Thursday, 31 May 2012

Elephant No. 242: Bingo Dabbers

I haven't played bingo since I was a child and you used little plastic chips to mark the spaces. I have played bingo lottery cards, but this is my first-ever experience with bingo dabbers. I've seen pictures of the marks they leave, but I've never had one in my hot little hands, so I guess we'll just have to see what kind of elephants they produce.

The modern game of bingo originates in a lottery-style game called Il Giuco del Lotto d'Italia ("the Italian Lottery Game"), first played around A.D. 1530. From Italy, the game spread to France, where it was called Le Lotto. The French version of the game had 27 squares in three rows and nine columns, with numbers ranging from 1 to 90. Only five of the squares within each row featured numbers, however. This ultimately led to the design of today's bingo cards.

A similar game named "Housey-Housey" was played in Great Britain, and until quite recently "Housey Housey" or "Housie" was the name by which the game was known throughout Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In Germany during the nineteenth century, bingo was played as a way of helping children learn math, spelling and history. In these versions of the game, the squares featured words, pictures, or unsolved math problems, instead of numbers. Similar games, such as "road trip bingo" and "zoo animal bingo" are still played today.

Vintage Housey-Housey game.

A man named Hugh J. Ward standardized the game at carnivals around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the early 1920s. Ward's version of the game was called "Beano" because it used dried beans as markers, although the name "Bingo" is thought to have existed since at least the 1770s in Great Britain. No one is sure of the origin of the name, although some have speculated that it may relate to the "bing" sound a bell makes when rung.

In Ward's version of the game, a dealer would pick numbered discs from a cigar box, and players would mark their cards with beans. If they won, they shouted out "beano!"

Ward copyrighted the names "Beano" and "Bingo", and wrote the game's first rulebook in 1933, but a man called Edwin Lowe is credited with popularizing it. At a travelling carnival in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, Lowe noticed how much people enjoyed playing Beano. Taking the game to New York, Lowe introduced it to his friends, who loved it.

Lowe hired a Columbia University mathematics professor named Carl Leffler, to help increase the number of combinations in Bingo cards. By 1930, Leffler had invented 6,000 different Bingo cards, after which he is said to have gone insane. According to recent calculations, there are 552,446,474,061,128,648,601,600,000 potential Bingo card combinations. No wonder Leffler went mad.

In the early 1930s, a Catholic priest from Pennsylvania approached Lowe about using Bingo as a way of raising funds. Once people started playing Bingo in churches, it became wildly popular. By 1934, approximately 10,000 games were being played weekly across the United States.

Lowe later produced the first commercial Bingo Game, which came in two versions: one with a 12-card set for $1.00; the other a 24-card set for $2.00. By the 1940s, Bingo was popular all over the U.S., leading Lowe to try franchising the name.

Today, Bingo is played in a number of ways. The most conventional version involves pre-printed bingo cards, each featuring five columns and five rows, with numbers ranging from 1 to 75. The centre space is normally a "free" space. Each column falls under a letter from the word B-I-N-G-O, with numbers between 1 and 15 appearing in the first column, numbers from 16 to 30 appearing in the second column, and so forth. This makes it easy to find the numbers when the Bingo caller says "Under the B: 14" or "Under the G: 42".

Typical Bingo card by the Milton Bradley Company.

Other forms of Bingo include online games, Bingo-based slot machines and lottery scratch cards. Today, more than $90 million are spent on Bingo each week in North America alone.

For today's elephant, I bought a purple bingo dabber and a blue bingo dabber, thinking I could perhaps blend the two colours in some way.

I decided to start with the purple first. Turns out it was a sort of hot pink. This was the first mark I made.

Having never used these before, I wasn't really sure what kinds of marks they would make, but the first mark reminded me a bit of the kind of sponge-applicator shoe polish I used on my white church shoes as a child. I decided to stamp a bunch of marks in a vague trunk shape to see what kinds of effects I could get.

Before I started, I had I expected I'd be able only to make round blobs. If you vary the pressure, however, you can make some interesting marks. The two photographs below show some of the different effects.

This felt like a fun, kid-like activity, so I just kept pouncing the bingo dabber onto the paper in an elephant shape until I thought it was about as good as it would get.

I decided to try the blue bingo dabber next. Turns out it was a weird orange-red. It also looked like it had been used before. Sigh.

I liked my first two elephants well enough, but I thought it would be interesting to see what I could do if I used the bingo dabbers with a very light hand instead. For my next elephant, I started by dabbing lightly and quickly.

