Sunday, 5 February 2012

Elephant No. 126: Frottage

I have a fair amount of client work this afternoon, so I thought I'd try something that promised to be easy for today's elephant: frottage.

Frottage—from the French frotter ("to rub")—is a Surrealist technique developed by artist Max Ernst. Technically, frottage is very simple: the artist takes a soft lead pencil or other drawing medium and makes a rubbing over a textured surface. The resulting drawing can then be left as is, or used to inspire something further.

Forest and Sun, 1931
Max Ernst (1891–1976)
Frottage: graphite on paper
Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York—Gift of Helena Rubenstein

Frottage is very similar to brass rubbing and other techniques used to reproduce an existing design—for example, motifs on headstones and church carvings—but is more random in nature. For his first frottage work in 1925, Max Ernst was inspired by a wooden floor with noticeable grain. Seeing strange patterns and images in the grain, he laid sheets of paper over the floor and rubbed them with a soft pencil. He would often use these initial patterns to create more detailed and colourful works.

Frottage II: Spider by David Copper.

Just about any textured surface can be used to create frottage, from coins to bricks. The main idea is to start without a clear idea of what the drawing will look like, using the textures to inspire form, shape and even subject matter.

Frottage Taken on the Floor of the Art Hospital, 2008

For today's first elephant, I thought I'd try a preconceived concept: the story of six blind scholars and an elephant. Although I told the full story in a previous blog post, in a nutshell, it goes like this: six men touch different parts of the elephant—side, tusk, trunk, leg, ear and tail—to determine what it must look like. From this they extrapolate as follows: side=elephant looks like a wall; tusk=elephant looks like a spear; trunk=snake; leg=tree; ear=fan; tail=rope. I decided that I would try to find textures similar to these to draw each part of the elephant.

This was not a success by any stretch of the imagination. For the side and head of the elephant, I used a piece of wall that has just been roughly plastered. For the tusk, I used a bamboo skewer. For the trunk, I used a small plastic snake. For the leg, I used some rough floorboard. For the ear, I used the blades of a sandalwood fan. For the tail, I used a frayed bootlace. None of these textures showed up at all the way I expected, even though I tried various softnesses of pencil lead and different types of paper. But here it is, in the interests of full disclosure. I won't be offended if you laugh.

For the second elephant, I decided to stick to one texture. For a while, I've had my eye on the embossed wallpaper in our bathroom that bears some sort of junk Latin. The "e" has always struck me as something I'd like to use in an elephant, so here's that one. Somewhat more successful, but still not what I expected.

Finally, I decided to try some tiny tiles on our sadly retro kitchen floor. These, when taken on an angle, lent themselves quite nicely to the lines of a baby elephant head. Boring, I know, but it at least looked the way I expected it to. Perhaps because my expectations were low for such a uniform surface.

A few tips if you decide to try this:

1. Use a soft pencil, but not too soft. A 2B worked best for me: it's soft enough to pick up the texture, but not so soft that it mushes everything together. The 4B and 6B that I tried tended to smudge easily even while I was taking the rubbing, so the textures are a little less sharp. Parts of my first elephant were done with 4B and 6B.

2. The direction of the pencil is important. For best results, it's a good idea to use only one direction, so choose carefully. Depending on the direction of the pencil, it will either pick up the textures well, or virtually not at all. I discovered with wood grain, for example, that you get a better result if you use the pencil in the direction of the grain.

3. Getting the right pressure is a bit challenging, but important. Too firm and you'll obliterate most textures by creating a mass of dark pencil. Too light and you'll get mostly the texture of the paper.

4. Paper selection is also important. Tissue paper is a bit too light; sketchpad paper is okay, as is basic plain white bond paper. It's a good idea to use a paper without too much tooth or texture, as both will be evident in your final piece. Paper with too much tooth will also snag the graphite in your pencil, leading to a less crisp transfer.

I wasn't really enjoying this activity, as you can probably tell. Then I remembered that, as a child, I used to like making rubbings of coins. I dragged out a few coins from my collection, and decided to try making an elephant from those. My collection is pretty eccentric—it includes everything from ancient Middle Eastern and Indian coins to dairy and casino tokens—so I figured I'd probably be able to make a slightly more interesting elephant using some of these.

For this piece, I used white bond paper and a 4B pencil. The tiny circles that form the elephant's tail and tip of the trunk are made with a real coin—a widow's mite, if my information was correct—and the triangle that forms the elephant's ear is an old aluminum token from a local dairy.

I enjoyed making this elephant a little more, although I'm still not sure frottage is for me. The online world abounds in interesting frottage works, but if I were to use this technique again, I think it would be primarily as a background texture, or because I wanted to reproduce an interesting design without having to copy it.

That being said, it's certainly not a difficult or time-consuming activity, so it's definitely worth a try. And who knows where it might take you. Next time, it should perhaps take me outdoors.

Elephant Lore of the Day
When I was a child, I had a picture book called The Saggy Baggy Elephant by Kathryn and Byron Jackson. In that story, other animals mock a baby elephant for its floppy ears and wrinkly skin, and even offer to eat bits of him. The baby elephant finally comes across creatures as wrinkled as he—other elephants, of course—and they all dance together.

Cover of The Saggy Baggy Elephant by Kathryn and Byron Jackson.

Today it occurred to me, for the first time, to wonder why an elephant's skin is so wrinkled. Turns out that the wrinkles actually serve an important purpose. The skin's larger surface area helps regulate cooling, and the wrinkles trap moisture. 

The trapped moisture takes longer to evaporate, cooling the elephant even more. As a result, wrinkles keep an elephant 5–10 times cooler than if it had smooth skin. If a coating of mud is added on top and allowed to harden, the moisture is sealed in, further enhancing the cooling effect. This is why African elephants—which live in a hotter, drier climate—are usually more wrinkled than their Asian cousins, and also tend to be a lot muddier.

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 
Elephants Without Borders
Save the Elephants


  1. Thank you so much for this info. It really helps me :)

    1. I'm so glad! Thanks for letting me know it was helpful. :)