Sunday, 29 January 2012

Elephant No. 119: Étrécissement

Since I kind of like cutting up paper, and wanted to do something relatively easy today, I thought I'd try étrécissement. 

Étrécissement is a Surrealist technique, invented in the 1950s by Belgian Surrealist Marcel Mariën. When he first started his artistic career, Mariën apparently couldn't draw, so instead he used media such as collage, decoupage and assemblages of found objects—ultimately leading him to create the étrécissement technique. Although I could find no root meaning for étrécissement, I'm guessing that the word itself is Surrealist, reworking the French "être" (to be) and "ciseaux" (scissors).

La Paix en guerre (Peace During Wartime), 1940
Marcel Mariën (1920–1993)
Collection of the Tate Britain, London

It's easy to create an étrécissement: simply cut away parts of an existing image or images, either to reveal a new image or to "encourage" something new. It can be similar to collage or decoupage when a series of images are used; in its purest form, however, a single image is nibbled away to create something different.

L'Alotiste (The Woman from Alost), 1966
Marcel Mariën (1920–1993)
Collection of the Tate Britain, London

Rather than simply cut elephant shapes willy-nilly out of existing photographs, which struck me as being too easy, I decided that I had to follow only existing lines within the images I chose. I also thought it might be interesting to use pictures of other wildlife, to see if I could find the elephant within.

I allowed myself to follow any line of shading I liked, as long as it actually existed on the page. This didn't always result in the effect I thought it would, but there was usually enough going on in each photograph that I could find at least a few lines that worked. 

I didn't use templates or drawings to guide me, but I don't think it would be cheating if you started that way. Another thing I found helpful in some cases was to begin by cutting along a line that clearly looked to me like part of an ear or a trunk, then snip off smaller bits of the rest of the photograph until the elephant began taking shape. Most of my étrécissements are not perfect, or even moderately elegant shapes, but I think they work well enough.

When I chose the photos, I chose pictures that I thought might be hiding an elephant, although I couldn't see an entire outline in any of them when I started. For those of you who want to play along, I've included the original photo, followed by my étrécissement.

Male lion in Africa.
Photo: Chris Johns

Camel with kid.

Zebra at the Frankfurt Zoo, Germany.
Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/AP

Gorilla closeup.

Jammu and Kashmir police with assault rifles.

Tiger in a zoo.

Common house mouse.
Photo: Ilse Schmeller

White rhinoceros.

Panorama of people in India.

This was a very easy exercise in many respects. Although the lines don't always exist where you want them, if you choose a photograph with lots going on, you can probably find something to work with. This actually reminded me a lot of my mapping experiment, but was slightly easier—which is why I did several. Even at that, it took me just under an hour to cut all of these.

I personally wouldn't do this as a hobby or my main art practice, but it was an interesting experience, and I can already see how more elaborate versions could be used in larger works.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants actually don't like climbing hills, largely because of the energy it requires. In Kenya, scientists have discovered that elephants use only three-quarters of their 32,115-square-kilometre (12,400-square-mile) habitat, likely because the rest is too hilly. For a four-tonne (8,800-pound) elephant, it would take a whopping 25,000 extra calories a day for every vertical metre (3.3 feet) it climbed. That's 2500% more than it takes to walk on a level surface.

One elephant, however, decided that he might actually like the view from the top of Mount Kenya, 4,267 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level. Icy Mike scaled the frigid heights of the mountain—and stayed there. No one is sure why Mike climbed the mountain, but they do know why he decided to stay up there for the rest of his life. According to Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, an elephant climbing down a hill needs even more energy for braking.

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 


  1. Hey i love what you do.... lately i found in me a strange passion for elephants and more stange because i live in the caribbean theres not elephants just in the zoo and really love it

  2. Thanks so much for your kind words. I love them too, as you can see. ;-) I don't live near a zoo, so you may see them in life even more often than I do! It's funny to think of elephants living in the Caribbean, but I'm sure they enjoy the climate!