Butterfly Earrings and the Lessons Learned

butterfly-earrings-close-upA friend asked me to create a custom pair of earrings for her.  She had a pair that she loved, but they were made of cheap materials and were starting to look quite worn, and well, cheap.  I didn’t feel comfortable making a direct copy of these earrings, but we talked about how I could interpret the design in fine silver, change things up a bit, and hopefully create a new pair that she would love even more.

This design is WAY outside my comfort zone.  Seriously, left to my own creative whims, I would never have created something like this.  I like the design, it’s just not my style.  The good news is that I had to push myself to figure out creative engineering solutions and develop new skills to complete this project. I have a love/hate relationship with custom orders for exactly this reason.  I always learn something new, but custom orders frustrate me more than anything else I create.
I thought it would be useful to me (and hopefully to you) to recount the techniques I attempted, the problems I encountered and the lessons I learned along the way.

  • My first attempt was to use 16 ga fine silver wire embedded in a pad of wet clay on the backs of the greenware butterflies.  I learned two valuable lessons.  First, a long stretch of 16 ga fine silver wire will not work harden to my standards of durability.  I considered using a heavier fine silver wire, but the wire was just too bulky for the scale of the other elements.  Second, if you hit a CZ with a hammer, it will shatter in place and become an instant cloudy mess.  Duh!
  • My second attempt was to solder argentium wire to the fired butterflies.  Through my research, I learned that you can get argentium paste solder, which is useful for ensuring that the solder is as tarnish resistant as the wire.  I don’t have much soldering experience, and I apparently got the piece too hot, which once again cracked the cz.  I probably could have made this work with practice, but was unsure how many butterflies I might ruin in the process.  But, I now have argentium solder in my toolkit whenever I need it in the future.
  • The third attempt was the winner.  I used argentium wire and embedded them into pads of wet clay on the backs of the greenware butterflies.  I had to reduce the firing temperature to accommodate the argentium, but I think it was a good trade off.
  • I also got some practice with creating photopolymer plates.  I was taught to first create a transparency, then develop the  design in TNF (thermo negative film) and then use the TNF to create the photopolymer plate.  I think this process was developed because most transparencies don’t come off the printer with rick, dark blacks.  Mine tend to be a bit muddy.  The TNF creates a nice, crisp black and clear image with really solid blacks.  But, in my opinion, the TNF step is a time-consuming pain in the neck.  So, I experimented with my butterfly image to see if I could skip the TNF.  I printed 2 of the images at exactly the same size, printed them to transparency, and then stacked them up.  I had to fiddle with them to get the transparencies perfectly aligned, and then I taped them together.  This created a nice, solid image and it created a perfect photopolymer plate.  Admittedly, I’m probably not the first person to figure this out, but it was a real “aha” moment for me!

I really hope my friend likes the earrings.  I will be very happy to deliver them and cross this project off my list, and I know it will make me smile every time I see her wearing them.

August 29, 2010

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The Power of an Almost Dry Brush

WIP-8-26-10Sometimes I’m a little slow to catch on.  I’ve learned from a bunch of talented teachers.  I’ve read dozens of books and hundreds of blog posts about metal clay techniques.  I’ve watched demos and online videos.  I know I’ve heard this before.  So, how did it take over a year for me to really “get” the power of an almost dry brush?  I was so obsessed with the power of a wet brush, that I guess I overlooked its less moist cousin.  But this week, in a fit of production, I discovered a dozen ways to use a nearly dry brush to smooth out the rough spots without causing a wash out.  I often joke that my pieces suffer from “too much love”.  I fuss with them too much, getting pieces too thin, and washing out lovely textures that would have been better off left alone.  So, if you haven’t gotten friendly with that almost dry brush, I strongly encourage you to give it a try.

Some of my online friends commented on the neatness of my worktable in my studio tour photos. Well, here’s what it really looks like when I’m on a roll.  Notice the stack that starts with a pencil box, includes two trays and a sketchbook with a few fresh-from-the-kiln pieces scattered on top.  This technique is essential for working in a small space.

August 26, 2010

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New Photo Cube


Inside-CubeI love, love, love my new EZ Cube. It’s so sweet, tiny and efficient!  I went for the 12″ cube, which allows me to keep it set up in a permanent location.  A larger cube wouldn’t fit on this little table, so I would have to break it down after each use.  I’m using two cheapo gooseneck desk lamps from Staples and day white compact fluorescent bulbs for my lighting.  I picked up an acrylic  photo frame to use as the support for shooting pendants.  I just tape a background photo to the acrylic frame and clip the pendant chain to the upper corners.

photo-cube-2The EZ Cube has two really cool features.  First, the top zips open.  This means I can make adjustments and switch out pieces without moving the camera and disturbing the arrangement of the front panel.  I didn’t realize how important this feature would be until I used the tent.  Second, the front panel is really flexible and easy to work with.  It attaches around the edges with velcro.  The best arrangement for my camera has the front two legs of the tripod actually sitting inside the cube, which is possible by opening the lower velcro sections.  It also has a center zipper that closes above and below the camera lens to minimize the camera reflection.  Have I mentioned that I LOVE my EZ Cube?

