electroforming wax

Carved wax shapes in an electroforming bath. After 12 hours or so, we enameled the copper-covered result.

Workshops and conferences shove attendees off a steep cliff and ‘way, ‘way, ‘way past the deep end of their comfort zones. If a conference makes you feel as if you’re drowning, congratulations: It was worth the price of admission.

I’m so far out of my comfort zone that I’d need GPS to find it so, yep, The Enamelist Society conference workshops were a success.

Who knew total bewilderment could be so much fun? I’ll talk about the conference itself in the next post.

I’m likely the least knowledgeable enamelist at this shindig, a far cry from where I live in the glass art world. I’m learning from EVERYONE, and my 200 or so mentors knocked down most of my notions of enameling technique faster than a cat fleeing a vinegar bath.

First to fall: The idea that enameling is this finicky, highly disciplined practice of making perfect, little self-contained jewels. As my new friend Candace says: “Enamel is where EVERYthing goes.”

My workshop classmates regularly break the supposed cardinal sins of enameling, reminding me that the best way to perfect a skill is to pay attention to the science of marrying glass to metal, not what “everyone knows.” For example:

  • You can mix leaded and unleaded enamels
  • You can use oxidation/metal spalling as intentional (and glorious) design elements
  • You can burn out enamel to add subtle nuances of color to a piece
  • Opaque enamels aren’t the dead, painted-looking things I thought; control particle size and you basically have watercolor
  • Meticulous cleaning is necessary for perfect, transparent enamel pieces, but no big deal if you’re working with opaques (if you can get the enamel to stick, that’s all that matters)
  • Enamel doesn’t have to be shiny or even satiny to be beautiful
  • A partially burned out red or orange has more dimension than a perfectly fired color, but you do want to be able to control it (i.e., burn it out on purpose)
  • Almost nothing should be thrown out in a batch of sifted enamel:
    • 60- or 80-mesh enamels make glowing, transparent color
    • 200-mesh opaque enamels can drift thin layers to make shimmering watercolor-type tints
    • 325-mesh or higher–the “fines”–make beautiful pigments for oil-style painting

None of this is rocket science if you’ve been formally trained in enameling, but it’s revelatory to the self-taught like me. Moreover, it points up the vital difference between watching an expert on a video and having that expert as an in-person instructor.

These are, literally, the first good enameling classes I’ve ever taken, and loaded with other firsts:

  • First time I’ve ever worked with opaque enamel
  • First time I’ve enameled on copper
  • First time I’ve used an airbrush
  • First time I’ve enameled on a white/ivory enameled surface
  • First time I’ve enameled on sheet metal instead of something I’ve made with metal clay

As usual with good classes, the actual technique we were studying was only about a tenth of what I actually learned. The really valuable parts come from talking with the instructor, having her watch and correct your practices, and even better, interacting with your fellow classmates.

judy stone example of opaque enamel washes

Probably my most important workshop lesson: Finer meshes of opaque enamel take on the characteristics of watercolor washes, per Judy Stone.

If you’re self-taught, most of your instruction comes from static books and videos, with maybe some input from online enameling groups. You’ll get the basics, and maybe a few tricks of the trade; but most of the usual shortcuts you figure out on your own.

In a workshop full of skilled craftsmen, the tips are free. If you’re open to observing, listening, and asking stupid questions of a bunch of friendly strangers, you’ll probably learn more from interactions than anything else.

For example, I continually have trouble with cruddy edges on my enameled jewels. Once both sides are enameled, you suspend your work by the edges, in a stainless trivet to let both sides fire without interference.

Unfortunately, excess enamel tends to slide onto the metal trivet during firing, gluing both together. You’ll wind up having to crack your piece off the trivet, resulting in nasty-sharp black splodges that must be ground off and refired.

I’d resigned myself to that extra coldwork each time I made something new, then…

A trivet allows you to fire both sides of an enamel piece by resting just the edges on the trivet stand. Frequently, though, the enamel sticks to the trivet.

“Uh-oh. Did you leave your chalk at home?” asked a classmate/noted enamel author, as I placed a class sample on the trivet for firing. She handed me an ordinary stick of blackboard chalk and waited, expectantly.

Uhm….so what do I do with this?

I was clearly stumped, so she explained: Rub a little chalk down the edges of your trivet to create a release. Then you can place the piece on the trivet without worrying about cruddy edges.

I’ve added chalk to my enameling toolbox.

“Why aren’t you firing on mica?” asked another, as I precariously balanced strip after strip of copper onto trivets for color testing.

I have mica sheets at home–they’re a staple for most enamelists–but I’d never really figured out how to use them. My classmate showed me how to set the fired enamel straight down on the mica, without a release. MUCH faster than my method.

“It’s cracking because you’ve got too much on one side,” explained my instructor, “Haven’t you measured the thickness?”

OK, that one should have been obvious, but for some reason, I hadn’t really reasoned out the counter-enameling process. It’s not just getting a layer of enamel on the back; you counter the weight and stress of the glass attached to one side of the metal with an equal weight and stress on the other. Explains why I get those mysterious cracks in my test tiles.

“Where is your fork?” the ultimate enameling expert asked, giving me a reproving look and another great tip: Hold your enameling fork (the long-armed tool that helps you move hot pieces in and out of the kiln rapidly, kinda like a pizza peel) whenever you have a piece firing in the kiln. That way, you have a constant reminder to pay attention instead of walking off to forget you’re burning up your masterpiece at 1450F.

