Friday, October 31, 2008

Airbrush issues

Like a lot of artists, I have a love-hate relationship with my airbrush. I always thought that using one was like having to rely on a brilliant, but decidedly temperamental, co-worker.

Things did get better, though, when I switched over to ceramics. Unlike acrylic paint ceramic underglaze remains water soluble forever, you don't have to worry about dried paint clogging the inner workings of the airbrush. The downside is that underglazes are really abrasive, so over time you are effectively sandblasting the inner workings of the brush.

That means I got through piles and piles of these little needle cones. With each use the opening of the cone widens a little more, until the cone no longer holds the needle back enough to control the pigment. When I am painting consistently, I got through about a cone a month. After almost two years, the inside of the airbrush is toast and I have to replace the whole thing.

But the other problem I have had since switching to ceramics has been a sticky trigger mechanism. Since it is nearly impossible to salvage earthenware after it gets unexpectedly splattered, this has been a particularly distressing problem. The first time it happened and cleaning the brush did not help, I tried replacing the trigger. That didn't help so I just replaced the brush. I wasn't sure how the underglazes could be causing the trigger to malfunction, but the brush was near it's end anyway.

This time, however, my brush was only a few months old and I just wasn't keen to go buy another $85 piece of equipment without at least trying to find out why I was having this problem.

It turns out that the underglazes weren't the culprit after all. This was - the small container of clear water that I use to clean the airbrush. I started doing this when I switched to ceramics. When I was done working I would take the brush apart (just like the picture at the top of this post) and dump all the parts into the water to soak while I cleaned up my workspace. Then I would dry the pieces and reassemble the brush. This wouldn't have worked with the acrylics, but it seemed to do the trick for underglazes.

What I didn't know was that this process was stripping the lubricants inside the brush. Most specifically, it was removing lubricant from the trigger mechanism. I didn't need to replace the brush or even the trigger. I just needed to add some more lubricant.

This little tube was all I needed. Oddly enough, while I didn't remember that you weren't supposed to submerge the brush, I did remember that you were supposed to use special lubrication. That saved my not-really-ruined airbrush from being truly ruined by the WD-40 my husband wanted to try. (He is among those men who truly believe, down to the depths of their souls, that all life's problems can be fixed with either duct tape or WD-40. Despite warnings on numerous airbrush forums, he remains skeptical that it would not have worked.)

Another interesting thing that I discovered through all this was that the underglazes abrade the needles themselves, as well as the cones. Both the cones in this picture are new, but the needle to the right has been in use for months. You can see it protrudes out significantly more than the needle on the left. The underglazes, with their clay content, have worn the metal enough that the needle is thinner. Now I know that even though the needles look fine (they don't get bent like they do with acrylics), using an old needle is going to give me the same problem as using an older cone.

The good news is that not only am I a little wiser about the proper care of airbrushes, but I never did toss the last sticky-triggered brush. So now I have two working brushes.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hopefully "Worth the Wait"!

I've had this gal finished for a little while now, but I needed to get a second set of pictures of her. I always get the angle wrong when I am trying to shoot photos of this mold, probably because model horses almost always need to be shot from a slightly upward angle. "Worth the Wait" is the exception in that she ends up looking off-balance unless she is shot slightly downward.

It was interesting to revisit this particular mold at this point in my career. I was reminded that the last "Worth the Wait" done in my own studio was actually the first horse I ever glazed here at home. (I had done several before while visiting Joan at the Pour Horse factory.) I didn't own a kiln, so the horse was sent to one of those infamous ceramic stores that charge you by the inch to fire things in their kilns. You know - the kind of stores populated by a bunch of older women and a handful of cats.

Not only did I not own a kiln, I hadn't actually applied the final glaze to my own pieces before. At Pour Horse I was invariably doing the detailing up until the last minute, so Joan had always applied the gloss and then shipped the finished piece to me. It would be the first of many skills that Joan would teach me over the phone. (Thank goodness for unlimited calling plans!)

Looking back, I can only marvel at my own insanity. I had promised the horse for a NAMHSA auction, even though I didn't actually have the facilities to make the horse, or the precise knowledge of how to finish her. And ceramic production being what it was, I wouldn't even know if I did it all right until the end. Yet I handed her over to the nice women at Creative Crafts and left for a family vacation. I would return the day before the event and then drive on to the show that day to deliver her. The whole vacation I worried that someone's ceramic Christmas tree might end up permanently welded to my horse's barrel. Or that she might end up in some forgotten corner of the shop (there seemed to be lot of those). Or get knocked over by a cat. Now I realize that the real risk was that I hadn't the foggiest idea what I was doing, but then I was blissfully ignorant about that part.

