Disbelief (time for a field trip) among the group of little LA urban hipsters at the library this week. I was showing them photographs of fall foliage taken on a recent trip to Northern California.
Out with the Crayolas, to my disbelief I discovered that some of my favorite colors* had been RETIRED!
But, “Alien Armpit” from the Crayola “Silly Scents” collection was used in the groups’ creations (I am not making this up).
Did they rouge the Mona Lisa's cheeks when they renovated the Louvre? Non!
Would they ever colorize Jules et Jim to boost rentals? Jamais!
The French may not know what to like, but they do know about art, specifically, that masterpieces and cultural icons-however vague, ambiguous, grayish, pale, or wan-should not be brightened up to dazzle the unlettered novices.
The French would never have banished classic Crayola crayon colors from the now standard! 133 Crayola color box, only to replace them with colors concocted on the advice of children. Of course youth prefers wild strawberry and vivid tangerine to the less edible-sounding maize and raw umber; it also chooses beef-tallow-soaked fries over all other vegetables. On matters of taste, young opinions should never rule.
French artists used artisanally produced sticks of wax and chalk in the mid nineteenth century. But these craies, wielded so playfully by Gauguin and Matisse, were hardly toys. Expensive, fragile, and dusty, many also contained toxic colors.
In 1903, the Binney & Smith Company, makers of slate pencils in Easton, Pennsylvania, imitated European crayons, fusing wax-bound, nontoxic pigments by means of a faster, cheaper manufacturing process. The company called its product Crayolas (craie, plus ala, meaning oleaginous), saw them sell rapidly, and then fueled interest by adding more colors to the original collection of eight.
In 1949 it offered forty-eight; by 1958, a grand total of sixty four. Over the next three decades, the colors stayed the same while the names changed: the suggestive "flesh" became "peach"; "Prussian blue" (from the substance ferric ferrocyanide) became "midnight blue" after teachers deemed Prussia irrelevant.
Then we had to witness the color expulsions. Have we been blinded to optical refinements? Did not the subtle hues of Crayolas help enlarge our vision? For some of us, the fragrant crayons, lovingly sniffed or eaten by hundreds of millions of children for over a hundred years, are the equivalent of Proust's evocative tea dipped madeleines. Indeed, the sole transcontinentally identical aesthetic experience we share as Americans is the childhood manipulation of sixty-four sticks of Crayolas in their original colors. Why retire part of that memory?
*The colors named Violet Blue, Orange Red, Raw Umber, Maize, Blue Gray, Lemon Yellow, Green Blue, and Orange Yellow.
May you enjoy a colorful weekend, unspoiled by “Alien Armpit" foliage.