Monthly Archives: October 2012

A blush of red in the studio

D.Bréchault. Bowl, copper, patina. Dia.: 9.5 cm

As I walk through the neighbourhood these days, I notice the first blushing trees. So many shades of red: burgundy, crimson, vermillion, even some magenta – and some rusty reds too. I enjoy these rich and vibrant colours and I always have the urge to run to my studio and add splashes of colours to my jewellery.

The palette of a metalsmith does not have to be limited to a few muted shades of silver and gold. Metals like copper, brass, and bronze lend themselves particularly well to a wide variety of colours (or patinas) and can open up all kinds of possibilities. Metal patination has been used in different parts of the world for a very long time. Years ago, Ayako Kuroki, a distinguished goldsmith and teacher from Tokyo, Japan, told me about hiirodo the red copper patina used in traditional Japanese metalwork. Here is an example of tsuba (sword guards) with a deep maroon red copper patina:

Tsubas (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco)Photo : Wikipedia Commons

Tsubas (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco)
Photo : Wikipedia Commons

Several types of methods can be used to colour metal, depending on the colours you want to obtain – heat or chemicals, or a combination of both. For now, let’s deal with these rich and vibrant red autumn colours (I will talk about the greens, and the blues in another post). Here is how you can incorporate them into your work. Note that these recipes will only work with copper.

Remember to wear goggles, and make sure there is sufficient ventilation in your studio.

– Heat up the copper with the torch to a high temperature (until the metal is red hot).

– Quench immediately in a boiling water and salt solution (Salt/water solution: 3 tablespoons salt to 3 cups water).

This creates a deep brick red patina:

Depending on the intensity of the flame, or how long the metal is heated up, you’ll get darker shades of red or purplish red. If the metal is heated up for a bit longer, this can produce a marbled effect of red and black,

or a smoky effect like this:

Heating up the metal and quenching it in boiling water without salt will produce some rich tones of red as well, but generally more on the rusty or orangy side:

Here is another recipe:

First, coat the metal with a mixture of borax flux and water, and heat up with the torch. Quench in boiling water. Usually the more interesting colours appear on the back side of the sheet. Depending on what type of flux is used (borax cone ground, and mixed with water, or liquid flux like “Batterns”), you’ll get various results, from a deep burgundy with streaks of orange to a more mottled pattern:

And for a different mottled effect, try sprinkling salt on the metal as you are heating it up. Keep the flame on only until the grains of salt melt, then quench in boiling water right away. Results vary. On this sample, there are intricate patterns of purple and rose tones mixed with some smoky greys.

Sometimes, I like to texture the metal before coloring it; it adds more depth and another layer of interest to the design. There are many types of surface treatments available. In these examples, I used etching and roll-printing:

Important note: Don’t pickle your metal, as the pickling solution would remove the patina!

This heat patina is stable and fairly tough, so it does not really require much protection, especially if the patinated metal is in a recessed area that will prevent scratches. Otherwise a thin coat of soft beeswax will work well.

Now, if you consider yourself a control freak, these techniques are probably not for you! As with most patinas, results are not always consistent, and are difficult to predict, but that’s the beauty of it, and for me that’s the fun of it too. Factors such as the gauge of the metal, the intensity of the flame, or the temperature of the water will affect the results, so keep experimenting!

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Stuck for an idea?

Frottage is a useful technique for finding inspiration when you have “designer’s block”. I learnt about this technique when I was studying jewellery many years ago, and I have been sharing it with my own students ever since.

This technique was developed by the Surrealist painter Max Ernst in 1925. One day, tired of staring at his blank canvas, he was looking at the wooden floor and daydreaming, and the lines and the marks on the floor started morphing into various images. He decided then to lay sheets of paper on the floor and to rub (frottage comes from the French frotter – to rub) the paper over the textured surface with a pencil. From these, Ernst was inspired to create a series of drawings, called Histoire naturelle.

Max Ernst, from “Histoire Naturelle”, 1926.
MoMA, New York

Here is how I channel my inner Max Ernst:

I walk around my studio, or I go outside and “collect” textures. I just rub the surfaces through sheets of paper, randomly. The key is to work fast, without thinking too hard. It does not matter if the patterns overlap.

Rubbings can be found anywhere: on a concrete walkway, a crate, a brick wall, a metal grate, etc. Natural materials (i.e., leaves, bark, etc.) work well too. Tools, kitchen utensils, lettering, anything goes!

Here is my favourite pencil for this, a very fat and very soft pencil (6B):

I use the frottage technique in different ways. Sometimes, I simply look at the patterns on the sheet, until images emerge; this can serve as a point of departure for some ideas or sketches for future jewellery pieces.

Or, if I want to focus more specifically on textures or surface ornamentation – which I love to incorporate in my work – I pick out areas of the rubbings that appeal to me. Almost any pattern can be translated into metal, using various stamping tools, or techniques like etching, roll-printing, cuttlebone casting, etc. So I grab pieces of scrap metal, stamping tools, hammers, and start experimenting. Or some other times, I cut and paste various areas of the sheets and start assembling them to form necklaces, brooches, rings, whatever inspires me. You could also scan the sheets, and manipulate the shapes further with your computer. Again, the key it not to think too much or to worry about how it can actually be made.

This really works. Thank you Max Ernst! Start experimenting, and have fun. And you’ll probably come up with more ways of using the frottage technique.

D. Bréchault : Brooch “Poppies on the Meseta” – Silver, poppy jasper.
Textures made using various techniques: roll-printing, reticulation, stamping.