Sunday, 27 November 2011

Elephant No. 56: Eraser Printing

Christmas is exactly four weeks from today, so today I thought I'd make some eraser-printed tags. Eraser printing is something I haven't done since I was about eight years old, so this could be interesting.

Erasers are generally made of rubber, although modern erasers can also be made with plastics, vinyl and even soy-based gum. Before the invention of rubber erasers, marks on paper, parchment and papyrus were removed with everything from wax to pumice to bread wadded into a sticky ball.

In 1770, England's Joseph Priestly described a vegetable gum he had seen, which could rub out markings made with black lead pencil. He called the substance "rubber", based on this very ability. That same year, an English engineer called Edward Nairne developed the first widely marketed rubber eraser. Made of natural rubber, he sold his invention for a whopping three shillings per 1.25 cm (half-inch) cube. Nairne claimed to have discovered rubber's erasing properties when he accidentally picked up a piece of rubber, rather than bread, to use on a sheet of paper.

Like bread, however, rubber was organic and perishable, and eventually went bad. It wasn't until Charles Goodyear's 1839 discovery of the process of vulcanization—a heating and chemical process that cured and stabilized rubber—that rubber erasers came into common use. By 1858, American inventor Hymen Lipman had developed the eraser-ended pencil.

Today, there are numerous types of erasers for various specialized uses. Soft vinyl erasers—usually white—are favoured by architects and designers, because they erase more cleanly than pink erasers. Pen erasers contain fine pumice, allowing them to remove ink. Kneadable erasers can be pulled into various shapes to erase soft charcoal. Modern technology also allows the production of limitless colours, shapes, and even scents.

A set of Japanese erasers for children.

For today's elephant, I thought I'd print gold elephants on black and red paper tags, along with a few red elephants on manila shipping tags.

I had some black and red papers, so I cut out several tag shapes to start. I also pulled out a few store-bought shipping tags and trimmed the ends of all of them with fancy scissors.

To make the eraser stamps, I started by tracing around the eraser, bearing in mind that these particular erasers are not completely flat. Once I had the general shape, I outlined a couple of tiny elephants.

When I was happy with the designs, I traced around them on top of the erasers. Remember that whatever you incise into the eraser will be reversed when stamped. I always forget this, and today was no exception.

I used a simple craft knife to slice around the design. After a bit of trial and error, I found that the easiest way to create the stamp was to cut straight down along the edges of the design, then make small but deep slices perpendicular to these cuts.

After a bit of clean-up with the tip of the blade, the stamps were ready. I then went out to see if I could find gold stamp pad ink. I had no luck at any of the art or craft stores I tried today, so I improvised.

The first thing I tried was soaking some gold ink into a pad of paper towels. Unfortunately, ink for calligraphy pens is too thin, so the imprint was both too light and too smeary.

I tried acrylic paint next, placing a dollop of gold paint on a piece of craft foam and spreading it out. I stamped into this, then smeared the stamp across the foam to remove some of the excess. This worked a little better, but was too thick this time, so it smeared a bit as well. The red tags weren't much more successful, despite using proper stamp pad ink, and bled around the edges.

These four were the best of the dozen I made today. I may make some more black tag blanks and try another time—but probably only if I can find a gold or silver stamp pad. 

Elephant Lore of the Day
One of the odder monuments in Rome is the small elephant obelisk in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Known as the Pulcino della Minerva ("Minerva's Little Chick"), the statue was designed by renowned Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The Basilica is the only Gothic church in Rome, and houses the tombs of both St. Catherine of Siena and the painter Fra Angelico. It is also where Galileo, after being tried for heresy in the adjoining monastery, recanted in June 1633. The Minerva in the Basilica's name derives from its location above an earlier shrine to the Roman goddess of wisdom.

The strangely small obelisk on the elephant's back was built in Egypt sometime between 589 and 570 B.C. It was discovered in the Dominican monastery attached to the church in 1655, and intrigued Pope Alexander VII enough that he ordered a display created to showcase the obelisk.

The Pulcino della Minerva outside the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
Photo: edelweiss50

One of the early ideas—presented by Father Domenico Paglia, who was also an architect—was a landscape of six hills. The obelisk would rest on the hills, and the monument would feature a dog in each corner. The hills were an appeal to the Pope's vanity, as his family crest featured six hills. Despite this, the Pope rejected the design, saying that he wanted the obelisk to be "a symbol of holy knowledge."

Bernini was approached next. He presented the Pope with several ideas, including a number of concepts that included mythological figures, such as Hercules, holding up the obelisk in various ways.

The successful design, featuring an elephant carrying the obelisk on its back, was inspired by a popular novel of the time. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili ("Poliphilo's The Strife of Love in a Dream") by Francesco Colonna was the first book ever printed in Italy. In the book, written in 1499, the main character meets a stone elephant carrying an obelisk. A woodcut in the novel depicted an elephant very similar to Bernini's design, and the Pope approved the final concept.

The saga didn't end there, however. Although the obelisk's weight rested on the elephant's legs in Bernini's original drawings, in the final monument the obelisk looks as though it runs right through the elephant. This was because Paglia, jealous of Bernini's commission, convinced the Pope that the empty space around the elephant's legs would make the sculpture unstable and likely to collapse.

Bernini was livid. Despite the fact that he had already proven that he could make a similar monument that would stand the test of time, he could not convince the Pope that the elephant obelisk, as designed, would be perfectly sound.

Forced to fill in the space under the elephant's belly, Bernini tried to balance the sculpture by giving the elephant a saddle. This made the elephant even less graceful, and Romans began calling the monument Porcino della Minerva or "Minerva's Piggy". The name eventually transformed to Pulcino della Minerva ("Minerva's Little Chick"), likely because porcino and pulcino sound very similar in the Roman dialect.

Bernini's original design (left)
and the final design (right).

Bernini ultimately exacted revenge on both the Pope and his Dominican tormentor, however. The elephant's rear end is depicted as pointing towards the Dominican monastery, its tail shifted slightly to the left—as one source says, "saluting Father Paglia and the other Dominican Friars in a rather obscene way."

To Support Elephant Welfare

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