Saturday, 28 September 2013

Elephant No. 26: Jackson Pollock Elephant


I bought a jar of Golden's Clear Tar Gel a week ago, after seeing an online video about it. I liked the way it could be coloured and drizzled, so I thought it would be a great thing to use in making a Jackson Pollock-style elephant.

For those of you not familiar with Jackson Pollock's work, he was probably best known for his floor-sized canvases, onto which he dripped, drizzled and flung enamel house paint.

Jackson Pollock creating Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), ca. 1950.
Photo: © 1999 Estate of Hans Namuth

Oddly enough, I discovered this morning that Clear Tar Gel was actually developed for the movie Pollock (2000), to imitate the paints he used in his large drip paintings.

I began by pouring tar gel into the six sections of my palette, then coloured each with a bit of acrylic paint. I intended to paint a relatively small piece today, mostly to avoid making a huge mess as I flung paint around.

As you can see, you don't need much paint to colour the gel. And don't be fooled by the lighter look of your pigment: the gel dries clear, leaving the original colour behind. I didn't realize this until after it dried, so I kept adding pigment.

The tar gel itself is acrylic-based, so you need to use dry or water-based pigments to colour it, rather than anything oil-based. My sole painting teacher—a well-known artist who lived in a permanently, er, altered state back then—once mixed oil and acrylic paint on his palette while demonstrating colour blending. His befuddlement was a wonder to behold as the paint essentially curdled before our eyes.

I began by dripping and drizzling the coloured medium onto a 9 x 12-inch (22.8 x 30.5 cm) canvas board. This wasn't nearly as easy as I'd hoped it would be. Unless you're virtually pouring the medium from a jar, it just doesn't have the "oomph" behind it to drizzle in thin threads. I used a heavily loaded paintbrush, but I was constantly fighting the medium's tendency to drop in large blobs. One technique that worked a little better was to touch the loaded brush to the canvas, then drag a filament of medium across the surface.

I think part of the problem is that this is an acrylic medium, and wants to dry relatively quickly. I probably shouldn't have mixed all the colours at once. I tried thinning the medium with water, but this didn't seem to make it noticeably thinner or looser.

The unfortunate side effect of having water anywhere in the vicinity was that I ended up with drops of water on the canvas itself, which made the colours bloom. Most of these were droplets left in the brush's ferrule (the metal bit that holds the bristles) after I removed it from my rinsing water. I quickly learned to wipe the brush as soon as I took it out of the water.

The other thing that happens is that the colours will bleed into one another. I had originally expected them to stay separate, but they have an obvious chemical affinity for one another. Essentially, the thicker the medium, the more likely the colours will blend.

I had originally intended to leave the background blank, but changed my mind when I remembered that Pollock's backgrounds were never blank. I did, however, avoid filling in the background as much as I'd filled in the elephant, to make the elephant stand out.

The tar gel is supposed to dry clear, so I wasn't sure if the colours would change once it was fully dry. I left it to dry for about six hours to see what would happen. At the end of six hours, the surface was still slightly tacky, but dry enough to touch. Full curing—particularly for thicker areas—needs 24 hour or more.

Because the gel dries clear, the colours were now more saturated. Everything was also much glossier than it had been when wet—and suddenly teeming with bubbles. These were mostly tiny, but I did end up with at least one larger bubble in every thick area. I'm hoping they might "gas off" and disappear the more the piece cures, but I'm not holding my breath.

Apparently you can avoid bubbles if you mix carefully and let the mixture sit for a few days in its sealed jar. Which would be fine if you wanted to use a full jar for each colour. As it was, I used only about an eighth of the jar—or one ounce (30 ml)—for this entire project.

This was an interesting exercise, but I can't say that I'm in love with either this style of painting, or this particular medium. I will probably use tar gel again for some other type of painting—I still have a nearly full jar, after all—but I think drizzle painting and I will probably never become close friends.

Elephant Lore of the Day
It's never a good idea to make an elephant mad. In 153 B.C., Appian reports that Romans had taken war elephants right up to the walls of a besieged town in Spain. Someone foolishly threw a large stone onto an elephant's head, which caused it to fly into a rage.

Uttering "a loud cry", the elephant began destroying everything in its path, "making no longer any distinction between friend and foe."

This, of course, set off all the other elephants, which "excited by his cries, all began to do the same, trampling the Romans underfoot, wounding them, and tossing them this way and that."

Appian solemnly concluded, "This is always the way with elephants when they are frightened. Then they take everyone for foes; wherefore some people call them the common enemy, on account of their fickleness." (Roman History, VI.46)

We know now that elephants are far more loyal than fickle; however, like any other animal, they will panic when threatened, their large size doing the rest.

Somewhat fanciful Renaissance depiction of Roman war elephants—fanciful,
because although elephants are big, they couldn't have borne loads
of superstructure and men this large.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)
Wildlife SOS (India) 
The Elephant Sanctuary (Tennessee)

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

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