Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Elephant No. 30: Leaf Printing

For today's elephant I thought I'd try something I haven't done since I was a kid: leaf printing. I've always liked the way fallen leaves stain patterns into the sidewalk, but this is the first time I've made the leap from admiring the sidewalk to using actual leaves to make a pattern.

The reason leaves stain the sidewalk is because they contain tannins. Throughout history, tannic acid, which is also found in tea, has been used for everything from clothing dyes to iron gall ink. I guess it only makes sense, then, that a leaf that falls onto a sidewalk on a wet day will leach its dye onto the surface. Interestingly, the most widespread historical use of tannins involves the processing of leather—or tanning.  

There are many online tutorials describing the process of printing leaf patterns onto fabric or paper, but I couldn't find any information on where or when the technique originated. I would imagine, however, that people have been printing with leaves for as long as they've been printing with anything else in the natural world (except maybe potatoes).

The process is quite simple: paint the veiny sides of leaves (i.e., the underside or back), then press the painted side onto a piece of paper.

Of course, I was going to complicate things a bit by trying to make an elephant with leaf patterns, but I didn't think it would be all that hard. Then again, given my earlier experiences with kid activities such as origami and invisible ink, some weird disaster is always a possibility.

It's a gorgeous fall day, so the first thing I did was go for a walk to collect some fall leaves. I figured it would be a good idea to get leaves in a wide range of shapes and sizes. It struck me as well that smallish leaves would be easiest to work with, so I made sure I had a good selection of those. I also made sure that the leaves were reasonably fresh, so that they wouldn't crumble too badly right off the bat.

Although the tutorials I read said to use poster paint, I used thick acrylic paint instead, assuming that it would stick nicely to the undersides of the leaves. I decided to use whatever fall colours I had on hand—plus gold, just because. For paper, I just used an page from an inexpensive multipurpose sketchpad. I thought briefly about using shiny fingerpainting paper, but I thought the leaves might slide around too much and not register very well.

I started with the elephant's topline. I didn't bother to sketch anything first, figuring—as with the feathers—that the shapes and sizes of the leaves would dictate the design.

Once I had a vague idea of the elephant's shape, I simply filled it in with various types of leaves. Because you get a lot of areas of transparency, there's room to layer quite a bit, which to me is what makes this technique rather pretty.

It was a bit tricky to get the consistency of the paint right: too thin and it doesn't do much; too thick and it makes a smeary mess. It might also have helped to use a brayer (a small roller used in linoprinting), because pressing the leaves into the paper with my fingers meant that not all areas printed. And it is definitely better to press than to smooth out the leaves if you want to keep the image relatively crisp.

Despite a few smears and many places where the entire leaf didn't register, I was quite happy with the final result. It's a bit messy on the fingers, and I had to clean my paintbrush with every leaf, but I'd definitely try this again. I even got to use the gold.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants spend up to 16 hours a day eating plants, including large quantities of leaves. Since they digest only about 40% of what they eat, they need massive quantities of food. The average adult elephant consumes anywhere from 140 to 270 kilograms (300 to 600 pounds) of food per day. Because they are so big and eat so much, elephants spend most of their time eating. As a result, most elephants sleep a mere two or three hours a day.

One of the biggest threats to elephants is deforestation. Elephants need large tracts of land on which to roam because they commonly crash through the forest, tearing down trees and shrubs for food. Once the area has had a chance to regrow—a relatively quick process in tropical climates—the elephants return and trash it all over again.

Sadly, when forests are reduced to small, isolated areas, elephants become complicit in the destruction of their own habitat. Once they destroy all the vegetation in a small pocket of forest, they also destroy their traditional sources of food. However, because these small forested areas no longer connect, elephants become trapped and begin to starve. Having no choice but to move into areas of human activity, elephants come into direct conflict with farms and villages, usually with fatalities on both sides.

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