Thursday, 20 October 2011

Elephant No. 18: Potato Printing

Potato printing is something I haven't done since I was about eight years old, and I don't remember being particularly in love with the technique. I probably didn't like that we were only allowed to use one colour at a time. In Grade 2, I remember trying to make a print that was half purple and half green. This landed me in the teacher's dunce corner for polluting the two paints.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn't find anything to tell me how potato printing originated. There is a great deal of information on potatoes, but nothing to tell me when and where someone suddenly looked at a potato and thought, "This will make an excellent printing tool!"

Despite origins that are apparently lost in the mists of time, potato printing has since gone surprisingly mainstream. Although potato printing has long been a favourite activity for kids, it has now found its way into high-end crafts, art and textiles as well.

For today's elephant, I thought I'd make some wrapping paper and some gift tags. I had a somewhat shiny roll of cheap wrapping paper that was purple on the "good" side, and white on the reverse, so I used that, along with some manila shipping tags. I was briefly tempted by the idea of making potato-printed tissue paper, but I was pretty sure I'd end up with wrinkled tissue paper that stuck to the potato, and to itself, before dissolving into some kind of depressing mush.

Of course, I didn't have any potatoes in the house, requiring a trip to the grocery store (an activity that fills me with ennui at the best of times). Thankfully, I did have tempera, although not in colours I liked. However, the last thing I need in the house is more paint, so I decided to try acrylic paints instead.

The basic steps in creating a potato print are these:

1. Find a decent-sized potato that's fairly fresh (i.e., not all shrivelled and wrinkly).

2. Cut the potato in half. Cutting crosswise is the traditional way; but lengthwise is also fine if your design is big. It's just a bit harder to hold onto the potato when stamping.

3. Mark your design on the potato somehow. There are three primary ways of doing this: draw directly on the potato; draw on paper with a water-soluble pen then stick it on the potato to transfer it; incise the outline directly onto the potato with a fine blade. Remember that the design will be reversed when you stamp it. I, of course, forgot that part.

4. Cut away whatever is not your design to a depth of about 0.6 cm (1/4 inch). I used a sharp craft knife for most of the carving, and the pointy end of a bamboo skewer to scratch out some of the finer details. The raised part that's left behind becomes your stamping surface.

5. Blot the surface of your cut potato with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.

6. Put some thick paint—tempera/gouache/poster paint is traditional, but I used acrylics—in a pie plate to use as a "stamp pad".

7. Stamp your potato into the paint and then onto paper.

Just in case, I tried a bit of tempera paint on the potato to see if it was indeed the best paint choice. I actually didn't like the effect, which was paler than I wanted. The acrylic paints had more body, so I stuck with those.

As you can see from my design, I cheated a bit. I wanted two colours, but I knew I would never manage to make the crown line up on the elephant's head if I were using two separate stamps. Artist Jamie Wieck has a helpful tutorial on registering two colours in potato printing, but I already know that this is beyond me. So, instead of spreading a bunch of paint on a pie plate and dipping the potato into it, I slathered paint directly onto the potato in the two colours I wanted.

The first impression is a bit gooey and amorphous. As you continue to print, the design becomes paler, but more defined. The sheet of paper below shows the eight impressions—right to left, then right to left again—that I got from one application of paint. It doesn't help if you try to have a light hand for the first impression, because then the paint slides a bit. It does, however, help to press really hard for later impressions from the same application of paint.

In the end, the wrapping paper was a bit of a bust for me. The shiny surface of the wrapping paper was a nuisance, making the paint slide around a lot before sticking to the potato. The paper was also too thin, buckling around the edges where the paint was too wet to absorb properly. And, of course, I can't seem to line things up, so it just looked weird. I did enjoy making tags, however, and made about 20 before I thought I'd better stop.

It made me a bit sad to throw out my potato stamp, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't last more than a day or so, even if I put it in the fridge.

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of the most famous elephants in the United States was Fanny. Originally a circus elephant, Fanny was purchased from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1958, by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. For more than three decades, the Asian elephant spent her life at the Slater Park Zoo. Sadly, Fanny's Pawtucket home was highly inadequate for an elephant of her size, consisting of a small barn with a tiny outdoor enclosure for her to walk in, chained by one of her back legs.

In 1993, despite efforts by Pawtucket's mayor to keep her in the city, Fanny was rescued by a group that included The Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Free Fanny Coalition. In June of that year, Fanny was taken by train to the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas.

At the ranch, Fanny was renamed Tara, and enjoyed something she had not had in decades: the company of other elephants. Interestingly, her first friend was an African elephant named Conga. African and Asian elephants usually do not get along, but Fanny and Conga would often stand together, trunks entwined in friendship. Heavily overweight when she arrived, Fanny was also put on a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, hay and elephant chow, and lost nearly 820 kilograms (1,800 pounds).

Fanny died in 2003 at the age of 59. When Rhode Island's Providence Journal learned of her death, they wrote her an obituary. And in 2007, the City of Pawtucket erected a fibreglass sculpture of Fanny, standing within sight of the barn in which she once lived. Fanny's story is currently being made into a documentary called Uproar in Pawtucket. 

 To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society

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