Crayola ~ Marketing or Madness?


In my previous post, Free the Oxford English 47,156,  I spoke of the beauty of language and the power inherent in a vibrant and wide-ranging vocabularly.  Characterizing language as a palette used by writers to represent reality as surely as Cezanne, Klee or O’Keefe transformed their canvases with color, I suggested a direct relationship between visual arts and the envisioning which every reader enjoys as the pages and paragraphs pass.    Jeanie of The Marmalade Gypsy responded by saying,  “I find  (language as a palette) a beautiful and fascinating concept. There are so many variations of color, and when they blend together, even more. Why say “blue” when azure or teal or slate might tell the story better?  

In her own spell-bound rendering of a late winter sunset, View from the Third-Storey Window says,   “The magic, of course, is color and at least from this window it is brief, intense, and unusual. It is sky-blue-pink. Take those tints right out of the old Crayola box–the one with 64 upright crayons and the sharpener on the outside– “sky blue” and “pink.” Let them swirl and blend, dodging the occasional cloud, yet remain distinct. Try not to let them morph into purple. No hint of gold or yellow remains; the sun is already gone. Sky-blue-pink. Say it as a single word; see it as a single hue.”

All  this talk about color reminds me of a discovery I made last year during the  50th anniversary of Crayola’s famous 64-count box.  Introduced in 1958, the limited edition “50th Birthday Box” contained eight new colors, with names that were created after input from nearly 20,000 youngsters. In a news release announcing the 2008 “Kids Choice Colors” Crayola provided an interpretation of their meaning through their company representatives.  Here’s that interpretation, as reported in

“Just like professional color experts who predict the year’s hot hues, kids across the country had the chance to voice their own opinion and pick the colors they felt were “in” for 2008. They were invited to participate in an online survey at where they were asked about the things they value and are most interested in. Next,they said what those things would look like as a color and then zoomed in on the shade within each color family (red, blue, green, yellow, brown, pink, orange and purple) that they felt was the coolest. The result? A collection of eight colors was created that draw on everything from kids wanting to play their part in protecting the planet to believing that they can become famous just like the everyday people who achieve stardom on reality shows.”

The 2008 “Kids Choice Colors” include:

“super happy” — Kids don’t want to worry, they just want to be happy — “super happy” — as their color says and they wish the same for others, too.

“fun in the sun” — Riding bikes, playing soccer, skateboarding, and gymnastics – kids said this color means exercise and keeping fit are important … and fun!

“giving tree” — It’s a colorful truth that kids are thinking green, too, and want to play a part in protecting the Earth.

“bear hug” — A hue of harmony as kids want their homes to feel warm and loving just like a great big bear hug.

“awesome” — Means kids think school is cool and getting good grades feels awesome.

“happy ever after” — Kids want to make a difference and create Cinderella moments for others, so everyone’s story has a happy ending.

“famous” — American Idol and shows like it inspired this hue, as kids believe they can become celebrities just like everyday people who become stars.

“best friends” — This shade of purple reveals who kids’ real BFFs are – their parents – and spending time with them is what they enjoy most.

Or so say the marketing gurus at the Crayola Corporation. Continue reading

Artists: Re-Writing the Book of Rules

Apricot.  Bittersweet.  Burnt Sienna.  Cornflower.  Maize.  Thistle.  Salmon.  Lemon Yellow.  Mahogany.  Sea Green.  Melon…

If you grew up between 1949-1957, you know those names, and you know what they represent.   As clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are Crayola colors.  They’re not your garden-variety colors, either.   Apricot, Melon, Salmon and all the rest were part of the box of forty-eight crayons.  Before 1958, when the 64-crayon box was introduced, they were the big boxes, the boxes you got for Christmas, or a birthday, or because you were really, truly sick with something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while.

I was given my first big box of crayons for Christmas, with a coloring book or two thrown in for good measure.   Not so many months ago I saw a photograph from that Christmas.  I’m still in my pajamas and robe, lying on the floor with my Dad, coloring.  As I recall, he preferred simply to watch the artistic process unfold. Others were a touch more involved.  I barely had put brand-new crayons to  my untouched coloring book before I heard those standard words of advice: stay inside the lines!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t.  I’m told it’s common for coloring-book novices to stray and smudge and straggle their way across the page, but I seemed particularly unable to keep things tidy.  My mother worked with me, as did my grandmother.  Even a neighbor or two tried a little artistic coaching.  It seemed important to everyone that I kept my apricot and corn flower and sea green efforts inside the lines, and so I tried – without success.  Every now and then, when no one was looking, I’d sneak a piece of typing paper and just draw.  But the coloring books always reappeared, along with exhortations to please stay inside the lines.


