Friday, 20 July 2012

Elephant No. 292: Push-Pin Art

I'd never thought of making a picture with push-pins, until I ran across some of the astonishing images people create. So I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

The push-pin, with its large plastic head, is sometimes described as a "pin with a handle". It was invented in the early twentieth century by Edwin Moore, who started his company in 1900 with an investment of only $112.60. Each afternoon and evening, Moore would go to a room he had rented, where he devoted his time to making push-pins. And each morning, he would make the rounds of local businesses, selling what he had made the night before. His first sale was one gross (144) of push-pins for $2.00. His next large order was for $75.00 worth of of push-pins, and his first big deal was for $1,000, sold to the Eastman Kodak Company. 

Early advertisement for Moore's original push-pin.

Once he was well established, Moore began advertising. His first national advertisement appeared in the American magazine, The Ladies Home Journal, costing him a not-insignificant $168.00. His company continued to grow, and in 1904 was incorporated as the Moore Push-Pin Company. Over the next few years, Moore branched out, inventing and patenting many other similar items, including picture hooks and map tacks.

For 65 years, from 1912 to 1977, the Moore Push-Pin Company was located in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Today, the company is located in a suburb outside Philadelphia, where it still manufactures small items such as push-pins.

In addition to using push-pins as a way to attach paper to a bulletin board, artists are now using massive quantities of push-pins to make portraits and other detailed designs—sometimes as a group activity—as seen in the video below. To create portraits like this, a pre-printed grid of coloured dots—similar to what you'd see if looked at a magazine page through a magnifying glass—is often used as a guide.

For today's elephant, I bought a couple of multicoloured packs of push-pins, for about six dollars. This gave me a total of 600 push-pins, in two slightly different sizes, and five colours in slightly different shades: white, yellow, red, green and blue. I figured that I could probably make something vaguely realistic using these colours, since magazine images are usually composed of either cyan-magenta-yellow-black, or red-green-blue.

To try and imitate the realistic look of the push-pin portraits I like, I thought I'd work from a photograph. I chose the following photograph, which I've used before:

Asian elephant, Arnhem, Netherlands, 2010.
Photo: Foto Martien

I had a new bulletin board on hand—measuring 45 x 60 cm (18 x 24 inches)—so I pulled it out to use for this elephant. I had a sinking feeling that this might be a very time-consuming activity. I also wasn't sure 600 pins was going to do it.

I started out by placing "anchor" pins just to help outline the shape. I knew that I could move them later, and that I could also change the colours, so I didn't pay a lot of attention to colour and didn't agonize over the shape at this point. I also decided to use only half of the bulletin board, just in case.

This looked like a good enough base to start with, but I could already see that I was likely to run out of some colours, and end up with too many of others. I could also see that these bright primary colours weren't really going to allow for something terribly realistic, so I decided to insert the rest of the pins based on tonal value rather than colour, and just hope for the best.


At this point, it was beginning to remind me of an Australian Aboriginal dot painting, and I thought briefly about going for that look instead. Then I decided it would make more sense to just go with my first plan.

Now it was beginning to remind me of a heat map of an elephant. Surprisingly, I had actually ended up with some of the yellows, whites and reds in the right places for such a thing. But that wasn't my original idea, so I can't take credit for being that clever. And I still continued on with my original idea of using the tonal values of the pins to shade the elephant.

It took me about two hours to make the final elephant, but it wasn't particularly difficult. I didn't have to remove a lot of push-pins to place them elsewhere, and the only real casualty was my right thumb, which got rather sore from pushing nearly 600 pins into a somewhat unforgiving surface.

As you can see in the photograph below, I wasn't great about precise spacing, but I don't think it really mattered in the end.

I suppose this was a lot like creating a pointillist painting, but with push-pins rather than dots of paint. If I'd had more time, I probably would have painted something to use underneath to guide me. Or I might even have made a dotted diagram to use. And I might have bought more push-pins in better colours.

All that aside, I quite like the final elephant. I think the shape is rather nice, and the colours kind of work. Particularly if you squint.

Elephant Lore of the Day
White elephants are not actually white, but a pale grey or reddish brown. They have light eyelashes and toenails, and actually turn a sort of pink when wet.

For centuries, white elephants have been treasured in Burma, where their rare appearances are thought to herald good fortune and political change. And in June 2010—an election year in Burma—a white female elephant was captured by officials in the town of Maungtaw on Burma's western coast. She was thought to be about 38 years of age, and was apparently captured in the wild.

Because of the link between white elephants and political change, the elephant's capture was thought to be an important omen for elections scheduled later that year—Burma's first elections in two decades. Similar discoveries of white elephants in Burma in 2001 and 2002 had been viewed by opposition parties as bolstering support for their cause.

At the time of her capture, it wasn't known where the elephant would be housed. Hopefully she didn't end up in a tug-of-war between two opposing sides.

White female elephant discovered in western Burma in 2010.

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. Oh my dear, your posts are amazing! Not only do you give us an elephant, but you give us history, and big ideas, and lovely stories. Thank you.

  2. Thanks so much! What a sweet (and touching) thing to say. You made my day!