27 Jan 2015

My first pieces utilising the Silhouette

I mentioned in my last post that I was a new owner of a Silhouette cutting machine and having great fun with it.  My initial intentions were to use it as a supplementary tool for my metal clay work – for making texture plates, stencils and actually cutting design elements directly from thinly rolled clay itself.  But the more I read about it and watched YouTube tutorials of it in use (before I even got it), the more I realised it was an incredibly versatile piece of kit and I knew it would be well used, for a variety of different types of work.

The various stages of the copper etching process.
The various stages of the etching process; vinyl resist, clean copper plate, newly etched copper sheet, cut and polished earring shapes and at the front, a finished pair of antiqued copper earrings.

Whilst I’ve certainly made great headway in the metal clay direction, already having made several new texture plates and templates (and many birthday cards and gift boxes), the more I work with it, the more ideas it sparks – and it was such a tangential thought that has kept me occupied for the last few days.

I’ve spent time in the past doing salt water etching and whilst I loved the results and enjoyed the process, a key element to the success of the pieces I was etching was an old laser printer that I used for the resist designs – making a black and white print onto coated paper and then ironing this resist design onto the prepared copper surface – in itself, a very tedious and haphazard process.  But my old printer started giving progressively inferior results and once I got a new (to me) laser printer from Freecycle, I decommissioned the old machine.  But modern machines don’t use the toners that worked so well with such processes, so my etching was put on hold as newer techniques got my attention.

A newly etched piece of copper just marked up to cut into a pair of earrings.
A newly etched piece of copper just marked up to cut into a pair of earrings.

But having cut out some designs in adhesive vinyl to use as opaque masters to make photopolymer plates, I wondered if the vinyl itself might stick directly on copper to act as a resist – it stuck so cleanly to clear acrylic that I thought it was likely it would stick well to copper too.  So I dusted off my etching equipment – luckily all put away together and complete – and gave it a go.

It works a treat – better than I dared hope.  Etching is one of those processes where 90% of the effort is in the proper preparation – you simply can’t cut corners or try to sidestep any stages.  The better your preparation, the better the results are likely to be – that effort really does pay dividends.  So it can take a frustratingly long time to get to the good stuff and the fun part.

The very best bit of course is peeling off all the protective stuff you’ve stuck to the copper to prevent the non-design parts etching, to see if it worked.  You can’t get a proper idea of the success of the etch until you see it all – sometimes a piece that looks good initially is spoiled by an edge of the mask lifting and leaving a streak of erroneous and unattractive etching where it’s not wanted.

Obviously, preparing a graphic to use in this manner requires some time in the Silhouette software, but I’m really enjoying that aspect of the work – drawing all of the designs shown myself from scratch as vector drawings.  It has allowed me to revisit design ideas in my sketch book that I’d struggled to realise with other methods.

Newly etched raw copper design, ready for cutting into a pait of earrings.
A newly etched copper design for a pair of fan shaped earrings. I made these curly tendril shapes after looking at some gorgeous Arts and Crafts pieces and wanting to capture some of that feeling.

It also requires a slightly different thinking and the vinyl resist is of a different nature from a graphic created to print out – you don’t want delicate details unattached to other design elements, or overlapping so that they cut bits off each other and you don’t want lots of tiny holes between elements that will make it tricky to get a clean result without any rogue bits of sticky vinyl.  You also need a good mix of dark and light areas to give a balanced result.

But this has been a most enjoyable and bonus diversion – I’d never even considered etching in my deliberations over the Silhouette – even if I never use it for anything other than birthday cards and etched designs, it will totally justify my family’s investment in it for me.  Not to mention that I’m truly enjoying working with it.

My first finished pair of earrings - featuring a delicate leafy design I drew myself.
My first finished pair of earrings – featuring a delicate leafy design I digitally drew myself.
The top of the etched earring required a little thought for the design of an earwire that would allow it to move freely, not just have a huge round eye.  I settled on a little hammered scroll.
The top of the etched earring required a little thought for the design of an earwire that would allow it to move freely, not just have a huge round eye. I settled on a little hammered scroll, which allowed me a longer teardrop loop.

I’ve also really enjoyed working with the design software and find it very powerful for creating what I want – you just need to think about the structure of a shape and which drawing tools will create the shape you want.  I’ve always been fascinated with the regular repeating patterns in Moorish architecture and I’ve done a bit of tinkering with patterns formed from a repeating element – the geometric tools within the Silhouette studio software make such tasks a doddle and it’s astonishing to me that moving a shape just a little, creating more overlap or rotating the angle can give rise to an infinite number of different designs from a few simple shapes.

Geometric patterns formed by using either very regular o totally irregular shapes to create repeating patterns.
Geometric patterns formed by using either very regular or totally irregular shapes to create repeating patterns.
26 Jun 2014

Garden bird pool party

I thought I was doing well with remembering to post more frequently, but I see with horror that it’s already well over 2 weeks since my last post.  It’s alarming how the weeks flash past.  Not that I have much of interest to post.

