Inside the Crayon Portrait

crayon portrait

Inside the Crayon Portrait

Hanging in our studio is a softly colored pastel, octagonal portrait of two brothers in war uniforms. Clients take notice and comment, “My grandmother has something just like that. What is it?”

It’s a crayon portrait – a photograph that is hand embellished with colored pastels or charcoal

We live in a minimalist society where the trends with wall art is clean and simple. Crayon portraits, by their nature can seem gaudy and cumbersome. People think of them as artifacts that are never meant to leave grandma’s walls, or if they do leave the walls, the portraits are headed straight to the attic, basement or worse, trash.

Do you hear that noise in the distance? That’s Mary Lou sobbing about trashed photos.

You see, the crayon portrait was once the height of fashion for portraiture. Paintings were expensive, but crayon portraits were cheaper, faster, and easier to make. These prints blended the accuracy of the photograph with the artistry of a painted portrait.

At first, photographers created the prints on fiber paper, mounted them to linen and stretched on strainers in order to give the appearance of a painting. However, in the pursuit of cheaper and efficient ways to print, photographers started to print on paper alone. It became popular to print the portraits in trendy Victorian shapes – octagon, oval, cathedral, oblong, convex, etc.

While cheaper than commissioning an oil painting, a crayon portrait was not inexpensive. These portraits could cost 1 – 2 weeks of wages for the average consumer, and the average family paid for it by photo layaway (cents at a time). Most families had these portraits created when a significant life event occurred, a wedding or christening (not some random Tuesday). One of the more popular styles was to have a baby pose on a rug in the heirloom christening gown.

Families also commissioned photographers to take a cabinet card of a deceased person and create a crayon portrait from the photograph. It was common to have them produced posthumously and honor their memory by displaying the portrait in the parlor.

Sitting for a portrait was a major event. The subject wore their best outfits and jewelry. We have clients who share with us that they still have that brooch or pocket watch that their great- great- great-something is wearing in the photo. After the photo was printed, the photographer would embellish the photo and draw in the latest fashions (hair piece, collar/lapels) if needed.


crayon portrait detail

The hairpiece on this crayon portrait was an artistic interpretation that reflects the fashion of the times.

Crayon portraits fell out of favor when the Brownie camera revolutionized photography and gave way to the hand-oiled portrait. We’ll expand more on that in another post.

Today, you’ll see most crayon portraits as faded images, but the hand embellishing is still strong in detail. The pastels or charcoals are unfixed and are sitting on top of the photographic emulsion.. They break down at a slower pace than the photo. If you try to clean the portrait, you will wipe away all of that artistry and history. As freaky as their eyes may look, don’t touch them or even think about putting them in a scanner.

Here are a few ways that Coyle can help you handle your crayon portraits:

  • Digitize the photos for sharing with family and genealogy sites
  • Restoration of the originals
  • Create smaller prints for your album or photobook
  • Provide proper storage solutions
  • Reframe – refit the original print for your family wall

Growing up in a world where we are drowning in photos, it is easy to underestimate the value of older photographs. Crayon portraits capture a single moment – many times a single image – for a lifetime. Take care of these images as they can be your one window into your heritage.

For more information on types of photography, visit our photo restoration page.