Saturday, 31 March 2012

Elephant No. 181: Bonseki

I've been meaning to try something with sand for awhile, so today I thought I'd try the Japanese art of bonseki.

Bonseki—literally "tray rocks"—is the ancient Japanese art of creating miniature landscapes on black lacquer trays using white sand, pebbles, and small rocks. The paintings are quite fine, requiring delicate tools such as feathers, sifters, tiny spoons, skewers and bits of wood. The trays are either rectangular or oval, and usually have a low rim.

Typical bonseki scenes feature mountains, gardens and the seashore, with small rocks representing land and rocky outcroppings. Sometimes small copper structures such as bridges, temples and houses are added to enhance the scene. Bonseki pictures are meant to be temporary, although the images are sometimes preserved as bonga ("tray picture") or suna-e ("sand picture").

Bonseki scene of Mount Fuji, Japan.

Bonseki is thought to have originated in the seventh century A.D., when Emperor Temmu is believed to have described natural features using bonseki techniques. Interestingly, some of Kyoto's gardens were likely planned and designed using bonseki as a temporary blueprint. By A.D. 1300, the aesthetic principles of bonseki had been described by the Japanese Zen monk Kokan Shiren in a prose poem, and by the end of the fifteenth century, bonseki had become popular among the nobility.

A century later, the first bonseki school was set up, followed by several more as the art gained in popularity, particularly among the well-born ladies of Tokyo. Following the end of the Edo Period in 1867, bonseki declined sharply as more emphasis was placed on embracing Western culture and modernity. In recent years, however, bonseki has been revived, and is now being taught again by new masters of this traditional art.

For today's elephant, I was going to use an unpainted wooden tray, then a piece of black bristol board, then I decided to use the black griddle I use for encaustic and the like. It's more or less tray shaped, and it's black: two conditions neither of the other options really met. Obviously, I didn't turn it on.

For sand and rocks, I had these two jars of purple ground-up dyed quartz. One was somewhat like coarse sugar; the other was like fine gravel. Why purple? Because I like purple, and because the other colours they had were hideous.

I had no idea what I was doing, so I started by scooping out a tiny amount of sand and pouring it on the griddle in a vague elephant shape. I then pushed it around with a feather. Fingers are too clumsy, and a skewer is too pointy; but a feather is perfect because it's delicate enough to be fairly precise, and firm enough to move the sand.

While I didn't mind the abstract brushstroke look of this, most bonseki seems to use relatively solid shapes, so I decided to be bold and pour on a lot of sand. I used a tiny measuring spoon for this, however, and added the sand in stages, pushing it around with the feather before adding more. This photograph below show what the elephant looked like when I was more or less finished with it.

Next, since bonseki is essentially a landscape art, I figured I'd better add some landscape elements. Fair warning: I'm not good at landscapes at the best of times. My trees always look weird, and anytime I try to draw or paint rocks, grasses or the ground, I might as well be drawing the worst theatrical backdrops you've ever seen.

I started by pouring on small amounts of gravel for a tree, the ground and a few rocks.

To flesh out the landscape elements, I added more sand in what I felt were strategic places. I poured the sand on gingerly with a small measuring spoon again, then pushed it around with the feather. I also used my fingers a bit for this part, since less precision was required here.

The whole thing took me a little over an hour, and it was a quiet, meditative sort of activity. I see, however, why people go to school to learn how to do this. The main thing, I guess, is that, if you're going to produce something that relies on landscape elements, you should actually be good at landscapes. I should also maybe have had finer sand to get the true bonseki feel, and the sand should probably have been white.

It's not the best thing I've ever done, but I didn't mind doing it at all. It would be interesting to try something like this with more sizes of sand and stones. I also think this might be interesting to try with coloured sugar and candies on a cake. Then again, maybe I'll just leave all things bonseki to the experts.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In August 2007, The Guardian newspaper reported on the elopement of a female circus elephant named Savitri with a wild bull elephant. The wild elephant broke down a gate and led Savitri off into the jungle, much to the dismay of her keeper, who had raised Savitri from a calf.

The wild male had turned up at the circus when it stopped at a village in India's West Bengal state. It broke into a temporary enclosure and led Savitri into the jungle, trailed by three other female elephants from the same pen. The trumpeting of the latter alerted circus workers, who successfully led them back.

Except for Savitri. All attempts to lure her away from her new love proved ineffectual. Her mind was clearly made up. According to one forestry official, she was last seen bathing with the bull in a jungle pond. When handlers called for Savitri to come, she looped her trunk around the bull's leg, and he protectively shielded her with his body.

