Process Blog

Secret Santa

So.  I'm currently attending graduate school for Metal, and the program has a traditional holiday party with a secret Santa gift exchange.  The rules are that you draw a name, and you have to give that person something handmade.  It can be metalwork, food, clothing, whatever, but you should try to come up with something that suits them and make it.

Everybody goes into the hat: undergraduates, grad students, faculty.  Despite occurring at a busy time of year, I really enjoy it, particularly trying to figure out just the right thing to make for someone I might not know very well.  However, this year, I knew EXACTLY who it was I drew.

Out of around 30 possible names, I pulled Jamie Bennett, my esteemed professor; he just happens to be an internationally recognized master enamelist and jeweler, specializing in feather-light, semi-abstract electoformed work with rich but subdued colors and delicate painting and who has his very own book.  No big deal.

Having been known to do some enameling myself, I thought long and hard about the perfect gift.  I figured my only real choices were to either make a piece of enameled jewelry knowing that he would be able to spot any technical flaws (though he is gracious enough not to criticize a gift), or to give him something like a cake, which we both know is a cop out.  Also, the holiday party is a potluck and I was already bringing a cake.  So, this is what I made.


The piece is a brooch, with my eye as the model.  My enamel work is very different from Jamie's, and there is no point in me trying to make his work as a gift for him, but I pulled some of my color cues from what I know of him and his palette.  My choice of the lover's eye format was less a matter of sentiment than cheeky bravado, in that anyone who looks at it has to stare the artist in the eye; never let it be said that I am afraid of being a pain in the ass.  All kidding aside, the format has become a specialty of mine, and I was riffing on the Carnival masks of Venice (inspired by Jamie's travels to and love of Italy).

Anyway, here's a bit more on the actual construction.

I started with a copper oval with a layer of hard clear enamel (unleaded), put down a layer of gold foil, and topped with a couple thin layers of leaded opalescent white enamel.  I'd actually had the blank ready for a while, but hadn't chosen what to do with it until this project came up.  Fun fact: the opal white over the gold foil is really, really pretty just on its own.

Unfortunately, most of my enamels are best viewed by moving around and seeing the light shift.  But trust me, it's pretty.

Unfortunately, most of my enamels are best viewed by moving around and seeing the light shift.  But trust me, it's pretty.

The real beauty of this enamel is the way the light reflects off the gold foil and is refracted by the semitransparent opal enamel.  Depending on the angle, you may see gold, a bluish cast, or even some pinkish tones.  I think painting on a surface like this is most effective when you use mostly transparent techniques lest the colors end up muddy.  In my experience, the glow of foils under transparent enamels is usually "brighter" than the painting on the surface, meaning that even a pure white overglaze will seem duller than a colored transparent over foil, even if the transparent is a darker color.  I'm not entirely sure of the physics, but you can think of it like taping a piece of white paper onto a computer monitor...the latter will be brighter even if the paper is bright white.  Enamels aren't illuminated from within, but foils will reflect a lot more light back than pigment.

To keep as much light as possible, I used painting enamels I had mixed up using clear flux, meaning they are largely transparent colors when applied thinly. I also did my best to stay away from blacks and browns, opting instead to use complimentary colors to make the shading.  Most of the piece is done with just cobalt blue, red-purple, yellow, and green.  I added a bit of brown, black, and white closer towards the end for the lashes and highlights.  The book Radiant Oils: Glazing Techniques for Paintings That Glow proved surprisingly helpful with regards to color layering suggestions.

Despite how light it is here, this is multiple layers in. 

Here you can see the preliminary color layers I've put down.  The vast bulk of the initial layers were pink and green.

Here is several more layers in, prior to firing.  You can see the yellow I've applied at the bottom of the iris, and the blue shading is much more apparent; prior to firing, the blue is a very light translucent purple, making it easy to under/over estimate the strength of application.  Though the shadows of the lashes are in, I don't put in crisp detail until the last few firings so as to preserve the sharpness.  I also stay away from black until the end, using umber to do the dark details for a little more richness.

I've finally started adding in lashes, still with burnt umber.  The whites of the eye and the highlight have just a touch of the painting white meant to be mixed with the pigment (you can mix them up with either clear flux or the painting white).  It is far more delicate and translucent than overglaze color. 

I don't know why the color balance keeps changing, but I'm leaving the different versions alone so you can see the effects of slightly different lighting.

At this point I've put in all of the blacks and otherwise finished the enamel. 

You can see my little color study in the background.

I like that the crinkles in the gold foil sort of look like skin.

Now!  On to the setting....

I didn't take as many pictures, but so it goes.  I used tracing paper to map out the shape of the setting and the scrollwork I was planning to sculpt, making sure it looked appropriate with the finished enamel.  I then bent a strip of brass using the drawing as a template, soldered it together, sanded it flush, and soldered it to a piece of sheet.  Following the soldering, I cut out the center section to lighten the piece and then cut the sheet flush with the edges of the strip.   

Once the basic shape was ready, I soldered wires to the inside lip so that my sculpted frame would have something to hold onto, and put the catch and hinge onto the back.  I also soldered a bit of tubing under the catch so that I could put a lock on it and prevent the brooch from accidentally coming loose.  After that, into the pickle to clean it up.

After all the soldering, I put the pin wire into place.  To secure the enamel, I put a thin rope of Green Stuff into the setting and squashed the enamel down, creating a slightly bouncy shock absorber between it and the metal.  Once I had it in the proper place, including aligning the signature on the back, I let it set up.  At that point, I put a layer of masking tape over all of the exposed metal so that it didn't get scratched while I finished it.

With all the bits in place and the catch locked.

I really hate sanding, so I wasn't taking any chances.


I really like the pale greenish-grey of the "natural" colored Apoxie Sculpt, so I used that to fill the gap around the enamel, being sure to completely embed the wires I soldered inside.  Between that and a little bit of aluminum mesh added in for extra structure, the putty is never coming out.  I then sculpted the Apoxie up and over the enamel a little bit, taking cues from the scrollwork frequently seen on Venetian masks.

After letting it cure, I did a little shading with some old Testor's model paints in green/brown/rust and highlighted it with some gold Liquitex acrylic ink.  The Apoxie takes paint well, but I was afraid it would be susceptible to getting banged up, so I masked off the eye with rubber cement and sprayed it with several generous layers of Polycrylic (after doing extensive tests for compatible sealants; no point in wrecking the piece now).  With that done, I did a little cleanup of overspray with a scalpel, pulled off the tape, and had a finished piece!

And then our early-December holiday party got cancelled due to consecutive snow days and we didn't do the exchange until February.  The end!