Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Elephant No. 121: Hold-to-Light Images

I found a few of these in a strange little box of visual puzzles and optical illusions that I've had for years, and thought they'd be an interesting thing to try for today's elephant. And yep, "hold-to-light" is their technical name.

The concept is simple. On the front, there is a conventional image of some sort. When it is held up to the light, however, it changes in some way. This is because the reverse side features elements such as an altered background, additional figures, black to block out the light, and so forth. In more elaborate versions, there are either holes in the card, or a translucent or transparent film through which the light shines through, evoking the moon or stars, for example.

Most hold-to-light images were sold as postcards or advertising cards. Today, there are many aficionados and collectors of hold-to-light cards, and various opinions on what constitutes a "real" hold-to-light image.

To give you an idea of how this works, I've shown three of the ones I have, from the front, from the back, and with light shining through from behind.

Napoleon Powerful & Napoleon Powerless, ca. 1840.
No. 10 in Spooner's Protean Views: "At sunset on St. Helena,
Napoleon dreams."
Source: Julian Rothenstein, The Paradox Box: Optical
Illusions, Puzzling Pictures, Verbal Diversions
London: Shambala Redstone Editions, 1999.

Universal Clothes Wringer advertising card, 1880.
Source: Julian Rothenstein, The Paradox Box: Optical Illusions,
Puzzling Pictures, Verbal Diversions
, London: Shambala Redstone
Editions, 1999.

The Destruction of Pompeii, 19th century.
Source: Julian Rothenstein, The Paradox Box: Optical Illusions,
Puzzling Pictures, Verbal Diversions
, London: Shambala Redstone
Editions, 1999.

For today's elephant, I thought I'd try to make a couple of these. Nothing quite so spectacular or detailed as the example above, I'm afraid, but you'll get the idea if you want to try this on your own.

I couldn't find any instructions online on how to create these, so you'll only have my made-up technique to go by for now. But I think it's probably no more involved than what I've described below.

I figured that the most important thing here was paper choice. It needed to be thin enough to let light through, but heavy enough to take drawing and/or ink on both sides of the paper, without anything bleeding through. I used an inexpensive sketchpad paper, cut into relatively small 11.4 x 14.6 cm (4.5 x 5.75-inch) sheets, and decided to use a fine-point artist's pen and coloured pencils. I decided against paint, because I didn't want the paper to get too wibbly.

To start, I lightly sketched an elephant on the front. When I was happy with it, I darkened the lines with ink. I decided to save the colouring for later, just in case I ran out of time.

Once the front was dark enough to see when held up to the light and viewed from the other side, I flipped it over and added whatever extra details I liked. As with the thaumatrope, you can use a lightbox, a window with light shining through, or a piece of glass over a lamp to help you draw the reverse image.

I then coloured both front and back. Colouring isn't really necessary; it just made it look more finished to me. Besides, I like colour.

Here is what each looks like from the front, then from the back, followed by what it looks like with light shining through. Normally the back would feature a full scene that holds together visually on its own when flipped over—although this is not always the case, even in traditional hold-to-light images. It's been a long day for me, so I wasn't quite creative enough to think of an entire scene, although I tried to go in that direction in the second one I made.

I liked this activity. It would be a fun thing to do for kids, and would probably make cool greeting cards. It's certainly not difficult, and each drawing took me only about half an hour, including colouring time.

Next time I do this, however, I think I'd try to make full scenes on both sides. But for now, I really like the way these look when held up to the light, and the colour comes through quite nicely. Despite my rather childish scrawls, they even look vaguely vintage in the right light.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Despite their size, adult elephants have been known to hide from humans. Some of them are even quite good at it.

Elephants generally choose brush and jungle as their hiding places, and seem to have developed an uncanny instinct for the types of patterns that best conceal them. The two photographs below show elephants hiding in plain sight. For an elephant caught in the act of disappearing, check out this video.

Elephant hiding in bush in Tamil Nadu, India.
Photo: Bernhard Hiller
Source: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/45746363.jpg
If you can't see the elephant, look slightly to the right of centre, about 40% up
from the bottom of the image, and you might glimpse its back and the top of its head.

Elephant hiding in bush in Kenya.
Source: kenyawebcam.com
Source: http://kenyawebcam.com/month.pl?action=
This one is a little easier to find, if you look along the righthand side of the image.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

Monday, 30 January 2012

Elephant No. 120: Punch-Needle Embroidery

While researching a different technique online, I came across a video for punch-needle embroidery, and thought I'd try it for today's elephant. I've had a punch needle for years, but only tried it once and somehow couldn't get the hang of it. So today's elephant promised to be interesting. Or annoying.

