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Enamel Painting Part 1

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Enamel Painting

Painting with enamels is an art form dating back hundreds of years.  Enamel itself is powdered glass mixed with various metal oxides, which are then heated and bonded to metal.  The exciting thing about enamel paintings as opposed to other forms of painting is their durability: once enamels are fused their colours will never fade.



Further Reading

Enamelling is absorbing.  If you think you would like to try it out I would recommend enrolling on a short course as some of the items involved in working with enamels can be initally expensive.  I did one years ago called ‘enamelling and small silverwork’.  This course focussed on sifting enamel onto copper and silver which is how most people start their journey into enamelling.  I recommend one book partiularly above all others for this type of work: ‘The Art of Enamelling’ by Linda Darty.

Although enamel painting requires some sifting techniques, it is more focussed on painting with a brush and requires enamel that is ground to a finer grade.  For this technique I highly recommend taking a look at the website of Gillie Hoyte Byrom at http://www.enamelportraitminiatures.co.uk/ and buying her e-book on enamel painting.




I would like to show you the basics of enamel painting.  This is not a thorough explanation by any means, but rather an introduction to an art form that can seem daunting at first.

I’m not going to go through making your own enamelled copper blanks just yet; instead I’m using pre-enamelled steel plates from W G Ball which I recommend when you’re just starting out. I’m using one to paint on and one to mix my enamel paints on.  You can use an old white tile instead for the latter.


Sunshine enamel paints

A selection of Sunshine enamel paints


I use ‘Sunshine’ enamels made by Ferro (above), as recommended by Gillie Hoyte-Byrom and bought from Clayman Supplies and Vitrum Sigum.  On the Clayman site they are listed under ‘onglaze colours’ and on Vitrum Signum they are under ‘Painting Supplies’.  These contain lead so safety precautions must be taken, but leaded colours tend to be brighter than unleaded.

To mix the paints in my examples I’ve used both ‘Unimedia’ from Clayman Supplies and jewellery enamel ‘Painting Medium’ from W G Ball and I encourage you to make your own tests.

Other bits of equipment you will need inlcude a ‘stilt’ to rest the enamel painting on when it goes in the kiln and a kiln fork to move it.  I have ceramic fibreboard in front of my kiln as well to rest the stilt on when it comes out of the kiln as it is red-hot (see kiln photo below).  You will also need jam jars for water and kitchen roll, and a small palette knife to mix your colours.

I use miniature paintbrushes.  Lots of people say sable brushes are the best but I use cheaper Cotman brushes from Winsor & Newton in both my enamel work and watercolour paintings as I don’t want to use animal products, but they’re a great brush anyway.  I also wonder if using sable brushes comes down to a little bit of snobbery as well?  Perhaps I’m being a little controversial today!  Anway, I’m using sizes 0, 00 and 0000.

Lastly, but most importantly, you wil need a kiln.  I bought my little Uhlig kiln (below) over 10 years ago and it was about £200.  No doubt they will have gone up in price.  If you buy one yourself, get one with a pyrometer to measure temperature.  Mine is a very basic model and doesn’t have one, but I don’t let that stop me!


Enamel kiln


Colour Tests

Enamel powders look slightly different when fired, so for that reason it is important to do some tests first.  I used a pre-enamelled steel tile to test the colours using different mediums.  The first medium I used was jewellery enamel ‘Painting Medium’ from W G Ball (below).  This medium is oily and smells like bleach.  I would use it in a well-ventilated area and get used to putting the lid back on every time you use it to minimise the smell.  I also put lids back on all of my enamel bottles as I am well known for knocking things over.  It’s already saved me a few times!


Sunshine enamels

Sunshine enamels


For the tests, I dipped my size 0 brush in the Painting Medium and put just a drop on the tile first.  Then I put a little enamel powder in the lid of the bottle.  You don’t need a lot.  Get used to cleaning your brush thoroughly before you dip it into the medium.  Mix it with the painting medium on the tile with your palette knife.  Some people use a scalpel to do this but I would probably end up slicing myself!  In the photo above I’m using an old tile with half of a bunny face on it to do my mixing.

I found that the Painting Medium is a little difficult to get out of the brush in water, as oils and water don’t mix.  With this medium the brush tends to hold onto the colour too, so it’s important to throroughly wash the brush then wipe it on kitchen roll to check you’re getting all of the colour out of the brush before moving on to the next pigment.

The colours are split into three types: basic, cadmium and purple, increasing in price.  There are a couple of notes to make regarding these colours which I have taken from Gillie Hoyte-Byrom’s excellent manual.

Purples are expensive because they contain gold.  Purples and cadmium colours can also react differently depending on what medium you choose to mix them with, as you will see.

Cadmiums (mandarin yellow, bright orange, poppy red and cardinal red) fire more quickly than the others.  The most important note to make about cadmium pigments is that they don’t produce the colours you might expect when mixed with non-cadmium colours.  For example, a cadmium red mixed with blue gives brown instead of purple.  To obtain purple you must use purple itself, or use purple-red mixed with a blue.  Finally, Gillie Hoyte Byrom recommends that it’s better to use cadmiums on their own to retain their purity.



The photo above left shows the colours mixed with W G Ball ‘Painting Medium’ before they were fired.

The photo above right shows the colours after firing.  You can see that those in the top left section mixed with the Painting Medium have changed colour quite a bit.  In particular the reds along the top have lost their colour.

The colours near the bottom right were mixed with Unimedia.  In particular take note of the reds in the bottom left corner which were mixed with Unimedia and have retained their colour upon firing, unlike those mixed with Painting Medium.

Out of the two mediums I prefer the Unimedia.  It is easier to wash from the brush as it is water based and the brush doesn’t ‘hold on’ to colour.  It was easier to mix with the enamel powders too and doesn’t have a harsh smell.  However the Painting Medium may still come in handy for certain colours.



When firing I don’t use exact methods because I don’t have a pyrometer.  However, it does teach you to concentrate more on what is happening in the kiln rather than watching the clock.

I let my kiln heat up for about half an hour, then I use the kiln fork to pick up the metal stilt with the enamel piece to be fired on it and insert it into the kiln.  I let the enamels fire for a couple of minutes at 750ºC – 800ºC.  I usually take them out to have a look and re-insert them.

Enamel colours look odd when they first come out of the kiln.  All of the reds are dark brown when they first emerge.  As the piece cools the colours become true.  The idea is to get the piece to ‘gloss’, but I would rather under-fire my enamels a little and re-insert the piece into the kiln than over-fire them.  Some colours also take a little longer to gloss than others.  When the piece cools the coloured areas should be smooth.



Now I’ve done the colour tests I can show you next time how to transfer your drawing onto the enamel tile!


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