Convergent Series

learning, using & teaching metal clay, and other aspects of life

Archive for July, 2012

Color Shifts!

Posted by C Scheftic on 2012/07/25

After designing a piece, working with metal clay to create it, and firing it in the kiln, there remains another step to consider: post-fire color of the now-all-metal creation. There are lots of ways to add color to a piece, and I’m not about to go into all of them now. That is, for this post at least, I am not going to address deliberate colorings like enamel, resin, colored pencils, inks, various forms of plating, and so on. I am going to make a few points about several of my newer bronze pieces and will mention only in passing the “Liver of Sulphur” (LOS) patinas that can produce such nice (but somewhat unpredictable) colors on fine silver (and black or near-black on silver, copper, etc.)

Instead, what I’m thinking about today are the kiln-produced colors that sometimes appear on bronze pieces (and, to a lesser extent, on copper ones). Now, the thing is, they are basically unpredictable. You get what the kiln-gods decide to give you that day.

If the pieces come out a dark gray or black color, I will usually just polish that off. I wrote a series of posts in April of last year with “before, during, and after” photos using Hadar’s Clay Powders, and one of those showed pieces with a lot of this mostly-icky black coating that is best just polished off. That is why the first photo with this post (above, right), of a rectangular bronze piece, shows it all shiny: that side came out of the kiln all dreary gray except for one small, dreary, brown spot on its edge. (It was so dreary, in fact, that I didn’t even think to take a photo of it in that state.) But you’d never know that now from looking at its bright, polished surface if I hadn’t told you, would you?

Then again, sometimes pieces come out of the kiln with stunning colors. The second photo (left) shows two other pieces that came out of that same load. (As ever, a click should get you a bigger version of any of these.) When people see pieces with colors like that, they always respond with all sorts of exclamations of “Ooooh” and “Ahhhh”!

Which I fully understand. Except I know that those colors are basically ephemeral: there for your enjoyment at the moment, but nothing that will remain so brilliant for very long.

If I make a comment to that effect to the piece’s admirer, novices are often generous with suggestions. And I do appreciate the offers. While I am open to new ideas (especially since many of my students are artists with experience in other media), there’s also a good chance that I’ve already tried everything that’s being suggested, and then some…. The third photo with this post (over to the right again) shows two of the many things that one might consider trying.

Of the two pieces shown there, the one on the left has been lacquered. Notice how the nice, variable, kiln-green has all gone a sort of even brown shade, and the lovely bright scarlet has turned a much duller orange. I don’t dislike those colors; they simply are not the ones I was trying to preserve. In fact, I only rarely use lacquer on my pieces. It does provide some protection in the short term but, once it starts to wear off, then you have a piece that darkens in those spots but not in the ones where it remains. I do keep trying various kinds of coatings, here and there, just to see what happens, but they are not a major part of my routine. (Similar shifts and dulling of bright colors happen to LOS’d silver that emerges all brilliant and lovely.)

More often, I will do what’s shown on the piece to the right in that photo. That is, instead of the “high polish” of the rectangular piece, I will give it a “light polish” like this, often highlighting one or more select areas with a slightly brighter shine. I chose to include here a piece where I’d done that so I’d have an example I could show folks, later, who seem very surprised when I say that another reason the original colors are ephemeral is that, if they are deliberately polished or rubbed enough in normal wear, the colors will go away. Except that’s exactly what polishing does: the color is only on the surface and polishing that removes whatever reaction has happened there while also laying down the metal “crystals” so they reflect light in their “typical” color range. (Again, this can be compared to what happens with silver, both in the disappearance of the “kiln white” (or, in some cases, “kiln glitter”) and the dulling and/or shifting of colors from LOS or other patinas.)

Except, the crazy thing is, just like everything else involving these colors, you can’t quite count on all the things I described above. Some, yes, but not everything. Shown below are two shots of the “other side” of the rectangular piece with which I opened this post. This side came out of the kiln with lovely colors. I considered polishing the dragonfly, but decided to leave it alone at least for the short term, and grab a photo of how it looked with no post-fire treatment. Later, when I got the lacquer out to use in coating the round piece, above, I decided to hit this piece with it as well. And, here, the color shift was much less dramatic!

straight from the kiln after being lacquered

I’m not complaining: I liked the colors here and I’m glad they didn’t shift. I’m just saying, if you happen to get this the first time you try a protectant product, don’t assume that’s what you’ll get the next time.

