Sunday, 26 February 2012

Elephant No. 147: Watercolour Wax Resist

I was looking at some grade-school art lessons today, and came across this technique, which seemed like just the thing for today's elephant.

Wax resist for watercolour works on the simple principle that wax and water don't mix. While you can overcome this to a certain extent by adding multiple layers of thick watercolour over a waxy or oily base as I did in my sgraffito experiment, the essential idea is that wax crayon or oil pastel will keep your watercolours from fully overpainting those areas.

Because the watercolour paint laps at the edges of the crayon or oil pastel, it can result in some very interesting effects, and can be as simple or as complicated as you like:

This one is from an art lesson for third-graders (age 8):

Outerspace watercolour resist drawing from a Grade 3 class, using oil pastels and
watercolour paint.

This one is by British artist Ingrid Sylvestre, and uses colourless wax for the resist:

Moon by the Birches by Ingrid Sylvestre, using colourless wax as a watercolour resist.

And this one, from an excellent tutorial on the technique uses a combination of coloured wax crayons and colourless wax resist:

Watercolour painting with wax crayon and colourless wax resist by
Gregory Conley.

I've only ever tried wax resist in a fabric-related context for things like batik, so I wasn't sure quite what to expect with paper. I started by drawing an elephant with oil pastels on a mid-priced sheet of watercolour paper, but the moment I painted over it, it basically disappeared.

I decided to switch to crayons, but my first attempt in crayons was also a bit of a bust. I began to realize a couple of things from these first two attempts. Firstly, I needed to apply the wax or oil pastel more forcefully, so that the paint couldn't seep in and around it. Secondly, I needed to remove some of the paint on the figural part of the piece afterwards, so that it didn't turn all murky. This is because, after the first light coat of paint, you will have deposited a thin layer of watercolour paint on top of the wax. This allows the next layer of paint to bond to that, obscuring the wax beneath.

For my third attempt, I used pink, mauve, and pale green crayons, and used a very heavy hand.

I first painted over it with a wash of orange—which looked hideous, and which I forgot to photograph in my horror—then overlaid that with a wash of black.

Next, I started removing paint from the elephant part of the painting. I had tried removing paint from my first two pieces with paper towels, but paper towels remove too much of the paint. This time, I used a wet paintbrush, gently drawing it across the wax parts of the painting. Each time I did this, I wiped the brush on a paper towel, wet the brush again, and removed more paint.

I was a lot happier with this method. You can remove as much or as little of the paint as you like, and can follow the original lines of the crayon underlay with your brushstrokes. This gives the final piece a painterly quality that I really liked. I left some of the bits where the black paint had resisted the wax, and played with the edges of the elephant to give it some dimension and texture.

If you decide to try this, here are a few tips:

1. A lighter colour of crayon is best if you plan to do a dark wash.

2. Use the crayon hard enough to create a waxy sheen.

3. If you want to produce something with a painterly quality, think of the crayon as an underlay, and think of using the watercolour as an additional medium that works with the wax layer, rather than solely as a resist.

After my first two attempts, I didn't think I was going to be able to produce anything worthwhile with this technique, but once I figured it out, the final piece took me only about half an hour from start to finish, so it's not a time-consuming activity. Despite my early misgivings, I'm very happy with the final result, and will definitely use this technique again sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
A great deal has been said about paintings produced by elephants, one of the criticisms being that the activity is largely guided by a mahout, or keeper. While this is certainly true of most paintings produced by elephants, it doesn't necessarily follow that the activity is inhumane.

In Thailand's elephant sanctuaries, where elephant painting is most prevalent, training is usually a cooperative and positive experience for both mahout and elephant. More to the point, the sale of paintings produced by elephants provides much-needed financial support to the sanctuaries themselves. At the first auction of elephant paintings some years ago, more than $75,000 was raised to support a number of Thailand's elephant sanctuaries.

Due to Thailand's ban on hardwood logging more than twenty years ago, as well as destruction of national habitat, the country's elephants have fallen on hard times. Not only have their numbers declined from tens of thousands to only a few thousand, but many of the remaining elephants suffer considerably from abuse and neglect. Some beg from tourists in the cities; others work in travelling circuses; and some work in black-labour industries such as illegal logging.

Given these alternatives, perhaps teaching an elephant to paint is not so bad after all.

Elephant's World (Thailand)

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