Punch-needle embroidery has been around since the time of the Ancient Egyptians, who used the hollow bones of birds' wings as needles. The technique was used extensively in Europe during the Middle Ages, often to decorate ecclesiastical vestments and panels. In modern times, it became largely associated with a Russian religious sect known as the Old Believers. There is also a Japanese punch-needle tradition called bunka shishu, which is characterized by delicately shaded florals and nature-based scenes.

Punch-needle embroidery is used both for fine embroidery and for rug-hooking. In rug-hooking, the technique is referred to as "punch-stitch" and dates back to the fifteenth century A.D. Sailors on long voyages often made rugs using this technique, and punch-stitch rug-hooking was largely a hobby for seafarers. By the late nineteenth century, interest in this form of rug-hooking had declined, although it has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years.

Woman doing bunka work with rayon thread, during a course at the
Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto.
Source: http://www.jccc.on.ca/cultural_arts/bunkashishu.htm
Cultural Centre in Vancouver.

Just about any kind of filamented fibre can be used in punch-needle work, from heavy yarns to fine silk thread. Punch-needle embroidery is sometimes called "thread-painting" for its use in creating landscapes and other scenes.

The technique is simple in concept: thread a hollow needle. Punch it through a closely-woven fabric. Repeat. The punching creates tufted loops which are held in place by both the weave of the fabric, and any additional stitches you punch over top.

I bought my punch needle in India years ago from an itinerant street vendor, who was embroidering as he was walking. I hadn't intended to buy anything, but he was so persistent—and his embroidery so nice—that I ended up buying a punch needle and embroidery thread from him. I promptly discovered that he had made it look easy, since I could never reproduce the effect. I do think, however, that the punch needle itself—with its handmade tube, needle and wire coils—is a thing of beauty.

In addition to my abortive attempts at punch-needle embroidery, I also dimly remember trying punch-needle rug-hooking in a high school art class. Despite Mrs. Stinson's best efforts, I think I wasn't great at rug-hooking, either. So, although I love the way punch-needle work looks, I may lack the knack.

For today's elephant, I decided to try a closely-woven muslin as a backing fabric, some cotton embroidery thread in various colours, and my Indian punch needle.

I quickly discovered that the muslin didn't have a tight enough weave, so I tried several other fabrics, including canvas, dupioni silk and a horsehair interfacing. I finally settled on a midnight blue cotton velveteen. It wasn't ideal, but it at least held most of the stitches.

To start, the six-stranded embroidery floss should be separated into two bundles of three strands each.

Next, you feed one of the three-strand pieces onto a special punch-needle threader, and feed the whole thing through the punch needle.

Once the needle is threaded, you're ready to stitch, usually working from the back. Japanese bunka shisha is different in this respect, so don't go by the photograph in the intro section above.

You can draw a design to use as a guide—drawing it on the back, obviously—although this isn't necessary. I didn't bother to draw anything. After the trouble it took to test and find the right fabric, I just wanted to get started.

I started by making a few closely spaced stitches. They still wanted to pop out of the fabric, but eventually I figured out how tightly to space them, and how far to pull the needle out of the fabric before plunging it back in.

 It was a long and frustrating exercise, which made me forget to photograph any of the process. I did most of the elephant in grey, then added a bit of pink to the mouth, ear and tip of the trunk.

The back is messy in today's effort.

The front is messier.

Because I intended to cut off the ends of most of the loops on the front to create a sort of chenille effect—and to tidy it up, truth be told—I smoothed a layer of white glue onto the back. I added enough glue to secure the stitches, but not enough that it would sink through to the other side. You could also use something like a heat-fusible material. Some people don't secure the back at all; however, given how hard this was for me, I was sure it would fall apart if I didn't glue it somehow.

Once I'd clipped most of the loops and sort of sculpted the right side, I added a small polished piece of gold-flecked black stone as an eye.

Although I like the final result well enough, I really disliked this activity, mostly because it frustrated me. If I'd had a fabric that was more cooperative—something called "weaver's cloth" seems to be the recommended thing—it might have been more enjoyable. Most people seem to find this easy and fun. Sadly, I didn't.

That doesn't mean, however, that I'll never try it again. But I might retire my Indian punch needle for my next attempt. And hunt down the proper cloth.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Astonishingly, elephants can be killed by a single snake. The giant king cobra—which can measure up to 5.6 metres (18.5 feet) in length—is one of the world's deadliest creatures.

King cobras are found in Asia, and will attack even if not provoked. Although it doesn't happen often, they will attack and kill elephants by striking the elephant either at the tip of its trunk, or on its foot, where the toenails join the skin. Both are vulnerable points on an elephant's otherwise thick hide.

