ENAMEL AND METAL ARTS: VII

Long Interest, Short Career

Through most of my working years, I was generally aware of the enameling art and it fascinated me, but I never found time or opportunity to pursue it.

Fascinated? Yes, and for at least three reasons:

  • The known history of the art dates back about 3,000 years. The art continues to evolve and expand.
  • A well-made enamel artwork, reasonably protected, can endure hundreds of years in good condition. Some have endured thousands. It can be a gift to our descendants.
  • It is exciting to watch a workpiece go through a fiery ordeal, come out glowing hot, and then gradually reveal beautiful designs and gleaming colors as it cools.

*        *          *

The time to learn about enameling came with retirement in 1983. Opportunities abounded at that time in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

The National Enamelist Guild, a local group of perhaps 100 members, promoted the art with vigor and imagination. With their initiative and support, annual art shows were held; a curriculum of training courses was set up at Glen Echo Park; advanced workshops were arranged to be given by nationally and internationally renowned artists; and the Enamelists Gallery was established at the Torpedo Factory Art Center.

At Glen Echo, I had the privilege of studying under some of the leading masters of their art: the enamelists Gwen Anderson (“Orsini”), Tina Chisena, and Dorothea Stover; and also Susan Tamulevich, an artist of diverse fields including wearable art, jewelry, and other art metal specialties.

*        *          *

Enamels are special formulations of glass designed for fusing onto other materials at high temperature. The enamels that I worked with were designed for use on gold, silver, and copper. They could also be used on steel if it had a primer coat of enamel previously applied in an industrial process. They were produced by an American firm (Thompson) and had been in use for about a century.

These enamels contained lead, which enhanced their brilliance in a manner like that of leaded crystal glassware. In the late 1980s, the entire line of enamels was reformulated to eliminate lead. Lead poisoning had been a hazard primarily to the enamelist who inhaled the fine dust while preparing a piece for firing. My experience was with only the lead-bearing enamels.

The enamels were made in a wide variety of colors in three major groups: transparent, opaque, and opalescent. They were available in several forms: granules (material resembling fine sand), larger lumps and flakes, and fine threads. In the dish shown here, the granules were sprinkled on to form the background; lumps were added to form the pebble-like light-colored and red areas; and flakes formed the petals of the flowers.

 Dish Lect 35                Nantuck Detail

In the enlarged image of a house, white threads were used to form mullions in the windows.

*        *          *

The basicDemo 04 Firing 1 firing equipment includes a kiln, trivets to hold enamel pieces by the edges, and a steel-mesh platform on which the trivets are set. The long fork (with sword-like handle) is inserted beneath the platform to place the assembly into the kiln and to remove it. Various spatulas, tongs, and pliers are used to handle the hot pieces.

Demo 01 Kiln

The box-like kiln (center and left) is the smallest size normally used by professional enamelists. The chamber is 8 inches wide, 4.5 inches high, and 9 inches deep (front to back). The kiln operates on household current (120 volts), whereas larger kilns require 240 volts. Like all enameling kilns, it is front-loaded.  Most of the firing is at temperatures of 1,400 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit; for some high-firing techniques, the temperature may approach 2,000 degrees.

The smaller yellow kiln at right is primarily for use by hobbyists. It can handle only small flat pieces.

The preparation of a simple cloisonné piece illustrates some basic features of the enameling process. As usual, the process involves several steps, each following by a firing. The result is a layered sequence of enamels.

                                                                  Demo 26 Flux CounterenmlDemo 03 Flux

 

 

(1) Flux and counterenamel.

Flux is transparent colorless enamel that provides a base coat, preventing possibly bad interactions between color coats and the raw copper. After the copper is wetted by a liquid adhesive, the flux is sifted onto it from a fine-mesh sieve.

Counterenamel is an enamel coating applied to the backside of the piece. Differences in expansion and contraction between glass and metal set up stresses that could warp the piece and crack the enamel. The counterenamel balances stresses on both sides of the piece.

