Grisaille and Limoges Techniques

Mona Szabados was born in Oslo, Norway. She has been enameling since 1980 and is mostly self-taught. Her goldsmith husband, Alex Szabados, makes all of the gold and stone settings for her enamels.

My enamel jewelry includes earrings, pins, pendants, lockets and rings done in Grisaille and Limoges techniques. Within most of the pieces are miniature paintings with images of women’s faces and animals. My enamel pieces, using copper, 80 mesh enamels, ceramic pigments and foils, usually require from 25 to 40 firings. I collaborate with my husband, Alex, who is a goldsmith. Each enamel piece is set in 22K or 18K gold.

Locket: 11/2″ w x 21/2″ h x 3/4″ d copper, enamel,
Foils: 24K, fine silver, and palladium.
Stones: opal, diamond, sapphire.
Setting: 22K bezel, 18K gold.

Usually I start my enamels by cutting out a copper shape and then do a rough sketch of the enamel for that piece. Sometimes I do the sketch first. Most often I have a very well defined color arrangement in mind, but it can change as I work.

I order 18 ga and 20 ga oxygen free, hardened copper (OFHC) in sheet form from American Copper & Brass in Oakland, CA. I use the Japanese 246 gold foil and pure silver foil from Thompson; I also use palladium leaf from Enamelwork Supply Co. The kiln I use the most is 9″ x 8″ x 6 1/2″ on a 110V line, but I also have a large kiln on a 220V line. Firing is at 1350-1400°F.

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After the copper shape is cut, the metal is cleaned by firing at 1300°F for five minutes, then put into the pickle of 30% Sparex and 70% distilled water, rinsed and then glass brushed. I clean anywhere from one to six pieces at a time, depending on my work schedule. My enamels are the leaded, standard 80 mesh. I wash one to two teaspoons of a color with distilled water until the water is clear. The washed enamels are stored wet in fish and tackle containers in a closed wooden cabinet. They are re-rinsed with distilled water before I use them. I do not make color samples; I learn about the enamels as I use them.

Using 1/0 to 4/0 1/4″ hair, sable brushes, I wet pack, with distilled water, medium or hard flux and transparent enamels on the front. Flux is wet packed over the face area and dark transparents over the other areas, without the flux and the dark transparents touching. This firing leaves a firescale line between the areas of the flux and the dark enamels. The enamel is packed about 11/2 mm high, which after firing barely covers the copper. About four coats are applied on the front and fired before sifting dry enamel on the back. The enamel piece is supported on a trivet that is on a mesh planche for the firing. I brush off the loose firescale on the back of the piece between the firings and also clean the edge of the piece with a Carborundum stone. When there is an adequate base coat on the front, I sift counter enamel on the back over the remaining firescale. Any additional coats needed later on the back are wet packed.

Then I proceed with the firings on the front. Colorful transparents are added to the face for shadows and features. After each firing, the edge of the copper is rubbed with Carborundum stone to remove any firescale. For the face, I use Schauer’s leaded opaque ivory color or white opalescent enamel, applying and firing about ten thin layers in the manner of grisaille, wet packing very wet and sculpting the enamel thicker on the forehead, the tip of the nose, etc. The thin areas of the opaque allow the transparent enamels to show through. Schauer is no longer manufacturing enamels, but fortunately I purchased a large supply. If I am planning to use silver foil in an area, then I use a cool color enamel under it.

To cut the foil, I place it between two sheets of typewriter paper. After separating the foil and the paper, I pick up a piece of foil with a brush that is wet with a 1:1 solution of Klyr-Fyre and distilled water and place it on the fired enamel. I used to always put silver flux over silver foil before applying a transparent pink or red, but now there are some leaded Japanese enamels that fire well without the flux under them. The transparent enamels generally will stay a lighter color if a coat of flux is fired between the layers.

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In the last three firings, I very carefully use Thompson ceramic pigments in very small amounts (tiny dots) to strengthen the features of the face. Each color is mixed with distilled water in a section of a party ice cube tray; and then a small amount of each color is placed on an agate slate and mixed with a little imitation lavender oil. I use the imitation lavender oil because it dries faster. A box lid covers the slate palette to keep the pigments clean between working sessions. After two weeks of work, or when I do a show, the slate is cleaned off to be ready for a clean supply.

When the enameling is completed, I smooth the edges with a blue wheel on the flexible shaft. I set the enamel in the bezel Alex has made, and he sets any stones we have chosen for the piece we have designed together.

By Mona Szabados - © Lilyan Bachrach - 2004
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Excerpts from the book: Enameling with Professionals
A unique book for everyone interested in the art and techniques of enameling
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