In the wild, mating pairs of elephants will often separate from the herd for a week or so. In this case, forestry officials said they would continue to monitor the pair to ensure that they didn't cause too much damage, but it is not known whether Savitri ever returned to the circus.

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
International Elephant Foundation Elephant's World (Thailand) 
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Elephant Nature Park (Thailand) 

Friday, 30 March 2012

Elephant No. 180: Polymer Clay Button

When I was out for lunch today with my best friend, she suggested that I try making polymer clay buttons for today's elephant. We've often admired distinctive polymer clay buttons on high-end knitwear at craft fairs, so it seemed like an excellent idea.

Polymer clay is a sculpture material with a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) base. It generally contains no mineral clay, and is only called "clay" because it has a similar texture and plasticity to earth-based clays. Occasionally, small amounts of kaolin or white china clay are added to make the material more opaque, and mica is sometimes added to clays with a pearlescent or metallic look.

Polymer clay is closely related to Bakelite, an early hard plastic. The first polymer clays were actually uncured Bakelite, and kits containing the material were available to designers. Unfortunately, the phenol base in uncured Bakelite was highly flammable, and the kits were discontinued.

Modern polymer clays are based on a plastic modelling material that came to the attention of a German dollmaker named Kaethe Kruse in 1939. Plastics for such frivolous purposes as dollmaking had become hard to get during the early days of the Second World War, and polymer clay was touted as a possible replacement. The material wasn't suitable for use in the doll factory, so Kruse gave it to her daughter Sophie, whose nickname was Fifi. The formula was later sold to the company Eberhard Faber—a manufacturer of art and drawing supplies—which marketed it under the name FIMO for "FIfi's MOdelling Compound"). Today, one of the world's most popular brands of polymer clay is still sold under that name.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in the United States, the Zenith Products Company of Illinois was making coatings for the fastener industry, including waxes, varnishes and hot-melt glues. Their brand of polymer clay, called "Sculpey" started out life as a thermal transfer material, designed to draw heat away from electrical transformers. Although it proved ineffective for this purpose, a visitor to the factory in the mid-1960s happened upon the material and made a small figure. The figure was baked in a lab testing oven, and Sculpey was born. Sculpey is also still sold today under the same name.

Polymer clay jewellery by Chris Kapono/Mandarin Moon.

Today, polymer clay is a highly popular artistic medium, used to make jewellery, figures, vessels and more. Polymer clay art jewellery can also be found in the permanent collections of numerous museums of design and fine arts. 

I've used polymer clay before, although it's been awhile. I like its mouldability very much, but I'm not always keen on the fact that it's essentially a plastic. In the past, I've made small figures, but I'd never tried a button.

For today's elephant, I pulled out a small container of polymer clay that I've had for about a decade. Some of it is still in its package, as you can see. I also have bits of various other colours that I've blended—because one of the very nice things about polymer clay is that you can generally resuscitate it, no matter how old it is. The older and harder it is, the longer you'll have to knead it, but it's possible.

I happened to have a piece of grey in my box of tricks that I think I actually blended from black and white at one point. Since it was somewhat hard, it took an inordinate amount of time to knead to a workable consistency. The heat of your hands and the action of smushing it around are what help it to soften.

Once it was soft enough to use, I flattened it between a folded-over piece of waxed paper with a marble rolling pin. You don't need a marble rolling pin or waxed paper, but I didn't want it to stick to the rolling pin, and I wanted the heaviness of this particular rolling pin. When I was finished, it was about 0.3 cm (1/8 inch) thick, which seemed about right for the kind of button I had in mind.

I lightly scribed a design with a bamboo skewer.

When that looked okay to me, I cut it out with a pair of sharp, thin-bladed embroidery scissors. You can use a knife for this, but a knife will tend to do one of two things: drag the edge and create little tears, or compress the edge in a way that may not be aesthetically pleasing to you. It wasn't aesthetically pleasing to me, anyway.

Once it was cut out, I smoothed the edges with the tip of the bamboo skewer. To emphasize the interior lines, I gently drew the point of the skewer along the lines at a 45˚ angle. The angle helps keep the line smooth because it doesn't drag through the material as much as a 90˚ angle might. As you can see in the photographs, I wasn't completely successful in avoiding fine cracks, but they don't show except in the cruel light of extreme closeup. If the clay had been a bit fresher, this probably wouldn't have happened. You can also see a few fingerprints in the larger areas, but these will usually disappear when the piece is baked.
To finish, I poked two holes with a small finishing nail, and made a small channel between them to hold the thread when I sew this onto something. One helpful tip: choose a spot for the threading holes that's already more or less a part of the general design of your button. In mine, for example, I put one of the holes in an area I had already delineated for the line between head and ear.