Eventually, the coloring books were set aside for bigger and better art projects: a squirrel carved from ivory soap, a ghastly puppet with bright yellow hair and a calico dress, a Japanese lady in a kimono drawn with colored pencil on a piece of siding.  I learned to cut snowflakes by folding paper.  I sent coiled-clay vases and ashtrays to the kiln, and one fine day I created a presentable corn field with tempera paints. 

But always, there was a mold, a form, a pattern to guide my artistic efforts;  success was judged by how well results fit that mold or matched the pattern.  A “good squirrel” was properly proportioned, a “good” Japanese lady was slim and elegant, snowflakes were symmetrical and corn fields looked like corn, by gosh.  If you were going to produce art, you needed to learn the rules.

There were rules to spare.  Some were explicit – “real” poetry rhymes.  “Real” music has no dissonance.  “Good” art is always a representation of reality.   Other rules were implicit, such as our absolute belief that blue and green didn’t belong together.  We were children of the 50s, and we accepted the rules, despite a growing frustration with our inability to stay inside the lines.

Later in life, the consequences for those who couldn’t control their crayons (or pencils) became more serious.  My first full-time job was as a customer service trainee for the telephone company in Kansas City.  Together with about a hundred of my closest friends, I took calls from folks who wanted to have telephone service started, disconnected or changed.  It was before the days of computers, so the information we obtained – names, addresses, employment records – was transcribed by hand onto forms that resembled graph paper.  Each letter or numeral had to be precisely placed, inside its own 1/8″ square.  After the six week probationary period had ended and evaluations were complete, about 30 of us were “allowed to seek employment elsewhere” – a nicely-phrased concession granted to obvious idiots who couldn’t follow the rules, or stay within the lines.

Despite having been fired from my first job, I was unbelievably relieved.  I’d hated the work, and every day was a misery.  I understood the importance of following company guidelines and wanted to do things properly – I simply seemed incapable of it.  People kept giving me sideways glances, asking, “Why don’t you just do it their way?”   I had no answer, but the lesson from my childhood seemed confirmed.  If you stay within the lines, you’ll be fine.  Get distracted, lose focus, grow bored or restless, and your days are numbered. 

For the next few years, I stayed away from Sea Green, Burnt Sienna and Thistle, and did my best to keep within the lines.  But time passes, confidence comes and anxieties go, and by 1975, I was in London on holiday, ready to hear what the Heptones had to say on the subject.  A reggae band from Jamaica, they had recorded their hit single, Book of Rules”  in 1973.   It was part of a huge musical wave overtaking London at the tme, and I loved the song from the beginning.   Bob Weir, guitarist, lyricist and founding member of the Grateful Dead, liked it, too.  He told David Gans in 1981 how he had come to record the song:

“It had been one of my favorite reggae cuts for the last few years.   I finally found the record and copped the tune and recorded it.  Then a few weeks ago, after the record had been pressed up and everything was happening, a friend of Barlow’s found a compilation of verse, a collection of poems from the turn of the century to about 1930.” 

The poem that caught their attention was A Bag of Tools by R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950).  It was included by Hazel Felleman in her 1936 volume, Best Loved Poems of the American People.

A Bag of Tools

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me,
are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.

As these things happen, by the time the Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn and Harry Johnson had finished setting  words to music, the lyrics had changed a bit, as well:

 Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings
Can clown their capers in a sawdust ring,
Just like poor people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

Each must make his life as flowing ink
Tumbling block or a stepping stone,
Just like poor people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

I say it’s common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

Look where the rain is falling from the sky
I know the sun will be only missing for a while
I say it’s common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules. 

The difference in tone between Sharpe’s poem and the Heptones’ lyrics is subtle but real.  Sharpe says we are given a shapeless mass, and must make either a stumbling block or a steppingstone.   Johnson and Llewellyn say we are given shapeless lives, but there is no indication at all of what we are to do with them.


And there is the secret.  Hidden behind the poem and the lyrics based on it lie the choices we begin making in childhood: coloring book, or blank canvas?  paint-by-number or typing paper?  predetermined outcome, or surprising creation?  inside the lines, or outside commonly accepted limits?   In both cases, we have been given that bag of tools and book of rules.  In either case we are free to determine which tools to use, and which rules to follow or disregard.  But the first choice – coloring book or blank canvas – is critical.   

Letting go of predetermined forms and patterns is not easy.  Like a blank page, a blank canvas can induce vertigo.  Without obvious lines to guide us, the need for decision, discipline and structure increases exponentially.  But all that is part of the joy and terror of the creative process.  Laying down the lines of our personal vision, we are free to fill them in as we choose, with hearts and colors vibrant and bold as mahogany, sea green, and maize… 


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Related Post:  Crayola: Marketing or Madness?