Friday, 16 December 2011

Elephant No. 75: Oil Pastels

There are less than ten days until Christmas and things are starting to get hectic, so today I decided to do something that I thought would be simple: oil pastels.

Oil pastels were invented in Japan in the early twentieth century. Dissatisfied with the Japanese education system, which he felt concentrated too much on learning by rote, Kanae Yamamoto proposed a new learning concept that allowed for greater self-expression. In a book called The Theory of Self-Expression, Yamamoto described the Jiyu-ga method, or "learning without a teacher".

Taken with Yamamoto's ideas, teacher Rinzo Satake and his brother in law Shuku Sasaki decided to do something about the many hours Japanese children spent learning to draw Japanese characters with black ink. Instead, they implemented "free drawing" periods, using lots of colour. Feeling that the wax crayons available at the time weren't quite right for this process, the two men produced their own crayons in 1921, founding the Sakura Cray-Pas Company—named for the Japanese word for colour (sakura), and abbreviated forms of "crayon" and "pastel".

Their first efforts weren't entirely successful, as the crayons didn't have enough pigment and didn't allow for artistic effects such as blending and impasto. By 1924, they had developed a better crayon, using coconut oil, paraffin and stearic acid as a binder for the pigment. Thus was born the oil pastel. Until stabilizers were added in 1927, oil pastels came in two varieties: winter pastels with additional oil to keep them from hardening in cold temperatures; and summer pastels, which came with less oil to keep them from melting in warmer weather. Interestingly, Japan's state schools, leery of the concept of "self-expression"—and unable to afford oil pastels anyway—preferred coloured pencils, a less-expensive German invention that was mysteriously marketed in Europe as a means of instilling work discipline in young children.

Elsewhere, however, oil pastels were immediately successful. Manufacturers around the world began producing their own versions of the new medium. The quality of these early pastels was nothing like the oil pastels we have today, as they were intended simply as a teaching medium, and not for fine art. Despite this, some artists adopted oil pastels, including Pablo Picasso, who eventually convinced French manufacturer Henri Sennelier to bring out a high-quality oil pastel for artists.

Sennelier's version debuted in 1949. Intended specifically for professional artists, Sennelier's product was superior in every way to run-of-the-mill oil pastels. Other companies soon followed suit, and by the mid-1980s, the Japanese "Holbein" brand—named for a German artist—had appeared, with a range of 225 colours of professional-grade oil pastels.

Oil pastels vary highly in quality. The most inexpensive oil pastels are the kind we all used in public school, and are generally the hardest and least vibrant. The highest level is aimed at professional artists and can be quite expensive at five dollars or more per oil pastel, depending on pigment quality and colour.

For today's elephant, I decided to use whatever I had on hand. I hadn't looked at my oil pastels in years, but I suspected that they might be the most basic grade, as it's not a medium I ever loved all that much.

Yep, the most basic grade. I also discovered today that time hasn't softened my attitude towards oil pastels.

I made a perhaps misguided decision early on to use a small canvas board for this. I thought the texture of the board might make this a bit more interesting, but it didn't. Canvas wasn't the best way to go unless I was going to lay in quite a lot of colour, and today I wasn't really in the mood for lots of colour.

I also decided to use blending stumps and tourtillons—I know there's a difference between the two, but I'm not sure what it is. The main thing for me is that I can use them instead of my fingers to blend stuff.

I started with a very tentative line for the top of the elephant's head, then blended it.

I added a few more lines, blended those, then a few more. So far, I wasn't much in love with this process—nor today's drawing skills, for that matter.

After adding some more colours, I started to like it a little better.

After I'd finished all the colour work I was going to do, I added a bit of black to make the elephant pop a bit more, and to differentiate it from the background I had foolishly added.

I really didn't like it when I was finished, but it's starting to grow on me—a little. I think I would have had to spend a lot more time on it, putting in lots of colour and blending the heck out of it to make it something I'd be happy with. Maybe I'll try it again when I have more time to play with the technique.

 Elephant Lore of the Day
A few weeks ago, Ian reminded me of a stunning show that toured Europe and South America from 2005 to 2007: The Sultan's Elephant. Created by the Royal de Luxe theatre company of Nantes, France, the show involved a huge mechanical elephant and a giant girl marionette.

The show was commissioned by the cities of Nantes and Amiens to commemorate the centenary of the death of author Jules Verne, and was originally called La visite du sultan des Indes sur son éléphant à voyager dans le temps ("A Visit from the Sultan of the Indies on His Time-Travelling Elephant").

Designed by François Delarozière, artistic director of the French company La Machine, the elephant was made primarily of wood, and weighed 50 tonnes—or the weight of seven African elephants. It required twenty-two people to manipulate it, and had hundreds of moving parts and scores of pistons, including twenty-two for the trunk alone. The elephant's skeleton featured steel ribs, and more than 56 square metres (602 square feet) of reclaimed poplar. The flapping ears were made of leather.

The show was first performed in Nantes in May 2005, followed by a performance in Amiens the following month. For its London appearance in May 2006, the show was renamed The Sultan's Elephant. The show began on a Thursday, with a rocket "crashing" into Waterloo Place. The elephant and sultan arrived the following day, and an oversized girl marionette emerged from the rocket capsule. The elephant and girl met up and, on Friday evening, the elephant wandered around St. James's Park, while the girl went on a tour of London atop an open double-decker bus.

On Saturday, the elephant walked to Trafalgar Square. The girl was lifted onto the elephant's trunk by crane, and was carried back to Horseguards Parade. The show finished on Sunday when the girl climbed back into the rocket and "took off". Although the rocket didn't actually go anywhere, when the top was removed from the rocket by crane, the girl had disappeared, ostensibly travelling in time.

In London, the elephant and girl were stored at the disused Battersea Power Station, and were taken under police escort to various city locations in the wee hours of the morning. Lamposts and traffic lights had to be removed to allow the elephant through.

Following its London appearance, the show appeared in Antwerp, Belgium; Calais and Le Havre in France; Santiago, Chile; and Reykjavík, Iceland.

Sadly, the elephant no longer exists. According to the London producers of the show, the company got so fed up with being invited all over the world to perform The Sultan's Elephant, that they destroyed it. A 20-foot replica was, however, built in Nantes in 2007 as part of the Machines of the Isle of Nantes exhibition.
The Sultan's elephant walking across a bridge in Nantes.
Photo: Prochasson
To Support Elephant Welfare 

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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