Saturday, 29 October 2011

Elephant No. 27: Painting with Tea

This morning while having my morning tea, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to try painting with tea. I've used tea to dye fabric in the past, and I've left tea rings on the kitchen countertop, but I've never tried painting with it.

Tea plants are native to Asia, and likely originated where southern China and northern India meet. Traditionally cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical climates, tea (Camellia sinensis) is an evergreen shrub that does best where there is more than 127 cm (50 inches) of rain each year. Tea plants also prefer acidic soils and elevations of up to 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) above sea level. At these altitudes, the plants grow more slowly, and the leaves have more flavour.

Camellia sinensis
From: Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (Köhler's Medicinal Plants) by Franz Eugen Köhler

Some say that the first recorded use of tea as a beverage occurred in China around the tenth century B.C. Others suggest the first recorded use is found in the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, written in the fourth or fifth century B.C.

Tea was brought from Asia to Europe during the sixteenth century by Portuguese traders. Catherine de Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Britain's King Charles II, brought tea-drinking to England around 1660. Interestingly, although the casual drinking of tea tends to be associated with Great Britain, tea was not widely consumed in the British Isles until the late nineteenth century.

In the early 1820s, the British East India Company began large-scale production of tea in India's Assam province and, by the end of the nineteenth century, Assam was the leading tea-producing region in the world. For over a century, India produced more tea than any other nation, although over 70% of Indian tea is consumed within the country itself.

Today, China produces more tea, primarily because there is more land available for cultivation. Sri Lanka is also world-famous for its tea and tea plantations, although it came relatively late to the industry: its first tea plantations were not established until 1867.

It takes approximately three years for a tea plant to be ready for harvesting, and four to twelve years for a tea plant to bear seed. Only the top 2.5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 inches) of mature plants are picked. This bract of leaves and buds is called a "flush", and the plant will grow a new flush every seven to fifteen days in the growing season. A tea plant can grow into a tree as high as sixteen metres (52 feet) high if left to its own devices. Cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for ease of picking.

Tea pickers in Sri Lanka

Fresh tea leaves come in a wide range of sizes and, generally speaking, the smaller the leaf, the more expensive the tea. There are six main varieties of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and post-fermented, categorized by the type of processing they undergo.

Tea leaves quickly wilt and oxidize if not dried soon after picking. As the leaves grow darker, their chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released—a process known as "fermentation" in the tea business. At a certain stage, this darkening is halted by heat. In the production of black teas, heating and drying occur at the same time.

A quick primer on tea types:
• White tea: Wilted, but not oxidized
• Yellow tea: Not wilted or oxidized, but permitted to turn yellow
• Green tea: Not wilted or oxidized
• Oolong: Wilted, bruised and partly oxidized
• Black tea: Wilted, crushed and fully oxidized
• Post-fermented tea: Green tea that has been allowed to ferment

I was surprised to learn that there are actually a number artists who paint with tea. Some use fruit teas such as hibiscus to get a range of rich, saturated colours—which only makes sense, since hibiscus flowers and other components of fruit teas are used in dyeing fabric. Many of the artists who work with tea from the tea plant, however, seem to get darker colours than I got. I'm not sure if this is because I used somewhat light-bodied teas, or if I needed to layer the colour a bit more.

For today's elephant, I decided to create a palette of three teas, each from one of the world's primary tea-producing countries.

From China, I chose an Oolong.

From Sri Lanka, I chose a Ceylon tea.

And from India, I chose a tea from Assam.

I used the same quantity of each (a level dessert spoon) and added the same amount of water (2/3 cup or 150 ml) to each. I steeped them all for ten minutes, then strained out the leaves. From left to right, the teas are Oolong, Ceylon and Assam.

To see what kinds of colours I would be working with before I committed myself to paper, I did a small swatch with the three teas: left to right—Oolong, Ceylon and Assam. The Oolong had a more yellow tint to it than the other two, but it was also the lightest by far, so I used it primarily for highlights.

The paper had a bit of a yellow tint to it as well, so it was a pain to photograph. And, although it was a medium-range watercolour paper, the tea is so wet that the paper had a tendency to get wibbly. I could remove some of this buckling by running a hairdryer over the final piece, but it's never going to be entirely flat.

Painting with tea is a lot like painting with very thin watercolours. Because the colour is so faint, you're essentially layering washes of paint until you get the darkness of tint you want. In this case, the colour of all the teas was very similar to an ochre paint in a thinned-down wash, with slight—very slight—undertones of burnt sienna in the Ceylon and the Assam.

I started with a general sketch using the Assam tea, and a bit of the Ceylon.

Next, I added highlights with the Oolong, then just layered and added the various teas wherever I thought they were needed.

Strangely, the Assam tea clouded after awhile, and both of the others darkened in their containers, but it didn't seem to affect the tints. I also discovered that the colours lightened marginally as the teas cooled in their glasses.

I would have needed a lot more time to make this as dark as I originally envisioned, but I don't mind the final result.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Sadly, there are often conflicts on tea plantations between tea workers and wild elephants. In India and Sri Lanka, wild elephants often live in reserves and national parks adjacent to tea plantations, and frequently storm the fields at dusk in herds of twenty or more.

Part of the problem is that human activity has encroached on traditional elephant habitats and migration routes, leading to increased clashes between the two species. One sobering statistic: only a few years ago, India was 22% forest; today, a mere 6% is forested. Most of that forest has been lost to tea plantations and small-scale farming. This forces the elephants, who used to live and feed in the forest, out into the fields, where they come into direct conflict with humans.

Despite their reputation for gentleness, elephants are actually one of the world's most dangerous creatures. They can crush and kill any other land animal, including the rhinoceros. They also experience bouts of rage, particularly when a male elephant is in musth, and have even been accused of behaving in a vindictive manner. In Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, for example, groups of teenage elephants attacked a number of local villages following major culls of elephant herds.

In India and Sri Lanka, male elephants attack villages at night, destroying homes and killing people. Between 2001 and 2006, 239 people were killed by elephants in the state of Assam alone, and there are frequent run-ins between elephants and people across the tea-producing regions each year. These incidents often result in fatalities on both sides: elephants kill people and destroy crops; people respond by shooting and killing the offending elephants.

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
Bring the Elephant Home

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