Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Elephant No. 136: Coloured Pencils

Today is a busy day, so I thought I'd work with a medium I've at least tried before: coloured pencils. This doesn't mean that I'm any kind of expert, but at least it was something that I didn't have to learn from scratch.

The word pencil is derived from the Old French word pincel, describing a small paintbrush—a word which was in turn derived from the Latin penicillus meaning "little tail". The first pencils contained graphite, which was discovered sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century in the parish of Borrowdale, England. This particular deposit was very pure, and solid enough to be sawn into sticks. Long before it was thought of as an art material, graphite was extensively used by farmers to mark their sheep.

Because of the way it looked and handled, graphite was originally thought to be a form of lead, and was given the name plumbago, meaning "lead ore". Although graphite does not contain actual lead, the name has stuck with it when referring to the core of pencils. Interestingly, the words for pencil in languages such as Arabic (قلم رصاص qalam ruṣāṣ), German (bleistift) and Irish Gaelic (peann luaidhe) literally translate to "lead pen".

Because of graphite's importance in lining the moulds for cannonballs, the English government took over the Borrowdale mines, guarding them heavily. When the Crown had accumulated enough graphite for its purposes, the mines were flooded until the material was needed again. Although there were other known deposits of graphite at the time, the quality of these was far inferior to Borrowdale graphite, and smuggling of Borrowdale graphite for use in drawing was not unknown.

Because graphite is soft, it needs to be wrapped in something. Graphite sticks were initially wrapped in sheepskin or string, and knowledge of graphite drawing materials soon spread, attracting the attention of artists all over Europe. For many decades, English graphite was considered the only graphite suitable for drawing, giving England a relative monopoly on the production of graphite pencils and sticks. 

The first pencils made with reconstituted graphite powder were produced in Nuremburg, Germany in 1662, using a mixture of antimony, sulphur, and of course graphite. The first wood-encased pencils were likely made in Italy during the eighteenth century, and involved hollowing out a stick of juniper, into which graphite was then inserted. Not long after this initial attempt, the wood was halved, then hollowed, before graphite was added and the whole thing glued back together. 

This is essentially how pencils are still made today, although the array of drawing media contained in pencils is vast. Pencils can contain chalky materials such as pastels, waxy materials such as those contained in grease pencils, and of course graphite. 

The leads in coloured pencils are made primarily of a waxy binder containing pigment and various fillers. Although coloured pencils were originally aimed at the educational market, high-end coloured pencils have always been available for artists as well, spawning an entire art practice, complete with guilds, associations and exhibitions.

Little Bumblebee by Maria Hathaway Spencer.

Although it's not like I've never had a coloured pencil in my hand, for today's elephant I was a bit intimidated. I've only ever used coloured pencils to, well, colour things in. The notion of producing something moderately artistic with coloured pencils was actually kind of daunting.

I've had this set of coloured pencils since I was in high school, which I suppose tells you how much I use them. Only a couple of pencils are short from being sharpened a lot. It's a reasonably good set—probably not as good as some of the softer, more blendable premium versions, but I've usually been pretty happy with the results. Then again, what do I know about coloured pencils and art?

For today's elephant, I chose the photograph below, hoping to produce something fairly realistic. I probably should have picked something more colourful to make it easier, but I kind of liked the subtle greys and the almost velvety texture of the elephant's skin.

Foot of Asian elephant, India.

I started by sketching a faint outline in pencil. It's so timid that it barely shows.

Next, I darkened a few lines. I don't know what's wrong with me, but it seems that I can never bring myself to be terribly bold when it comes to producing something realistic.

After this, I got a bit carried away—not in terms of darkening things, but just in losing track of time. I forgot to photograph much of my progress, but this is about two-thirds finished.

It was interesting to look for some of the oddball colours in the photograph, which are often anything but grey. There's some blue, some yellow, some fleshtones, some brown, and even a hint of reddish-purple. It suddenly occurred to me that I could have completely ignored the grey and used nothing but weird colours. Oh well, next time.

These are the final colours I ended up using. 

In addition to looking for odd colours, I also enjoyed looking for fine details, although I couldn't quite get the textures right. And the intricacy of the anklet was beyond me, although I gave it a reasonable try.

I'm pretty happy with the final elephant foot, which took me a little over an hour. I would have liked to have had the moxie to make it really dark, but this works for me at this stage in my coloured-pencil odyssey. Well, odyssey in that it's more than colouring in something I've drawn. But we won't expect any fine art just yet.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Many people have marvelled at the way a fully-grown elephant will remain tied to a small stake in the ground, despite the fact that it could easily pull free. This is because of the way elephants are trained in many parts of the world.  

When they are small, baby elephants are chained by the leg to stakes strong enough to hold them. At first, they will try very hard to escape. Discovering that it is impossible to get away, the elephants eventually give up, assuming they can never break free as long as one of their legs is chained to something. This allows them to be tied to very small stakes as adults, with no thought of flight. 

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

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