The final step involves baking this in a regular oven at 135˚C (275˚F) for about 12 minutes for this particular thickness. When it's baked, it feels a bit like ceramic, and is fairly rigid.

When I was making this, I tried to think of whether or not the shape would fit through any kind of normal buttonhole. At first I wasn't sure it would—at least, I wasn't sure it would fit through some kind of buttonhole slit and still keep something fastened—but it actually works. And even if it didn't, it could at least be stitched to something as a decoration of some sort.

The hardest part of this activity was kneading the elderly clay I chose to use, but I really like the way it turned out. If I'd had more time today, I might have been inclined to add some colour; but for now, I'm pretty happy with this. In fact, now that I know I can make decorative buttons, I may be making a few more. Just not today.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants have often been used in publicity stunts, but rarely in their own cause. That changed in 2009, following the birth of a baby panda at the Chiang Mai Zoo in Bangkok, Thailand.

Although the elephant is Thailand's national symbol, following the birth of the baby panda, the entire country went panda-crazy, and the elephants were ignored. Sick of all the fuss over a single panda cub, the keepers of the Ayutthya Elephant Kraal painted their five elephants as pandas and paraded them before large numbers of schoolchildren and their families.

Panda-painted elephants on parade, Bangkok, Thailand, June 2009.
Photo: © Reuters

Some members of the public groused to the Bangkok Post that the elephant-keepers had gone too far. Others, however, applauded the action, suggesting that in the middle of all the, er, panda-monium, a little reminder of the country's national symbol was not such a bad idea.

Painted with white water-based paint and red writing on their sides that jokingly said "Panda" in English and Thai, the elephants marched up and down for a short time before returning to their enclosure for a bath and a snack.

Panda-painted elephants in their enclosure, Bangkok, Thailand, June 2009.
Photo: © Reuters

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Elephant No. 179: Tissue Paper Tufts

I think the last time I tried this was in Grade 6, when I made an elf or something using a similar technique. I needed something easy for today's elephant, so here we go.

I've covered tissue paper before, so I'll just dive right in to the activity itself.

I bought this kit a couple of months ago, thinking it would be something I could do quickly. It wasn't.

I decided I would only use the colours of tissue paper that came in the package, despite the fact that brown, orange, green and yellow aren't really elephant colours.

There were no instructions in the package, so these two little photographs were all I had to go on.

I thought there might a trick to rolling the squares of tissue paper into little cushiony things, but if there is, I couldn't figure it out. I essentially folded the corners towards the middle of the square, then sort of balled it up, then stuck it down with glue.

I could tell already that I wasn't going to have enough of any one colour to finish the elephant, so I decided to just do an elephant outline.

When I was finished with the elephant, I put a few orange tufts to define veins in the ear, a brown tuft for the eye, and a little flower.

I didn't mind this activity, although it took longer than I thought it would. It's a somewhat meditative exercise, so it's not all that irritating or fiddly. From start to finish, this took about an hour, mostly because of the time it takes to ball up the little squares of tissue paper. If I'd had more time and more of the brown tissue, I would have filled in the whole thing.

In real life, this actually looks rather interesting, and I like the texture. I can see myself using this technique again sometime, although probably more as an embellishment, rather than as the main medium.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Given the size of their brains, it would be surprising if elephants weren't among Nature's most clever creatures. In a monograph on elephant intelligence published by the Nature Institute, Craig Holdredge reported on one of the funnier tricks I've heard.

In Asia, many elephants have been belled as a way of warning people that they are in the vicinity. Many young elephants, however, have learned how to plug the bells around their necks with wedges of heavy mud or clay, so that the clappers cannot sound. This allows them to steal silently into groves of cultivated banana trees at night.

So quiet are the elephants that they can eat not only the bananas and leaves, but the entire tree—often right beside the hut in which the owner of the grove is sleeping—without waking the farmer or his family.

Elephant eating bananas at Elephant Nature Park,
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Photo: Justin Watt

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Elephant No. 178: Mass Drawing

Another busy work day, so I looked for something that wouldn't take a lot of time. Mass drawing is something I'd actually never heard of, despite taking a semester of drawing at university. Not only had I never heard of "mass drawing", but it's also something I'd never tried under some other name.

