The return of Ernest, the elephant

Elephants have captured the hearts and imaginations of many creative people. Hemingway’s powerful metaphor ‘hills like white elephants’ and Barbara Gowdy’s allegorical quest novel White Bone come to mind. My interest in elephants is much less complicated: I want to paint one using Chinese Brush techniques. Just a few months back the need to paint a snail led to a reminder of A.A. Milne’s friendly foursome, which included Ernest the elephant. He’s been on my mind ever since.

In The Chinese Brush Painting Bible Jane Dwight notes that elephants are known for high moral standards, and represent both strength and astuteness. She does not elaborate whether that strength is merely physical, or intended to be in terms of character as well. One would assume both. After all, for centuries they were captured and trained as live lifting/carrying aids, forerunners to the modern construction crane.

The practice is not totally gone from the earth, unfortunately. While researching, I found a blog called Elephant-a-day where the owner created interesting artsy elephants daily AND raised awareness for the plight of modern day elephants subject to poaching, cruel training practices, and lives of captivity and/or hard labor. I loved the range of elephant art, but found much of the elephant lore disquieting.

That elephants were once abundant in China explains why they do show up in several of my instructional books.


Just some of my CBP books that feature elephant painting.

My Jack Hamm book on sketching animals has 12 pages of advice and my CBP library yields illustrations of both the boneless (spontaneous) and outline (moku) approaches to painting an elephant. Several old moku compositions (found online, shared by a friend, from Hokusai’s sketchbook) illustrate the ancient story of Seven Blind Men Examining an Elephant.


For years I used illustrations like this 17th century ink drawing by Hanabusa Itcho to introduce college students to perception issues in mass communications.

Jane Dwight’s version of elephant in her CBP Bible is done with carefully placed washes enhanced by minimal ink lines (spontaneous style) and results in an attractive energetic animal. Lucy Wang’s version in the Art of CBP also follows the ‘washes plus minimal lines’ approach but her result seems less dimensional, more rigid. Lian Quan Zhen includes a colorful elephant grouping in his book Chinese Watercolor Painting Techniques; painting animals. While his approach has elements of western watercolor applications, I do like the inked line drawings that define the shapes he colors.

I seem most drawn to the method shown in Rebecca Yue’s animal painting book. She does a mother and calf in three-quarter profile running across a grassy terrain in a more traditional outline manner. Her discussion of how to apply burnt sienna and ink washes to give color and dimension to an elephant appeals to me. I see that most elephant painters and photographers go for profile or head-on compositions, ostensibly to capture the big ears, powerful body parts, distinctive tusks, and unique nose/trunks. I favor the three-quarter profiles, and trip over some striking poses of single calves that stand out from the more usual family groupings.

An elephant surprise: Suma
My online research yields a delightful find: a modern day fable (written 1989 by Gary Shoup) featuring an elephant captured by a band of monkeys and tied to a tree with a string. She lives out her life believing she cannot be other than a pet elephant, unable to join the Free Elephants who visit, even long after her animal captors die off.

The book is illustrated by none other than acclaimed American CBP artist and teacher Nan Rae. Intrigued by both the plot synopsis (the power of self-perception) and that the illustrator was an ‘ink thrower’, I had to get a copy. My first surprise was that nary a single elephant graced the pages!

In an online promotional clip Nan Rae explains how her lovely bamboo, flowers and butterflies came to fill the book named for Suma. Writer Gary Shoup had done preliminary work with other illustrators who painted elephants and monkeys, but instinct told him the images weren’t quite right for the story. Rae’s ink drawings of traditional CBP elements that convey SPIRIT rather than more literal meanings do indeed enhance Suma’s story.

While I am sorry not to have found elephant images from an accomplished brush painter like Nan Rae, I am glad to have Suma’s story. Like most parables, it packs a lot of punch. And Rae’s ink drawings are a perfect fit.

African or Asiatic?
I learn there are two elephant species—African and Asiatic/Indian–and that they possess numerous distinctive features. Fortunately for me, my Jack Hamm book is very thorough on illustrating those differences. Other online sources augment my findings.
In short, the African is larger at maturity, has larger ears, sports a single ‘dome’ head (viewed head-on) as opposed to a double-dome, and has a trunk tip ending in two fingers above and below the nostrils instead of just one. The African’s side profile shows the highest point (called a wither in a horse) to be located at the shoulder, whereas the Asiatic/Indian elephant has a spine that bulges upwards over its middle instead of the shoulder. That spine curve results in a different curving underneath the elephant as well.

This illustration posted by Thomson Safaris sums up most of those distinctions:

An artist is not likely to be putting an elephant of the two different species into a composition, so ‘comparison identification’ would not be possible. As with any other animal you’d want to learn the distinguishing features: large ears, two fingered trunk, hump above the shoulder, correct under body curve in side view, one dome on head in frontal view = African. And then: smallish ears, one-fingered trunk, hump above middle back, correct under body curve, two-domed head in frontal view = Asiatic.

I think I’ve got it.

What elephant should I let in my room?
I decide to play a bit with Jane Dwight’s spontaneous approach, and then do a family group in Rebecca Yue’s manner, maybe a single calf in ink only.Here’s my first few stabs at using grey wash strokes first, following with some detail work with a fine brush dipped in dark ink:



And then a larger composition using Yue’s coloring method.


This is my first full elephant comp; some final touch-ups are yet to be made.

I prefer the Yue method and picked up a few tips along the way:
1. Outline very rough elephant shapes first with a detail brush dipped in light grey ink, follow with the color, and then over-paint the fine lines in dark ink. She notes that the color strokes are challenging to keep within outlines (they “bloom”, or spread past the borders) so wait until the color is in place before finalizing those dark outlines.
2. When applying strokes of tones to an area, wet the area first with clear water, then stroke in the dark areas, overlap with the lighter tone. The water causes the colors to blend smoothly.
3. If you do outline first and then fill with color, apply the color with strokes that do not reach the outlined edges; leave a slight gap of white and allow the natural “bloom” effect to fill to the edge, or not. A bit of white here and there contributed to a more spontaneous look.


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