In addition to layering these light dabs, I began adding some darker bits by jabbing sharply with the side of the bingo dabber.

I liked this effect a lot, so I thought I'd try one more, this time with the disappointing not-blue.

When I picked up the bingo dabbers to use as an art medium, I thought I would be mostly making dense webs of saturated dots. Instead, I discovered that it can be a surprisingly subtle and delicate medium. In fact, I liked bingo dabbers almost as much as yesterday's bamboo reed pen.

To be sure, this is not a precise medium, but the effects you can get are quite nice. I even toyed with reproducing a photographic elephant image, but decided I didn't want to work that hard today. That being said, all four drawings took me about half an hour in total, so it's definitely a fast medium to work with, and rather fun. Just check the colour of the ink under the cap before you buy.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In a previous post, I wrote about Lawrence Anthony, and how a herd of elephants made the long trek to his house to pay tribute after his death. Such devotion on the part of this rescued herd of problem elephants was nothing new at the Thula Thula game preserve in South Africa. Neither was mischief.

In order to make enough money to keep the game preserve going, Anthony and his family began welcoming paying guests. One evening, guests were enjoying a candlelit dinner on the verandah, when the herd suddenly appeared on the lawn, led by matriarch Nana.

As Anthony notes in his book, The Elephant Whisperer, elephants operate on the principle that all other forms of life must give way before them. In this case, that meant the tourists sitting around Anthony's swimming pool.

Although most of the guests fled to safety, one table of men stayed where they were, blustering about their indifference to the approaching herd. An elephant named Frankie flicked her ears as a warning to the puny humans, but the men stayed where they were. Indignant about their lack of respect, Frankie took a few quick steps towards them, trunk in the air and ears flaring. This time the men took notice, tripping over their chairs as they sprinted for cover.

Somewhat mollified, Frankie began to explore the beautifully appointed table, accompanied by Nana. They swept glass and china off the table with their curious trunks, smashing things all over the place. They picked up chairs and flung them into the air. They tossed candles and holders on the ground, then yanked out the tablecloth, bringing everything else crashing to the ground.

Realizing that some of the mess was rather tasty, they delicately picked through broken crockery and glass to eat whatever food they could find. Then they turned their attention to the main purpose of their visit: the swimming pool.

Elephants prefer clean water to the muck they usually find at a waterhole, and a pool full of clear, fresh water was a real find. Matriarch Nana dropped her huge trunk into the pool first, sucking up gallons of water, then spraying it into her mouth and over her body. The rest of the herd followed suit, drinking and bathing themselves by squirting water in every direction.

When they'd had their fill—and following a brief battle of wills between Nana and Anthony—the herd turned around and went back into the bush.

Some of the elephants on the Thula Thula game preserve,
South Africa, 2009.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Elephant No. 241: Bamboo Reed Pen

I discovered a container of bamboo reed pens in an art store a couple of days ago. I didn't know there was such a thing, so of course I felt compelled to buy one.

Reed pens have been used for centuries in cultures all over the world. Pens with split nibs have been found in Ancient Egyptian sites dating as far back as the fourth century B.C., and pens made with various reeds, including bamboo, were widely used in China, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean basin.

A reed pen is often known as a calamus—a term derived from words in various languages meaning "reed" or "reed pen". These include the Sanskrit kalama, the Hebrew kulmus, the Greek kalamos, the Arabic qalam, the Swahili kalamu, and the Latin calamus.

Although it was unclear to me whether the Greek word came before the others, this story from Greek mythology is the basis for the Greek kalamos. Kalamos and Karpos were two Greek youths who shared a deep friendship. One day, while competing in a swimming contest, Karpos drowned. In his grief, Kalamos allowed himself to drown as well. He was transformed into a water reed, and when the wind rustles the reeds, it is said to be the sound of Kalamos lamenting his loss.

Reed pens are made by cutting and shaping a reed, often with a split nib and even a small reservoir hole in the nib section. According to various sources, reed pens are stiff and don't retain a point for very long. As a result, goose quills ultimately replaced reed pens for general writing. Reed pens have remained an important tool in calligraphy, however, for their ability to produce bold strokes.

How to cut and shape a reed pen.

Artists apparently like reed pens because the nib can produce rough, scratchy lines, which is appealing in some types of work. Reed pens can also be reshaped with a simple penknife, making it easy to create custom nibs. Using a reed pen is like using any other pen and ink: the nib is dipped in liquid ink, which seeps slowly towards the nib, which is then used to draw a line. 

