Sunday, 29 April 2012

Elephant No. 210: Printing with Plastic Wrap

I needed something simple today, so I thought I'd try printing with plastic wrap. I've never tried this before, and didn't even know if it was an actual technique, but I thought it might be interesting.

The material used in most early plastic wrap—saran, or polyvinylindene chloride (PVDC)—was discovered by accident in 1933. Ralph Wiley, a college student at Dow Chemical in Michigan, U.S.A., was tasked with cleaning the glassware used in developing a dry-cleaning solution. One of the beakers, however, wouldn't scrub clean, no matter what he tried. He dubbed the coating "eonite", after an indesctructible substance in the Little Orphan Annie comic strip.

Dow researchers analyzed the substance, and by 1939 Wiley's boss John Reilly and his team had developed a greasy, dark green film they called "Saran"—named for John Reilly's wife and daughter, Sarah and Ann. Virtually impermeable to water and oxygen, the original material was sprayed on fighter planes during the Second World War to prevent damage from sea spray, and used in automobile upholstery.

Saran plastic was once used in the automotive industry.

Following the Second World War, Dow got rid of Saran's green colour and unpleasant smell and developed a way of extruding the material into thin, flexible sheets. By 1949, an early form of Saran wrap was available for commercial use, followed by a food-grade product in 1953.

Interestingly, PVDC was also developed into ventilated insoles for tropical combat boots. The first PVDC insoles were used in 1942, and remained a staple of American military gear until the mid-1970s, when they were replaced by a form of urethane. The British Army, however, continues to use Saran insoles in its boots. Saran is also used to this day for high-quality doll hair, which is valued by collectors for its softness, shine, and ability to hold style and curl.

Today, plastic wrap is made either of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or LDPE (low-density polyethylene). The name "saran", although originally a trade name, is often used as a generic description. Similarly, plastic wrap is known in Australia by the generic "glad wrap", also originally a trade name. Other common names for the material in various parts of the world are "cling film", "cling wrap" and "food wrap".

As an art medium, plastic wrap is sometimes used to give textures to walls and other surfaces, by balling up plastic wrap, dipping it in paint and dabbing it across the surface. Another way of using plastic wrap appears to involve covering a surface with paint, placing a sheet of plastic wrap on top, then removing the plastic to create a random design. I decided to try something like the first option, using it to create a representational image rather than a simple textured background.

For today's elephant, I used a sheet of artist-quality bristol board, some acrylic paints, and a small piece of plastic wrap.

The method I chose was simple: wad up the plastic wrap, dab it into some paint, remove a bit of the paint by stamping it a couple of times into the palette, then print a design on paper.

I didn't bother drawing anything ahead of time, deciding I'd rather wing it and see what the technique produced on its own. The photograph below shows my first daubs with purple. It looks a little like sponge painting, but has a much softer edge.

After this, I added red:

Then I more or less forgot to photograph the process, but the two photographs below show what the palette and plastic looked like when I was finished with the first elephant. Because of the type of design I was creating, I didn't remove paint from the plastic before dipping it into another colour. To a certain extent, most of the paint comes off when you stamp it into the paper anyway.

And this is what the first elephant looked like when I was done:

This had only taken me about ten minutes, so I decided to make another one. I totally forgot to photograph the process for the second one, but the photographs below show some details of the paint. To create finer lines, as in the trunk, I used the side of my little wad of plastic.

I quite enjoyed the process, and I liked the effect much more than sponge-painting. Because the plastic wrap doesn't absorb the paint, the colours hit the paper in a more liquid state, and are more saturated as a result. It was also very easy—which is always good, particularly on a hectic day.

Elephant Lore of the Day
This slightly crazy—and very sad—story comes from the heyday of LSD experimentation on humans and animals. In 1962, three men at the University of Oklahoma decided to inject an Asian bull elephant with LSD, hoping to induce musth. Musth is a naturally occurring condition during which male elephants experience a spike in sex hormones, making them violent, aggressive and uncontrollable.

Tusko was a relatively small bull elephant weighing a mere 3.2 tonnes (7,000 lbs). Five minutes after he was shot in the right haunch with a massive 297-mg dose of LSD, Tusko trumpeted wildly, collapsed, and went into convulsions. Twenty minutes after the initial injection, the team administered thorazine in an attempt to help Tusko. Tusko remained in distress. An hour later, in a further attempt to revive Tusko, he was injected with pentobarbital sodium, this time directly into a vein. He died a short time later.

Following Tusko's death, controversy arose over the way in which the experiment had been conducted, as well as the very fact of attempting such an experiment in the first place. For one thing, the LSD dose was massive, based on the obviously mistaken assumption that an elephant would be resistant to the drug's effects. In fact, a more appropriate dose to induce an LSD "trip" in an elephant would have been 9 mg—which is nowhere near the 297 mg Tusko received. In addition, the weird cocktail of drugs administered to revive Tusko—which may have included others not recorded—had only made the poor creature's distress even worse.

The lead scientist in the experiement, 29-year-old Dr. Louis Jolyon "Jolly" West, was chairman of the Department of the University of Oklahoma at the time, and was known for his experiments with LSD. An unsubtantiated rumour suggested that he had ingested LSD himself shortly before injecting Tusko, and may have been under the influence the whole time. Even more bizarrely, West later issued a report advancing his "discovery" that LSD could be used as an effective means of culling of elephant herds in Africa.

West also used the notoriety surrounding the experiment as a means of ingratiating himself with the LSD subculture of the 1960s. Even as late as the 1990s, he was trading on his reputation as the man who had killed an elephant with LSD, joking about how the experiment had allowed him—a nerdy scientist with a crewcut—entrée into the world of hippie artists and psychedelia.

It was a strange experiment for a man who otherwise seems to have had a strong social conscience. West was active in the civil rights movement, and was the first white psychiatrist to testify for Black prisoners in South Africa during early attempts to end apartheid.

Little else is known about the unfortunate Tusko. Although he was billed as "the pride of the Oklahoma Zoo" at the time of the experiment, subjecting him to such an experiment seems highly risky for such a valuable animal.

Rama, a male Asian elephant at the Oregon Zoo.


  1. Hi Waseem. I think it would depend on the kind of paint you chose. Acrylic paint would print with this method on plastic, but the paint might eventually chip off.

    I would suggest lightly sanding the plastic you want to use, then use acrylic paint on it—with the method above, or any other method you like—then seal it with an acrylic spray or brush-on sealant. That should give you durable results.

    There are also some very helpful hints for painting on plastic here:

    Good luck—if you try this, I'd love to see a photo of your results!

  2. It removes many queries in mind regarding to printing on plastic, thanks for sharing..

  3. You're most welcome, Zeeshan. I hope it works for you.

  4. Hello again. I've never tried that, but I don't think it would be very permanent. On the other hand, it might be worth trying as an experiment on something small. If you try it, I would be interested in knowing how it went.