Mass drawing involves using tonal values of light and dark to create an image, without using outlines. In essence, you're drawing a form by building up blocks of light and dark.

Although there isn't a great deal of online information on mass drawing, the concept is relatively simple. Taking a piece of paper with a bit of tooth, and something like Conté crayons or other dry pastels, you use a sort of circular motion to create a dimensional drawing. 
According to the best source I found on mass drawing, the drawings of Georges Seurat are excellent examples of this particular technique. Given that Seurat went on to create pointillism, which also involves blocks of shading, his excellence at mass drawing is perhaps not surprising. 

The Echo (study for Baignade), 1893
Georges Seurat (1859–1891)
Conté crayon on paper
Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

The instructions I've seen suggest that it's best to use a three-dimensional form for this exercise. Not having access to an actual elephant, and not being keen on drawing a toy or plastic elephant today, I decided I'd work from a photograph instead. This is the first photograph I chose:

Asian elephant.

I used my set of many-coloured Conté crayons for this, and an inexpensive sketchbook paper with a bit of tooth.

Because you use the side of the Conté crayon, it's a good idea to break off a smaller piece. I started by more or less doing as the instructions said, making soft circles until I had the shape fleshed out.

After this, I simply went back and, still using the side of the Conté crayon, added some shadows and enlarged the elephant in various places.

Since this one went well, I decided to try another. This is the second photograph I chose:

Charging African elephant, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Photo: Tony Heald

I started the same way for the second drawing.

And finished the same way, by adding extra shading and so forth.

I quite enjoyed this activity. It's very difficult not to add outlines, but it's an interesting exercise, and it forces you to look at blocks of light and dark in a new way. I also thought the final results were rather pretty, and might even frame one of these.

Elephant Lore of the Day
I avoided science after basic high-school physics, so today's elephant lore was a bit of a mind-bender for me—although probably completely logical to most everyone else. 

Although an elephant has a much greater mass than a feather, if both were dropped off a building at the same time, and—here's the important part—there was no air resistance, both would hit the ground at the same time. This sounded completely illogical to me when I first read it, but once you understand the scientific principle behind it, it makes perfect sense.

The reason both would hit the ground at the same time, if there were no air resistance, has to do with the law of acceleration. This law states that the acceleration of an object is directly related to the net force (in this case, gravity), and inversely related to its mass. This means that, although a significant quantity of force comes into play, dragging the elephant downwards, the elephant's mass produces an equal resistance to that force. In a nutshell, although the elephant experiences, let's say, 100,000 times more force (gravity) than the feather, and should plummet to the ground faster, the elephant also has 100,000 times the mass, making the ratio 100,000:100,000—or one to one, just like the feather.  


Everything changes, of course, once air resistance is added to the equation. According to Newton, an object will accelerate if the forces acting upon it are not balanced. In addition, the amount of acceleration is directly proportional to the amount of force (in this case, gravity) acting on it. Falling objects initially accelerate, gaining speed because there is not enough counter-force to balance the downward pressure of gravity. As an object gains speed, however, it encounters an increasing amount of upward force from air resistance. Because of its mass, an elephant would have to accelerate for a lot longer than a feather in order to generate enough air resistance to balance the downward force of gravity. 

If you're still confused (and I wouldn't blame you), check out this helpful site, where I found the original elephant-feather explanation. 

Curious baby elephant with goslings.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Elephant No. 177: Birchbark Biting

I've been meaning to try this for awhile, but I've always found it a bit intimidating. However, spring is the traditional time to harvest bark for this First Peoples activity, so I figured I'd give it a try.

Several years ago, a close friend showed me a birchbark biting she had purchased in the early 1980s. At the time, the elderly woman who had made the biting was one of the last practitioners of what was then a dying art. Happily, interest in birchbark biting has revived considerably in recent years, with several people now producing elaborate bitings using traditional methods.

Birchbark biting involves, as the name suggests, perforating sheets of paper-thin bark with your teeth. The bark is first peeled in thin layers, then folded in various ways, before being bitten with the incisors. Originally practised among the Ojibwa, Cree and other Algonquian groups who used birchbark for everything from canoes and containers to shelters and scrolls, birchbark biting began as an informal design process: a way of experimenting with designs that might later be turned into quillwork or beadwork on clothing and containers. Women engaged in birchbark biting as a recreational activity, and as a form of friendly competition.

Traditional bark biting design by Sally McKenzie.

For a traditional birchbark bitings, the bark is often folded in four or more wedges of equal size. The most common designs were floral and geometric patterns, often with symbolic and religious significance, and often specific to the artist.

