Enameling is all about adding colour to your work and it doesn’t matter what your preferences are, you might love subdued neutrals or a carnival of colours. But once in a while, when you’re working with a just a few colours, there might come a time when a flat colour just isn’t enough!
Cloisonné or champlevé can keep your colours separated in different cells, this makes it much easier to use several colours together and have them work together beautifully. But things get a bit more complicated when you want to make one colour flow into another, or fade a dark colour to a lighter one, in a nice, smooth gradient.
You might even have planned your design on paper, put lovely water colour washes in your drawing so you know exactly which colours you’ll want to use and where they will go…… but….
Enamel Does Not Work Like Paint!
The problem is that enamel does not work in the same way as paint, so to apply it like that will not work either. To understand fully how a perfect enamel gradient is achieved, we’ll have to go right back to what enamel is and how it is manufactured.
Enamel is Glass
In the manufacturing process the glass that will become an enamel is formulated to fit certain metals, have a certain melting point, colour, transparency and more. Once this formulation is perfect the enamel is ready for breaking up into lumps, or grinding into the different types of powders we can buy. Then enamel goes through a sifting process where it gets split by particle size into the different types of enamel we can use for various techniques like painting, wet packing and sifting.
Enamel Stays True To Itself
For the most part the enamel will stay true to that formulation even when we apply it to our metal and fire it smooth. This is most apparent in opaque enamels, where you might sift one colour onto a contrasting background, black on white for instance. No matter how well the enamel is fired, the colours stay separate in a speckled kind of way, this of course is part of the beauty and appeal of this medium.
Sometimes however, we might want our colours to ‘flow’ smoothly into each other as a gradient, and this is where things get a little more tricky. The enamel particles will always stay true to themselves, they can’t be mixed and blended like paint, so another approach is needed to create a gradient.
Planning a Perfect Gradient
It doesn’t matter what your gradient colours are, the way to apply them will be the same, whether you want to go from a very dark blue to the palest version of that colour, or go from orange to green, a smooth transition between these colours must be made somehow. And the planning for this starts before you even buy your enamels, when you colour your final design on paper.
If you use colour pencils instead of water colours you kind of simulate the way enamel will behave, the particles of a colour pencil also stay true to themselves and have to be blended by layering the colours. This gives an optical effect of a gradient, where the eye blends the tiny specks of colour. So when your design is finished you will have a set of pencils laid out and they will give you a good starting point to selecting the enamels you’ll want to use.
Dark to Light Gradient
The easiest gradient to create is going from a dark to a very pale version of the same colour and the planning for this starts at the colour chart of the enamel supplier, like these from Enamel Emporium.
Here you will find the colours grouped, not only by their colour, but also by their ‘Colour Bias’. Colour Bias is the type of any colour for instance:
- Blue might lean toward Green and give you Peacock blue, Turquoise blue or Aqua
- Or it might go toward its other neighbour on the colour wheel; Violet. Then it will give you a violet blue such as Ultramarine or Lilac.So when you are planning the perfect gradient you going to have to stay within the same bias of your chosen colour, putting a green blue in the middle of a violet blue gradient will jar badly and be very noticeable.
How Many Shades of Grey?
So when you organise your colours from darkest to lightest in the same colour bias, how many shades you will need depends on the size of the area they’ll have to cover.
- For a small area, an inch or so in length, just three colours could work if the transition from dark to light was not too great
- Larger pieces might need 4 – 5 or even 6 shades eg.
Dark Blue – Deep Blue – Mid Blue – Light Blue – Palest Blue – Clear
The more shades of the same colour you can practically apply in a given area, the smoother the transition from one colour to the next will be.
This is easier to achieve with Japanese leaded enamels, as they have to greatest range of colours to choose from. When you are working with sifted opaques you might have to make up a few blended colours yourself to get a better gradient.
Mixing Your Own Colours
When you first start out, it is not always affordable to buy every shade of all the colours you might want to use one day. Buy as many as you can afford in any give colour, keeping the colour bias in mind of course. Over time your range will automatically increase as you order more colours to suit your designs. In the meantime a great alternative is to mix a small quantity of two enamels that are close in colour already in a separate container to use as ‘in between’ colours.
This is a bit gentler on the budget too, you can get away with buying a few less colours to start with, you can always add to your palette later. The mixed colour should be clearly labeled so you know what you’ve mixed down the track.
Blending Contrasting Colours
To blend colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel presents the greatest challenge, colours like that can become muddy looking and not very appealing in a beautiful enamel. To counteract this problem we have to be smart and keep them separate where they would normally meet.
The simplest way to do this is to include a thin area of clear in between the colours.
So the gradient would look something like this:
Deep Orange – Mid Orange – Light Orange – Clear (flux) – Light Green – Mid Green – Deep Green
The Light Orange and the Light Green would be blended a little into the Clear enamel and so they would meet nicely in the middle, job done!
Beautiful, luminous colours can be achieved when you give your colours a little thought beforehand. Enamelling can be a long process so a little time spend planning your colours is well worth it. If you do happen to get some colours wrong and end up with something unexpected, all is not lost, in a future article I’ll explain how to modify colours without you having to remove them (except in extreme cases)
So have fun with your designs! Love that colour!
If you have any more questions please use the comments below, I’ll do my best to get back to you quickly!