In Search of the Perfect Silver

Lots of times we artists think big picture, form, conceptual.  But other times we are obsessing over deep, picayune details of material and finish that nonetheless seem to make all the difference in a finished work.  Getting material/surface right takes me into all sorts of strange alchemical byways -- glazes, metals, forging and blasting, new materials, patinas.  For a long time I have been smitten with getting the Perfect Silver -- this post gives a little flavor of the hunt.  Like Yves Klein's creation (and subsequent patenting) of his signature International Blue or the Renaissance painters' search for the perfect Red, I guess I've been sucked into the same sort of long traditional quest that bedevils artists through time.

I first saw it on a visit to my Teacher's home in Carmel, CA -- my first glimpse of silver on a bronze figure- about 8 years ago.  He wasn't showing this work publicly, and had a prominent dappled brush-like mottled tone, but I saw the merest glint of that warm glow of silver that would be my lodestar. I saw the possibility for the Perfect Silver.  

 Sprayed chrome patina on resin, lifesize, Dance (I am not a Commodity) 2008.  Nice finish but lacks darkness in the recesses and fades quickly especially outdoors.

Sprayed chrome patina on resin, lifesize, Dance (I am not a Commodity) 2008.  Nice finish but lacks darkness in the recesses and fades quickly especially outdoors.

But I wasn't able to do much bronze casting in those days.  Instead I spent several years noodling around with painted resin and ceramic surfaces-- chrome spray paint, nickel powders mixed in with shellac.  Like so much of my quest, everything had a bit of promise, but always flaws, downsides.  It didn't glow enough, it couldn't hold up outdoors, it faded, it darkened.  It was too bright and wouldn't hold darkness in the recesses, or it was all in the middle ranges with no good highlights or shadows.

 Fierce, cast aluminum, 72"H, with lacquer for outdoor installation, 2014

Fierce, cast aluminum, 72"H, with lacquer for outdoor installation, 2014

I started casting in aluminum, and went through a whole range of options there -- putting on old motor oil and baking the piece in a kiln, then scrubbing off the highlights.  Spraying on graphite, sealing with lacquers for outdoors.  Waxes.  Carbon.  Buffing with rouge.   The results are good, but aluminum is a little colder and never quite glows the way my vision for the Perfect Silver would.

I talked with patineurs, studied recipes, scoured the literature and all I ever saw were pale disappointing grays.  "Silver Nitrate", people said.  It is a difficult, dangerous chemical but it's the way.  Keep at it."  I saw the Perfect Silver as an answer to Bronze, whose traditional brown patinas were so boring -- with Silver I hoped to get the piece to give me highlights and darks in a way I only got from my light white/cream ceramic glazes.  A look that glowed in low light, that didn't need spotlights to reveal its form, a contemporary, fresh look that was also timeless.  The Perfect Silver was going to solve everything -- I realized I was kind of obsessed --  my whole sculptural future seemed to depend on this.

So when I started casting bronze again, I made it a centerpiece of my Foundry relationship that they would work with me to get this right.  They had an old bottle of Silver Nitrate lying around, but had never had any success with it.  Disappointment followed disaster, hopes would be raised and then dashed.  The master patineur of the foundry, to his credit, engaged the challenge but didn't hold out much hope.  Even if we got it right, he could see no way to make it hold up to outdoor weather.  Lacquer darkened it and took away its glow.  Wax would let sunlight through -- the UV rays would tarnish and darken the piece over time.

I tried new metals like white bronze, an expensive alloy rich in nickel without the redness of bronze, but it had an overall greenish tinge that could never deliver the warmth and skin tone I needed.  Like aluminum, it was always going to be 'almost right'.  One day I was bounding up some steps in a Chicago hotel and beneath a century of wear I saw the Perfect Silver on an old ventilator grate from the Art Deco period.  More digging, more formulas, more chemistry and experimentation.  I was reviving something from a hundred years ago that somehow felt very contemporary. 

 Ophelia - Bronze with Silver -- 9"H, 2014.  This was the first piece that gave me a sense that Perfect Silver would be possible, with warmth, skin-tone and high contrasts between light and dark.

Ophelia - Bronze with Silver -- 9"H, 2014.  This was the first piece that gave me a sense that Perfect Silver would be possible, with warmth, skin-tone and high contrasts between light and dark.

One day I arrived to find happy faces -- they had it!  A new Silver supplier, a new way of spraying it, the right steel wool, the right waxes blended with carbon, applied at the right time and temperature.  It all came together -- the Perfect Silver.  I showed the sample to an international Design guru who is Lord of the Showroom in NY where my work is occasionally displayed.  He loved it so much that he wouldn't let me take it home.  "It is SO Contemporary!" he effused.  It is -- this was a color and tone we are ready to rediscover.

 Large Woman's Head- Silver Patina, before Lacquer for outdoors, 96"H, 2015

Large Woman's Head- Silver Patina, before Lacquer for outdoors, 96"H, 2015

But we had only been able to achieve this on a small piece.  We tried again and again to recreate this -- maddeningly-- occasionally we got it but more often we fell short, inexplicably.  Still several months later we had figured out how to do it consistently and were ready to scale it up to a larger piece.  I watched with elation as we steel-wooled away the haze and revealed the glowing finish beneath.  High Fives all around.   The piece was for outdoors -- we had a lacquer that on our tests seemed to keep the color unchanged-- which would seal the piece for outdoors.  It was just mopping up now.  Alas, as we sprayed it on, within minutes we could see the piece darkening before our eyes.  Yet again, the dream faded, the miracle slipped just out of reach.  Familiar despondence.

 Large Woman's Head- after lacquer for outdoors, 96"H, 2015

Large Woman's Head- after lacquer for outdoors, 96"H, 2015

So that is where things stand today:  We can consistently achieve the Perfect Silver for indoor pieces now but still not for outdoor.  I am trying yet another metal alloy, yet another batch of lacquers, but I accept that it may be years away, and it may never happen.