When the founder of toy company Kid Made Modern Todd Oldham was a kid, he left a box of crayons in a hot car one summer. When he returned, all the colors had melted together, becoming one giant multi-colored crayon blob.
Now, Oldham has partnered with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to create what he now calls Smush Crayons–giant crayons that are composed of a variety of different colors all melted together. But rather than a random assortment of colors like that crayon box of yore, these Smush Crayons are derived from three masterpieces in MoMA’s collection: Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Monet’s Water Lilies and Alma Thomas’s abstract work Untitled.
Creating a Smush Crayon today is a much more complex process than the magical thing that happened in the overheating car. Crayons are made up of wax and pigment, but different colors have different melting points. When he was developing the process for making them, Oldham quickly realized that you couldn’t heat all of the different colors together and then use an injection mold, because the colors would mix and turn into a chocolate brown blob. Instead, he experimented by buying traditional crayons and then shaving them with his carrot peeler.
Then the question was: How to bind the shavings together? He tried putting a cluster of the shavings in a mold and then leaving it out in the sun. He tried putting them in the oven. He tried using super-high pressure to bind them together. Nothing worked.
Finally, Oldham figured out that he could heat the crayon shavings to the lowest melting point of all the different colors, and then use compression to make the colors stick together without bleeding into each other. Today, his team at Kid Made Modern manufactures vats of crayons that are turned into chips of different sizes, and then the chips are combined in molds before being heated and compressed.
Oldham made his first multi-color crayons about five years ago (Kid Made Modern sells a whole set of them), but the MoMA versions are different because they’re based on art. Robin Sayetta of MoMA’s retail team helped choose which artworks to include. Beyond picking paintings with a distinct color scheme, she also wanted to use the Smush crayons to highlight an artist some museum visitors might not be as familiar with in Alma Thomas. “We felt strongly we wanted to include a female voice as well as a masterwork that is definitely considered a masterwork but might not be something people have as much exposure to,” she says.
To ensure that each crayon’s colors are true to the inspirational artwork, Oldham fed high-resolution scans of the paintings into a digital spectrophotometer, which was able to give him a reading of the most prominent colors in each painting. Then he and his team make decisions about what to include in terms of both color and ratio. “We [had] to go in and try to honor the emotion and sum of parts of the painting,” Oldham says.
For the MoMA collection, the Smush Crayons are all the size of a very large pencil. When you draw with them, you never get the same color twice; instead, the colors bleed into each other beautifully, creating a gradient effect. You can also lay Smush Crayons flat against your paper and rub them that way to create a beautiful watercolor effect.
“It’s the quickest way to really see inside of a painting,” Oldham says. “It’s a very special view.”
The MoMA Smush Crayons are available online and in-store for $6.