(2) Wires and foil of fine silver.

Demo 27 Wires and FoilThe wires are bent to shape, placed in position, and fired; they are now firmly bonded to the flux. Foil, which produces reflective highlights through transparent enamels, is cut to shape, inserted, and fired.

 (3) First color coat.

Color coats need to be clear and brilliant. The sifting technique is not adequate because enamel dust and fine particles tend to cloud the final product. Instead, the smaller particles are washed out with water, and the washed enamel is packed in with a small brush while still wet.

For still greater clarity and brilliance, fresh enamels are made by grinding larger lumps with a mortar and pestle of material harder than glass (e.g., chalcedony).

Yes, fine enameling is a labor-intensive process.

When packing is complete, the piece is thoroughly dried, then fired.

Demo 13 Pack 1      Demo 14 Pack 2     Demo 28 1st Color Coat

(4) Second color coat.

A similar procedure is followed to produce the second color coat…

Demo 29 2nd Color Coat(5) Third color coast, stoned and refired.

…and likewise the third color coat, after which the surface of the piece is ground to a smooth flat or gently curved shape, using wet abrasive stones from coarse to fine.

After the grinding, the piece is fired once more (or buffed with a fine polishing compound) to restore its gloss.

The piece is then ready for mounting.

Demo 20 Stoning

J Demo 29b 3rd Color Coat

*        *          *

In 1984, after about one year of studies at Glen Echo, I joined the Enamelists Gallery at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. As one of eighteen working members, I learned much from colleagues and from the opportunity to display my work. I served for two years as president of the gallery.

After four years at the Enamelists Gallery, my progress in the art slowed notably. Major advances were taking place at that time in enameling designs and techniques, as well as changes in the enamels themselves to eliminate their content of lead. I saw increasing need to take part in advanced workshops, and perhaps also intensive coursework at a full-time school of arts and crafts.

My wife’s worsening health problems, described in part II of this series, Healing Fragrance, precluded further training and diverted more and more time from even the routine artistic work. Near the end of 1988, we found it advisable to move from the Washington area to Charlottesville, Virginia, and thus ended a brief “career” in enameling.

 

 

 

 

 

ENAMEL AND METAL ARTS: VI

Working with Metals

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

(A reminder: Pictures can be enlarged by clicking once or twice.)

 *        *          *

I first discovered the joy of metalworking in high school. Prior to that time, I had been a consistent failure in woodworking – and I do mean “F”. I was convinced that wood was a living substance, defiant of my every effort to apply precise measures and shapes to it. As it turned out, there were more flaws in the worker than in the wood.

Metals required more rugged tooling, but their behavior was more predictable and they stayed put once they were measured and shaped. My first metal class involved instrument making in a machine shop.

One of my earliest jobs, during the final months of World War II, was as a helper sheet metal worker in a navy yard.

During the late 1940s, I used these skills to build cars for a model railroad. This involved cutting and shaping sheet metal salvaged from tin cans, creating trim items from wire, and assembling all with soft solder (alloys of lead and tin).

Also, some parts such as couplers and truck frames were cast of Babbitt metal by the “lost wax” technique, in which the pattern was modeled in wax and then covered by plaster of Paris. The resulting mold was heated to remove the wax, leaving the cavity open to receive the molten metal.

These same techniques were used in my first approaches to art metal work, creating sleighs and a carriage to go under the Christmas tree. The carriage is shown below, somewhat battered after about sixty Christmases. The coach itself was built of tin can stock and wires. The driver is a lost wax casting, and only the horse was bought ready-made, a “finding”. All parts were coated with the paints produced for model railroads.

Carriage

Additional techniques were developed, one by one:

(1) Embossed metals, including the Apple Tree, the Nuthatch, the portrait of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, and an image of the Aztec Calendar.  These were formed in thin copper sheet darkened by liver of sulphur (potassium sulfide). The Akhenaten image is highlighted with gold leaf. The Nuthatch is mounted in a walnut dish, turned on a wood lathe. The fifth embossing, Radiance, based on a portrait of Leontyne Price, was hammered into a sheet of lead one-eighth inch thick.

