Monday, 9 September 2013

Elephant No. 7: Plastic-Wrap Watercolour

I saw this technique on a YouTube video featuring various things you can stick on wet watercolour to make patterns. I particularly liked the one using plastic wrap, because it struck me that it looked a lot like an MRI when it dried. So for today's elephant, I thought I'd try making something that looked a little like an elephant MRI. To see the video that inspired me, click here.

I thought it would be helpful if I tried to be somewhat realistic, so I chose to draw my underlying sketch from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose. My original idea was to use the MRI effect only in the brain area, so I chose this photograph for the wide expanse of forehead.


I began by sketching out the elephant very lightly—so lightly that it defied being photographed.

Next, I filled in the brain area with a very wet wash of watercolour, then crumpled up some plastic wrap, and scrunched it into the brain area. I left it to dry for about 45 minutes.

I thought the effect was interesting, but it wasn't quite as interesting as I expected. Still, I finished it off by painting a light wash over the rest of the elephant. Now it looked like an elephant wearing a frilly Easter hat. Not exactly what I had in mind.

So I went back to the drawing board. I sketched the same elephant again, then painted more of the elephant with wet watercolour, and scrunched more plastic wrap over the paint. One thing I discovered is that you have to work really quickly from paint to plastic, or the paint will be too dry to take an impression. This makes the whole activity both exciting and terrifying. I had no idea watercolour could be so thrilling.

This was as far as I got with the second elephant. I liked this better than the first attempt, but it suddenly occurred to me that I could make this much more interesting if I plastic-wrapped the whole elephant, but with more attention to creating specific patterns: for example, wrinkles in the elephant's trunk.

I sketched the elephant yet again, this time working on small areas each time. For the forehead and upper ear area, I more or less plunked down the plastic any old way to give a sort brain-like look to it. For the legs near the bottom, I made a slight attempt to introduce wrinkles, but wasn't too fussy.


I did the trunk next, making a serious effort to create wrinkles. I decided that this would be easier if I wrinkled the plastic wrap a bit before letting it get anywhere near the wet paint. Although you can shove the plastic wrap around a bit once it's on the paint, the paint will also move with the wrap, which may not be what you want.

Plastic wrap is, of course, notoriously uncooperative when it comes to something like this, and was far more interested in sticking to itself than anything else, but I got at least a few wrinkles. I also did the main body at this stage, introducing a few wrinkles, but again not being to fussy about it.

The ears were next, and I decided that, if I were to achieve the sweep that I wanted, I'd have to do the ears in sections. Laying a piece of plastic wrap across the entire ear, while also trying to create an appropriate pattern, would be a tad too frantic for me.

And finally, the eyes. I had originally thought I would simply paint in the eyes with no plastic-wrap patterning, then decided they would look strangely flat if I did that. So I painted them with a dark shade of the paint, and stuck on plastic wrap with only the barest of patterns in it.

I wasn't sure what to do about the tusks, but they looked weirdly white to me now, so I used a very light tint of  paint and tried to make a vaguely linear pattern with the plastic wrap.

I toyed with doing the background as well, but decided it might interfere too much with the elephant patterning, so I left well enough alone.

A few tips if you decide to try this:

• Cheap, thin plastic wrap is best if you want a pattern with soft edges and lots of pattern. Heavier, more expensive wrap folds with a slightly sharper edge and falls differently onto the paint.

• The paint has to be really wet when you lay down the plastic wrap. It will create a bolder pattern if you use lots of pigment, and a more subtle pattern if you have less pigment.

• Whatever paper you use should be heavy because of the amount of water it needs to accommodate. If you use watercolour paper, remember that it has its own pattern and that a good-quality watercolour paper may gather additional pigment in its small hollows.

• If you want to create different patterns, you'll need to work in sections.

• Make sure you wait until the paint is dry before removing the plastic. If you lift the plastic wrap too soon, the paint will "peak" where it's wet, and you'll get amorphous little blobs of paint, rather than a delineated pattern. And obviously don't use a hairdryer to hurry the process, or your plastic wrap may decide to melt and contract, dragging the paint around with it. (No, I didn't try it.)

This was actually quite fun, except for the waiting-for-it-to-dry part. It's obviously nothing like a real MRI, but it gives that effect to a certain extent, and I'm rather happy with the final result.

Elephant Lore of the Day
I've had an MRI once or twice in my life, but I had no idea how much the magnets actually weigh. They are often described, oddly enough, in terms of the equivalent number of elephants.

For example, the 7-tesla magnet in the MRI at the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Portland weighs an astonishing 30 tonnes (60,000 pounds), which their literature describes as equivalent to "10 Asian Elephants". The steel shield surrounding the 7-tesla magnet weighs an even more incredible 500 tonnes, or one million pounds. That's would be a mighty big herd of elephants to have thundering through your hospital.

As for pushing an elephant into an MRI scanner, there are actually no MRI scanners capable of accommodating large animals. Although human scanners can be adapted to take the weight of larger animals, the scanner head can't be made bigger, so MRI scanning of larger animals is limited to the head, feet and lower limbs.

Massive 7-tesla MRI scanner being installed at the Max Delbrûck Centre for
Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch, Germany, 2008.

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

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