Elaborately folded (and very tiny) bark biting by Kelly Church.

Today, work by virtuoso birchbark artists like Angelique Merasty and Pat Bruderer has enlarged the repertoire considerably, to include representational figures such as animals, humans and insects. The technique has also changed slightly. Whereas bitings were originally more or less design sketches for other decorative work, today the bark is sometimes bitten all the way through to produce a sort of lace, or simply thinned enough to allow light to shine through. To see the process in action, click here.

Collection of bitings by Angelique Merasty.

I actually had some birchbark on hand, given to my by my mother from her birch trees a few years ago. The trees are sadly gone now, but they were much loved and cared for in their time.

These were the pieces of raw birchbark I had. The first thing I needed to do was peel the bark to a thickness that one source says should be "thinner than paper". Okey dokey, then.

Peeling the birchbark was quite difficult. It may have been because the pieces I had were a bit dry, although I seem to remember that it wasn't all that easy to peel a uniform sheet of birchbark when I was a kid, either.

I started by scoring one of the raw pieces, and peeled away a couple of largish pieces.

After this, it becomes a matter of meticulously peeling away the layers—rather like peeling the layers of an onion—until you have a single layer to work with. It should have a velvety feel, somewhat like chamois, and should be slightly thinner than bond paper, but thicker than tracing paper. One side will be darker than the other and, according to one older expert I saw online, you want to use the lighter side to bite.

I attempted biting a piece of paper last night before tucking into actual birchbark, just to be sure it wasn't an activity that was completely beyond me. To be honest, even on paper it's very difficult to make a design you can't see. You're essentially drawing a pointillist design with your eye teeth, working from sense memory alone.

To start, I folded the piece of bark in half. Most traditional bark biting involves at least four folds, but I figured two was about all I could handle.

Here are my first little bites. The bites lock the two layers together, which I found interesting—and helpful, because it keeps the bark from sliding around.

Taking my teeth away from the bark to see what I was doing was a big mistake at this stage. It's incredibly difficult to find your place again and to make a contiguous line. The two photographs below show what the final version of my first attempt looked like, both front and back.

For the next elephant, I decided I would hardly take my teeth off at all. This has its own challenges, because it's very difficult to go all the way around an elephant shape in one go. The birchbark also gets stuck on the corners of your mouth along the way. I see now why it's a good idea to have many folds.

This time, I tried a new trick for joining my lines. Holding my thumbnail at the precise point at which I wanted to restart biting, I tried to place my eye teeth over that exact spot. I discovered that this doesn't work, either.

The photograph below shows my second attempt. The radiating lines in the background are because I tried to draw an extra top line for the ear, and ended up floating a line directly above the centre of the elephant's head, using my clever thumbnail technique. I decided it looked stupid, so I made it look more stupid by adding more lines.

By elephant number 3, I was not really getting any better, but I had already peeled a couple of sheets of birchbark, so I tried another one, this time not folding it. Looks like he's either blowing bubbles or smoking a pipe.

I decided to try one more, then give up for the day. By this point, I had discovered that the thumbnail technique does work, but you have to place your teeth farther away from the thumb than you think. This seems to work a lot better, as you can see below, where most of the lines at least join up. More or less.

I didn't hate this activity by any means, but I would need a lot more practice to be any good at it. It's an art passed down through families for a reason. I did rediscover the beauty of birchbark—which I think we tend to take for granted around here—and I liked the thin layers. I will definitely try birchbark biting again sometime, but maybe next time I'll stick to little geometric designs, and leave pictorial work to the real virtuosi.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants dislike biting flies as much as we do. They also use fly swatters.

Although elephants use their trunks and tails to swish at pesky insects, researchers have discovered that elephants also make their own fly swatters. In July 1993, a paper presented by Benjamin and Lynette Hart at an Animal Behaviour Society conference reported on the clever toolmaking capabilities of elephants.

Studying a herd of 15 captive Asian elephants in Nepal, the Harts discovered that the elephants fashioned fly swatters out of anything they could grab with their trunks. Their materials included burlap, banana stalks and leafy branches. Not only did the elephants wield what they plucked; they also shortened the branches and trimmed off side stems to customize their tools.

Charles Darwin had observed elephants using makeshift fly swatters as early as 1871, as had others in isolated sightings over the years. The Harts' study, however, was the first to systematically document their use by elephants.

Elephant stripping bark from a branch, Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa.
Photo: © 2009 Scotch Macaskill