And I also recommend learning to appreciate and celebrate ephemeral beauty, in jewelry and otherwise.

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Edible Flowers: the twelfth Fest, in 2012

Posted by C Scheftic on 2012/07/20

This week included the third Thursday of July which, to me, meant it was once again time for the twelfth annual Edible Flowers Food Festival. Again, it was sponsored by the Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) Parks Department and the Penn State Master Gardeners of Allegheny County.

I try to contribute both edible flowers and time to help make this wonderful event a success. In past years, I’ve crawled around on the ground harvesting violets to save until mid-July. This year, the winter was so mild and early spring so warm that they came out several weeks early. I had thousands of buds just ready to open when a more-typical mid-spring freeze struck. The plants themselves came through that just fine, in the long run, but the flowers for this year did not.

Now, my garden was not the only one to suffer from that early-bloom killer-frost phenomenon. All the contributors to this event faced that, followed by severe heat and drought conditions this summer. So there was a good bit of menu-shuffling needed to make the dinner a success this year…. Luckily, my Rose of Sharon (shown) was in full bloom a bit early. Actually, it was already a bit past its bloom-peak: the photo shows how it looked on Thursday morning as I went out to harvest. Earlier in the week, there were probably three times as many blooms on it! Still, I managed to get around 200 good flowers which, at five petals per flower, meant that (after separating, cleaning, and selecting) I chipped in about a thousand petals for the salad dish. The second photo with this post shows a colander filled with well over 50 fresh blooms.

Just to be clear here: some flowers are edible, but many are not. Do check out any that you consider using! In fact, Rose of Sharon can be a tricky one, because that “common name” is actually used to identify several entirely different plants. What I have is the one most often referred to as Rose of Sharon in the USA: hibiscus syriacus. It is a member of the Genus Hibiscus, although it is misnamed in that it apparently does not come from Syria. Go figure. (Hibiscus is part of the Mallow (Malva) Family, which also contains plants as diverse as cacao, cotton, kola nuts, and okra.)

Though I’ve been interested in edible flowers for a long time, it’s only relatively recently that I found out my Rose of Sharon had petals that are edible. Apparently, various forms of hibiscus syriacus come in a range of both colors and mild flavors: I would not say mine have much flavor at all; but they are gorgeous and offer a satisfying bit of crunch, so they’re great when mixed, in small quantities, with other greens and flowers. The last photo with this post shows our vinegar-makers in the process of filling the small dressing-containers and adding them to the colorful salad bowls.

Before I sign off on this post, I thought you might be interested in the entire menu for the evening:

  • Lavender Lemonade
  • Rosey Zinger Iced Tea
  • Elder Flower Presse
  • Snack crackers with:
    • Edible Flowers Cream Cheese Spread
    • Tofu Spread with Nasturtiums
    • Lemon Verbena Jelly, Peach-Lavender Jam, and Rose Geranium Jelly
  • Green Gazpacho with Garlic Scapes, Roasted Red Pepper Puree, and Herbed Croutons
  • Spring Greens with Mixed Edible Flowers and Strawberry Rosemary Vinegar Dressing
  • Rice Paper Rolls of Nasturtiums & Vegetables with an Asian Dipping Sauce
  • Egg Salad with Redbud Flowers on Herbes de Provence Bread
  • Potato Salad with Dill Leaves and Flowers
  • Anise Hyssop Pizza with Mushrooms, Roasted Yellow Peppers, and Cheeses
  • Baked Fish with Lemon Thyme and Monarda Sauce
  • Roast Beef with Roses et Poivre
  • Chicken Mole with Rose Hips
  • Oven Roasted Green Beans with Onion Buds
  • Seasonal Fruit Salad with Lemon Verbena Lime Dressing
  • Chocolate Bark with Lavender, Pretzels, Caramel, and Sea Salt
  • Pound Cake with Monarda Glaze
  • And, of course, the Rose Petal Ice Cream that led to the Fest in the first place!!!

