Saturday, 7 April 2012

Elephant No. 188: Grattage

I was going to do something with eggs again today, then decided that I'd rather be a Surrealist instead.

Grattage—from the French gratter, "to scratch or scrape"—was invented around 1925 by the Surrealists Max Ernst and Joan Miró, although Ernst seems to have been the more enthusiastic practitioner of the two. Many sources suggest that grattage involves scraping away dry paint; however, that is sgraffito rather than grattage.

In most, if not all, of his grattage works, Ernst scratched through wet paint, rather than dry. His favourite method involved placing textured objects under the canvas, trowelling on paint, then scraping over the textured object while the paint was still wet. To Ernst, grattage was the painting equivalent of frottage, which also involved using an art medium over textured objects.

So, to clear up the confusion: sgraffito involves scratching away dry paint; grattage involves scratching away wet paint, often over a textured object.

La Horde ("The Horde"), 1927
Max Ernst (1891–1976)
Private Collection—Courtesy Malingue SA @ADAGP Paris 2008

The technique is relatively simple: paint an underlayer (or not); let it dry (or don't); paint a top coat (or two); scratch away or otherwise move the paint around using a sharp tool. For today's elephant, rather than use Ernst's textured-object technique, I decided on the more simple version of grattage: some kind of base colour or colours, with a thicker wet layer on top, scratched through while wet.

Forêt et colombe ("Forest and Dove"), 1927
Max Ernst (1891–1976)
Collection of the Tate Gallery, London, England

I started by preparing two small canvas boards with some base colours I liked, using acrylic paint. This will ultimately be the main pictorial layer, so the colours were important, but there was no real need to create shapes or shading. The shape will be created when I scrape off the upper layer.

I let the undercoats dry until they were dry to the touch, but not bone dry.

For the top coat on the first one, I used a mixture of blue, white and purple, thinking to emulate the blue of some of Max Ernst's grattage works. Since acrylic paint dries much faster than oil, I made the paint relatively thick. I figured this would also allow me to create some texture if I felt like it.

For grattage tools, I pulled out some plastic palette knives I got somewhere, a metal palette knife, some toothpicks and a paring knife. Ultimately I only used the metal palette knife.

I began working while the paint was still very wet, as you can see below. I'd never tried this before, so I was fairly tentative with my first scrapings. I discovered right away that the palette knife isn't the best tool if you want to remove a lot of paint quickly. I wasn't sure at first how I felt about this.

The method that I found worked best for me was scraping away some paint, wiping the palette knife, scraping away more, wiping the knife again, and so forth. Along the way, I realized that I liked the fact that I wasn't removing all the paint. I also learned that I could move the paint around a bit if I didn't like a line I'd scraped. This has its limitations, however: although you can adjust lines a little, you can't completely fix a big mistake without painting over it again.

This was the first elephant while still wet.

And this is what it looked like when it dried.

For the next elephant, I took the canvas board I'd painted brown and laid down all three primary colours, and all three secondary colours, in a pattern I found pleasing.

Again, while this was still very wet, I scraped away paint to make an elephant head. With multiple colours, I also ended up moving colours around, and transferring colours from one area to another, but I didn't really mind that.

This is what it looked like while still wet.

And this is what it looked like when it dried.

This was very easy, if a bit messy. It was also very quick. Beyond the time it took to wait for the undercoat to dry enough to paint over it, I think each of these took me about 20 minutes, from slopping on paint, to final piece.

I don't know if a proper work of grattage requires that the whole object be scraped away, but I rather liked the abstract, almost woodcut look of these. Next time I try this, however, I may use other tools, including fingers and perhaps rags to wipe away more paint. But for now, I'm pretty happy with the way these turned out.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In a previous post, I mentioned that elephants have been known to make their own custom flyswatters from branches. While researching that post, I came across an even more clever use of tools.

At the Elephant Nature Park, a refuge in northern Thailand, the female Asian elephant Mae Perm astonished park staff by making her own scratching tool. No one had ever shown her how to do this; nor had anyone given her the piece of bamboo she used. Elephants, however, are very observant, and will often learn by watching humans, one another and other animals.

Even more interesting was the intelligence Mae Perm demonstrated in adapting the stick for multiple uses. Once she had finished scratching her sides, she carefully placed the piece of bamboo on the ground. Gently stepping on the stick, she broke it to the perfect length for scratching her foot, as can be seen in the video below.

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