular black crayolas and the melting characteristics of Pearl-Brites yield a new "Pearl-Brite Cosmos" that never existed before. Metallic FX 8 Crayolas over a base of regular white crayons bloom into lavender and turquoise flowers. I love that "creation of something new" feeling; it is co-creating with God, and it is exactly the pleasure I would wish for all those creative beings who search for their own art heaven.

© 2003 Daniel Kaufman



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