Saturday, 30 June 2012

Elephant No. 272: Rust

I've been wondering for a while how to create instant rust, so today I thought I'd make a serious effort to try it.

Rust is the generic term for iron oxide, and usually refers to the red oxides formed when iron reacts with oxygen and water. Interestingly, there is also "green" rust, which results when iron reacts with chlorides in oxygen-deprived environments, such as the iron rebar in underwater concrete pilings.

Various colours of rust on iron.
Photo: Laitr Keiows, 2010

Given enough time, and lack of protection, any iron material exposed to oxygen, water and/or chlorides will turn into rust and fall apart. Water alone will rust iron-based materials, and when exposed to salt as in seaspray, it will rust more quickly.

Heavily rusted chain near the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.
Photo: Marlith, 2008

Because of the prevalence of iron and steel in the modern world, prevention of rust is important. Since rust is permeable to both air and water, the iron or steel beneath a layer of rust will continue to corrode. Rust is inhibited in several ways, including alloying iron and steel with metals that don't rust, plating the metal with zinc or chromium, covering the metal with a layer of oil or grease, painting, or varnishing. For smaller items, rust can  be inhibited by surrounding the metal with substances such as silica gel, which absorb moisture before it can affect the metal.

Although the most common effect of rust is disintegration, a build-up of rust can also force metal apart. Known as "rust smacking", this type of extreme rust has been responsible for the collapse of at least two steel bridges in recent years. Reinforced concrete is similarly vulnerable. As corrosion expands the metal inside the concrete, the concrete breaks apart, causing serious structural issues.

This kind of rust is so extensive that it could cause rust smacking if found in many
parts of a structure such as a bridge.

In addition to being the bane of every car-owner, bridge-builder, shipping firm and architect, rust has also entered the world of metaphor. Today, it is used in everything from books to songs to imply decay, since it has the ability to turn sturdy metal into a pile of powder.

Rusted-out car, Cooma, New South Wales, Australia.
Photo: Ken Myers/Black White Photography Art Gallery

The rust technique I chose for today's elephant was simple: spray an iron- or tin-based metal with hydrogen peroxide, then sprinkle with salt. Unfortunately, the simplest of things never seems to be simple for me. For the instructions I used—which were much better than my execution of them—click here.

I didn't have any appropriate metal at home, so I went out and bought some embossing tin. Just in case that didn't work, I bought a cookie sheet made with some sort of alloy that I was sure would rust, since similar cookie sheets have rusted in the past.

Neither of these metals worked, however, so I went to a nearby hardware store and bought a sheet of 16-gauge steel—not galvanized or stainless—which I was assured would rust. The fact that I wanted the sheet of metal to rust was somewhat mystifying to the clerk—this being a rather macho old-school hardware store—so I wasn't entirely sure, until I tried it, that I actually had what I needed.

I worked outside on my flagstone patio, because the solution is corrosive to metal. I started by masking off half of the sheet, so that I ended up with a working surface of about 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 inches). I also laid the steel down on a piece of aluminum foil to avoid scratching the back. After all, you never know when you might need to use the back of something like this.

Next, I sprayed the surface liberally with hydrogen peroxide.

I used a single-hole shaker of salt to pour salt onto the surface in an elephant shape, which isn't as easy as I thought it would be. The metal began to rust at the edges of the salt almost instantly, as you can see in the photograph below. This panicked me a little, so I quickly pushed any errant blobs of salt into place. I also sprinkled bits of salt across the background to make the final background less blank and more integrated with the elephant.

The salt and hydrogen peroxide interacted very quickly, and not only bubbled but actually smoked at the start of the chemical reaction. There was also a faint odour of hydrogen sulphide, or rotten eggs. I left the piece to do its thing for awhile, checking periodically on it until it dried.

Once it had dried, I sprayed it with a garden house to remove the dried salt. This was a stupid idea, because it washed away a lot of the rusty patina, particularly on the elephant shape. Although the pitted surface was interesting on its own, it wasn't the rusty look I was going for. So I sprayed the surface with hydrogen peroxide again.

This reactivated the light salt specks in the background, but didn't really do much to the elephant, despite the amount of salt I'd loaded onto the elephant shape. Then I realized that, by overloading the area with salt, I may have kept oxygen from getting to the metal surface, inhibiting the red oxide from forming.

I kept at all this for another hour or so, fiddling with salt, sprays of hydrogen peroxide, washing things off gently, blotting, and so on. I still couldn't really get the elephant to turn red.