I'm not very adept with conventional pen nibs, so I had no idea how well I'd do with something like a bamboo reed pen. Some sources say this type of pen should be used with sumi ink or India ink, so I thought briefly about using a sumi inkstick and an inkstone. Then I decided that I would prefer to use coloured ink from a bottle. I chose a violet ink I'd bought last year and never really used. For paper, I used an inexpensive sketchpad paper with a pinky-grey undertone that drove my camera's colour balance nuts.

Because I wanted to draw something fairly realistic, I decided to work from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

Asian elephant, Arnhem, Netherlands, 2010.
Photo: Foto Martien

I didn't test the pen on anything before I started, so my first lines were somewhat tentative and sketchy.

So far, it was like any other pen nib, although it ran out of ink quickly. This, however, is a bonus for someone like me, because it enabled me to produce dry, scratchy lines.

I began to like the reed pen a lot. It's probably the only medium I've tried so far that allowed me to create effective elephant wrinkles. Everything else I've tried makes lines that are too heavy or too sharp, necessitating either filling everything in, or leaving just a hint of wrinkles. The reed pen, however, allows for a fine underlay of sketchy colour, almost like using a pencil—but with ink.

I also liked that it allowed me to make heavier lines, as well as cross-hatching that ranged from delicate to bold. Varying the pressure with which I applied the pen made a big difference in creating these effects, and I think the absorbent quality of the inner bamboo may help produce a much softer line than a metal nib.

I'd have to say that, all in all, this was my favourite drawing medium so far. I thought I'd hate this pen—mostly because I'm not great with any other kind of pen—but I really loved the different effects I could create without a great deal of effort. 

From start to finish, this drawing took me about 45 minutes, and I quite like it. Reed pens are definitely going to become part of my drawing kit. I may even learn how to make them myself.

Elephant Lore of the Day
This rather sweet story comes from Belfast, Ireland, during the Second World War. German bombs had targeted the city's shipyards among other industrial installations; unfortunately, the Belfast Zoo was located near the shipyards.

The constant noise and percussive force of the bombs was a source of deep distress to the zoo's animals—especially to an Asian elephant named Sheila. A young zookeeper named Denise Austin noticed that Sheila was becoming a nervous wreck. Denise decided to take Sheila home with her each night, allowing her to keep an eye on the traumatized elephant.

Although photographs had been taken of Sheila in the Austin garden at the time, it wasn't until many years later that the full story became known.

The head keeper, Dick Foster, would never have allowed Sheila to be taken from the zoo. Luckily, he was an extremely punctual man, arriving at exactly 9:00 a.m. every morning, and leaving at exactly 5:00 p.m. every evening. Denise Austin simply waited five minutes after he had left, then took Sheila home with her.

Sheila followed Denise like a pet dog, and made herself at home in the family's large walled garden. During night-time bombing raids, Denise stood beside Sheila, rubbing her ears and talking to her until the all-clear was sounded.

Denise Austin and her mother Beatrice with Sheila, 1941.

Everything went well for 18 months. Sheila calmly walked the 400 yards to Denise's home almost every night, and became a familiar sight in the neighbourhood. One day, however, a small dog started barking at Sheila as Denise led her back to the zoo.

In response, Sheila raised her ears, lifted her trunk, trumpeted loudly, and tore off after the dog. She ploughed through front gardens and destroyed fences, heedless of any attempt to stop her. Denise still managed to get Sheila back to the zoo before Mr. Foster arrived, but there were complaints, and Sheila was put in a cage to which Mr. Foster had the only key.

Despite the rather public nature of Sheila's escapade, Foster kept no records of it. Denise Austin died in 1997, and the story might have died with her, had she not kept photographs that finally became public in 2009.

Sheila in the road near the Austin home, with Denise's father and neighbour
John Montgomery, 1941.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Elephant No. 240: Wax Fusing

I came across this little craft a few days ago, and thought I'd try it for today's elephant. It's something I haven't done since I was very small, but I do remember an elementary teacher telling us that we were making "stained-glass windows" with this technique. To me it's more like a fusing process than stained glass, so that's what I decided to call it.

The method for this activity is relatively simple:

1. Shred wax crayons, keeping the colours separate.

2. Place heavy brown paper and paper towels on an ironing board.

3. Cut a sheet of waxed paper larger than the design you want to make. Place this on top of the brown paper and paper towels.