   Apple Tree 2 300       Scanned-05 NutHtch

 Scanned-04 Akhenaten     Aztec Calendar 2 300

Scanned-07b Radiance

(2) A sunken bowl, hammered from a flat copper sheet, adorned with soft-soldered loops and feet of heavy copper wire. It was darkened by liver of sulfur. “Sunken” refers to a bowl-making technique in which the belly is hammered into a yielding material (such as asphalt, rubber, or as in this case even a stack of newspapers) or into a shaped wooden mold. There is also a “raised” technique in which the edges are hammered and compacted upward. For a shallow open shape such as this, the sinking technique is preferred for its simplicity.

Scanned-03 CoprBowlScanned-09 Lamp

(3) A lamp constructed by various techniques from scrap yard materials — brass strips, copper wires and sheets, assembled by a combination of soft soldering, hard soldering (silver alloy), and riveting. Also fabric and electrical parts, all purchased ready-made. What the lamp itself lacks in artistry is perhaps compensated for by the beauty of its light. A sleeve with spiral openings for the light rotates in convection currents over the hot main bulb. A small bulb in the base, when lighted alone, casts graceful spiral patterns upon the walls and table top in a darkened room.

(4) Heavy copper wire, shaped and partly flattened bScanned-09 CoprNcklc1y hammering against an anvil to produce a necklace. The necklace was trimmed with twisted fine copper wire, and darkened with liver of sulphur.

Later, an enamel pendant was added. The completed piece, titled “Celtic Wreaths,” was purchased by a collector of unusual and unique jewelry.

IV. Scanned-08 ScorpFsh           Scanned-08m  CeltWrths

 

 

 

 

 

ENAMEL AND METAL ARTS: V

Moon Checkers

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

 *        *          *

Moon Checkers is a workpiece of cloisonné enamel mounted on a wooden box. It was produced by a special version of the technique, known as concave cloisonné.

The conventional technique calls for completely filling the cells with enamel, then honing the surface to a flat or gently curved shape. In concave cloisonné, the cells are only partly filled with enamel, which is allowed to take on its natural shape after firing and cooling. In cross-section, the enamel surfaces within each cell are U-shaped, as the edges tend to climb up the wire wall by capillary attraction.

For some designs, this produces an attractively textured surface. Where transparent enamels are used, as in this piece, their lens-like qualities tend to enhance colors and brilliance. The finished enamel is not honed, but the tops of the wires may be evened up by this method.

V Scanned-11 MoonChkrs3

This design, resembling a checkerboard, responds to a one-time request by the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia, that its artists pursue a “quilting” theme. The title “Moon Checkers” was applied with two meanings in mind:

  • The images of the moon, each placed in its own square in the pattern, resemble the pieces on a checkerboard.
  • The plants growing in each square seem to be checking on the changing phases of the moon as a means of regulating their own blooming cycle.

V Scanned-10 MoonChkrs1

Shown below is one of the earliest pieces, made in an elementary class, mounted on a wooden box, and titled “Village Wharf.” It is an example of the concave cloisonné style with mostly opaque enamels.

V. Scanned-05

V. Scanned-03

ENAMEL AND METAL ARTS: IV

Scorpion Fish

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them.  The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

*        *          *

Scorpion Fish is a pendant enameled in the basse-taille (low relief) technique. The image was etched by nitric acid out of fine silver, and was then completely covered by enamel. Many means other than etching can be used in this technique to produce the three-dimensional image.

The design was based on a photograph of a live fish in deep ocean waters. Its flesh was transparent and the skeleton was visible. This made it an ideal candidate for the basse-taille technique.

