Design with Nature: Birds

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.

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As I became more adept at the techniques of enameling, I began to feel daunted by the power of the art form. It offered tremendous opportunities through freedom of proportion, rich colors, and its ability to emphasize line work. Using such features, I realized, was subject to principles and rules that I had not studied beyond the first year of high school, and had never really grasped.

Anxious to learn quickly, I reasoned that most of these principles and rules probably expressed the preferences that nature had instilled in us long ago. Nature, then, was the arbiter of what was artistically sound. My starting point would be to prepare realistic images of natural subjects. Abstraction could come later. I began with birds.

Which was better to start with than the bald eagle? I sensed that nature would not only guarantee the artistic soundness of this image, but would also add a touch of drama reflecting the personality of this fearless hunter. It worked reasonably well, both small (on cufflinks) and large (on a box lid).


EagleCfflnks2-06 300

Eagle Lect 14 300

Other species followed in short order. Feeling more comfortable about choice of color, I began taking small liberties with what nature had provided. In some cases, a realistic pendant or brooch might be accompanied by more abstract smaller accessories like earrings and cufflinks.

Bird 1 Pend 300      Humbird 1 Pend 300      MiscBird1-06 300

Of the two pairs of “button” earrings shown below, the pair on the left reflects elements of numerous bird images; on the right, the enlargement of a small detail of a butterfly’s wing.

VIII. MiscBird3Earr 300

VIII. Swallows Feeding Lect 17 300        VIII. MiscBird-03 300       PenguinPnd-07 300

Again, the penguin image on the pendant is a source for abstractions on the first pair of accompanying earrings. Hummingbird images are caricatured on the second pair. In the third pair, the avian origin is mostly lost in abstraction.

PenguinEarr-06 300            Hummbrd Earr-04 (2) 300

VIII. Champleve1-09

Finally, we present a “copy of a copy” of nature. The ancient Athenians used a wise owl to represent their patron Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. And so they used an owl to decorate their silver tetradrachm, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the coins ever minted. Here is a rendition of the coin in enamel. It was made by the basse-taille (low-relief) technique; relief was obtained by embossing a thin sheet of fine silver.

VIII. Classical Owl tetradrachm 300

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