As a last resort, I painted hydrogen peroxide on the elephant shape, sprinkled it with salt and waited. Nothing much happened, so I poured hydrogen peroxide carefully on the elephant. Because I'd already painted the shape, the hydrogen peroxide that I poured stayed within the same lines. Pouring on hydrogen peroxide also caused a significant chemical reaction: large bubbles, lots of red oxide, and smoke.

This looked more like what I wanted, but I was a bit tired of the whole thing at this point. I decided that, if the elephant didn't show up properly when it dried, I would polish away the background or something. Then I decided it was taking too long to dry, so I took a hairdryer to it.

This was actually a really good idea. I don't know if it would have looked as nice if I'd let it air-dry; either way, it had the benefit of making me like the piece much more. The red oxide looked good, the grey-black pitting was appealing, and an interesting blue-white salt rim had formed around the edges. Although I brushed some of the salt away, I left a lot of it as a counterpoint to the rust.

If you try this, it's obviously going to take a bit of experimentation. I didn't have much to do today, so I didn't mind playing with it to a certain extent. I would, of course, have preferred it to do what I wanted right away, which was form a dark rusty elephant in the middle of a bunch of lighter rust specks. In the end, however, I got something I liked better.

The basic technique is very easy, and it's fun to watch the rust form. It's also relatively non-toxic, although obviously corrosive to metal. I started by wearing gloves, then got tired of them, but suffered no ill effects from either getting the stuff on my hands, or from any kind of odour. My greatest risk was probably the possibility of cutting myself on the razor-sharp edges of the steel.

Although I was frustrated by the technique when I started, I really like the final result. I will definitely use this again, and am already thinking of larger things I could rust in interesting patterns.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although this is a sad story about elephants, it's also the first time that I've ever read of an elephant being considered a political activist.

In 2010, an elephant rampaged through a Liberian logging area, killing one of the workers. In previous weeks, the elephant had been known to threaten other logging employees, as well as local farmers, but this was the first time he had ever killed anyone.

Timber is one of the country's major exports, but its harvesting has become a cause of considerable conflict between rural Liberians and the logging companies. And in the rampaging elephant, ordinary Liberians saw a kind of superhero. The elephant, they said, was expressing the frustrations of Liberians who gain no benefit from the country's logging activity. Many Liberians even claimed that the elephant was supernaturally possessed by vengeful human spirits.

Despite the fact that elephants are endangered in Liberia and protected by law, a forestry official determined that the elephant would have to be killed in order to ensure the safety of residents. I'll spare you the details on how this particular elephant was put to death.

Following the elephant's death, forestry official Theophilus Freeman expressed regret over the killing of the elephant. He went on to say that, through a careful deductive process, local authorities had determined that the elephant had not, in fact, been possessed by humans. "Some people," said Freeman, "said there was a human being or two working in the elephant. But it's been two days since the killing of the elephant. If it were true that the elephant was possessed, one or two persons would have died by now." He further suggested that locals had only claimed that the elephant was possessed in order to extort concessions from the logging company.

This last comment infuriated local activists. They threatened legal action over the inference that they might try to use supernatural tactics against the logging industry. "We are a proud and decent people," said activist Hilary Mentoe, "how dare they think we would transform ourselves into an elephant in order to destroy lives and property!"

When the furor died down, nothing had changed. Except for the unfortunate loss of one of Liberia's few remaining elephants.

African forest elephant, Tanzania.
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

Friday, 29 June 2012

Elephant No. 271: Carbon Dust

Although I'd tried producing a drawing with graphite powder some months ago, the carbon dust illustration process appeared to be quite different, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

The carbon dust technique was developed by medical illustrator Max Brödel in the early twentieth century. Characterized by subtle and precise gradations of grey, carbon dust soon became widely used among medical and scientific illustrators. Although the technique was eventually superseded by photography and less labour-intensive illustration techniques, in recent years carbon dust has enjoyed some resurgence among illustrators, both technical and artistic.

Carbon dust medical drawing by Max Brödel, ca. 1910.

Available information on the technique is shockingly sparse. Most practitioners of carbon dust appear to guard the technique rather jealously, providing lists of materials but absolutely no information on what to actually do with all the pencils, brushes, erasers and so forth. So I decided to try and figure it out on my own—then share my findings with everyone, for what they're worth.

Pippa by Bonnie Miljour.
This drawing uses charcoal as well as graphite.

