Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Elephant No. 338: Painting with a Toothbrush

While researching spatter painting with a toothbrush several months ago, I came across the idea of actually using a toothbrush as a painting tool, rather than a tool for simply flicking paint at a canvas. So today I thought I'd finally try it.

Although the most common toothbrush technique involves flicking paint from the bristles, some artists use toothbrushes directly on the paper or canvas itself, just as you'd use a paintbrush. Although there doesn't appear to be a substantial amount of toothbrush-as-paintbrush art out there, the video below—featuring artist Ivan Vesely—will give you an idea of how it's done.

I bought a trio of toothbrushes for today's activity because I liked the diamond shape of the bristles on these. All three cost me a dollar at the grocery store, so it wasn't a big investment.

For paint, I decided to use gouache, and I decided to paint on mid-range watercolour paper. I thought about using acrylics and canvas, but I liked the idea of gouache, because it reactivates with water. If it could be reactivated, I reasoned, it might be more blendable.

Because the technique looks like it results in something fairly abstract, I decided to start from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose:

Laura the elephant, during her visit to Randall Elementary School in
Taylor, Michigan, October 2009.
Source: http://www.thenewsherald.com/articles/2009/10/03/news/

This is the toothbrush I chose to use. It was the smallest of the three, and I thought it would give me the most control and finesse—if you can call it that when painting with a toothbrush.

I started by, yes, spatter-painting the background. I didn't want the buildings and trees from the photograph, so I just lightly spattered a random series of colours.

Once I was happy with the background, I began painting the elephant. I used very light strokes to start with, as I wasn't quite sure what I was doing.

I noticed a couple of things right away. One was that, if the brush was a bit on the wet side, it smeared the paint quite a lot. The other was that using almost full-strength gouache straight from the tube gave me a look I preferred.

I added more colours, playing with the way I used the toothbrush.

I found that, if I really rubbed the brush into the surface, it gave me a nice blending effect. By the same token, if I loaded the tip of the toothbrush with heavy paint, I could make relatively fine lines and dots. The worst moments were when I either had a brush that was too wet, or too loaded with paint, resulting in a big blob, or a smeary mess. Luckily, this could be fixed by simply layering on more paint.

Using a toothbrush as a paintbrush is a bit of a strange experience. It offers a level of control that's somewhere between a palette knife and a paintbrush—perhaps even slightly less than a palette knife.

That being said, I actually quite like the final result. It's got a rough and crazy look that reminds me of Francis Bacon or Willem de Kooning, but I like the way the colours work together, and I didn't mind the crude brushwork.

It took me about an hour and a half to produce this once the spatter painting was dry—mostly because it took me about half an hour to figure out how to actually paint with a toothbrush. In the end, however, I was pretty happy with the technique, and will probably use it again if I'm in the mood for something with a wild sort of vibe.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although it would obviously take forever to clean an elephant with a toothbrush, a good scrubbing is actually quite beneficial.

At many tourist facilities featuring elephants, guests are invited to climb into the water with elephants and give them a scrubbing with long-handled brushes. At zoos, elephants are often scrubbed as well, as a way of cleaning and conditioning their skin.

In Kerala, which has a long history of domesticating elephants, they take a slightly different approach to scrubbing. Although elephants are bathed and cleaned with coconut husk on a regular basis, the elephants are also scrubbed with a pumice stone from time to time.

Scrubbing an elephant with pumice, Chitwan National Park, Nepal, 2007.
Photo: Graham Hurst
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/monkeyimages/2126805999/

Logging elephants, in particular, are subjected to scrubbing with pumice. This is done, not to clean the elephants, but to improve skin tone and relax the muscles. There are also a number of beliefs related to pumice scrubs and elephants, based loosely on the concepts of pressure points and chakras.

Scrubbing for more than an hour, for example, is believed to cause an elephant's eyes to water. Juveniles will become weak if scrubbed during musth. Elephant calves and juveniles should never be scrubbed above the knee. And if an elephant becomes too used to a nice pumice scrub, it is likely to experience problems if the practice is discontinued, including arthritic joints.

Scrubbing an elephant with coconut husks, Kothamangalam, Kerala, India, 2007.
Photo: Roxy Mathew
Source: http://www.rocksea.org/elephant-bath-kerala/

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