I had pretty much forgotten all that, at least until I began working on this one. It was a good reminder that sometimes the best thing is to take a few crazy chances and do something you aren't quite sure you know how to do.

Clinky Classic Awards

These are the awards for the winners of the Blackberry Lane division at Clinky Classic. The foal ornament is Kristina's design for this year's show. I am going to try to do a few of my own ornaments in the same art glaze to coordinate with these guys. (I think I might be able to cast and glaze them if I don't use realistic colors on the horses.)

I'd also like to thank all the folks that sent such kind messages to me about my son and his "moment of fame". I often worry that I try the patience of my customers and colleagues by focusing so much of my time on family, yet every time when I think I have truly disappointed everyone, I am reminded that I am a lot harder on me than any of you!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My other job

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had promised myself that I would step back from the fight to save our school. I needed to spend time in the studio, not only because the time for my fall lottery is fast approaching (eek!) but because the studio is were I most consistently find peace.

I was not successful.

I didn't intend to become involved, but when someone indicated that it might be helpful to have one of our former students speak at the school board meeting, I mentioned that my oldest son might be willing. His gift is writing, and for all that he is very introverted he's a good public speaker. I agreed to ask him. And with that, we were involved once again.

I was sure Brandon would speak persuasively. (I am, after all, on the receiving end of his persuasion often enough!) I had my misgivings though, when we arrived at the Government Center. Restructuring the magnet schools has become a big issue here in Charlotte, so there were almost forty parents and community leaders registered to speak and hundreds more packed int0 the auditorium to listen. Previous public meetings had degenerated to shouting matches, so all the local news was there. I began to wonder what kind of mother would agree to send her normally shy eleven-year old into all that. He was so frightened that I kept envisioning him stepping up to the podium (which he could barely see over), saying a handful of words, and then bolting from the room in terror. I was sure I had consigned us all to years of therapy.

But that's not what happened. He stepped up and delivered his speech. It was one of those wonderful moments as a parent when you catch a glimpse of the adult your child will be; where they show not only that they have been listening to all the lessons you've tried to impart, but that they brought to the process a special something that is theirs alone.

I was relieved that it turned out well for him, and I was pretty confident that he had made as good a case for our school as could be made. I allowed myself some hope that he may have moved some hearts. I wasn't prepared for what came next. News reports focused on the young boy who they said spoke for all parents concerned about the state of Charlotte schools. Friends called us to say they had seen clips of Brandon speaking on the local news or heard people on the radio talking about him. A few days after he spoke, an editorial appeared in the paper about it. If we wanted visibility for the plight of our school, we sure got it.

I often say I have two jobs - mother and artist. The second job has the advantage of providing immediate (well, almost immediate!) feedback. I know when I pull the horse from the kiln whether or not my choices worked. After the horse ships out to its new owner, I get still more feedback. My husband likes to say that my job as a mother is an exercise in delayed gratification. I have to work from faith that I'm making the right decisions because I won't know the outcome for a long time. Unlike my work as an artist, I don't get a lot of clear guideposts. This past week, I've indulged myself with thoughts that I am on the right track.

And having done that, I really do intend to return my attention to my second job. All these bisques are beginning to stare at me accusingly with their little (still colorless!) eyes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

2008 Ornament

October is the month my mind usually turns towards Christmas, since that's when I work on the ornaments I exchange with some of my artistic friends. This was the first of this year's ornaments. It's a smaller version of the plaque I made earlier this year, measuring around 2" x 2.5". Each one will be glazed a different color, so hopefully I'm not giving too much away by showing this one!

This piece is also a good example of the difference between background treatments, since the Concepts underglazes were used instead of the art glaze. I had removed the leaf pattern background that was present on the larger plaque. It is already pretty low-relief in the original, and with the reduction in size it was faint enough that I was pretty sure I would lose a lot of it when the greenware got wiped down during cleaning. That left a flat surface which doesn't work as well with the art glaze, but it's well-suited to a gradient tone using the Concepts.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Combining underglaze and art glaze

One of the technical problems that has obsessed me for the last few years has been colored backgrounds. To get an even tone, underglazes must be applied with an airbrush. Underglaze also soaks into the porous surface of the earthenware, making it impossible to completely remove overspray. That means any surface not being painted must be masked.

