Friday, 13 July 2012

Elephant No. 285: The Droste Effect

I came across this technique a few weeks ago, and thought it would be fun to try for today's elephant.

The Droste effect is named for an image on packages of Droste cocoa powder. The image featured a nurse carrying a tray of hot chocolate, which also bore a box of Droste cocoa, on which the nurse was, of course, was depicted carrying a box of Droste cocoa, featuring an image of herself carrying a box of cocoa powder, and so on to infinity. The image was first introduced in 1904, and lasted for many years with slight adjustments.

Original Droste Cocoa package, 1904.

Although this kind of image has come to be called the Droste effect, I usually associate it with Pot of Gold chocolates. The image on the chocolate box when I was a child featured a woman holding a box of Pot of Gold chocolates on which she was pictured holding a box of chocolates on which she was get the idea. I liked the box so much that I kept a few childhood treasures in one for a few years.

Vintage Pot of Gold chocolates box.

Despite the relatively modern name for this technique, it has actually been around for centuries. Traditionally known as mise en abyme or mise in abîme (literally "placed into the abyss"), it was a common concept in medieval art. For example, in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, there is a mosaic in which Justinian I offers the Virgin Mary and Jesus the Hagia Sophia (which, by inference, contains the mosaic depicted), while Constantine I offers the city of Constantinople, which in turn contains the Hagia Sophia. Similarly, in the Stefaneschi Triptych in Vatican City, the artist Giotto portrays Cardinal Stefaneschi offering the triptych itself to St. Peter.

The central panel of this triptych, ca. 1320, features Cardinal Stefaneschi (in the
left foreground) offering the triptych to St. Peter.
Giotto (ca. 1266–1337)
Collection of the Pinacoteca Vaticano, Vatican City.

Mise en abyme was also used in paintings featuring facing mirrors that reflected one another into infinity. If you've ever flipped a medicine cabinet mirror around to face a wall mirror in your bathroom, you've likely seen this phenomenon at work.

The Droste effect and mise en abyme are both forms of "recursion", which is defined as a process of repeating things in a self-referential way. Recursion has been used in art, heraldry, mathematics, computer science and literature, as well as in film, where a common form of recursion is the dream-within-a-dream structure.

For today's elephant, I decided that I wanted to make something that showed an elephant holding a bag of peanuts—even though they don't really love peanuts. Rather than work on a sheet of paper or bristol board, I thought it would be interesting to work on an actual paper bag. I wanted a white bag, but brown was all I could find.

Taking a page out of the Droste/Pot of Gold playbook, I sketched an elephant holding a bag of peanuts featuring an elephant holding a bag of peanuts, and so on. The sketch didn't photograph very well, so I won't include a picture here.

I started by roughing in the grey paint on all four elephants in my sketch. I used acrylic paint, thinking it would be more likely to sit on the surface of the paper. Although it did absorb into the paper to a certain extent, it was probably far less than any other kind of paint would have done.

Next, I added some pink and white for the tusks. I also added yellow lettering on two of the four panels, and a wiggly hint of yellow on a third. On the smallest of the four, it was impossible to add anything.

When I was finished painting, I could see that I was going to have to use a fine pigment liner to add a bit of definition. I could have painted the black with a brush on the largest elephant, but it would have been quite hard on the smaller ones, even with my smallest brush, which is a 12/0.

One of the things you'll find if you try this is that you obviously have to let detail go as the figures get smaller. The smallest elephant here, for example, is a bunch of tiny blobs which don't look anything like the largest elephant.

This was easier than I thought, once I had the general idea of what I wanted to do. Drawing my first sketch was a bit challenging, because the bag is relatively narrow, making it somewhat difficult to fit in a series of smaller drawings. I also had to cheat the size of the bag that the largest elephant is holding. If it was actually correctly proportioned, relative to the size of the elephant, it would be more like a 10-kg (22-pound) bag of potatoes, rather than a small brown paper bag of peanuts.

I didn't have a lot of time today to fuss with detail, so the smaller elephants are sketchy. It would be easier to do something like this with computer software, of course, but there's something rather fun about drawing and painting it instead. It took me about an hour to draw and paint this, plus about half an hour to figure out the sketch.

I don't know that I would do something like this often, but it was fun enough that I'll definitely try it again.

Elephant Lore of the Day
It's not exactly a Droste effect picture-within-a-picture, but when I came across the logo for Mister Ed's Elephant Museum in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, I was intrigued.

Logo for Mister Ed's Elephant Museum, Pennsylvania.

Part roadside attraction and part retail outlet, Mister Ed's Elephant Museum is home to more than 10,000 elephant-themed items, ranging from decorative sculptures and stuffed toys to a hairdryer. The museum is attached to Mister Ed's Candy Emporium, which sells a wide range of candy and nuts, as well as Elephant Museum souvenirs.

The collection began in 1967, when owner Ed Gotwalt received an elephant as a wedding present. Most of the collection is housed in a separate room, although there are also elephants in the shop and on the grounds. The motto of the shop—written in large script on one of the walls—comes from P.T. Barnum: "When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant."

For more on Mister Ed's Elephant Museum, including pictures, click here.

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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