4. Sprinkle individual shredded crayon colours on the sheet of waxed paper to make a design. The wax will spread when you iron it later, so you may want to leave space between the colours. (Lots of space, as it turns out.)

5. Place another sheet of waxed paper over your finished design.

6. Layer paper towels and brown paper on top of everything.

7. Iron with a relatively hot iron.

8. Let your design cool, then trim around it with scissors. Frame with a piece of cardstock or coloured paper, if desired.

I decided to follow the instructions, and started by shredding a bunch of crayons. This was by far the most time-consuming part of the whole activity. It took me about 45 minutes to shred the amount you see below. I used a simple paring knife to make these crayon shavings, so it's really not hard at all. Just boring.

I used a piece of cardboard for my base, rather than brown paper. I put four layers of paper towels on top of the cardboard, then topped everything off with a sheet of waxed paper measuring about 20 x 20 cm (8 x 8 inches).

It was relatively simple to sprinkle the shavings into an elephant design. I didn't know how thick the layer of wax should be, but the amount below was far, far too thick and too dense in terms of shredded wax, as you'll see.

Once I was happy with the design, which consisted of a grey-silver elephant head, surrounded by sprinkles of colours, I took it to the ironing board. I layered a piece of wax paper on top, then added some more paper towels. The paper towels turned out to be much more important than I expected, as the crayon wax soaks right through the waxed paper, and then through at least three layers of paper towel.

This was what my first one looked like when I had ironed it. I tried to manipulate the wax a bit by directing the iron, but there was far too much crayon wax on the surface. I briefly mourned the ugliness and started over.

For my second elephant, I used a much lighter hand in adding wax, this time using multiple colours for the elephant, instead of grey and silver. I also broke down the size of the wax pieces by rubbing them between my fingers as I sprinkled them. I thought this might help me avoid ugly, blobby surprises in the second piece.

When I thought it looked okay, I took it to the ironing board and ironed it in the same way I'd done the first one. I was surprised that this also became quite colour-saturated, because there's very little wax on it at all, and most of it is basically wax dust. But at least it didn't turn into a murky crayon swamp.

One thing I did quite like about the second piece was the way the crayon wax blended into the waxed paper. A sort of feathering occurs, probably due to the liquefaction of both the crayon wax and the wax in the paper. To me, it looked a lot like what happens when you add wet water-based paint to a wet surface.

I was happy with the second one, so I left it as it was. I tried to get rid of the bubbles where the wax didn't quite bond to the top layer of waxed paper, but I couldn't figure out how to accomplish this. I tried ironing the specific spots, but it didn't make any difference. I also tried directing a hair dryer at the problem areas, which also made no difference. So I decided that I liked it this way.

This isn't really the kind of medium you can use to make something representational. In fact, I think that what started out as an elephant in my second attempt looks more like a long-beaked duck. If, on the other hand, you're happy with a wild abstract, and use interesting colours, this can be a rather pretty medium.

I wouldn't necessarily rush to try this again, although I'm intrigued by the feathering of the wax edges, and even the bubbles. For me, this medium has definite potential as a background surface. As a representational picture, perhaps not so much.

Elephant Lore of the Day
For the upcoming European soccer championships, some bookmakers are tuning into the psychic predictions of a temperamental Asian elephant named Citta.

Just as Paul the Octopus was believed to have a mystical ability to predict the winners during the 2010 World Cup, Citta the elephant is thought to give people an edge in placing their wagers.

Citta is a 33-year-old female elephant, living at a zoo in Krakow, Poland—one of the two venues for the 2012 European Championships. She was chosen as this year's animal clairvoyant after correctly predicting that Chelsea would win the Champions League in mid-May 2012.

Citta made her winning prediction by choosing an apple above the blue-and-white Chelsea logo, rather than an apple above the red, white and blue logo of Bayern Munich. The same method will be used before each of the 31 matches during the European championship. Because elephants are believed to have heightened intuition, bookmakers are placing high hopes on Citta's abilities.

Citta has a rival for her psychic crown, however. In the city of Kiev, Ukraine—the other venue for the European Championships—a two-year-old hog called Psychic Pig will be presented with two plates of food before every game. Each plate will be decorated with a national flag, and the plate chosen by Psychic Pig will indicate his choice of winner.

Citta with soccer ball, May 2012.
Photo: PAP/Stanisław Rozpędzik

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India