A J WELLS | Large-scale enamelling workshop

Report for The British Society of Enamellers
In September I spent a very industrious and busy week learning about large scale enamelling on a workshop supported by the BSOE and the Guild of Enamellers. The expert tuition was given by Pat Johnson and the workshop was facilitated with excellence by Carol Griffin. To start the report I must say that the effort and professionalism of the entire workshop was extremely impressive. The facilities and welcome at A J WELLS a leading manufacturer of enamel products and signage, couldn't have been better. The support and encouragement shown by the team there was truly wonderful.

I was one of eight lucky participants and the week long course went very quickly indeed, each day was action packed. At the start of the workshop on the Monday, we were given a full tour of the enamel facilities. Watching the large scale kiln being operated was one of the first sights. The kiln is quite a leap in scale for enamellists normally used to firing jewellery !

The Large Kiln at A J Wells

Artwork for screen printing


Above and below are typical signage projects undertaken at the factory. The general process in production involves firstly the spraying of ground coats and then base layers. The panels then go through various firings with screen printed images. Photographic imagery can be applied if required and the quality of work produced is very notable.

Pat Johnson demonstrating spraying techniques.

Our sessions went underway by first observing Pat's demonstrations on how to spray the liquid enamel and a host of techniques were discussed. The amount of possibilities were inspiring.

My first test piece explored a variety of effects. The primary skill to try was using the spray gun. The initial layer I sprayed was white over the black ground coat, in which I also made sgraffito marks to get a feel of what sort of drawings I could achieve. The second spraying of enamel was a fine layer of black which was sprayed from the side. This, although it looks greyish fired, and it is not apparent in my photo, the effect gave a slight relief effect to the image. The final layer on this piece was an application of inks, which I loved. I enjoy using painted enamel, and they are similar, so for me they were great to use as I felt familiar with them as a media. I particularly enjoyed the fact that I could layer the effects and the enamel inks had good colour strength.

My first panel started life as a "Rolf Harris" moment...!

Armed with my sketch book I embarked on an adaptation of my winter birch tree sketches.
I decided to keep my process experimental. I had four panels to work on so I planned to learn something with each one. Rather than drawing each tree as you would on paper, I formulated a plan to create a tree "texture" and then I would cover the layer in the sprayed liquid white and sgraffito through an impression of the trees to create a semi abstract piece.

This was effective in terms of continuing with the series of images I have and it was also conducive to the limitations in time and factory processes. The restrictions of each panel we had to work on were such that we were limited to four colours / four firings. Before I attended the workshop I couldn't get my head around how to do this as I normally just keep firing until I'm happy with something ! But planning work in this way is actually quite interesting, and I never actually got to four firings with any of the pieces.

Drawing through the white layer to reveal the previous firing.

Finished Panel - Winter Birches - Forest Series - 40cm x 120cm

In my second panel I chose to explore more drawing and mark making. The ground coat of the enamel is black so I realised that I could exploit this. I also wanted to see if it was possible to combine a range of mark effects with the sgraffito technique in order to make something illustrative.

Images in this panel are referenced from my series of sketches and photos of cityscapes. I am currently interested in transformations within urban landscapes, building sites and reclaimed areas provide a good source of information for visual research. Again, on this panel instead of copying a specific "scene", I made a selection of images and drew them in several sections, visually blending each image together to form an overall picture.

"Urban Surface" - enamel on steel - 60x60cm

This panel never got its subsequent layers. This was it's one and only firing !

Initially I planned to work over the drawing and add slashes of colour and possibly would have developed more in the image. However, apart from the fact it was a more time consuming process than I had hours for, the response from everyone in the workshop was that it was fine as it was ! The less is more approach seemed to be the order of the day !

On starting panel three, I realised a bit of speeding up was needed, by this time I was well into Wednesday and there was only a couple of days left to finish everything. Apart from this I also had brought my collection of riso screens and wondered if they would work with the inks. Although the inks are oil based and the riso screen is water based (therefore once used I'd have to discard them due to the fact I'd not be able to clean the screens up) I resolved that I would at least be able to pull a few images from each screen.

Keeping to my urban theme, and enjoying the black and white look, I varied the effect on the first layer by only using sgraffito in selected areas in order to leave sections free for printing. The photo above shows the panel in the initial stage of the second layer where I have started screening on the prints. In the sgraffito layer I continued the visual effect of drawing at the edge of the piece, something that I'd become involved in the previous panel, as I wanted to put emphasis on a strong graphic approach. Moreover, developing interest on the outer points of the panel provided a quirky focal point. This breaking away from the confines of a format and thinking about the edge of the work is a process I'm starting on other pieces in my urban series, and I was quite pleased with this more stlyised effect.

The final piece - Rebuilding - enamel on steel - 60x60cm

The sgraffito layer is slightly raised and really adds subtlety to the work.

My final panel followed the same process, by now I was into the swing of it all and had found a way of working that I could have expanded upon for another week again. This time I wanted colour back, so my second firing was a layer of ink that I sponged on.

The consequent layer was the riso screen printed images, which were applied in true "Blue Peter" fashion. I worked on different areas of the piece, bit by bit, waiting for the ink to dry before applying the next part of the image. It was a bit like building a jigsaw, and rather than use frames with my screens I found that sticking and stretching the screen down with sellotape tape worked adequately ! I managed to add all the printed images in one firing, though if I'd have had more time I might have done it over two or three instead.

The final piece - Urban Changes - enamel on steel 60x60cm

This panel was my favourite piece from my week's endeavour. I really felt as though I'd achieved a lot and had discovered many possibilities, though in reality I have only just touched the surface. The potential for working in enamel on a large scale are very exciting. The resulting artworks are ideal for public and corporate commission work as enamel on steel can boast the fact that it is durable, colourfast, hygienic, easy to maintain and is even fireproof up to 800C!

In conclusion, the opportunity to be able to explore the media in a creative workshop setting within the workings of a busy factory was awesome. I reiterate the credit and much thanks which must be given to Pat and Carol for their unbelievable dedication to making the week work so well. The team at A J Wells were equally fantastic. Their generosity in allowing us into their time, space and excellent facilities was overwhelming and nothing was too much trouble. Additional highlights of the event were also really appreciated. An evening meal out for the whole group was a lovely start to the week, and a great bonus was meeting printmaker/enameller Laura Boswell, who gave an illuminating talk on her recent commission for a large enamel artwork sited in Aylesbury Town Centre.

Put simply, the week was just amazing, and a truly valued experience.

Many Thanks to all involved and to the British Society of Enamellers for their generous bursary award that enabled my participation in this event.