Saphira-1Here’s an example of a recent shot taken with the cube.  This image has not been re-touched yet.  You can see some minor camera reflection, but with shiny surfaces, even the tiniest bit of camera lens will be reflected back in the image.  My husband is a wiz with Photoshop, and he has taught me some amazing tricks for cleaning up these reflections.  When I find the time, I’ll post a tutorial to share what I’ve learned.

I started with a DIY photo tent, built out of PVC pipe and a piece of diffusing fabric.  It worked quite well, but it was time to upgrade.  You can read about my home-built photo tent in a previous post.  It’s really a great solution for starting out on a budget.

August 19, 2010

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New Maker’s Mark and Work in Progress

Dragon-with-Makers-MarkI’m going to order one of those crisp little maker’s mark stamps from Babette Cox, but I wanted to do a bit of testing first to be sure I do it right.  For example, do I want my mark to be embossed or debossed, or in simpler terms, will the letters be “inny” or “outty”?  How large do I want the mark to be?  Do I want to replicate my handwritten “WMc” I’ve been using for years, or use my logo font to make it look more finished?  My solution to having so many unanswered questions was to create a few small photopolymer plates to test out my ideas.  Here’s where I landed.  I used the font and I dropped the little “c”, but might just add it back.  I prefer to have the letters raised in the impression.  And, I need the whole thing to be really teeny, like 1/4″ across.  I can cut out the piece with a tiny circle cutter, which aligns it with my brand.  I’m not sure anyone else will notice this, but it makes a big difference to me.  I’m going to work with this plate for a while until I’m sure I like the results in all applications before I order the stamp.
Dragon-with-PatinaI’ve been working on a pair of dragons.  I’m taking a more planned approach to the carving and I really like the results.  Here are the dragons in the greenware state before going into the kiln.  I also took a quick shot of the larger dragon with the luscious patina.  I get really pretty colors by adding salt and ammonia to the liver of sulfur solution.  I’m also learning the art of when to stop.  Even after you dunk the piece in cold water and transfer to a cup of water loaded with baking soda, the color continues to develop.  It really is part science and part art.  This piece polished up beautifully and those gorgeous purple hues stayed in the carved areas.  I’ll show the finished piece soon.

August 14, 2010

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PMC Conference Wrap-Up

I recently attended the PMC Conference at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.  This was my first conference as I started working with the material just over a year ago.  I’ve attended classes and workshops, but the conference experience was quite different. For example, the conference features presentations and demonstrations, unlike a hands-on workshop.  The schedule offers lots of great opportunities for networking and making friends.  I picked up some good tips and a few techniques, and I purchased some interesting tools that I might not have sought out online.
There is a vendor hall that’s like nirvana for a metal clay artist with money in their pocket!  My favorite find was at the Naturescapes Studio booth with these awesome sets of graduated brass cutters.  I got every available set, so I have six sizes of circles, six squares, three rectangles and three hexagons.  Each set stacks onto a brass wire and a simple piece of cork holds the set together.  I’ve already started using these tiny cutters.  Pictured here is a greenware (not yet fired) set of earrings and pendant with tiny rectangles cut out.  I LOVE these cutters!  From the same vendor, I also picked up a cool elevated turntable, which should help my posture and make it easier to rotate a piece without having to pick it up.
The absolute highlight of the conference for me was meeting so many amazing metal clay artists.  Nearly everyday, I explain metal clay to someone, and am usually met with a puzzled look that says, “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about”.  In the special bubble of the conference, absolutely everyone with a yellow badge shares the same passion.  Making friends is as easy as introducing yourself.  Every conversation is easy, with a shared lingo and a creative spirit that binds us together.  It really is a unique environment.

Sonias-BraceletMany of us participated in the Charms for Charity raffle.  The community of metal clay artists donated enough charms to create nearly 40 finished bracelets.  And, we banded together to sell raffle tickets.  I was thrilled when one of the tickets I sold was pulled as a winner.  My friend, Sonja Marshall-Bone will soon claim this beautiful charm bracelet.  I want to thank all my friends and family members who generously bought raffle tickets from me.  I wish you ALL could have won!  In the final tally, the community raised over $6100 for the American Cancer Society and over $3600 for the Bone Marrow Foundation.

I went into the experience with limited expectations.  Not to say that I didn’t expect to have a fabulous time, just that I didn’t expect any particular variety of fabulousness.  I came away feeling very much enriched and far more connected to this amazing community of artists.  What more could a girl ask for?

August 8, 2010

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