Sunday, 1 July 2012

Elephant No. 273: Sparkler Drawings on Paper

Since July is full of national celebrations, and because today is Dominion Day in Canada, I thought I'd try making an elephant using sparklers. My original idea was to strap together a series of firecrackers in the shape of an elephant, but firecrackers are prohibited here by law. I somehow thought that I'd be able to find them around here anyway, since I live a block away from Chinatown, but no luck.

My next idea was to set out a series of sparklers in the shape of an elephant, but my tests earlier in the day weren't terribly effective. The first sparklers didn't reliably ignite the next sparklers in the line, and all of the sparklers burned down so quickly that it was impossible—for me, anyway—to make a recognizable shape.

Then I thought about drawing in the air with sparklers, but it's supposed to rain here by the time it's dark enough to do such a thing, so I more or less gave up on any kind of pyrotechnics for today, and settled on drawing with sparklers on paper.

50 cm (20-inch) sparklers.

Sparklers are actually hand-held fireworks that burn slowly while giving off sparks. A classic sparkler consists of a thin metal rod dipped in a batter made of the following components:

• A metallic fuel such as aluminum, iron or magnesium to create sparks
• Additional fuel such as charcoal or sulphur to control burning speed
• An oxidizer such as potassium nitrate, barium nitrate or even the potentially explosive potassium perchlorate
• Optional substances to provide coloured flames, such as chlorides or metallic nitrates
• Flammable Binders such as nitrocellulose or dextrin, to hold the mixture together

Although the vast majority of sparklers give off white sparks, some sparklers have a coloured spot on the top of each rod to indicate the colour of the sparks. Some sparklers even give off several colours on the same stick.

Sparklers with coloured dots to indicate colour of sparks.

Although sparklers are often used by children, they are not without their risks. The primary risk relates to the temperature at which sparklers burn, which can be as high as 1000˚C to 1600˚C (1800˚F to 3000˚F). This can obviously cause severe skin burns and even set clothing on fire. In dry areas, sparklers can often ignite wildfires and have been banned in some countries during times of drought.

Some people create "sparkler bombs" by binding a bundle of as many as 300 sparklers together with tape, leaving a single sparkler sticking up to use as a fuse. Because these devices contain so much pyrotechnic material, they can actually explode on their own, and have been blamed for three deaths in the United States.

Another good reason, perhaps, not to tie together a hundred or more sparklers...

During my original research on sparklers, I came across a very brief mention of sparkler portraits created by artists Tobias Kipp and Timo Pitkämö. By touching the sparklers to paper, they created something they called pyrografie (not to be confused with wood-burning, or pyrography). Since developing the technique in 1999, they have drawn more than 20,000 such portraits.

Sparkler portraits by the team of Tobias Kipp and Timo Pitkämö.

There is next to no information on sparkler art online, so I studied the few images I could find, then just dove in. Having survived the much more dangerous fumage technique, I figured I could probably manage sparklers. I only discovered this short video after I'd finished.

I started with regular white bond paper and no idea what I was doing. I lit a 20-cm (8-inch) sparkler and sort of dragged it across the paper in an elephant shape. The most important thing is to keep the sparkler moving, or it will make the paper begin to smoulder, creating holes. It doesn't catch fire as fumage can do, but it can definitely spread out of control very quickly, as you can see in my first two attempts.

For my first elephants, I used one sparkler per drawing. This gives you about two minutes' working time. I found the results interesting, but a bit boring, so I decided to try making drawings with multiple sparklers. I liked this effect much better, the one caveat being that, if you touch the sparkler to an area that's already fairly dark, it's likely to begin smouldering. I kept water handy, but a quick puff of air also blows it out if the paper catches.

Thinking it might help to keep the paper from scorching too severely, I also tried misting the paper first. This didn't make much difference, except to make it more difficult to mark the paper at all. This was my sole damp-paper attempt, which I quickly rejected.

Here are my single-sparkler drawings, in the order in which I created them.

And here are my multiple-sparkler drawings, in the order in which I created them. For these, I used a slightly heavier sketchbook paper. I worried that it might smoulder more easily because it's more porous, but it was fine. I've indicated the number of sparklers below each.

Five sparklers.

Four sparklers.

Six sparklers.

Five sparklers.

A few tips if you decide to try this:

1. Work outdoors. Between the sulphur of multiple matches and the invisible smoke of the sparklers, I ended up with a very sore throat and sore eyes, despite working outside. The originators of this technique appear to wear welder's masks when they work.

2. Keep a spray bottle of water handy, just in case.

3. Keep the sparkler moving constantly across the paper.

4. Use a very light touch. To create most of the fine lines in these drawings, I gently ran the sparkler over the paper as if I were trying to make a very faint pencil sketch or scribble.

5. If you want darker areas, either build these up in layers, or touch the sparkler to the paper very briefly.

To give you an idea of what some of these techniques look like up close, here are a couple of details from my final drawing.

I was bit disappointed that I couldn't produce pyrotechnics today, but this wasn't a bad substitute. It gives you a weird sort of sketchy pointillist effect, unlike the more amorphous look of fumage, but I liked it enough to try it again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 2010, an elephant was discovered swimming in the ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka, far from shore and obviously tiring. Although elephants are good swimmers, it was thought that this particular elephant may have become disoriented in rough seas. Often barely able to keep its trunk above water to breath, the elephant looked to be in imminent danger of drowning.

The Sri Lanka Navy sent out a team to try and bring the elephant back to shore. Early attempts to corral the elephant using two small boats seemed only to panic the animal, so a couple of sailors dove into the water with a rope to tie around the elephant and help pull it to shore.

This was a risky move. Not only were the seas quite rough, but trying to get close to a thrashing, tired elephant is not an easy proposition. After a couple of tries, however, the men managed to tether the elephant and started up the boat.

Making its way slowly to shore with the elephant doing its best to paddle behind, the boat finally got the elephant close enough to shore that it could stand up. Or sit down, in this case, as the elephant was obviously exhausted.

The video below shows the rescue from start to finish. The image quality is poor, and the commentary is (I think) in Sinhalese, but you'll get the idea.

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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