Monday, 16 January 2012

Elephant No. 106: Etch A Sketch

Today I didn't want to do anything that required painting, or glueing, or that might involve bits of stuff flying all over the place, so I decided to try drawing an elephant with an Etch A Sketch®.

Billed as "The World's Favorite Drawing Toy®" with more than 150 million sold, the Etch-a Sketch was invented in the late 1950s by André Cassagnes. Dubbing it L'Ecran Magique ("The Magic Screen"), Cassagnes took it in 1959 to the International Toy Fair in Nuremburg, Germany. The Ohio Art Company, which now produces the Etch A Sketch, originally passed on the toy, then decided to take a chance on it. They renamed it the Etch A Sketch, and launched it in the United States for the 1960 Christmas season. It quickly became the most popular drawing toy on the market.

The Etch A Sketch is composed of a glass screen enclosed in a red plastic frame. The reverse of the glass screen is coated with a fine aluminum powder. To create a design, you turn the two white dials on the front, This moves an internal stylus, which pushes the powder out of the way. Although the dials move the stylus only horizontally or vertically, by turning the two dials at once you can create diagonal and curved lines.

To erase the picture, you turn the toy upside down and shake it. This causes polystyrene beads inside the case to roll around and re-coat the screen with aluminum powder. The black lines that make up your design are actually reflecting the black background inside the toy, and scraping away large enough areas in a design will allow you to see inside.

It surprised me to learn that there are numerous artists who produce professional lineographic work on the Etch A Sketch. There's even a way to make the work semi-permanent and shake-resistant, by simply removing the aluminum powder. This is done either by taking off the plastic back, or by drilling holes in the bottom of the toy and letting the aluminum powder trickle out. The Etch A Sketch is then resealed.

Etch A Sketch art by George Vlosich III. See more of his astonishing
work at:
Source of above image:

The Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York in 1998, and in 2003, the Toy Industry Association named it one of the 100 most memorable and creative toys of the twentieth century.

Although various Etch A Sketch products have entered (and sometimes left) the market since 1960, the original Etch A Sketch remains unchanged, and remains popular to this day.

I don't like the Etch A Sketch—at least, I didn't when I encountered it as a child. I remember trying and trying to get it to make drawings I liked, but I could never get the hang of a truly curved line, which was a real drawback to me.

For today's elephant, I had to actually buy an Etch A Sketch, which wasn't as inexpensive as I had hoped. I was also a bit annoyed to find that every last one in the store had numerous faint lines already showing in the screen—no doubt played with by everyone who came upon them. The bold "Try Me" printed on the package doesn't help.

I had to reacquaint myself with the principles of Etch A Sketch art, which is pretty much as I remembered: straight lines easy, curved and diagonal lines not so easy. However, it felt a bit pointless to play with it just for the sake of playing with it, so I decided just to start drawing elephants and record the results.

A note about the photographs: the Etch A Sketch is very hard to photograph, partly because it's a highly reflective surface, but also because the final drawings are very low contrast, and because the previous etched lines are quite visible. I cleaned the photographs up a bit, but I think I'd need a much better set-up to photograph these effectively. And a lot more PhotoShop work than I was willing to do today.

This is my first attempt. Feel free to mock.

With the second one, I was beginning to figure out how to make the lines go where I wanted. Still not great, but an improvement.

By number three, I could see how this might work for me. I still had many moments in which the stylus acted like a highly uncooperative drunk, but I began to actually like the Etch A Sketch. My attempts at shading under the trunk and around the ear are laughable, but it was worth a try.

Number four was one of my favourites. I began to see elephants in the previous etching lines (mine and those of previous store customers), which was rather interesting. This one even seemed to have a bit of personality.

With number five, I played with wrinkles and folds, and realized that this was a lot like the contour maps I remember studying in school.

The final elephant was also one of my favourites. It was fun drawing the flower, and I can see that I might learn to quite like the Etch A Sketch, now that I see that you can draw fairly small, and that you can make things that are actually round, rather than just approximating round.

I started out not liking the Etch A Sketch at all, and ended up enjoying the way I could draw fine lines that slightly overlapped one another. I also liked the contour effect.

It hadn't occurred to me when I started this that it would be another version of continuous line drawing, but without the same amount of control or freedom. That being said, I like a couple of these quite a lot. Too bad they're not permanent.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 1923, some officers mapping Africa's Gold Coast got bored, following a long hot day in the tropical sun. They had only one hill left to record, but decided to use their imaginations rather than map the actual hill. They drew a contour around a picture from a magazine, giving the hill contours in the shape of an elephant.

For some time, the substitution remained undetected. It can still be seen on some editions of the map, shown below. If you can't quite see the elephant in the image, go to the original website here, which allows you to click on the map to superimpose the elephant.

Map of hill in Gold Coast (today's Ghana), 1923.

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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