Thursday, 10 November 2011

Elephant No. 39: Soufflage

While researching painting techniques a few days ago, I stumbled across an entire list of Surrealist art practices. Some of them are truly bizarre; a few of them, however, can probably be adapted to an elephant of some sort.

For today's elephant, I chose the Surrealist technique called "soufflage"—otherwise known as "blowing paint around with a straw". The technique apparently originated with artist Jimmy Ernst, son of the well-known Surrealist painter, Max Ernst.

As a Surrealist concept, soufflage involves blowing liquid paint into abstract forms which are then used to either inspire a painting, or to reveal an image. When children blow paint around with a straw, it's mostly used to make pretty patterns. I vaguely remember doing this when I was a child, but I don't remember if I liked it or not.

The technique also lends itself well to forms such as trees, but I had a feeling that making an elephant might be a bit challenging. However, having flicked two hours worth of paint at a piece of paper to make a spatter-painted elephant a few days ago, I couldn't imagine that soufflage could be any more difficult.

If you're trying to make a recognizable image, this is actually a fairly challenging activity. The paint tends to have a mind of its own, particularly if you're blowing it across existing layers of paint, rather than across paper.

For paint, I used thinned-down acrylics, on a mid-range sheet of watercolour paper. For tools, I used regular-diameter plastic straws, and the kind of brown plastic stir-sticks that have tiny straw-like holes. I ditched the latter almost immediately. Although I thought they might allow me to be fairly precise, they didn't allow enough air to hit the paper, making them next to useless for soufflage.

I had originally sketched a faint elephant outline, figuring that I would get completely lost if I didn't have something to guide me. Unfortunately, the pencil line showed through my first bit of paint, so I erased everything.

The whole thing took me about two hours, and here are the main things I learned:

• Thick paint is very hard to blow around and tends to just sit there. Thin paint goes everywhere. Paint the consistency of evaporated milk (i.e., slightly thicker than regular milk) is about right.

• Thin, spiky lines are easier to achieve across unpainted paper. Paint is also easier to guide around curves and such on unpainted paper.

• New paint laid across existing paint will either flow right into existing paint channels and lines, or will spread out in pools. Both of these tendencies are surprisingly difficult to defeat.

• Blowing hard will not necessarily move the paint more than blowing relatively softly. Blowing softly will also give you more control—and may even help you keep from getting lightheaded.

• Make sure to allow areas to dry in between colours (unless you want them to blend). Using a hairdryer will not blow the paint around more.

This is a very easy technique to overwork, as you keep seeing areas you want to fix. Trying to fix soufflage is a relatively pointless activity, however, because it will generally create more things that need to be fixed. I probably should have stopped a bit sooner than I did, because this ended up briefly in incessant-and-stupid-reworking territory.

It was an interesting technique, and I like the final result. It was a more fussy activity than I thought it would be, however, so I don't think I'll be churning out a series of these anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that elephants may be highly altruistic. Several accounts from around the world describe elephants displaying compassion not only for their own species, but also for other animals in distress, including humans.

In one such account, a rancher was knocked off his camel by a charging female elephant, breaking his leg in the fall. When a search party found him, they discovered that he had been dragged to a shaded area by another female elephant. Refusing to leave his side, she had protected him until help arrived, regularly touching him with her trunk to provide comfort and reassurance.

In another instance, a female elephant worked tirelessly to free a baby rhinocerous from the mud, despite being repeatedly attacked by the baby's mother. And in India, when a logging elephant refused to set down a log she was carrying, her handler discovered a dog sleeping in the hole where the log would have landed. Once the dog was moved, the elephant gently laid down the log.

And there there is the story of Tarra and her dog companion Bella at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Friends for years, Tarra maintained a vigil the whole time Bella was recovering from surgery, and rejoiced when Bella was better, touching the dog with her trunk and squeaking with delight.

Tarra and Bella at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

More poignantly, when Bella was recently killed by coyotes, Tarra appears to have carried Bella's body to a spot within sight of the main building of the Sanctuary. Tarra's handlers believe that she was trying to bring Bella home.

Rather sweetly, in response to Tarra's grief, her elephant companions began offering her portions of their own food, as well as comforting her with their trunks.

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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