Saturday, 14 January 2012

Elephant No. 104: Hand Prints

I've run across hand-printed elephants a couple of times now, so today seemed like a good day to try it.

Hand prints have been part of art since prehistoric times—in fact, human hands are among the most common motifs in cave paintings, along with wild animals such as horses, bulls and deer. Oddly enough, drawings of people are relatively rare in early art and, when they do appear, are far less detailed and realistic than depictions of animals and hands.

Sometimes the outlines of hands and animals were incised before being filled in with pigments such as charcoal and ochre. At the Cueva de las Manos ("Cave of the Hands") in Argentina's Santa Cruz province, the hands—which date from 550 B.C. to about 180 B.C.—are often stencilled. Most of the hands are left hands, suggesting that the artists sprayed them with a pipe held in their right hands. From the size of these hands, it is thought that they might have been made by young men commemorating their passage to manhood by stamping their hand prints onto the walls of a sacred cave. 

The Cueva de las Manos near Perito Moreno, Santa Cruz, Argentina.
Photo: Mariano Cecowski, 2005.

The so-called "Tree of Life" in a Borneo cave also features stencilled handprints. These are usually the left hand as well, perhaps suggesting a similar ritual purpose.

Gua Tewet/Tree of Life, Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Photo: Luc-Henri Fage, 1999.

The process for today's elephant is very simple: paint your hand with acrylic, poster or finger paint. Imprint it onto a piece of paper. Flip it around so that the fingers face you.

My first hand print was okay, but I had to print a few of these before I figured out what worked and what didn't. One of the first things I realized is that you can't just smack your hand down and be done with it. You actually have to press the painted hand into the paper with your other hand, gently pushing down on each finger, the webs between your fingers, and especially the middle of your palm. The middle of the palm was the most troublesome for me, and I was often left with an obvious white gap.

I also discovered that paint the thickness of buttermilk is better than paint that's either too thick or too runny. Too runny and it smears a lot; too thick and you get mostly the kind of print that a forensic scientist would love: faint, and with every whorl on your fingertips showing perfectly.

I also got a bit too clever for my own good a couple of times. Thinking that I could make the legs look all the same length, I tried painting my fingers accordingly. Made no difference. Similarly, I thought I could make the trunk look less bulbous by painting a thinner line on my thumb. Very little difference there, either. My last brilliant idea was to paint up towards my wrist to give the elephant more height in its back and head. Also not worth the trouble. It's better just to paint your hand, print your hand, and work with what you get.

Once your elephants are dry, most sites suggest drawing on eyes and things. I found it interesting that the paint imprinted an ear shape, based on the shape of my palm (and probably everyone else's palm), and that the natural texture of your hands, combined with the texture of the paint, creates some interesting wrinkles. I didn't find it all that easy to draw the rest of the features, however. The tail was easy enough, as were the feet, but the trunk is too weird a shape, and I could never get the mouth right—so I simply started leaving it off entirely.

No two elephants are alike, so you can have a bit of fun with the drawing part. I didn't have enough time to really play with it, so I'll definitely try this again at some point—perhaps with a small child, who will probably be much more inventive than I.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants sometimes figure in prehistoric art, particularly in the Sahara. They aren't depicted as often as bulls, gazelles and other hunt-related animals—perhaps because these animals were likely drawn to enhance success in hunting. Since the elephant was rarely hunted in prehistoric times, its early depiction may have been simply a means of recording local species.

Some of the most beautiful prehistoric animal art is found in Libya, in the Wadi Matkhandoush Natural Museum. This massive open-air art preserve is located in the country's southwestern Fezzan region, and features some of the finest rock art in the world, including elephants, giraffes, felines, bulls, gazelles, rhinos, humans and ritual scenes. Sadly, this area is now under threat, due both to the depredations of time, and the activities of looters and vandals.

Elephant incised into rock—Pastoral Period, ca. 5000 B.C.
Wadi Matkhandoush Natural Museum,
Fezzan, Libya.

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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