Enamel

While I call myself a printmaker, I do paint with vitreous enamel onto sheet steel. This is a factory process, not something to be done in a studio, as the artwork must be fired at high temperature in an industrial furnace. The result is well worth the effort: all the durability of enamel signage and all the sensitivity and translucency of watercolour. The ideal outdoor work of art: happy to withstand anything the British weather can chuck at it.

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Vitreous enamelling on a large scale is essentially industrial. My paintings on sheet steel are the result of the unique opportunity that my residency with AJ Wells provided. I gained access to the materials, the skills and the facilities which, in conjunction with my naive but correct assumption that enamel would handle with the sensitivity of watercolour, turns industrial process into fine art.

My artwork shares a bed with an industrial sign for firing.

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One of the tricky things about enamels is, like clay slip, they are an entirely different colour wet from dry, unfired from fired. Painting a planned mural is one thing, judging a sea or landscape’s colour and depth with no visual guide depends on having a real understanding of the enamel palette. Eight weeks of working with nineteen pantone colours left me with real confidence for how to blend them for my paintings.

Mixing enamel ‘ink’ for painting.

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All my pictures are created using masking tape, small glossing rollers and felt tip pen which burns off in the furnace. Magically the masking tape holds back the enamel perfectly and allows me to work in clean blocks. Paint brushes don’t really work on the smooth base coat of enamel that acts as the primer over my canvas of sheet steel, but rollers are good; I’ve done a lot of house decorating in my time.

Masking tape and felt tip: the essential kit for painting.

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Enamel is a wonderful ‘paint’ for an artist. Once it’s fired it is effectively a glass surface. The translucent quality of the pigment allows light to bounce around in the painting and I find that a gift for painting seascapes. The fact that I have to cross the Solent on a ferry to reach the factory doesn’t hurt either.

Painting a hedge detail over fired green enamel.

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Once I have painted on my enamel, it goes into a drying shed for a while for the pigment to form a tough powder coating. It’s possible to make an infinite variety of scratch marks through the coat: the most delicate suggestion of a line will show. The clever part is getting the marks right first time, there’s no way of removing or hiding mistakes!

Drawing into dry enamel with a wooden ‘pencil’.

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Painted on what was originally destined to be a City of Westminster street sign, this is an example of freehand enamel painting.

Sea Mist off Brook, Isle of Wight.