This might seem like a time-consuming, but not especially limiting, requirement. But there is a catch. Once underglaze is applied to an area, it cannot be masked again. The surface is too delicate to touch, never mind have latex applied and then peeled off again. (That is, if latex actually peeled off an underglazed surface. In my experience the two become permanently wed!)

This made complex colors difficult enough, but the real challenge was putting a realistic horse on a colored background. Eventually I found that I could use some of the underglazes used at those you-paint-it coffeehouse type ceramic shops. They contain just a bit of glaze, so when they fire the surface has a sheen. If I fired that as the background, I could then paint the horse and wipe off the excess on the background. Some overspray remained, but if I chose rich colors they would sink below.

What I really wanted, though, was to use art glaze on the background. Art glazes are designed to concentrate in the recesses, which is great for bringing out texture. Because I design medallions and tiles with art glaze in mind, I use a lot of texture - particularly on the backgrounds. In an ideal world, I could have a realistic underglazed horse with an art glaze background. The only problem is that glazes move. That allows them to flow into the recesses... or flow over onto the horse.

So adding an art glazed background was a really good way to muck up a nicely glazed horse. Still, I could see such a pretty end result in my head that I kept messing up medallions in search of an answer. What I found was that I could add the art glaze if I completely finished the horse first.

Here are my two Clinky Classic awards with the horse design completed. The foals were painted with underglaze and fired, then gloss glaze was added and the medallion fired just like any other piece. The background is bare earthenware bisque.

At this point, I can add the art glaze to the background. Any excess is easy enough to remove with a sponge since the foal is now impervious under the gloss. I then trim the border between the gloss and the art glaze with a #11 blade. This tends to pile the art glaze ever so slightly into a ridge along the edge. I suspect this is what helps contain the art glaze on its side of the design. I also fire this second glaze at a slightly lower cone (07 instead of 06), and that seems to help, too.

I wasn't sure with this design if the technique might work. I make my own designs flush against the background, but this little guy has a recessed border around him. I wasn't sure if gravity might not flow the glaze down into that recess. I was happy to see that it didn't.

I was unsure enough that I only glazed the tobiano and left the overo, figuring I could at least salvage the one if it didn't work. I did get really clean borders, but I ended up with a paler background than I wanted. That has been the real challenge with art glaze backgrounds - depth of color (and sometimes type of color!) is really unpredictable. Getting a combination that flatters the underglaze work requires a bit of luck.

I am pretty sure that while the light green doesn't have enough contrast for the tobiano, it's probably right for the darker overo so I'm using it again. I use make-up sponges to apply the glaze, and in this photo I haven't cleaned the excess off yet. I've also added another layer on the tobiano ornament, hoping to deepen the color on that one. These will both go in my next glaze firing, along with a handful of my own ornaments. Those all use the other (Concepts underglaze) background method, so I should be able to show the difference between the two approaches once they are all done.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Seeking serenity

I have to apologize for getting behind on my posts here. Unfortunately the blog has been a reflection of my work and family life lately; things have not been getting done. Instead I have been consumed with trying, yet again, to preserve the school my youngest child attends.

I like to think of myself as a pretty calm, even-tempered person. There are few subjects where passion and bias are likely to throw me way off balance. But if there is one, it is the subject of gifted education. As a former gifted child with issues surrounding my own education, I have always had a hard time being objective. When my own children were identified as gifted, I was simply glad that there were better educational options. I didn't want to become an activist on the issue. What I didn't know was that preserving those options would become an ongoing battle. Every few years, some administrator would decide to alter or eliminate the program and we would have to fight again.

This time around, however, has been especially disruptive. I have said before that one of the hardest parts of being self-employed is that it can be hard to keep the two parts of your life separate. Disruption and stress in one tends to bleed over into the other. I am not especially temperamental about art; I don't need everything just so in order to be creative. But conflict and agitation make it difficult to maintain the focus necessary to do the kind of work I do.

So I am in the process of reasserting some balance here at work and at home. We will not know the fate of our school until sometime in November, but I believe it is time for me accept that we have done what we can to save it. My goal at this point is to spend less time in parent strategy meetings and a little more time in the studio. With luck that should restore a little bit of order and serenity!