Crayon Portrait

It’s called a crayon portrait but is neither just a drawing nor done with crayon, as we know the word. Neither is it just a photograph.      

Crayon Portrait - Eli Gibson

Crayon Portrait - Eli Gibson


This picture was done prior to 1901 when “crayon” was still only a French word meaning pencil. The crayon portrait was popular from 1860 to the early twentieth century.

According to a State Historical Society of Missouri Newsletter, the process required to produce a crayon portrait started by enlarging a photograph onto drawing paper with a weak photographic emulsion producing a faint image. The artist then drew over the picture with charcoal or pastels, trying to duplicate the photograph while making it look hand drawn. The quality of the picture was entirely dependent on the artist’s skill. Tinting or gilding was sometimes added to enhance the effect.  From a few feet away, it is often taken for a photograph but viewed up close, it can be seen to be a drawing.

This portrait, found in an attic, is about 16″ x 20″ with a single pine board back. The picture is of Eli Gibson, born in 1866, and raised north of Aurora.  He died on January 28, 1901 at age 35 in a mining accident. 

Since the portrait is unsigned, who did it or where it was done unknown. Crayon portrait artists were known to have practiced at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 so presumably they were at other similar functions. They also set up shop for short periods of time in established businesses with the owners hoping the novelty would generate interest.  How many have survived?


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