IV. Scanned-01 ScorpFsh

Opaque black enamel was used in the first layer in the background area and the pupil of the eye. All subsequent layers of enamel were transparent, some colorless and others in various colors.  These were built up until the entire low-relief image was submerged, and the top surface was honed flat and polished.

Strictly speaking, the silver border is not a feature of the basse-taille technique. It is borrowed from another style of enameling, champlevé (raised field), where a design is created by bare areas of the underlying metal alternating with areas of enamel.

Other examples of the combined use of the two techniques are shown in the pendants and earrings below.

IV. Scanned-08 ScorpFsh   IV. Scanned-04 ScorpFsh

ENAMEL AND METAL ARTS: III

Alpha and Omega

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them.  The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

 *        *          *

 Alpha and Omega is a work that justifies the “metal arts” part of the series title. It achieves its rich color without benefit of enamel. It features a star sapphire, a generous gift from our son, Philip, to his mother. I constructed the setting, a pendant consisting of several sheets of fine silver, each sawn to shape, and silver-soldered together as layers.

In a mineralogy class, I learned that the six-pointed star seen in the sapphire is actually the reflection of a consistent geometric pattern by which the atoms of the various elements are arranged within the crystal. Seeing this evidence of atomic properties seems almost to be an otherworldly experience.

To make the point that the atoms and we are in the same world, I began by enclosing the entire design within the symbols for Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Six silver rays, extensions of the star points, penetrate to the limits of that world.

Scanned-07 Sapphire

ENAMEL AND METAL ARTS: II

Healing Fragrance

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this fact will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers who are not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved.

*          *            *

Healing Fragrance is an enamel of the grisaille technique, with an overlay of transparent colored enamels, mounted on a silver pendant. The technique was developed many centuries ago, but is in relatively uncommon use today.

Grisaille refers to the subtle gradations among shades of gray, in addition to black and white, that are produced by this technique. After seeing the photo of a 13th-century grisaille with color overlay, I was inspired to add this secondary technique.

The basic grisaille is prepared with only two enamels, specific formulations of black and white, fused on metal. On a thick coating of several layers of black enamel, the white enamel is applied in a sequence of layers that vary in number and thickness according to the shade of gray or white desired. The piece is fired after each new layer is applied.

Through a sequence of high-temperature and normal-temperature firings, the image is produced with subtle gradations among the various shades. To produce the color overlay, a thin layer of transparent enamels of various colors is fired over the grisaille image; this is analogous to the hand coloring of a black-and-white photograph.

 Healing Fragrance 1

The work features an approximate likeness of my wife, Jaquelin, as she appeared in the mid-1980s. She was severely depressed over failing health and increasing neurological problems, which eventually led to a major stroke and many years as an invalid. With little success, I tried to divert her attention into more pleasant and relaxed directions – figuratively, to “smell the flowers.” Healing Fragrance presents a fantasy in which she indeed smells the flowers.

Healing Fragrance

ENAMEL AND METAL ARTS: I

World Askew

This is one of a series of postings about enameling and art metalwork. It is based primarily on my own work in the 1980s. I am not a master of these arts, but I hope this will be an advantage in communicating the basics, in simple terms, to readers not already familiar with them. The series is not intended to instruct in procedures, but solely to impart an appreciation of the art forms involved. 

In the final posting, A Grand Finale, I plan to present several of the world’s great masterworks and other notable enamels.  

*     *     *

World Askew is a workpiece of cloisonné enamel mounted on a wooden box.  The enamel is a form of glass that has been fused onto a metal surface at high temperature. “Cloisonné” refers to the cells (cloisons) created by the insertion of fine wires that are an integral part of the design.

This work features people in darkness and cold, trying to warm their hands over a frigid flame. Meanwhile, they seem unaware of the warmth and light surrounding them. A familiar theme of life’s experiences.

Scanned-18 WldAsk1

In keeping with the “Askew” theme, the mounting appears to be a crooked stack of walnut slabs.

Scanned-17s WldAsk2

Actually, it is a box.

Scanned-10 WldAsk3