Silver Tarnish

Let me interrupt all things encaustic with a brief gilding adventure. Part of my work for Lee Kelly has been learning how to apply gold leaf to sculptures and drawings. I’m not very good at it yet so this isn’t a tutorial. What I want to look at in this post is how to speed up the tarnishing process on small sculptures with a silver leafed surface.

Why do I want to tarnish perfectly good silver?
New silver is flashy and bright like a pair of silver earrings. Perfect. But silver can be a living surface, absorbing elements of its environment and changing color with time. Here’s an example of a silver leafed wall relief that has been tarnishing since the early 1990’s:


Wall relief by Lee Kelly. Silver leaf on steel.

The surface is beautifully irregular and rich with texture and color. This piece is one of my favorites because I feel like I can look at that surface forever. But… did I mention it took 20+ years to develop?

Speed tarnish
20170328_114423Sulfur, according to the great Delphic oracle Google, is the key to tarnish. People use chopped hard-boiled eggs for tarnishing small objects, and it works. But three dimensional objects any bigger than cabinet hardware require a lot of eggs. I found soil acidifier in ten pound bags at the garden store and I prepared a chamber with a small, lidded plastic box.

Next I found three pieces of scrap metal and leafed all three with pure silver.


I’m leafing in a room with yellow walls and the silver reflects some yellow color, but the true color is bright silver like the small piece on the right.

Two leafed scraps went into the box and I kept the third piece in the open air as a control subject.


After taking this picture I buried the pieces under the sulfur pellets.

Tarnished results

Within eight hours, the material was noticeably yellowed and within twenty four it looked like this:


The upper right piece is the control, still untarnished. The other two are heavily colored after 24 hours. 

The next issue will be stopping the tarnishing process at the perfect moment. The soil acidifier seems to be extremely strong and the process doesn’t stop after the piece is removed from the box. A simple wipe down with a soft cloth might be enough or perhaps some soap and water. Will get back to you about that.

In the meantime, here’s a link to a gilding video from Gilded Planet. YouTube has many, many videos on gilding but I learned something new from this one. Also here’s a link to our gold and silver leaf supplier, Easy Leaf. They are extremely conscientious when it comes to precious metals.

Cover of Encaustic Materials and Methods: A facsimile edition.

Encaustic Materials and Methods is finally here! Long-time followers of this blog may remember that I’ve been talking about bringing the 1949 text of Francis Pratt and Becca Fizell’s influential but nearly impossible to find book back to life. And after three long years, the book went live on Amazon a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a link to Encaustic Materials and Methods on Amazon.

This is a facsimile edition, which means that each page of the original book was carefully scanned so that the new version maintains the look and feel of the original. Some images were reproduced, though not all. Special thanks to the late Esther Geller for allowing us to include a new photo of her encaustic masterpiece, Oriental Musician (late 1940s). Additionally, we thank the Menil Collection for the rights to reproduce Fleur de Sang (1943) by Victor Brauner, Bryn Mawr College for the rights to reproduce Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors (1945) by David Aronson, the Whitney Museum of American Art for Karl Zerbe’s Harlequin (1944), and of course the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the use of Portrait of a young woman with a gilded wreath (A.D. 120-140).

This book would not have been the labor of love that it is without the assistance of Hannah M. G. Shapero, daughter of Esther Geller, and Ben Aronson, son of David Aronson. They provided insight into the artistic practices of their parents, and it will surprise no one to learn that both are wonderful artists themselves.  Visit Hannah M. G. Shapero’s web site here and Ben Aronson’s web site here. Sadly, both Esther Geller and David Aronson passed away this year.

And finally, a special shout-out goes to Virginia Howard, great-niece of Francis Pratt, who generously shared information about her aunt, including the loan of important archival documents. She also wrote the brief bio of Francis that appears in the book. Thanks, Virginia!

Caution: Yes, Victor Brauner supposedly used gasoline in his encaustic process. But Victor was a Jewish communist hiding out in the mountains during WWII. He had nothing, he could go nowhere and yet he still made art. I love Fleur de Sang for exactly those reasons. Here’s a link to an earlier fan-girl post I did about Victor.

Artists familiar with art materials (flake white, anyone?) knows that most of these things will kill you, one way or another. So please, exercise caution even when using your commercial encaustic products.

And maybe it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: keep your gas in your tank.

Last word: Looking at the recipes and formulas in Encaustic Materials and Methods is to witness the birth of modern encaustic art. We wouldn’t be who we are now without the genius of these mid-20th century artists, most of whom are gone now.