As far as I could tell, the technique involves rubbing various types of pencil lead, charcoal or even Conté crayon against something like sandpaper or a fine metal file. Once you have little piles of dust, you apply it using a dry brush technique to a surface with a slight tooth—such as vellum-finish bristol board or frosted mylar, the latter being the preference among medical and scientific illustrators. Use blending stumps at will within your grey areas. To create highlights, either erase them away, preferably with a kneadable eraser, or paint over them, which is what Brödel himself often did.

For today's elephant, this is the supply list I settled upon:

• Graphite pencils ranging from B to 6B
• A nail file
• Blending stumps and tortillons of various sizes
• A kneadable eraser
• Whatever paintbrushes I felt like using—flat, fine, round, wide
• A sheet of artist-quality bristol board with a very slight tooth/roughness
• Matte-finish spray sealant

In a bow to the scientific origins of this technique, I thought I should probably work from a photograph. My first idea was to use a photograph of an elephant skeleton, but I couldn't find anything with interesting tonal values, so I decided to look for some kind of elephant closeup instead. This is the photograph I chose:

Eye of Asian elephant, Dubare elephant training camp, Coorg, India, 2005
Photo: © Nilesh Chaudhari

I started by running the pencils individually against the nail file. I had B, 2B, 4B, 5B and 6B, and I ranged them around my palette in order, running counterclockwise from left to right. A few tips for this part:

1. You get the best filings if you run the pencil lead perpendicular to the file—in other words, with the point flat against the abrasive surface.

2. This process will dull your nail file, so use an old one. You can also use sandpaper or some other type of metal file, such as a fine jeweller's file.

3. You don't need as much as you think. I filed down each pencil lead, sharpened the pencil, then filed it down again, but I probably only needed to do this once.

When I had my palette of carbon dust, I took a small, stiff, flat-tip brush, and dipped it in the B-grade graphite. I sort of wiped it against the edge of the palette to remove the excess, just as if it were paint. You could also use the side of your hand or a tissue. I then used the graphite and brush to make a light sketch. Obviously you don't really want sharp pencil lines for this process—although, more about that later.

I really liked the way I could use a brush to draw with graphite. The graphite goes on exactly where you brush it, and makes very nice, soft lines. At this point, I was more interested in ensuring that I got the general outlines down, but you could also begin by swirling on large areas of various tonal values.

Once I had a feel for this, I got a bit bolder, and began adding more texture and background. So far, I was using only brushes, manipulating the greys by either loading up the brush with a lot of graphite, or using it fairly sparsely. At the beginning of each brushstroke, the graphite is going to be darker, gradually lightening as the graphite is distributed across the paper.

At this point I wanted to start dealing with the many wrinkles and add some sharper lines. This is more or less impossible with a brush, so I decided to use the very tip of a new, pointy tortillon. I dipped just the tiniest part of the end in graphite, as though I were dipping an ink nib, then used that to draw sharper, dark grey lines. The first touch of the tortillon to paper will give you a brief hint of black, but this doesn't last beyond maybe a 1 mm (0.04 inch). If I hadn't wanted to be a purist today, I would have sooo used a pencil to add some sharp lines.

The tortillons also proved useful in creating texture. Because they're blending tools, you can run them heavily across existing areas of graphite and create new lines. I did this in many areas. For darker sections, I dipped the tortillon and used a sort of circulism to really grind in the graphite.

When I thought it was as good as I could make it—and, believe me, you could play with this forever if you wanted—I turned my attention to adding highlights. For this, I used a kneadable eraser, squeezed as thin as I could make it, and either slid it across the graphite to make white lines, or dabbed it at the surface to remove blobs. One helpful tip: if you have a dark line and want to make it appear sharper, remove the graphite beside it, even if there is no white on the original.

I quite liked this technique, although it's a bit messy. I was also surprised at how hard it is to wipe graphite away from virtually any surface, using a dry cloth. You have to dampen the cloth or all you'll do is spread it around. Also, although you can blow off excess graphite from your drawing, make sure you don't blow in the direction of your palette. I know: duh. But that doesn't mean I remembered.

This took me about 90 minutes once I started the actual drawing, and I could have fussed with it much longer. In some ways I wish I'd done a whole elephant rather than just an eye. That way I could have avoided the penance of trying to draw tons of wrinkles without a pencil.

There was something almost magical about "painting" with graphite and, if you have the time and patience, this is a lovely technique. Although I was trying to draw something realistic, I think it would be really nice to use for something more dreamlike. There's always next time.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Throughout history, elephants have inspired every kind of art, from sculpture and painting, to jewellery and clothing. The example, below, however, is one of my favourites.

