Saturday, 25 August 2012

Elephant No. 328: Scumbling

Although I used a dry brush technique for a previous blog entry, apparently scumbling is something different, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

As far as I can tell, scumbling involves applying relatively thick, dry paint to a surface in a circular movement. So I suppose it's a bit like circulism with paint.

The usual purpose of scumbling is to soften edges in atmospheric landscapes and similar types of work. Because the paint is "see-through", and because scumbling generally involves painting light colours over dark, scumbling can give a painting a sense of depth, similar to applying multiple glazes.

Since I figured I might end up with something rather impressionistic, I decided to start from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose, which I also used for my painted metal pail. I chose this photograph because it has large expanses of colour and a nice range of tonal values.

A teenage elephant makes a warning charge, Okavango Delta, Botswana, 2010.
Photo: Nick Pattinson

Because scumbling apparently has to be done over dry paint, I decided to use acrylics. I also chose to work on a 20 x 25 cm (8 x 10-inch) canvas board today, thinking that this might be the most sturdy surface for a process that would probably destroy even heavy watercolour paper.

I started by roughing in the elephant shape in blue. Right away, I could see that the brush I'd chosen was going to be ruined by the time I was finished this painting. Luckily I had chosen a cheap brush. The most important thing is that the brush be relatively stiff. Quality isn't that important, except that you don't want it to be so cheap that it loses bristles all over your work.

I roughed in the background next. I didn't plan to do a very elaborate background, so scumbling was a perfect technique. At this point, I was using fairly watered-down paint. I know you're supposed to use thick, dryish paint, but I liked the subtlety of watery paint.

I added purple to the elephant next, then green.

After this, I added yellow, orange and red, shading and shaping the elephant with colour.

At this point, I felt it was more or less ready for highlights and shadows. I used white with just a touch of blue in it for the highlights. This time I used the paint almost full strength, although I put very little paint on the brush each time.

For the shadows, I used a very dark grey, just touching it to the end of the bristles and scumbling it into the surface.

This was quite an easy technique, although it doesn't allow for a high degree of precision. However, if you're okay with something Impressionistic, this is great. I really liked the way the final piece shimmered, which is perhaps partly due to the colours I chose, as well as the layering and glazing effect of the scumbling.

It took me about an hour and a half to paint this, and I'm quite happy with the final piece. As far as I can tell, many people use scumbling for backgrounds and landscapes, but I think it works very nicely for a elephant, too.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants often appear relatively placid and gentle. However, according to Henry Sheak—a man who spent most of his life with elephants—frightened elephants are a force to be reckoned with. "When an elephant is badly scared," he said, "he becomes panic-stricken and takes complete leave of his senses. Then he is likely to run over you, trample on you, or crush you against something."

In a 1923 article, Sheak also described the sad fate of George William Lockhart, a famous Victorian elephant trainer. Lockhart's four elephants had stampeded in the past at various venues near London, and it was in a stampede that Lockhart was killed. One morning in 1904, while Lockhart was loading his elephants at Walthamstow Station in London, something frightened the small herd.

Poster for Lockhart's elephants, although whether these are George William Lockhart's
elephants, or his brother Sam's, is unclear.

In a blind panic, the elephants began careening through the rail yards, with Lockhart in pursuit. A large bull elephant named Sauce, in a mad terror, accidentally crushed Lockhart against the side of a rail car, killing him.

Oddly enough, after Lockhart's death, his elephants became celebrities in their own right. Sold on to a series of other owners, the two most famous elephants in Lockhart's herd—Salt and Sauce—went on to live long lives. Despite accidentally killing other handlers, they remained well-loved in the press. Salt, a male elephant, lived until 1952, and Sauce lived until 1960, eventually dying at a holiday camp in Skegness.

Salt and Sauce with little Mary Burt, 1947.

According to Sheak, elephants are normally very careful animals and—unless enraged, in musth or terrified—will rarely hurt a man, even accidentally. Sheak noted that he had walked for hours in circus rings with elephants, giving them exercise, and never suffered even the slightest touch of an elephant's foot. On the other hand, when he walked horses around the ring to accustom them to the elephants, the horses were constantly stepping all over him. Having been stepped on by horses more times than I can count, this doesn't surprise me.


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