Here's a cute photo of Esther Geller standing in front of Oriental Musician. Photo from the Boston Globe.

Here’s a cute photo of Esther Geller standing in front of Oriental Musician. Photo from the Boston Globe.

Free stuff
I loaded a pdf of sample pages of Encaustic Materials and Methods in the Free Box, the top box in the right-hand column of this page. Take a look.

Surprised to hear from me again so soon? I was on hold with the employment office and thought, why not write a blog post? Funny what goes through your mind after listening to repeated pre-recorded messages and disturbing muzack for an hour. That’s right, an hour.

In my last post I sent links to the print-on-demand books The Theory and I created for Oregon sculptor Lee Kelly. Two of those books (One through Nine and The Observatory at Jaipur) documented exhibitions Lee had at his gallery in Portland.

The books contained:

  • Photographs of each piece in the exhibition, captioned with names and dimensions
  • Photographs of earlier pieces that are related in some way to the new work
  • Critical discussions of the new work
  • Brief introductions explaining why we thought a book was a good idea
  • Biographical information about the artist

I’m going to discuss each point in turn but right now let’s talk about why a book can be an important tool for an artist and another way to direct the messaging about your work.

Exhibition catalog
I’m not speaking for every commercial gallery, but here most galleries don’t produce exhibition catalogs for their artists. Public museums and collections often do, as a matter of course. But most of us wait years to be included in a major collection or even (gasp) get a career retrospective exhibition. So what happens while we wait? We mount important shows in commercial spaces, the work sells or it doesn’t, and a month later it’s as if the show never happened.

You probably document your new work and exhibitions on your web site. A web site is the most important tool you possess because it contains everything and is easy to update. But speaking as a user, I know how quickly most people click through web sites. And getting people to read anything longer than a caption online? Whew!

Old tech like a printed book can place images in context with writing and give depth and insight into the artistic process. Or allow a critical thinker the ability to write about your work at length. And because the book is available online (through whichever online publisher you choose) you can buy copies of the book at cost to give away or provide a link so that people can buy it themselves. It’s always there.

Preserving a body of work or important period in an artist’s life
I was talking to my father about the book we wrote called One Through Nine which discussed an exhibition of paintings he did in 2013. It was his first exhibition of paintings on canvas since sometime in the 1960’s. He said, “I didn’t realize until I saw the book that the paintings all related to one another. Without the book, the paintings and the ideas would be gone.”

All that said, this is not a get rich quick scheme unless you are a genius self-promoter.

A book is another way to take control of the messaging and presentation of your work.

Next time I’ll try to channel The Theory about why having a smart guy or gal write about your work is a good idea.

New Lee Kelly Books

Jaipur cover_bogHello, everyone, I’m not dead. I’ve been… well, that’s a long story for another post. Right now I want to tell you that The Theory and I have put together three new books about Oregon sculptor Lee Kelly. Who is, coincidentally, my father.

Observatory at Jaipur
Catalog accompanying Lee’s show in October 2015 at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Full color, 86 pages. Get it here: Observatory at Jaipur

One through Nine_cover_blogLee Kelly: One through Nine
In 2013, Lee Kelly created a significant body of new work, a series of paintings entitled “One through Nine.” These nine paintings are oil on canvas, a medium the artist had largely abandoned in 1963. However, these new paintings do not represent a return to Kelly’s Abstract Expressionist past but emerged from his sculptural work of the last ten to 15 years. Full color, 68 pages. Get it here: Lee Kelly: One through Nine

A bog cover_blogBook of Gardens
A Book of Gardens was first published by Lee Kelly and Bonnie Bronson in 1987 as a study of garden designs from India, ancient Egypt and Japan. Hand-printed and illustrated by Lee Kelly, designed and spiral bound by Bonnie Bronson, this small book had a single release of fewer than fifty copies. This 2015 edition includes a facsimile reproduction of the original book and photographs from Lee’s sculptures as installed at his home in Oregon City. Get it here: A Book of Gardens

For the next week or so, I’ll send free pdfs to anyone interested in taking a look at the books. Leave me comment below and I’ll get back to you.

What’s next?
With these books in mind, I’m considering doing some posts about the process of putting together print-on-demand books for artists. In a world where exhibition catalogs can be expensive to produce, print-on-demand might be something for artists to consider. So more on that later. And hopefully another year doesn’t pass before I do these posts!