I don't have a cat—and the feral cats in my neighbourhood avoid capture, even when I try to explain my intentions—so I can't make a hairy elephant myself. But it was so funny that I wanted to include it in this blog somehow.

Hairy elephant by Antonia Cornwell, London, 2005.

For full instructions, check out Antonia Cornwell's blog at And if your cat is cooperative enough to allow this, send me a photo.

Hairy elephant by Antonia Cornwell, London, 2005.
2006/08/hairy-elephant- rainy-day-project-to.html

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

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Elephant No. 270: Beaded Brooch

I bought a little pierced brooch frame about a year ago, but never got around to beading it, so it seemed like the thing to try for today's elephant.

I've covered the history of seed beads and the like in previous posts, so I'll just describe today's process here.

I had never tried one of these pierced beading forms before, so I had no idea what I was doing. One of the women in the shop where I bought it showed me something she'd made, and it sounded easy. When I was actually faced with using it, however, I wasn't exactly sure where to start. It didn't help that I couldn't find any instructions online. Then again, it might be because "brooch thing" and "pierced brooch frame thing" aren't very good search terms.

This is the brooch frame I had to work with. It measures about 4 cm (1.5 inches) in diameter and is silver plated.

For the elephant shape, I opted to use some inexpensive purple glass "crystals" I'd bought a few months back, mostly because they were pretty. To anchor the crystals, I chose some purple seed beads.

To attach the beads to the pierced half of the brooch frame, I decided to use coated beading wire. The type I used was a supple 19-strand Beadalon-brand wire measuring 0.3 mm (0.12 inch) in diameter—by the way, the more strands, the more supple it is. Another common name for this material is "tiger tail". You could also use any other fine wire, fishing line, or even strong thread. If you use thread, however, pulling it through beeswax or candle wax to strengthen it might not be a bad idea.

For each bead, I pulled the wire through one of the holes, poked it through the crystal, then through the seed bead. I then drew the wire back through just the crystal and down through the same hole. The seed bead is what keeps the wire from sliding back through the crystal and popping off.

After the first crystal, I tied a knot in the back, attaching the tail end of the wire to the working section of wire. Each time I attached a new piece of wire, I tied a knot in the back after the first crystal.

I started by forming the elephant. The holes are actually quite far apart, so it's hard with a frame this size to get much of a recognizable shape.

This is what the finished elephant head looked like. Meh.

For the background, I basically tore my hair out. Seed beads didn't cover the background, no matter how many different permutations I tried: two small beads in each hole; one medium bead and one small bead in each hole; beads carried across the gap from hole to hole. It took me nearly an hour before I finally gave up on a seed-beaded background and looked for some different crystals instead. I had a strand of clear glass bicones, so I used those, paired with the same colour of seed bead I'd used on the elephant.

These covered the frame well enough, but the issue I faced this time was that they were too big to stick in every hole. They were also too small to cover the gaps if I didn't try cramming one into every hole.

In the end, the brooch turned out well enough, but it irritated the heck out of me to make this. I don't like anything I have to undo and redo three times, so I took against the whole experience after awhile. It didn't help that I accidentally tipped a bunch of small beads onto the carpet. Perhaps it was just one of those days.

I think the final result is quite pretty, but I don't think it looks much like an elephant, despite my best efforts to push the crystals into place. The holes are just not quite right for a representational shape this small. At just over three hours, it also took a lot longer than I expected.

On the other hand, I'm not completely put off trying this again. I think it would be interesting attempt something slightly larger, with lots of rich colours. If I had lots of time, it might even be fun to experiment with different types of beads. Just not anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
My Italian neighbourhood has gone wild today with Italy's semi-final win over Germany in the Euro Cup, so today's elephant lore comes from the world of soccer.

During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the U.S. team was delayed twice on its way to the soccer pitch. The reason? Elephants.

The first incident occurred in the early afternoon, when an elephant stepped out of the woods near the team's hotel. Placidly blocking the road as it munched on nearby vegetation, the elephant apparently had no intention of moving until it was good and ready. Pre-warned by large signs around the hotel reading, "ELEPHANTS COME CLOSE TO OUR FENCE/KEEP A DISTANCE OF 30 METERS AND PLEASE BE QUIET", the team's bus came to a wary halt and waited in silence until the elephant chose to wander off.

When the team headed out of the hotel for a training session later that day, the same thing happened. As if it knew they were coming, a large bull elephant stepped out of the forest in the same spot, and began eating the same trees and shrubs.

Although the team suspected that it might be the same elephant, they were never entirely sure.

African elephant, Kruger National Park, South Africa, 2010.
Photo: Gaelyn

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