Sunday, 3 June 2012

Elephant No. 245: Salted Watercolour

I wanted something relatively simple for today's elephant, so I settled on salted watercolour. I've never tried adding salt to watercolour paint, but from the examples I saw online, it looked interesting.

The basic method seemed straightforward: dampen a piece of watercolour paper, add a relatively wet paint, let dry slightly, sprinkle salt sparingly, watch patterns bloom.

I tried that method, along with a great many other variations: salt first, then paint, then brush; paint, salt, brush, more paint; salt, paint on brush, more salt. And so on. Most of them were slightly disappointing—as you can see in the next three photographs—so I experimented some more, and finally settled on a method that seemed to work.

Paint with salt sprinkled on top.

Mound of salt with paint dropped on top, then smeared with finger.

Paint with salt added, then pushed around with paintbrush.

Using a canvas board measuring 10 x 15 cm (4 x 6 inches), I started by sweeping on some thin watercolour paint, then sprinkled on a bit of salt. I pushed this aside with a dry paintbrush.

I added more salt and more paint, then moved the salt around with my wet painting brush. I began pushing the paint into areas where I wanted shading, knowing that the areas with salt would become a bit darker.

I began to like the way this looked, so I added more paint and more salt, pushing things around some more with a wet brush.

When I thought it was about as good as it might get, I shook off the excess salt, then left everything to dry.

Once it was dry, I brushed off some of the salt with a soft brush, but decided to leave whatever didn't brush off easily. I liked the bit of sparkle provided by the salt crystals, particularly where the salt was thickest and the paint was darkest. I also noticed that the colours lighten as the paint dries, which gives it an interesting faded look in some areas.

Over time, more salt may fall off, but that's okay too. When and if that happens, the areas where the salt was heaviest will be the darkest, because of the way the salt absorbs both paint and pigment.

As an artistic technique, I didn't much like painting with salt when I started, and found the trial-and-error part a bit disappointing. Playing with the technique took me about two hours, and the results were mostly underwhelming. The final piece, however, only took me about ten minutes—not counting drying time—and I quite like it.

It's a bit fussy and unpredictable as a technique, so it's not something I'd use every day. But for a painting with interesting edges and shading—as well as a bonus bit of sparkle—it's definitely something I'd try again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Adult elephants need as much as 160 grams (5.6 ounces) of salt a day to remain healthy. While they can eke out some salt from soil, they usually need more concentrated sources as well.

For thousands of years, savannah elephants have been making their way to salt licks deep inside Kitum Cave at the base of Kenya's Mount Elgon. Hard volcanic rock lying over the salt-bearing stone inside the cave has prevented rain from washing the salts away. Even better for the elephants, the dampness of the cave has helped the salts leach to the surface.

The solid line on the map shows just how deep inside Kitum Cave the elephants
venture in search of salt. Some travel as far as 150 metres (500 feet) into the cave.

This is thought to be the only cave in the world frequented by elephants, and knowledge of the salt trails has been passed down from generation to generation. Tragically, in the 1980s, ivory poachers often lay in wait at the mouth of the cave, and ambushed the elephants. Within a very short time, a herd that once numbered nearly 1,200 elephants was reduced to around 100.

Some elephants still refuse to return to the cave, while others make the trip only at night, when poachers are less active. Older elephants still teach younger ones the secrets of the cave, but it is not seen as the safe source of salt that it once was.

Because their tongues are too long to lick salt from the rock, elephants mine salt
from the walls of Kitum Cave by breaking off pieces of rock with their tusks,
then popping the salt-bearing rock into their mouths with their trunks.
Photo: Ian Redmond

Scientist Ian Redmond—a former colleague of Dian Fossey, who helped raise the profile of Rwanda's mountain gorillas—has made it his mission to restore the elephants' trust in humans. The cave elephants of Mount Elgon are now protected by law, and are monitored by the Mount Elgon Elephant Monitoring (MEEM) project. In addition, eco-tourism earns people more money than ivory poaching, which may help to ensure the long-term survival of this once-endangered population.

Mount Elgon's elephants make their way into the cave under cover of night, in
order to avoid poachers.
Photo: Ian Redmond

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

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