As promised, here is The Theory’s list of archival texts about encaustic art and materials from GoogleBooks. All of these texts are free for download. I can’t promise high-quality scans, so don’t be surprised if a header turn up in the middle of a page of text. Most of these works date from the rediscovery of encaustic during the 19th century, so it is foundational information and some are surprisingly current for encaustic artists.

Go to GoogleBooks and type the author or title into the search field. Good hunting!


Frederic Crowninshield – Mural Painting (1887)

Charles Lock Eastlake – Materials for a History of Painting (1847)

TH Fielding – The Theory and Practice of Painting (1852)

Thomas John Gulick – Painting Popularly Explained (1864)

Eugenio Latilla – A Treatise on Fresco, Encaustic and Tempera Painting (1842)

JH Muntz – Encaustic, or Count Caylus’s Method of Painting In the Manner of the Ancients (1760)

John Sartain – On the Antique Painting in Encaustic of Cleopatra (1885)

WB Sarsfield Taylor – A Manual of Fresco and Encaustic Painting (1843)

W Cave Thomas – Mural or Monumental Decoration (1869)

James Ward – History and Methods of Ancient and Modern Painting (1914)

When we last spoke (regrettably, almost a year ago), my studio needed a new roof and our bee hive had died.

So let’s catch up. The roof was replaced, but not without further adventures in dry rot, wet rot, basically all sorts of rot. The Theory and I had to lie down with warm compresses on our foreheads and whiskey in our coffee cups after writing that check. The good news is that the roof doesn’t leak anymore.

On a beautiful day in early May, we welcomed a new box of bees to the hive. We learned so much after last year, such as don’t let paper wasps set up shop anywhere near your girls. Don’t let your hive get wet and moldy (see paragraph above for rot). And keep feeding those girls into the fall months. We had favorable weather through November, and even when winter set in, it hasn’t been cold or rainy for long. We have our fingers and toes crossed.

The summer months were taken up with a new project. My father built an archive building to house and preserve his and my stepmother’s artwork. When I say build, let’s keep in mind that professionals (Meng-Hannan Ltd) were involved. Check this: the archive building is the first new structure on the property since 1923 and the only one that is up to code. I just get shivers.

And no year of ups and downs would be complete without someone losing their job. And that would be me. After 19 years and 11 months, my stint as a kept woman came to an end. I know about doors closing and windows opening (people say the darnedest things…over and over again). But what I came away with, along with my wheelie chair and a box of binder clips, was admiration for the people I worked with for all those years.

What will I do next? I believe a nap is in order. But I have one interesting factoid from the land of the unemployed: there is just as little time in the day when you don’t have a job as when you do. And here I thought I would get so much done!

The Theory has some encaustic research goodies to pass on, which I will do in a couple of days. In the meantime, happy new creativity, everyone!

You may think that a broken-down studio roof in a rainy Pacific Northwest spring is about as a bad as it could get. But no! It gets worse.

Our beehive died.

Yup, that picture taken on Snow Day back in February is actually a photo of a silent tomb. Silent except for a family of well-fed mice which freaked me the heck out when I lifted the lid to look inside. I’m not mouse-phobic, but on that first sunny day when we opened the hive to find dead bees and live mice, I nearly threw up.

The Theory did the hive postmortem while I was at work and he said that when he tipped the hive over, most of the mice got away, except for those taken out by our cat Spot. I felt bad when he told me that the mom mice carried away the hairless baby mice in their mouths. Until The Theory reminded me the adults would probably eat their young, now that they’ve been evicted from the honey pot.

We think the bees have been dead since late November when we had a week or two of arctic weather. We haven’t had cold like that for years, this being the Willamette Valley and heaven on earth, except for the mud (and leaky roofs, but don’t get me started). The bees just couldn’t stay warm enough.

The inside of the hive was carpeted with dead, desiccated bees. We didn’t take any photographs of the devastation, so here is an image from someone else’s deadout. Ours looked exactly like this except for the mice.

The inside of a top bar hive. You can see a full bar of comb on the left.  Photo courtesy of Kittalog.

The inside of a top bar hive. You can see a full bar of comb on the left. Photo courtesy of Kittalog.

I borrowed this image from the April 3, 2011 blog entry from Kittalog (http://kittbo.blogspot.com/2011/04/beehive-postmortem.html) which is a beautiful site with many great photos. None of which I will ever use again.

UPDATE: Undaunted, we installed another package of bees last week!

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