I had so much fun before the holidays creating Crayola crayon portraits for my friends and family, and they’re such an enjoyable project to make that I’d like to share how to create one. I think that with some patience it’s something that anyone could do, though they can be a little time-consuming (but nothing like oil/acrylic paint portraits)!
The first thing you need to do is dig up a good photo that you think would translate well into a piece of art using the medium. This means you need colors and contrast. I have chosen a Facebook photo of my friend Caitie with an armful of bottled water in a Philadelphia grocery store (she was stocking up before the big storm). I like the photo because it has plenty of contrast and interesting content.
Next, open the photo in Photoshop. Go to View > Show > Grid. I set my grid to 1/2″ increments, which I think is the easiest to work with.
Take an 8.5″x11″ or 9″x12″ sheet of simple drawing paper from a sketchbook. Mimic the Photoshop grid on that page using a ruler. Once you have drawn the grid, use the Photoshop photo with the grid as your guide as you draw an outline on your sheet of paper with pencil. The trick here is to treat each square as an individual entity. Don’t look at the photo as a whole — think of it as a connect the dots. After you have drawn the outline with pencil and you think it looks accurate, go over your creation with pen. I like to use Pilot G5 .7 and .5 mm gel pens.
Once your outline is complete, wait for it to dry a little bit. The gel pens in particular can appear to be dry, but once you rub something over them (i.e. eraser, crayon) they’ll smudge … which is devastating after all your hard work. So give it about an hour, then return and erase your grid as you begin coloring in parts bit by bit. I always start with the skin first:
To get that nice shading effect with the skin, you’ll need to identify 4-6 crayons that fit your subject’s skin tone. Create a crayon palette so you can see exactly how the crayons look on paper. For Caitie, I chose white for the very light (you will need white regardless of what the person’s skin tone is), apricot for most of her skin, peach for the light-medium tones, tumbleweed for the medium tones, and bittersweet and brown for the dark tones. Now here’s how you are going to shade: use medium pressure to fill the shaded areas with your dark tones. You don’t want to press too hard because you want the general skin color (apricot, in this case) to be able to blend with the darks. Blending with crayons is incredibly easy in that you can have your medium pressure layer down, and then all you need to do is go over it with the general skin color using strong pressure for a smooth and waxy finish. You’ll also want to use this technique with white — though it’s difficult to see the white on the paper, try to fill in your skin highlights first before you go over the face with the general skin color.
Once you are finished with the skin, you’ll erase the grid in the hair and tackle that. The same color principle works with the hair: identify the tones and choose your crayons. I chose brown, goldenrod, bittersweet (which gives it that interesting reddish tone), and white.
Next comes clothing, which is a little easier than the face and hair because it’s more forgiving (it doesn’t have to look exactly like it does in your reference photo). For her jacket, I chose tones of blues ranging from denim (darkest) to cornflower (lightest), plust some blue-green and of course white.
This particular work was probably the hardest I’ve done because of the water bottles. The best advice I can give for depicting something like water is to look long and hard at your reference photos. I was skeptical about drawing in the rainbow of colors (rather than your typical blue-ish) for water, but I wanted to preserve the vibrant energy in the original, so I went for it. To my surprise, the bottles were a range of skin tones (a magnification of the skin on her arm), blues and greens from her jacket, and whites from the lights in the supermarket.
At this point, you have two choices: you can either leave the work as is, or you can add a background. In this particular instance, I decided it would be best to add a background. I wanted to emulate the water that she is holding, so I used generous amounts of blue, green, and purple watercolors. I used a salt technique that I’m in love with to create the texture. Basically, you paint watercolor (making sure you are using plenty of water) and immediately thereafter you sprinkle regular salt on. Wait for it to dry, then brush it off with your hand … very cool!
I hope this tutorial is helpful to you in creating your own Crayola crayon portraits. It’s really a joy to watch a black and white outline spring to life as a person who is familiar to you. I created these as gifts this year, and I was very happy with how each of them turned out! Wax crayon is a great medium, and very easy to use. Also, I think it’s a bit overlooked by us adults … but look at what you can do with it! If you try this technique, I’d love to see the fruits of your efforts. Happy coloring!