Thursday, 15 March 2012

Elephant No. 165: Magic Markers

I suppose I should be calling today's activity "markers" or "felt-tip pens", but they were magic markers when I was a child, so magic markers it is. Besides, magic markers sounds like more fun that felt-tip pens.

Magic markers actually began life as a brand invented by Sidney Rosenthal in 1952. The first Magic Markers consisted of a glass bottle with a felt wick or tip, and were "magic" because they were able to write on almost any surface. In 1989, the Magic Marker name was bought by Binney & Smith—the company that makes everything Crayola®. 

Early Magic Markers.

Markers—also known as marker pens, marking pens, felt-tip pens and flow pens—are pens with their own ink source and a tip made of porous, pressed fibres such as nylon or felt. In some countries, "magic markers" are the felt-tip pens used for drawing, art and education, and come in lots of colours, while felt-tip pens with permanent ink are known simply as "markers".

The first felt-tip pen was patented in 1910 by Lee Newman. By the 1940s, other felt-tip pens were commercially available, albeit with ink that didn't always work on non-porous surfaces. Sidney Rosenthal's Magic Markers changed perception of felt-tip pens as a viable drawing tool, and by 1958, the use of markers had become commonplace, used for everything from drawing cartoons to marking laundry.  

Today, felt-tip pens are still widely available, in both permanent and washable inks. The glass bottle is long gone, and has been replaced with a plastic or metal tube containing ink, and a pressed-fibre wick that absorbs ink and draws it into the tip. 

Cutaway of permanent marker.

Markers are now made for everything from the high-end art market, as in the Faber-Castell brand of Pitt Artist Pens, to inexpensive sets of markers made for children, to permanent markers and highlighters for office use. In addition, new types of markers have entered the market, including "rollerball" pens with permanent and washable ink, pens containing gel-based ink, dry-erase markers, markers for writing on glass, markers with tiny self-inking rubber stamps, and even markers that create gluey lines of colour.

For today's elephant, I pulled out all the felt-tip coloured markers I had. I deliberately left out the gel pens and roller balls, because I wanted the more painterly effect of felt-tip pens. The ones I had were mostly Crayola-brand "IQ Sketching" felt pens.

I decided to use as many colours as possible, and to draw from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

Elephants at Addo National Park, South Africa.
Photo: © Diane Morrison

I started by making a light pencil sketch. I thought briefly about not making a sketch, but decided that it would be better to have some pencil lines to guide my first marker daubs.

I started with a purple marker, laying in the darkest shadows.

I added green next, still being fairly timid about where the lines should go.

Yellow came next, followed by fuschia.

I was feeling a little bolder now, so I added a few more colours, including fluorescent yellow highlighter to make some of the lighter areas pop. I wasn't sure if this was a good idea, but I figured it would be okay, as long as I didn't go crazy with highlighters.

After this, I just kept adding colours wherever I thought they were needed. I toyed with the idea of filling in the whole thing, then decided that it would be better to leave some areas white and not overwork the drawing.

It was fun to use non-elephant colours, and it was interesting to try matching the tonal values of my markers to the colours in the photograph. It took me about an hour to produce this, and was a lot easier than I expected it to be.

I don't usually gravitate towards markers as a drawing medium, but I quite enjoyed this exercise, and will definitely try it again sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Since my markers are magic, I thought it might be interesting to look at the role of elephants in magic.

The most famous elephant-related illusion involves making an elephant disappear. Harry Houdini was the first to perform this trick when he presented The Vanishing Elephant at New York's Hippodrome Theater on January 7, 1918. The Hippodrome featured the world's largest stage at the time, along with a troupe of trained elephants.

The illusion involved a huge cabinet, an elephant, and a team of twelve men. Houdini began by showing all parts of the cabinet to the audience, then opened the door and had the elephant, named Jennie, walk inside. Once the elephant was in the cabinet, the doors and curtains were closed. The cabinet was turned around by the twelve men, to show it from all sides. When the cabinet came to a halt and was opened up again, the elephant had vanished.

Audiences were awestruck. Where had the elephant gone? In fact, the elephant had never left the cabinet. Although Houdini described the cabinet as "eight feet by eight feet" (2.4 metres by 2.4 metres), it was in fact much larger; it only appeared small on the cavernous stage. Inside the cabinet, Jennie's trainer had simply moved her to one side of the cabinet. A black interior curtain was then pulled into place, hiding the elephant. Cutouts in the front and back of the cabinet, along with a cunningly placed mirror and clever lighting, made it seem as though the six-tonne Jennie had disappeared.

Interestingly, Houdini didn't invent the illusion himself. Credit for the trick actually goes to Yorkshireman Charles Morritt, an illusionist and hypnotist who worked with Houdini, and sold him some of his greatest tricks. One of these was The Disappearing Donkey. In this trick, Morritt ushered an uncooperative donkey into a specially designed chamber on wheels, and made the donkey vanish.

This particular trick brought Morritt to Houdini's attention. Houdini had already made a name for himself as an escapologist, but was looking to become a magician. Morritt was never the most scintillating of showmen and, lacking money, sold the secrets of his best tricks to Houdini, including The Disappearing Donkey.

The story goes that, while Houdini was performing illusions to increasing audiences, Morritt spent the First World War touring the provinces. Appearing one night in Houdini's dressing room, Morritt flippantly commented, "If you really want to make headlines with your magic, you shouldn't bother with little tricks like rabbits and pigeons. Make an elephant disappear."

Houdini replied that, even if the equipment could be built, having an elephant onstage would be highly impractical. Morritt said that he had a very efficient way of doing it, and described the illusion as eventually performed by Houdini.

Although The Vanishing Elephant was never Houdini's best trick—most of the audience couldn't really see what was going on, and Houdini was apparently a rather clumsy performer—it made Houdini's name as a magician. Morritt was virtually forgotten, and died in poverty and ill health at the age of 58.

Artist's rendition of The Vanishing Elephant trick.