An example of Sarah Perkins’ sample cards. She creates a tile with a specific enameling technique and attaches it to a simple piece of cardboard, then writes instructions for its recreation on the back.

“You make sample cards, right?” asked Sarah Perkins, the instructor of my second workshop (Enameling on Vessels), and the question became another duh moment for me.

Sarah makes a small copper tile to showcase a particular enameling technique, then attaches it to a 4×6 inch piece of cardstock. On the back, she prints instructions for reproducing the tile, including colors used and firing instructions.

She had us pick out our favorites and then demonstrated their techniques.

Me, I photographed each and every one of those wondrous cards, front and back. Together, they’re almost a book of special effects with enamel.

In my pre-conference class, taught by the very talented HeeJoo Kim, we learned to create very thin, lightweight shells of copper by electroplating on carved wax. We enameled the result.

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We painted our carved wax forms with a conductive silver paint, and electroplated copper onto the form. Then we burned out the wax, leaving what amounted to a feather-light hollow bead. We painted the copper with acrylic enamels, repeatedly firing the result until we got what looked like matte-finished, alien seed pods.

My primary interest was electroforming, not in creating “organic” enameled shapes. When someone calls their art “organic,” I tend to interpret that as “knobby blob I was too lazy to coldwork.”

I’m revising that opinion. My biggest criticism of my own work is that it’s not fluid enough–it’s too rigid, too symmetrical, too engineered for my own tastes. Sometimes I look at things I’ve done and yell, “HEY!! Loosen up!”

How do you get looser? You make knobby blobs. And I certainly qualified on that score. I can’t say I love my creations, exactly, but I learned.

One of instructor Sarah Perkins’ amazing formed and enameled vessels

Sarah Perkins, my second instructor, pushed us out to the edge. “It’s all about taking risks,” she said, “If you’re not taking risks, you’re not making art.”

I took risks. I stopped worrying about control and just let the piece go where it wanted. I didn’t make masterpieces, not by a longshot, but I got closer to the free and easy voice I’m seeking.

Yay, me.

Sarah’s workshop was amazing, first of all because I already knew her work–it’s one of the reasons I love enameling–but second because she’s such a great instructor. She encourages all the time, but doesn’t pull punches.

I’d figured that her class–Enameling on Vessels–would show me more about getting enamel powder to adhere to vertical pieces. It did–but that was about the least of the lessons she taught.

Another of Sarah Perkins’ gorgeous enameled vessels.

Sarah’s an expert at forming vessels with a sheet of metal and a hammer. We were supposed to bring our own spun-copper vessels to enamel, but those of us who wanted to learn more got a first-hand lesson in hammering the hell out of copper to make a bowl.

I wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking for in our class vessels so I’d gone overboard, as usual. I brought THREE vessels to the workshop and would have brought three more if I’d had room in my luggage.

Sarah looked them over, agreed that my initial choice was too big and likely would take too long, then looked at my second.

“Do you LIKE this shape?” she asked?

“Weeeeeeeel…truth be told,” I confessed, hunting for the right word, “I do find it…uhm…rigid? Too symmetrical?”

“Boring?” she guessed.

Uhm, yeah. Bingo. “OK, well, let’s modify the shape a bit.”

Left, the original, heavy-gauge copper bowl I started with, about 3.5 inches high. On the right, what happens when you whack the heck out of it with a hammer for about 20 minutes.

Modifying is fun. You pick up an incredibly comfortable hammer (Fretz), set your bowl against a stainless steel dome, and start pounding. I was aiming for a graceful, undulating shape but my glass roots peeked out: What I wound up with was a fazoletto, i.e., a glassblower’s handkerchief vase.

A kind of fold-forming: You fold and crease a flat sheet of copper, then cut little “fringes” into the folded edge with your jeweler’s saw. Then you unfold it and start forming the vessel. Makes a really cool zipper pattern.

Sarah gave it a dubious look; her vessels are perfect, lyrical forms without flaw. Mine looked more like the aftermath of a really good game of kick-the-can, but in my search for looseness it seemed the perfect choice.

I learned how to form, fold, and punch copper to make beautiful windows into the metal, through the enamel, adding immensely to my metalworking vocabulary.

We learned how to airbrush adhesive–a dilute mix of Klyrfire and distilled water–onto the vessel surface, then carefully sift enamel powder over the top. We’d fire, sift, fire sift, experimenting with Sarah’s varous cloisonne and decoration techniques.

I learned that Wax Yellow, a Thompson’s transparent enamel I don’t particularly care for, is incredibly stunning when applied to copper: It looks like spun gold, and if you leave some oxidation (spalling) on the copper, the piece shimmers almost like guilloche.

My vessel, enameled and nearly finished. On the outside, a mix of scarlet and orange drifts of enamel. On the inside, a watercolor array of fine opaque enamels, accented with bits of silver foil and black stringer.

Mostly, though, I learned not to be afraid of enameling; everything doesn’t have to look like a Faberge egg to be beautiful. I still admire (and will continue) working with transparent enamels and foils–they’re so breathtaking they’re worth the tedium–but I think I’ve broadened my horizons.

A bit.

Made a LOT of sample tiles to understand the new techniques I’m learning.