But now I guess I should get back to making (and writing about) small metal adornments….

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Pushing, in more ways than one….

Posted by C Scheftic on 2012/07/18

About a month ago, I wrote a post about some pieces I am calling “Push Pendants” because they are made by pushing some metal clay through a piece of metal mesh. Given that I like making reversible pieces, furthermore, if you read my last post you would have seen a photo of the “other side” of yet another one of these pushed-pieces. The first photo with this post shows its pushed-side, all polished up to a nice shine. (You should be able to tell from the shape which (un-polished) “other” side it matches there….)

They’re fun to make, and I admit the original idea was not mine. They are adapted from a slightly different project I noticed a while ago in Mary Hettmansperger’s delightful book, Mixed Metal Jewelry Workshop. The approach used by “Mary Hetts” is really simple: you make the combo, fire it, then frame it in sheet metal. (Check out her book for all sorts of other useful details!) That strategy minimized one major potential issue: as the clay is fired–both burning off binder and sintering the powder into a solid metal–it shrinks. The wire mesh does not shrink. Warping and cracking can occur in the parts that began as clay! Her process minimizes that as a problem by having you frame the sintered metal with some other solid product (e.g., sheet metal, but you could use wood or fiber or plastic or whatever else you want). First of all, you don’t get very much cracking that way; secondly, you can probably just cover up any you do get.

But I started to wonder: what if you just framed it with more clay from the start? How much of a problem could that be? What are the variables involved? How much more difficult would that make the whole task? Would it still be a good project for a workshop that included both experienced and novice metal clay artisans?

After several months of experimenting (and confirming a few of my suspicions with Hadar Jacobson at the recent PMC Guild conference), it is looking to me as though:

  • With these, it helps if you are someone who is willing to accept what the kiln gives you: they’re not totally unpredictable, but even tiny variations in construction can have very noticeable effects!
  • Giving the piece a bit of curvature, a hint of the direction in which you want it to warp, can be helpful.
  • Really thin surfaces, front or back, do tend to crack.
  • Thicker surfaces have a more complex relationship to the warping and cracking, but there are ways to minimize such problems (and to make it easier on yourself to patch cracks and refire if you find that desirable).
  • The position of the mesh in relation to the frame matters as to whether and how much the piece will crack along the side.
  • The variance in shrinkage rates across the different clays makes a difference in the patterns of shrinkage and warping in these pieces. The pattern of least to worst is predictable; the exact extent seems not to be.

I’ve had people ask me why I bother with these clays if I have such problems with them. Well, the answer is that both the explorations and the results are, overall, delightful. Most of the time, pieces do turn out fine. And some of the so-called problems that do occur are ones I’d never have with silver because it’s just much simpler and more reliable to fire. But I realize that others happen because I try things with these metals that I would never think to try with silver or, if I did think of them, would be unlikely to try because of the price of silver.

In this example, besides simply pushing clay through mesh, I feel like I am pushing the envelope; that is, I feel like I am also extending the current limits of the clay’s performance, going beyond some commonly-perceived boundaries of working with it. I find the process of exploration to be fun, itself, in addition to any reactions I have to the resulting pieces or the subsequent workshops I may teach from what I’ve learned.

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Contrasting Textures in a Design

Posted by C Scheftic on 2012/07/10

In my last post I said, about the design of a ring with a butterfly sort of camouflaged against some roses, “I know that the butterfly would stand out more from the flowers if I’d used textures with more contrast.” When I teach, I try to take a few sample pieces to illustrate such a statement, so I thought I’d post a couple of those here too.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to make pieces I consider to be “reversible” ones. One side may well be more “striking” than the other but, even with those, I figure that there are days when a person may want a look that is more or less flashy. Both of the pieces illustrating this post are examples of the “other” side of a piece (so you may see them again at some point if / when I choose to talk about other aspects of their construction.). But both of them illustrate how a simple variation in the texture can help an embellishment to stand out.

