Friday, 4 November 2011

Elephant No. 33: Plasticine Picture

While editing something for a client a couple of days ago, I came across this technique. I'd never heard of Plasticine® pictures before, but it's used to great effect by artist and author Barbara Reid in her children's books.

For today's elephant, I used a cheapo version of Plasticine-type modelling clay. Plasticine is actually a brand name for a putty-like modelling clay made with calcium salts, petroleum jelly and stearic acid. Although I didn't use real Plasticine, I've used that word throughout to distinguish the material from other types of modelling clay.

Plasticine itself was invented by art teacher William Harbutt in Bath, England in 1897, although a similar clay called "Plastilin" was invented in Munich, Germany in 1880 by Franz Kolb. Plastilin, like Plasticine is still available, as is an Italian product called "plastilina". All of these are non-toxic, sterile and malleable, and don't dry out when exposed to air. Unlike pottery clay, they cannot be fired, as they melt when heated and are actually flammable at high temperatures.

Harbutt originally created Plasticine as a special non-drying clay for his sculpture students. He was awarded a patent in 1899, and commercial production started at a nearby factory in 1900. The original compound was grey, but the first commercial Plasticine came in four shades, and was soon available in a wide range of bright colours.

Plasticine quickly became popular in art schools, and was packaged for children in modelling kits. The original Plasticine factory was destroyed by fire in 1963, but the Harbutt company rebuilt and was producing Plasticine in the same town until 1983. During the following two decades, Plasticine suffered through a series of changes in ownership, and was even off the market for a number of years. In 2006, the Flair company bought the brand and now manufactures Plasticine in Thailand.

Since its creation, Plasticine and its cousins have found many uses. Plasticine-type modelling clay is used to create moulds for plaster casting and plastics, and for producing maquettes for larger sculptures. It is a popular educational and therapeutic tool, and is even an art form unto itself, despite the difficulties involved in keeping the final work intact.

Perhaps the most famous use for Plasticine, however, is in animation—or "claymation" as it is more commonly known. Plasticine has great appeal for animators working in stop-motion animation, because it is easy to mould into interesting characters, and is flexible enough to allow the character a wide range of motion. It is also easy to shape, even with a wire armature, and doesn't melt under studio lights.

For today's elephant, I limited myself to this 12-pack of modelling clay from the dollar store. Obviously, the quantities are very small, so I chose to work on a 7.5 x 10 cm (3 x 4-inch) canvas board.

According to the excellent tutorials on Barbara Reid's website, it's a good idea to draw something first. I was nowhere near as disciplined as she suggests, but I did make a quick sketch so that I wouldn't be totally lost.

I had forgotten that I never liked working with Plasticine, even as a child. There's something about the texture that I just don't like. It has a similar consistency to window putty or epoxy putty, and I don't like those, either. It sticks to your hands in a sort of oily, pasty, gummy way that I found unpleasant. But that's just me.

The first thing to do is create the background, as a Plasticine is layered from the background up. In my sketch, I had envisioned circus-tent stripes, so I put those in. Despite my small canvas, I was hard-pressed to eke out these stripes from the red and yellow sticks of clay in the package, no matter how thin I made them. Note to self: buy two packs next time—or, better yet, buy the big packs of individual colours.

The next thing I did was shape the elephant's body. The sketch came in very handy here, as it gave me a good idea of how much flattened clay I would need. After I had the lower body laid down, I shaped the head, then the trunk, then made a three-dimensional ear. At this point, it didn't look all that much like the sketch anymore, but that's okay.

One of the very useful properties of Plasticine is that you can blend colours quite easily. I did that quite a few times—for example, there was no grey in the package, so I made the grey for the elephant with a lot of white and very little black. Dark colours such as red and black are definitely overpowering when mixed with lighter colours, so if you blend, start with a very amount of the dark colour in proportion to the light.

After I had the elephant laid down on the board, it was simply a matter of adding things. I did the headdress next, then the tusk and bits of pink in the mouth and trunk, then the eye, then the other bits of decoration on the elephant.

When all that was done, I decided that the stripes were too plain, so I added a few polka dots to give the background some interest. Because Plasticine is so sticky (as long as it's relatively warm), everything adheres very easily to itself. Luckily, it also peels off quite easily without leaving a lot of itself behind.

I have no idea how I'm going to keep this thing without it getting squished or dusty—maybe an old Christmas card box or something.

Although I like the bright colours of Plasticine, I really didn't like working with the material. Maybe real Plasticine would be more pleasant than this cheap stuff, which was a bit like working with oil pastels mushed up in flour.

I like the final result, but I think I'll wait until I'm ready to tackle claymation before I touch Plasticine again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Lallah Rookh was a female Asian elephant known for her tightrope-walking act in an American circus. 

She started her career with the name Jenny Lind in 1848 at Franconi's Hippodrome—where, astonishingly, you could see chariot races and a Roman circus, right in the heart of Manhattan. In 1851, she was renamed Juliet and paired with an elephant called Romeo. In 1853, her trainer took her and a white camel to join Dan Rice's circus in Columbus, Ohio. Within two days of their arrival, Juliet had been renamed Lallah Rookh, after a popular poem by Thomas Moore, and was performing under the big top.

Lallah was the first elephant in the United States able to do a headstand consistently. Her most famous feat, however, was walking a tightrope. Although elephants had been known to walk a tightrope in Ancient Rome, it was an exciting spectacle for nineteenth-century audiences.

Lallah walked on a special rope that was 15 cm (6 inches) in diameter and 6 metres (20 feet) long. It was suspended 1.2 metres (4 feet) above the ground between two supports. Halfway through her walk, Lallah would stop and raise one of her forelegs. Circus owner Dan Rice would run up and hand her an American flag, which Lallah held in her trunk as she finished walking across the rope.

In 1860, Rice had Lallah swim across the Ohio River from the Kentucky side to Cincinnati as a publicity stunt. It took her 45 minutes to swim across the river, where she was welcomed by a delighted crowd. Sadly, Lallah caught a fever during her swim, and died a month later.

This 1859 poster for the Dan Rice Circus features Lallah Rookh as the star attraction.
The poster was printed by John E. Bacon of New York City.
American Antiquarian Society Collection

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
African Wildlife Foundation

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