If you read just about any book about oil pastels published for the art market, you get a ‘history’ of the medium built around Pablo Picasso and the famous French art firm of Henri Sennelier. There’s something weird and Orwellian about this, because the actual history of oil pastels started something like twenty years earlier in another country entirely! The corporate story of Sennelier oil pastels still tells only the French story.
Here’s the real story. From Japan.
When a child or adult picks up a Cray-Pas™ oil pastel and brings that smooth, bright color across paper, that person has no idea about all the elements that had to come together in the beginning to bring that color to the page.
Cray-Pas were born in the wake of The Taisho period of Japan (1910-1920), a time of great cultural upheaval. Despite the changes happening, the arts flourished.
In `20’s Japan, encouraging artistic creativity in children through free-form drawing was a revolutionary concept. Instead, copying models was the established method of teaching art to children.
In his book, The Theory of Jiyu-ga, translated as “Drawing without a Master,” Japanese artist Kanae Yamamoto put forth the notion that the focus of drawing should be on stimulating children’s creativity through color and drawing experimentation. It was from this idea that the seed of Cray-Pas sprung.
Along with his instructional theories, Yamamoto also recommended that the ideal medium for children to explore their creativity were materials that produced soft yet vivid colors.
At the same time, two private school owners in Tokyo, Rinzo Satake and Shoukou Sasaki started experimenting with the materials as a result of not being able to find suitable art products for children in their school. They named their new company Sakura Crayon Company.
As Satake and Sasaki began formulating their ideas, others in Japan were attempting crayon manufacturing at the same time with very uneven results.
In 1921, assisted and advised by the artist and theorist Yamamoto, the two brothers-in-law developed a high-quality crayon. Their product quality was heads above other Japanese competition, but still did not meet the high standards they were seeking.
The ideal art material the two of them were searching for combined the soft, smooth color application of crayons with the brightness of dry pastels.
This goal of application and color gave the still developing product its name, Cray-Pas with ”Cray” conveying the application ease of Crayon and “Pas” standing for dry Pastels’ depth and brightness of color.
After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1924, Sakura Crayon Company moved from Tokyo to Osaka as the two men continued to try and perfect their product.
In one of its first product stages, Cray-Pas used a combination of coconut oil and a stiffening oil as the base, but both these ingredients were affected by extremes in temperature. As a result, Sakura originally produced a hard Cray-Pas for summer and a softer version for winter.
It took three years for Sakura Crayon Company to resolve this final development dilemma and develop the ideal combination of softness which made Cray-Pas sticks easy to draw and blend with. That formulation, developed in 1927, was the basis for the Cray-Pas kids and adults use today.
Fast forward to now: Cray-Pas are arguably the most well-known oil pastels. Sakura Crayon Company is now Sakura Color Products Company and is considered one of the most innovative art materials and writing instruments manufacturers in the world.
Cray-Pas oil pastels now come in three varieties and in many different sized assortments: Junior Artist for children, Expressionist for growing artists and students, and sharp-edged Specialist, designed for professional fine artists.
Sakura owns many fine works of art done in Cray-Pas and exhibits them at the Sakura Art Museum in Osaka, Japan.