The first piece, in bronze, shows a dragonfly with a simple “sandpaper” texture floating over a span of leaves and tendrils. In this case, the colors are simply from “the luck of the kiln” although, if I wanted, I could further differentiate the dragonfly foreground from the leafy background by polishing one and leaving the other untouched. (I’m actually still thinking about whether I may do that.)

The second piece, in fine silver, shows a butterfly with a “smooth” finish impressed into a span of cattails. The liver-of-sulphur (“LOS”) patina that gave me some nice blue edges also helps with the differentiation.

In both cases, the relative plainness of the insect shapes help them to stand out a bit from the deeper textures of the vegetation. Of course, one could also do this the other way ’round, say, with a highly-textured insect on a leaf-shape with just a bit of simple veining.

Hmmm, maybe I’ll make a few of those the next time I go on a pollinator-design binge.

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Maybe I should try a white lab coat?

Posted by C Scheftic on 2012/07/01

I was just wondering if being dressed in white might help me in my ongoing struggle to get decent photos of small shiny objects without unwanted colored reflections in them….

In person, I think it’s somewhat more obvious that the design on this intentionally-simple ring involves a butterfly on some flowers, with ferns around the ring-band. The LOS patina came out nicely, with a sort of blue-tint to the butterfly and a sort of rosy-color deep into the roses. I know that the butterfly would stand out more from the flowers if I’d used textures with more contrast, but I’m happy with subtle difference–the camouflage–that I achieved this way. Yet at some point I just stopped counting the number of shots I have taken trying to get one that looks even remotely like what I see. (O the joys of digital cameras with their instantaneous results!) I hope you can see my intended design because mostly what I see here are various reflections on the silver….

Oh well, the important thing is that students in my next ring class, who will be there in person (at Zelda’s Bead Kit Company later this month), can see the points I’ll be making with this and the other dozen-ish rings I’ll be taking to illustrate various aspects of ring-making.

I’ll have two rings (this and one other) that I’ll use specifically to illustrate post-fire sizing. I don’t use the “ring pellets” that seem popular among many metal clay artisans. I understand what they do, but I cannot fathom why they seem so popular. I’m happy to have a ring come out a tiny bit small–in fact, I construct mine so that they come out of the kiln a very controlled amount too small! And I don’t care at all if they do not emerge from the kiln in a perfectly round shape–though mine rarely change shape during firing. Even if I wanted a ring to end up round and it came out of the kiln a slightly different shape, it’s easy enough to get a properly fired-to-metal ring into round, and to strengthen it in the process of getting it to the desired shape.

Once my ring has been fully-fired and, unlike the one shown here, usually before I apply any patina (but my snapshots of the other new, and as-yet-untreated ring, have even more distracting reflections), that’s when I do all the sizing, shaping, and work-hardening of the finished metal to achieve just the fit I want and to give my creation as much strength as possible. In most cases, my ring will end up a bit bigger than it started (meaning it will then fit just right) and a bit oblong or oval (so it will stay put when worn, much better than a round one does), both of which are results that I want. Even if I were to use the pellets, I’d still do all that … so I just don’t bother with them.

Yes, it did take me a slight leap of faith, back in the beginning, to believe that metal clay really turned into a true metal that you could metal-smith. And, yes, I’ve seen people with under-fired pieces that were still too brittle to treat that way. But a pellet isn’t going to solve any of that…. If you’re making rings, especially silver ones, I encourage you to make one a few sizes too small, and fire it for a full two hours, so you can try some gentle yet firm hammering on the edges of the band and around the band itself to see what happens in terms of both size and strength. Bypass rings, in fact, are particularly good for this exploration (better than ones like the construction shown here) because the bypass rings really let you feel how much stiffer / stronger they get as you work them. They are also a bit more forgiving as you aim for a certain size!

If you try this, please do let me know what you find, knowing that another reason I was thinking about the white lab coat is because I look at learning about the metal clay process, and the best ways to work with both the clay products and the final all-metal results, as a series of ongoing experiments.

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