Design with Nature: Fish and Shellfish
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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This image of a fossil fish, six inches square, is one of the larger enamel pieces in this series. The base is a steel panel that had previously been coated with enamel in an industrial process.
Relatively simple techniques were used to produce the piece.
Sifting fine-grained enamel onto the wetted surface produced the major areas of different colors; the piece was fired after each color. Masks cut from absorbent paper, wetted and placed on the surface, controlled the boundaries of the areas.
A technique known as sgraffito was used to form the linear features such as ribs and cracks. A wooden stylus scratched through the coating of dried enamel prior to firing.
The image is reminiscent of the scorpion fish presented in an earlier posting of this series. That piece is presented here again because it is an outstanding example of enamel design based on nature, and specifically on a fish.
As previously noted, the source of the image was a photograph of a living fish in deep ocean waters. The bone structure was visible through the transparent flesh.
The next two pendants show an angel fish in shallow tropical waters above a reef. Silver wires mark the part of the image formed by the cloisonné technique. Other features, including the fish, employed the basse-taille (low relief) technique. Thin sheets of silver were embossed, put in position, and covered with sufficient transparent enamel to build a smoothly rounded surface.
Seashells are a rich source of design for enamels of all sizes. I found them particularly useful for small pieces such as cufflinks, earrings, and small pendants.
Shown here are cowry designs in several colors departing from nature…
…and a design based on an iridescent, multicolored abalone shell. All used the basse-taille technique with low-relief designs etched out of fine silver by nitric acid.
The next two pieces represent the champlevé technique, in which the design is expressed by alternating areas of silver and enamel at the surface. The enamel fills pockets etched out of the fine silver by nitric acid.
The image of a conch shell appears on the next piece, a heavy copper sheet about five by six inches in size. This was a learning piece for the Grisaille technique. I know of no other way that such smooth transitions among multiple shades of a color (gray in this case) can be produced with opaque enamels.
On a thickly enameled black base, successive layers of white are built up. Where the darkest gray is wanted, the fewest white layers are applied. Where the lightest gray is wanted, the largest number of white layers is applied.
The piece is then high-fired (at temperatures above the normal range of 1400 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit). All the white enamel disappears. A normal firing then restores the image. In the restored image, edges of layers cannot be seen. Transitions between different shades are smooth and gradual.
Some grisaille pieces from many centuries ago were colored by applying a top layer of transparent colored enamel. This is comparable to colorizing black and white photos by applying transparent colored ink. In part II of this series, transparent enamels have colorized the grisaille image of the Healing Fragrance piece.