Making Sample Strips!

Enamels can be a tricky business. As all enamellists know (or find out to their peril), the enamel color that you see in the catalogue or website is usually nothing close to the color you end up with in the studio. That’s why it’s important to make your own sample strips.

Ages ago, I purchased a large quantity of old enamels from an enamellist who was moving on to other things. They have sat, largely untouched, in a corner of my studio for several months. I would paw through the box occasionally and read the names of the colors: “Blue Jay”, “Bishop Violet”, “Mikado”, “Regal Purple”, “Alice Blue”. Would they live up to my imagination? No way to know until I had the time to unpack them and test them for myself. Luckily, now that the Vegas show is done, I have a little time on my hands! So exciting!

I never skimp on sample strips. I know that fine silver is expensive, but it’s a bigger waste of time and money if you don’t have a real sense of each color you are using. I get a lot of pleasure just arranging the different colors and imagining the possibilities. So, to that end, I make all of my samples ½” x 1” fine silver. (22 gauge). That gives me enough space to see three things:
  1. How does the color look when it’s actually touching the silver?
  2. How does it look on top of a nice coating of clear enamel?
  3. How does it look on top of 24 carat gold leaf?

They still need a coat of counter enamel on the reverse side. I always use some junky unleaded leftover enamel. In this instance it’s Thompson Quill White. A color that has never in my experience actually turned out white. It’s usually an icky shade of yellow. But I bought too much of it long ago, so now it’s my “go to” reverse color for sample strips. I never sift leaded enamels if I don’t have to, so this works out just fine...

After enameling the reverse, I put a coat of clear on the front, but then wipe about a third of it. I want to see how the enamel reacts to silver. (Ugh. The bane of the silver enamellist’s existence!) A lot of colors react poorly with silver, especially reds and oranges, and it’s good to know upfront what is going to happen. So that’s why I leave a bit of the silver exposed.

After I’ve fired a coat of clear enamel, I cut up pieces of 24 carat gold leaf and adhere it to the other end with a little Klyr Fire. Then I’m ready to make my samples!

I usually do nine colors at a time, because that’s how many strips I can fit into my kiln. I do all different colors at once, and lay them out in a grid on my table to avoid confusion. If you do all blues, it’s easy to mix them up in the kiln and not know which blue is which after it’s all finished. And that would sort of defeat the purpose. So I alternate the colors, and label the sheets of paper.

It’s worth the extra effort. Here’s a good example of two yellows that sounded equally promising. (934 chrome chartreuse & 30 Soyer yellow). You can see that the one on the left reacted badly to the silver. Where it’s touching the silver, the enamel has turned dark brown. The other one, in contrast, looks pretty uniform both directly on silver, and over the coat of clear. I know which one is the winner…
So it’s two days of well spent time- not all the colors are winners, but I’ve added enough to my color palette (especially some knock-out greens!) that I’m excited to incorporate them into my new work. So there you go. Sample strips.