Saturday, 28 July 2012

Elephant No. 300: Painted Terracotta Flower Pot

I've painted terracotta flower pots before, but it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I thought of painting one with an elephant.

Flower pots have been used for millennia. In earlier times, they were often used simply as a way to move plants from one garden location to another, or to transport them from region to region. Although the Romans may have been the first to put plants in pots in order to bring them inside when the weather turned cold, the Greeks had long been growing certain varieties in indoor receptacles. Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks also threw earthenware flower pots into the sea during the festival of the Gardens of Adonis.

During the great scientific expeditions of the eighteenth century, large numbers of flower pots were brought along. They served as ballast on the outward voyage, and as containers for exotic plant specimens on the way home.

The eighteenth century also saw the rise of flower pots as decorative items. Flower pots produced by Josiah Wedgwood, for example, were highly decorative. Often created in the form of elaborate centrepieces for the dining table, in their day they were as popular as his famous dinnerware.

Bulb pot by Josiah Wedgwood, 18th century.

Today, flower pots are made in all kinds of materials, from plastic to porcelain, as well as biodegradable materials such as peat and coconut husk.

Terracotta—from the Latin terra cotta meaning "baked earth"—has long been a common material for inexpensive flower pots. Terracotta itself is an unglazed clay-based earthenware with a porous body when fired. For millennia, it has been used to make containers, roofing tiles, water pipes, bricks, and sculptures such as China's Terracotta Army and the Tanagra figurines of Ancient Greece.

Tanagra figure of young woman, ca. 300 B.C.

Because of its relatively low firing temperature, terracotta is the earliest type of ceramic in most cultures. Often dried in the sun before firing, rudimentary terracotta can be hardened simply by placing it in the ashes of an open hearth. To qualify as a ceramic, however, it needs to be fired in a kiln to a temperature of about 1000˚C (1832˚F).

The colour of terracotta comes from the iron content in the clay. Although not watertight, even after being fired, terracotta can be burnished to make it slightly less porous. It can also, of course, be glazed.

Roman box-flue tile, ca. A.D. 100–200. Although the surface of this piece of
terracotta was highly decorated, it would never be seen as part of a heating system.
Collection of the British Museum, London.
Photo: Ag Tigress

Today, terracotta is still produced in most countries around the world, for uses which include flower pots and other vessels, roofing tiles, architectural elements, and sculptures. Although not as durable as many other materials, terracotta is inexpensive to produce, and is obviously easier to sculpt than materials such as marble or stone.

Pre-Columbian terracotta sculpture of a peccary or javelina,
Costa Rica, ca. 300 B.C. to A.D. 500.

For today's elephant, I bought a terracotta pot and tray at the dollar store for about two dollars. The pot measures about 25 cm (10 inches) high, and has a diameter of about 15 cm (6 inches).

I decided to sponge-paint a green background onto the flower pot before adding an elephant, so I bought a cellulose sponge as well, and cut off a few shaped pieces to use for the background. I find a wedge shape works best for this, but I cut a rectangle and a pointy piece as well, just in case.

I prefer cellulose sponges for this kind of work for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that the sponge is more rigid than a synthetic sponge. It's also more porous, which makes for an interesting pattern. This porosity also makes it absorbent, which can be helpful for work like this.

I poured a few shades of green acrylic paint into a palette and began sponging on the colour. I didn't bother to seal the surface with anything, which meant that the first layer of paint absorbed into the surface a little. However, because I used the paint more or less full strength, it didn't absorb as much as it would have if I'd watered it down.

The other advantage to using thicker paint is that it quickly builds up and seals itself. Once I'd gotten past the first colour or two, I occasionally watered the paint down very slightly, but for the first coats, I wanted to make the paint thicker.

I started with a medium green, sponging all over both the pot and the tray. I also painted over the lip and partly inside both pieces, as well as over the bottom edge and onto the bottom of each. I like to do this because it makes for a less abrupt switch from painted surface to terracotta pot.

I added yellow next, sponging across the surfaces to lay in the basic colour, then going over everything again to blend the colours a bit more and give it a slightly soft-focus effect.

After this, I added a sage green, then a forest green, then went back to medium green, followed by yellow, finishing up with hunter green. I meant to take a photograph of the final background, sans elephant, but I forgot.

The idea I had was to make it look like an elephant sort of emerging from a forest. I wanted the elephant to be somewhat realistic, so I decided to work from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

African elephant.

I actually sketched part of the outline of the elephant onto the painted pot with a pencil, using a plain old white plastic eraser to remove any lines I didn't like. I was surprised at how resilient the painted surface was to pencil and eraser.

I began painting the elephant by blocking in the major sections of grey.

After this, I more or less just kept painting with various shades of grey and brown until I thought the elephant was about as good as it was going to get. I was starting to head down the road of overworking everything, so I quit while I was ahead.

I liked the way it looked in general, but I thought it needed a bit of finishing. I left the elephant as it was, but added gold lines to the rim of both the pot and the tray.

I thought it still needed a touch more, so I sprinkled fine dots of the same gold onto the green background. I purposely made the pattern of gold dots a bit more dense on the rims of both pot and tray.

It took me a total of about two and a half hours to make this, some of which was spent waiting for things to dry a bit. It isn't a hard activity at all, and might be a fun thing to do with kids.

The sponge-painting was a bit tedious, and I hate trying to paint a straight line on a curved surface, but I'm very happy with the final piece. In fact, I may even resurrect my green thumb so that I can actually use it.

Elephant Lore of the Day
As described in a previous blog post, the origins of the Borneo pygmy elephant are somewhat mysterious. Because they tend to be much more gentle and less agressive than mainland Asian elephants, it has long been thought that they are descended from an abandoned domestic herd.

Even their appearance suggests that the Borneo pygmy elephant is the cuddly teddy bear of the elephant world. They are about twenty per cent smaller than Indian elephants, and are also rather round in shape. They have long tails that often trail along the ground, a sort of pushed-in face, and a shorter trunk than most Asian elephants. Even the males are more often tuskless than not.

Apparently, however, they are innately hostile to any manmade object within their forest range. In the state of Sabah, Borneo pygmy elephants will actually seek out and trample any traps laid by local villagers to catch small animals. They are similarly aggressive towards any form of human settlement that encroaches on what they perceive to be their territory, and have been known to destroy lean-tos, fencing, animal enclosures and huts.

Borneo pygmy elephant.

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