Monday, 28 November 2011

Elephant No. 58: Bulletism

For today's elephant, I thought I'd try another Surrealist technique: bulletism.

As its name suggests, bulletism involves shooting ink or paint at a surface, then using it to inspire a painting. The result is a sort of ink blot design.

Salvador Dalí claimed to have invented bulletism by shooting an arquebus loaded with ink capsules at a piece of paper. Interestingly, however, Leonardo da Vinci had described a similar technique several centuries earlier, remarking that a person could see anything they liked in the shape formed by throwing an ink-soaked sponge at a wall.

Biblia Sacra 47—Ecce homo, 1969
Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)

Not having an arquebus, I bought a water pistol (something that was actually difficult to find) from a discount store. For the painting surface, I propped an inexpensive canvas against the back of my stove. I covered the stove and backsplash with a couple of sheets of bristol board, figuring this might get a bit messy.

I thought ink might be too thin for a water pistol, so I used full-strength acrylic paints. Unfortunately the water pistol leaked and didn't actually shoot anything anywhere, even when I thinned the paints with water. I defaulted instead to a high-power syringe. Same effect, I figured, if jammed down the plunger forcefully enough.

It is impossible—incredibly so—to make the paint go where you want. I aimed carefully at a certain area, but the paint went high above that point every time. I don't know if it was because the paint has so much volume that it wants to throw itself aloft, or if there's some principle about the syringe that I don't understand. Maybe liquid arcs automatically when shot at a surface.

I had a bit more control with the dregs, which sprayed a fine mist pretty much exactly where I aimed them. Another thing I discovered is that it doesn't matter at all how much or how little paint you put in the syringe. It's still going to make a big, thick splat with the first shot. I even tried priming the syringe with really tiny amounts of paint, but the only differences were that the splat was ever so slightly smaller and dripped a little less.

It was an interesting, if messy, technique. I used a bit of black to accentuate the place I where I saw an eye, then sprayed some dregs of black on the ear area to tie the colours together.

The drips were inevitable, given the angle of the canvas, but I shudder to think how much the paint might have spread outwards if I'd aimed down at a canvas lying flat. As it is, the paint sprayed quite high on the tiled backsplash around the stove and range hood. It made me really glad I didn't use ink.

I kind of like the final result. It's very abstract, but it still appeals to me. I thought about drawing some outlines to define the elephant a little better, but then I decided that this first effort should be as close to full bulletism as I could get.

It might be interesting to try this again in the summer with a "super-soaker" water gun and a monster canvas tacked to the side of my garage. I can already think of a couple of friends who might enjoy sharing the experience—along with a tray of martinis.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although an elephant doesn't use its trunk to drink, it does use it to suck up large amounts of water. A typical trunk can hold about 4 litres (1 gallon) of water at a time, although the trunk of a fully grown African bull elephant can hold as much as 10 litres (2.6 gallons).

Elephants spray the water into their mouths either to drink, or to give themselves a shower. The trunk even offers a wide range of pressure settings—from a powerful blast, to a gentle rain.


Elephants also use their trunks to spray dust and mud on their backs as protection against insects and sunburn. When elephants become very hot and there is no water nearby, they often put their trunks in their mouths, suck up a large amount of saliva, and spray it over their bodies.

To Support Elephant Welfare

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