Thursday, 19 April 2012

Elephant No. 200: Décalcomanie

There are a number of different versions of décalcomanie—also called "decalcomania"—but today I decided to try the Surrealist version.

In its original form, décalcomanie was a process involving the transfer of pre-printed material to pottery and other surfaces, such as railway cars, carriages, furniture and so forth. It was invented in England by French engraver Simon François Ravenet around 1750, and quickly caught on. As a transfer technique, its appeal lay largely in the fact that it obviated the need for laborious hand-painting. Its greatest use was in the production of pottery, and most decorated china today still involves a transfer process.

The word décalcomanie was coined from the French word décalquer: the name given by Ravenet to his process. In the United States, it was given the name "decalcomania", which was eventually shortened, of course, to "decal".

Interestingly, one of the more unusual words in the English language derives from "decalcomania". In the 1950s and early 1960s, King Features Syndicate sold a set of decalcomanias featuring images from comic strips such as Blondie and Flash Gordon. Because these were intended for children who might find it hard to pronounce "decalcomania", they were marketed as "cockamamies". The word "cockamamie" has since entered the language as a slang word meaning something that is unusual, strange or vaguely wacky.

Flintstones cockamamies, which were dampened then applied to skin
as a sort of tattoo.

A version of décalcomanie was adopted by the Surrealists, beginning with artist Óscar Domínguez in 1936. Domínguez originally used black gouache, spread thinly on paper or glass, then applied to canvas or another support. Other Surrealist artists, such as Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer and Remedios Varo also used the technique. One of the more popular variations on the original technique involved spreading thick paint on a canvas, laying foil or paper over the surface to remove or manipulate the paint, then removing the foil or paper. Whatever remained on the canvas was what you had to work with.

Untitled, 1936–1937
Óscar Domínguez (1906–1957)
The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection, MOMA, New York

For today's elephant, I decided to try the original Surrealist version, by spreading paint on glass, then placing paper over the top to see what transferred. I decided to start with black, as Domínguez did, deciding that I would try colour if the first attempt went well enough.

Of course I just happen to have a few cakes of good-quality poster paint, or gouache, in various colours, so I began with those, keeping my acrylics close by, just in case.

For my paint surface, I used a sheet of glass, and for my support, I used inexpensive sketchpad paper.

I started by painting an elephant shape on the glass with the black gouache. Since this is an Elephant a Day, and not an Indiscernible Blob a Day, I tried to make a reasonable-looking elephant, because I figured the paint would spread. I glopped on the paint fairly thickly, but gouache isn't really a full-bodied paint, and it dries fast.

I had the forethought to have paper ready, so I laid it on top of the glass quickly, and peeled it back to make the print below.

I noticed two things with this first print: it doesn't print everywhere, and the paint spreads—although not as much as I'd expected.

I decided to try another one with black gouache, this time using a little less paint.

The printing of this was pretty faint, but I was kind of interested in the pattern made by the paint left behind on the glass.

I decided to try one more with gouache, this time in blue.

I decided to try acrylic paint next, to see if I would get a thicker imprint. I started with purple.

I liked the saturation better with acrylic. It also makes a different kind of paint pattern than the gouache, as you can see in the two photographs below. The blue is thick gouache; the purple is thick acrylic.

I tried a few more acrylic colours after this. First came green.

Then red.

Then black.

And one more in black to finish up.

This was very easy, and didn't take long at all. The most time-consuming part was rinsing and drying the sheet of glass in between each print. You have to work relatively quickly with this technique, because both types of paint dry within minutes, making it more difficult to get a good print if you wait. The paint spread less than I expected, but this may also have been a function of my being careful not to smush the paper around.

I'm still quite taken with the glass versions—almost more than the paper prints—so I may try this again, just to get the glass impressions.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In early 2011, researchers decided to test the intelligence and problem-solving capacity of elephants, as well as their ability to cooperate.

The test was relatively straightforward. Based on a 1930s experiment used with primates, Joshua Plotnik and a team of colleagues set up a sliding table holding bowls of corn. The table was located on the opposite side of a volleyball net from a pair of elephants, and rope was tied around the table legs in such a way that the table would only move if two elephants worked in tandem, pulling on two separate rope ends at the same time.

Twelve male and female elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, Thailand took part in the test. Approaching the table one at a time in separate roped-off lanes, the elephants learned very quickly that the task could not be completed by an elephant working alone. The elephants would wait as long as 45 seconds for a partner elephant to arrive. If the researchers didn't release the second elephant right away, the first one usually looked around, as though to say, "It takes two to get the corn, buddy."

Two elephants engaged in the corn-and-table experiment, Lampang, Thailand.
Photo: Joshua Plotnik

In most cases, the elephants figured out how to work together in order to pull the table forward and get the corn. There were even a couple of elephants who managed to outsmart the researchers—and sometimes even other elephants. The youngest elephant in the study, Neua Un, used her foot to hold the rope so that her partner had to do all the work. She appeared to figure this trick out by chance, but once she had learned it, she stuck to it. Another elephant, named JoJo, refused to even walk up to the volleyball net and table unless his partner Wanalee was released at the same time, having seemingly learned that there was no point trying to get the corn on his own.

Animal experts have applauded the research and the window it provides into the psyche of what one source calls "this socially sophisticated species." Although many other animals engage in teamwork, elephants seem to have a deeper understanding of cooperation and mutual benefit—as well as how to avoid unnecessary labour.

To see a video of the test in action, click here.

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