Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Enameling with Catherine Crowe

Since this was my sixth time attending Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW), I decided to try my hand at one of the Celtic art classes: enameling. The class was taught by Catherine Crowe, who made the enamel crown on my new flute.  I took a pretty consistent set of pictures during the work on my first piece. These pictures offer a glimpse at the process, starting with the copper strips above which will become earrings.

The class met for 2-3 hours a day for 5 days in the kitchen of the Weldon House, one of the East Durham resorts. I know that seems odd but, lacking an art studio, where else do you find a sink and lots of work space? I was one of two students enrolled in the morning class.  Catherine supplied everything: the small portable kiln, many little jars of various types of enamel, pre-cut copper shapes, and all the necessary tools.

After a brief introduction to the overall process, my fellow student and I prepared the shapes, chose designs to put on them, and decided which techniques to use. Catherine provided instruction, oversight, and made recommendations along the way. The class covered basic methods of applying both opaque and translucent colors using stencil, free-form drawing, and cloisonne techniques.

The enamel itself is actually ground glass, ground as fine as the sand on the loveliest beach you can imagine. Every piece is enameled on the back as well as the front to make it more durable and to give it a finished look. After preparing the copper strips above, I applied a pretty blue opaque enamel using the little red sifter. Next the earrings were fired in a kiln, and when they came out, they looked like this:

You are looking at the back side of the earrings. A second coat of blue covered the white smudges on the one on the right. The white is actually another color that stuck to my fingers and got on the blue surface because I forgot to hold the pieces by the edges. You're not supposed to touch the surface you're working on. Oops!

With another layer of blue applied, the earrings are place on trivets and back they go, into the red hot kiln which heats to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. The trivets rest on a little shelf made of sturdy screen-type material.

 Catherine (below on the left) mans the door of the kiln while my classmate Alice (on the right) places a spatula under the little screen shelf to remove her pieces from the kiln. It is important to get pieces in and out quickly to retain heat in the kiln -- and to prevent scorched fingers! Alice and I rather wished the handle on that spatula had been a bit longer!

Next I sifted two shades of light green onto the front of the earrings, overlapping the colors in the middle to produce a variegated effect. On the top earring, below, you can see the tiny grains of enamel - as fine as sugar or salt.

Firing makes all those fine grains melt and fuse together. Here is the outcome: smooth as... glass!

Next, I layered on a freely drawn abstract design and fired the earrings again. Below you see the result after firing.

I really should have stopped at this point. Instead, I succumbed to the temptation to experiment with gold paint. I liked how it looked on a sample piece, so I tried to put a thin gold line along the outside of the dark blue squigglies, applying the paint with a quill pen. After firing, however, it looked awful. My quill pen technique had been a bit heavy-handed, to say the least, because what I produced was a thick gold strip that looked totally out of place. With enameling, you don't ever really know what you've got until after it's fired.

I thought I had just ruined my earrings, but Catherine suggested covering the gold with blue. Since you can't see through opaque colors, you can cover up anything you don't like. Therefore, I piled on more blue, which thickened the squiggly lines and created a raised, more textured effect. Here is the final outcome. The blue lines look more like slugs than squigglies but, believe me, it's better than the gold!

I experimented with stencil technique in which you place a stencil onto a prepared surface and sift on enamel. My stencil piece didn't come out well, but Alice's did. The piece below is hers and will become a necklace. Alice has used translucent enamel instead of the opaque type.

My two cloisonne pieces were very successful, especially the butterfly. Cloisonne technique employs bent wires which are cut to the desired length and placed on the copper form, as you see below.

The wires are held in place by a coat of transparent enamel. Here is how my butterfly looked after firing.

Next, enamel is applied so that it clings to the wires and thins as the color moves away from the wires. I dropped on some glass beads to create the butterfly's spots. Later I strung much tinier glass beads onto copper wire and Catherine attached fasteners to the ends. Voila! Here is my finished butterfly necklace.

Catherine's work, of course, looks a whole lot better than this.  It is far more intricate and quite stunning.  Please browse a bit in her two online galleries.

Enameling is a delicate and painstaking process, but very rewarding when things come out nicely. Speaking for myself, I considered the class a great success.  I got to know Catherine better.  I also found out what kinds of work went into the making of my flute crown.  But best of all, I enjoyed working on something tangible (unlike practicing or performing).

I'll close this post with kudos for Catherine Crowe -- for the beautiful and inspiring pieces she's created and for the joy she imparts while teaching basic skills. I highly recommend taking her class.  Locations are listed on her website.

© 2010, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

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