Thursday, 9 August 2012

Elephant No. 312: Printing with Bubble Wrap

Although I've tried printing with plastic wrap before, I've never tried printing with bubble wrap, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

Bubble wrap was originally a brand name for a product produced by the Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey. The first bubble wrap was actually an accident, discovered in 1957 during a failed attempt to create three-dimensional plastic wallpaper. Although inventors Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes were disappointed in the wallpaper, they did discover that it made excellent packing material, and in 1960 the Sealed Air Corporation was founded.

Bubble wrap is made of transparent plastic, with a series of evenly shaped air bubbles. The bubbles provide cushioning, making it a commonly used packaging material for fragile items. The bubbles come in different sizes, depending on the dimensions of the item being wrapped, although particularly delicate objects are often wrapped in multiple layers. The bubbles can even be made in novelty shapes, such as hearts.

Heart-shaped bubble wrap.

Because the bubbles make a noise when popped, bubble wrap is often used as a sort of toy or stress-reliever. Our obsession with bubble wrap has actually led to the creation of virtual bubble-wrap in the form of online games, and the Mugen Puchipuchi (literally "infinite pop pop"), an electronic toy that simulates the pop of bubble wrap.

The Mugen Puchi Puchi bubble wrap simulator. Some of them also speak
with the voice of various Japanese anime characters.

Bubble wrap has also made its way into the arts. People paint on it, cut it into shapes and print with it, use it in performance art, and create costumes and fashion with it. Best of all—should you be so inclined—on the last Monday in January you can celebrate Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.

Bubble wrap dress by Kate Cusack.

For today's elephant, I had a couple of sizes of bubble wrap—one with small bubbles, and one with large bubbles—graciously provided by my sister.

Rather than try to use it in large strips or sheets, I cut small squares of bubble wrap to use as mini-stamps. 

I started by painting a bit of red paint on one of the squares. I used full-strength acrylic paint so that it would print the bubbles clearly. If the paint was too wet, the bubbles became slightly smeary, and if I used watercolour or gouache, it dried out too quickly.

These were my first few impressions. I discovered early on that it was a good idea to paint only a few bubbles at a time. I also discovered that it was a good idea to pre-plan the pattern I wanted to print.

The technique I used was pretty simple: brush full-strength paint lightly onto the tops of a few bubbles, flip over onto the paper, press gently, then peel away. Once I got the hang of it, it was fairly easy, if slightly tedious.

I liked this well enough, although it was more impressionistic than I somehow thought it would be. Or maybe it's just that I've been painting a lot of realistic stuff lately. I added a few more colours, then decided I liked this baby elephant as it was.

Clearly, this is a very abstract process, and you more or less have to squint to see an elephant. It's kind of fun, but you have to be prepared to get something that's not terribly representational. My next elephant actually looked like bunches of grapes when I started, as you can see below.

I used a similar process as I had with the first elephant, painting a few bubbles at a time and imprinting them wherever I thought they'd look good. I had also discovered that each load of paint could imprint at least twice, and occasionally as much as four times, although obviously the paint was lighter with each subsequent impression. I also tried things like drawing thin lines through the middle of a series of bubbles to see if I could create lines rather than spheres.

At two hours for these two prints, I found this far more time-consuming than I had expected. It's easy enough to paint bubble wrap and slap it onto paper, but it's actually quite fussy to paint the bubble wrap in tiny, specific patterns, then place them where you think they'll work best. 

It was also more difficult than l expected. The bubbles can have a mind of their own in terms of how they print and, athough you can see through the bubble wrap, it's not as easy as you'd think to place the bubbles where you want them. As you can see from the pile of bubble-wrap squares below, I experimented quite a lot.

Although it took longer than I thought it would—or should—I enjoyed printing with bubble wrap. I don't think I'd rush to make an entire piece with bubble wrap again, but as a way of adding areas of texture to a larger work, I think it could be quite interesting.

Elephant Lore of the Day
I've already written about an elephant who liked to rip tents as a sort of bubble wrap, but I didn't realize that elephants also like to play with bubbles. 

Bubble entertainer Fan Yang is known for making the largest bubbles in the world, including one that was big enough to contain an elephant. In preparation for that feat, he spent a couple of weeks interacting with elephants at the Elephant Conservatory in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Part of his time was spent making bubbles, to see how elephants reacted to them.

Fan Yang creates a bubble around Tai the elephant at the Santa Ana
Discovery Center in California.

While Fan Yang knew, of course, that humans liked playing with bubbles, the responses of the elephants astonished him. All of the elephants reacted with delight, chasing after the large bubbles like small children. Noticing that the bubbles came out of a large bubble wand, they also tried repeatedly to blow on the wand in order to produce their own bubbles.

Similarly, zoos and elephant preserves have long been aware that elephants love bubbles. Bubbles are often included in elephant-enrichment programs, and bubble machines frequently appear on the wish lists for zoos and other facilities with elephants.

Elephants also like to blow bubbles with their trunks. Although this is not a common activity for elephants, baby elephants—both captive and in the wild—seem to take particular delight in blowing bubbles in the water, as seen in the video below.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Haha, you're right! I wonder how comfortable they are...