Thursday, 3 May 2012

Elephant No. 214: Inhabited Initial

I've always liked the look of inhabited initials, so I thought I'd try one for today's elephant.

In printing terms, an initial is a letter at the beginning of a book, chapter or other block of text, which is larger than the rest. The word "initial" comes from the Latin initialis, which means "standing at the beginning". In manuscripts and older books, initials are often ornately decorated.

Initials with images inside them are called "historiated" initials. An inhabited initial is a type of historiated initial containing generic plant forms, and/or small animal or human figures. In an inhabited initial, the scene contained in the image is not specific to the content of the book or text. This differs from an illuminated manuscript, in which the initial might feature a illustration directly related to the passage that follows. When such initials become elaborate, full-page productions, they are usually known as "initiums".

Inhabited initial from Alessandro Donati's Roma vetus ac recens
utriusque aedificiis ad eruditam congitionem expositis
(Rome, 1639).

Historiated initials—and, by extension, inhabited initials—did not really come into their own until the Middle Ages. During the early days of printing with a press, typesetters left space for the initials. An artist or scribe would then fill the space by hand; later initials were printed from separate metal or wooden blocks.

I was a bit daunted by the idea of creating an inhabited initial for today's elephant. I'm not great at lettering, and I couldn't quite wrap my mind around how an inhabited initial was drawn, so I've been avoiding it for months.

Turns out it's actually easy. Once you have the basic letter mapped out, drawing something to fill the rest of the space is simple.

I started by creating an oblong measuring 7.5 x 10 cm (3 x 4 inches). I hate rulers and precision, but I knew I'd be hopeless if I didn't create something structured, at least as a starting point.

Once I'd more or less figured out the size and proportions of the "E", I made a rough sketch of how I thought the elephant would fit in and around the letter.

After this, I drew over the lines with a pigment liner, then heat-set the lines with a hair dryer. I was going to use watercolour paint to fill this in, so I wanted to make sure the pen lines wouldn't run.

After this, I simply painted everything in colours I liked. I thought briefly about painting the entire background black, but I thought it might look too heavy. I settled for using black only inside the "E" itself.

This took me about an hour from start to finish, mostly because of the time it took to paint. I really like the final design, simple though it is. And now that I know it's not hard, I may go on to make a few more.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although the production of most elephant paintings is directed by mahouts, some elephants do appear to like daubing paint on canvas.

In the wild, elephants often use sticks or rocks to scratch patterns in the dirt. Naturalists believe this type of activity may be an expression of the elephant's mood, although I could find no information as to what mood that might be.

Elephants who produce paintings on canvas may simply be transferring their natural behaviour to a different surface. There is no evidence to suggest that elephants choose tones, colour, or design, and it is likely that they are using the brush on canvas as they would a stick to make marks in the dust.

Kamala, an Asian elephant who lives at the Calgary Zoo in Canada, produced paintings for years. Kamala's artistic trajectory was relatively straightforward. She  began by pushing her trunk into water-based paint, then rubbing it over a piece of paper on the ground. Later, she progressed to using a large basting brush on a piece of paper taped to a wall. Finally, the Zoo provided her with custom brushes and canvases propped up on an easel.

All of Kamala's paintings are markedly abstract—to human eyes, anyway—clearly reflecting the the same patterns elephants make on the ground in the wild.

Painting by Kamala.


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