I’ve found myself easily distracted over the last week or two with the amusing antics of the current broods of baby birds in the garden.  There’s this lovely delicious stage shortly after fledging when they’re out in the big wide world for the first time, yet not fully ready for it.  The stage when they fly in the oddest manner, more like bumble bees than birds – while they perfect the act of steering whilst in flight and hone the amazingly agile skills that adult birds demonstrate with jealousy-inducing ease.

 Please click on any of the photographs for a larger version.  You may be able to middle click to open them in a new tab at the size I prepare them.

It's lovely to see so many bees in the garden, it always feels like summer when you can see their constant business and activity.It’s lovely to see so many bees in the garden, it always feels like summer when you can see their constant business and activity.

I did the RSPBs garden bird count earlier in the year – I try to do it each year, not only for the data this adds to the RSPB’s efforts, but for my own interest too – I keep a copy of my count and like to compare it year on year.  This year I had a really good selection on the day of the count, but was aware that there were much fewer tits than I’d normally expect, yet more of the slightly rarer species like bullfinches – I had 6 (3 pairs) at the same time that one day.  Yet I only counted one each of blue tits and great tits, expecting more as they’re usually a garden staple.

But hopefully that meant they were just elsewhere that particular day as I now have a good crop of youngsters of each species.  The garden has been alive with them – I reckon at least 8 of each at the moment – and they’ve given me more than enough pleasure this month to justify my bird food budget.

Lots of young birds in the garden this spring.Lots of young birds in the garden this spring.

One thing that they’ve been up to that I can’t say I’ve noticed before is a seeming fixation with water.  I have 3 different bird baths in the bird area and pretty much every time I look, there are baby birds in and around all of them.  In fact they’ve got such a pool party thing going on with various splashing and drinking that I’m having to go out and top them up at least once every day.

My neighbour has a little water feature in her garden that has a circulating body of water that falls as a little fountain into a pool – the baby birds have been having even more fun in hers – washing vigorously under the fountain part – that she’s having to top it up daily too.  She also noticed that this seems to be a new phenomena this year.  Maybe the mild winter didn’t kill off as many parasites as usual and they feel the need for more vigorous bathing this spring.

Being babies, there does seem to have been a lot of time perching on the edge of the water wondering quite what they should do.  There are often two or three at once, and it looks for all the world like they’re trying to build up the courage to jump in and the others are offering the necessary encouragement.   I just haven’t been able to catch a decent photograph of the action as the baths the babies prefer is in a sheltered spot in deep shadow.

Baby great tit having a bath.This little fella stepped into the shallower of my baths and just stood there a while, testing the sensation on his feet, waiting to see if anything terrible happened.  He ventured to drink a little, paddled round a bit, sat down in it, paddled some more.  Stood looking around as if waiting for inspiration or help from above from a friend, then suddenly decided to just go for it – he flapped his wings vigorously splashing water everywhere, then sat for a moment, all fluffed up and wet, just taking stock of what had just happened, had he suffered any harm?  Deciding that he hadn’t, he flapped vigorously some more and was gone to shake off in the sun.  I felt rather privileged to share his first time with him.

The gravel chippings in that garden seemingly make for a good sun trap when the sun is actually on them and I’ve seen a whole parade of birds this week lying with their wings outstretched, soaking up the rays, although it’s the blackbirds I see most often.   Having lain for quite some time with his wings fully out, he tucked them back and rolled over a little, presumably to warm his tummy.

A blackbird catching some rays.
We managed one evening walk out this week and as we sat in the car contemplating coming home, were treated to a lovely sunset.  With sunsets of this nature, it always looks to me as though the intense colour of the sky is at the expense of the landscape, which ends up looking dark and colourless as the sun makes its departure, taking the colour of the day over the horizon with it.

Work this week:

I’ve had this particular connector idea in mind for some time and finally got to trying it this week after coiling some wire for another piece and it reminded me.  As is often the case with new designs, it takes a few ‘prototypes’ to perfect the methodology and overcome snags, but I am now in the regular habit of keeping a detailed design journal, so that once I have settled on a method, I record it in longhand detail and can easily return to the design to re-make it without having to re-think it each time.  As you make things, you might find that it works best to work a particular end first, or to hammer or polish a section before making up as you can’t reach it later etc.  So keeping a ‘recipe’ for the workflow for any particular design, as well as measurements and gauges of wire used, has proved to be well worth the time and discipline it takes me at the time.

Coil on coil antiqued copper earrings with deep blue teal and amber topaz Czech fire polished crystals.

Downloading the latest photographs, I noticed that I was almost at image no. 28,000 in my jewellery photography camera.   I do take a lot of duplicates, even of the same view, variously for optional focus or exposure to see which I prefer.   So I did a quick tot up of how many of these images actually make it to finally sell the item – I think that I have now ‘published’ over 4,200 jewellery images (and each one is done at least two finished sizes), selling something like 800 different pieces, an average of over 5 images per item.  If I were to spend 15 minutes on each published image; taking, cropping, retouching, saving and uploading it – wait for it – that represents over 1000 hours of work, which is over 26 working weeks!  No wonder it seems like a perpetual task!

A longer version made with dyed blue jade faceted stones, spiral wrapped on polished paddle pins.  The earrings co-ordinate with the Y shaped necklace below which features a chunkier version of the ‘coil on coil’ wrap and a large faceted jade pendant.