The venom contained in an adult king cobra's poison sacs can kill humans and smaller animals within a very short time. Although the poison in king cobra venom is not as concentrated as that of other poisonous snakes, it is able to deliver an immense amount of venom. This is largely because of its ability to hold on for longer than most other snakes, once it has locked onto its prey.

With an ability to inject as much as 7 ml of venom at a time, a king cobra can cause the death of a full-sized Asian elephant within a few hours.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Elephant No. 119: Étrécissement

Since I kind of like cutting up paper, and wanted to do something relatively easy today, I thought I'd try étrécissement. 

Étrécissement is a Surrealist technique, invented in the 1950s by Belgian Surrealist Marcel Mariën. When he first started his artistic career, Mariën apparently couldn't draw, so instead he used media such as collage, decoupage and assemblages of found objects—ultimately leading him to create the étrécissement technique. Although I could find no root meaning for étrécissement, I'm guessing that the word itself is Surrealist, reworking the French "être" (to be) and "ciseaux" (scissors).

La Paix en guerre (Peace During Wartime), 1940
Marcel Mariën (1920–1993)
Collection of the Tate Britain, London
Source: http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/

It's easy to create an étrécissement: simply cut away parts of an existing image or images, either to reveal a new image or to "encourage" something new. It can be similar to collage or decoupage when a series of images are used; in its purest form, however, a single image is nibbled away to create something different.

L'Alotiste (The Woman from Alost), 1966
Marcel Mariën (1920–1993)
Collection of the Tate Britain, London
Source: http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/

Rather than simply cut elephant shapes willy-nilly out of existing photographs, which struck me as being too easy, I decided that I had to follow only existing lines within the images I chose. I also thought it might be interesting to use pictures of other wildlife, to see if I could find the elephant within.

I allowed myself to follow any line of shading I liked, as long as it actually existed on the page. This didn't always result in the effect I thought it would, but there was usually enough going on in each photograph that I could find at least a few lines that worked. 

I didn't use templates or drawings to guide me, but I don't think it would be cheating if you started that way. Another thing I found helpful in some cases was to begin by cutting along a line that clearly looked to me like part of an ear or a trunk, then snip off smaller bits of the rest of the photograph until the elephant began taking shape. Most of my étrécissements are not perfect, or even moderately elegant shapes, but I think they work well enough.

When I chose the photos, I chose pictures that I thought might be hiding an elephant, although I couldn't see an entire outline in any of them when I started. For those of you who want to play along, I've included the original photo, followed by my étrécissement.

Male lion in Africa.
Photo: Chris Johns
Source: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/african-lion/

Camel with kid.
Source: http://www.oxstyle.com/2010/12/camel.html

Zebra at the Frankfurt Zoo, Germany.
Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/AP
Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2009/jan/15/

Gorilla closeup.
Source: http://www.monkey-pictures.net/gorilla_pictures.html

Jammu and Kashmir police with assault rifles.
Source: http://impunitywatch.com/?p=12687

Tiger in a zoo.
Source: http://animals.howstuffworks.com/mammals/tiger-info.htm

Common house mouse.
Photo: Ilse Schmeller
Source: http://animals.yakohl.com/pop.php?pid=129

White rhinoceros.
Photo: photolibrary.com
Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/White_Rhinoceros

Panorama of people in India.
Source: http://www.lucmissinne.be/

This was a very easy exercise in many respects. Although the lines don't always exist where you want them, if you choose a photograph with lots going on, you can probably find something to work with. This actually reminded me a lot of my mapping experiment, but was slightly easier—which is why I did several. Even at that, it took me just under an hour to cut all of these.

I personally wouldn't do this as a hobby or my main art practice, but it was an interesting experience, and I can already see how more elaborate versions could be used in larger works.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants actually don't like climbing hills, largely because of the energy it requires. In Kenya, scientists have discovered that elephants use only three-quarters of their 32,115-square-kilometre (12,400-square-mile) habitat, likely because the rest is too hilly. For a four-tonne (8,800-pound) elephant, it would take a whopping 25,000 extra calories a day for every vertical metre (3.3 feet) it climbed. That's 2500% more than it takes to walk on a level surface.

One elephant, however, decided that he might actually like the view from the top of Mount Kenya, 4,267 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level. Icy Mike scaled the frigid heights of the mountain—and stayed there. No one is sure why Mike climbed the mountain, but they do know why he decided to stay up there for the rest of his life. According to Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, an elephant climbing down a hill needs even more energy for braking.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation