Sunday, 24 June 2012

Elephant No. 266: Froissage

For today's elephant, I thought I'd try a technique that comes from the world of Czech Surrealism.

In its purest form, froissage—from the French froisser, meaning "to crease or crumple"—involves folding or crumpling a piece of paper, then using the resultant creases as the outlines for a drawing. The original technique was developed by Czech artist Ladislav Novák, who remained its greatest exponent until his death in 1999. Fellow Czech artist Jiří Kolář, who became a friend of Novák's, also produced numerous works of froissage. Both artists often included collage elements in their froissage as well.

Interestingly, when froissage was created, crumpling up paper was considered a subversive activity, and was discouraged by the Communist regime. Kolář in particular suffered harassment and imprisonment for his artistic work, and later emigrated to France, where he achieved international renown for his art and poetry.

Folded work of froissage by Jiří Kolář.

Novák's original idea was to create art from faded prints other unwanted paper. His idea was to transform the commonplace and the rejected into something miraculous—a process he viewed as being akin to alchemical transmutation. Both Novák and Kolář used paper such as seventeenth-century French drawings, posters and other printed material to produce new abstracts.

Un membre de la conseil suprême, 1975
Ladislav Novák (1925–1999)

The technique is very simple. Paper, either plain or previously printed, is folded or crumpled, either in a pattern or at random. The resulting foldlines are then used to guide a drawing. Novák also often added a wash of thinned paint and/or highly diluted India ink, which collected in the paper's foldlines, giving the paper the look of batik. He then outlined his chosen drawing lines with ink, and painted in the image. The result is usually an abstract, delicate and almost dream-like image, often featuring whimsical creatures and objects.

Mr. Hadlíz as a Monster Threatening the Homes of Respectable Families (1976).
From the series The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz.
Ladislav Novák (1925–1999)

Today, works of froissage are still produced, with varying degrees of success—in my case very varying. Techniques include paint, ink or pencil on paper; ink or paint on cloth; and collage.

For today's elephant, I decided to try both a plain piece of paper, and a pre-printed page.

For the first elephant, I chose this page from a World Wildlife Federation publication. I gave it a wash of pale blue acrylic paint, leaving a bit of the original image showing through.

For my other page, I used a sheet of cheap sketchpad paper.

I crumpled both, adding a pale wash of India ink to both. The ink didn't seem to do much, except darken the paper, so I decided not to play with it. I'm sure there's a better way to create the dark lines Novák achieved in the creases of his works, but I couldn't find any instructions, so it's something I would have to play with when I have more time. It may be a matter of using a different type of paper, or perhaps adding the wash at the very end.

For both pieces, I folded as well as squished, trying to form a combination of sharp creases and more crumpled-looking bits.

Next, I looked for elephant shapes in each sheet. This was surprisingly difficult. Not only was it hard to find elephant shapes in these particular folds, but is was also hard to even see the creases without constantly angling the sheet to the light.

Once I'd found the elephants hiding in the folds, I outlined them. I also added a few lines to delineate the inner forms, as well as a few external shapes as abstract greenery.

Once I was more or less happy with these outlines, I darkened them with a slightly heavier black pigment liner, and heat-set the lines with a hairdryer. After this, I simply painted in the different shapes with watercolour paint. It was a little like painting in a very weird colouring book. To finish up, I flicked a bit of paint at the background to make it a little less blank.

I didn't expect these to be quite so peculiar, and I was slightly disappointed that the creases didn't absorb the India ink. They also took longer than I expected. That being said, there's nothing the least bit difficult about this technique, and it's kind of interesting if you don't expect anything too realistic.

I found this engaging enough that I will probably try it again sometime—if only to figure out how to make the India ink do what I want.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Sometimes you just have to wonder what people are thinking. The only word that came to mind when I saw the photographs below was, "Why?" 

As your mother might once have said: just because you can, it doesn't mean you should.

Elephant from Earl's Court Circus with man in its mouth, London, 1928.
Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

Dixie, from the Whipsnade Zoo in England, performs a
trick with her keeper George Braham, learned with
Bostock's Circus, 1932.
Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

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


  1. According to Novák (The Transformations of Mr. Hadliz, 2005), he would drip diluted ink (he also claimed some inspiration from Jackson Pollock) onto the crumple paper such that it would collect in the creases. He would then look for resulting patterns and images, which he would highlight with more ink or diluted paint. Hope that helps!

  2. Thanks! That's very interesting—and helpful. I will try this technique again sometime with that in mind. I'm sure it will work much better that way!