Friday, January 20, 2023

The Beardsley Salome Dinnerware Project, Part 2: Production

Part 1 of my report on this project is here

Just as creation of the artwork for my Beardsley dinnerware took longer and was more difficult than I'd anticipated, production of the dishes was also unexpectedly challenging. Without the extraordinary commitment of Enduring Images (the company who made the dishware), I'd still be looking at  mockups on a computer instead of dinnerware on a table.

Let's start with how things end. Here's a photo of one of the dinner plates I had made, along with a smaller plate and a bowl:

Here are the serving dishes:
And here are more of the bowls, because they are the only component of the set that uses color:

The collection is nice, but it's not as nice as I'd hoped. The pieces look pretty good from a distance, but the closer you look, the more you notice things that aren't as they should be. Well, the closer I look, the more things I notice that aren't as they should be. I spent several months staring at zoomed-in copies of Beardsley's drawings and at dinnerware mock-ups using those drawings. I notice some things other people wouldn't.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Having seen how production ended, let's shift to how it began.

In September 2021, shortly after starting the project, Enduring Images (EI) ran tests to ensure that the blanks I'd selected were compatible with their production technology. As a test image, I selected a drawing from Beardsley's work on Le Morte Darthur, because I felt that its areas of solid color as well as its use of fine lines was representative of the images I'd want for my dinnerware. At that time, I had not yet decided to use only artwork from Salome.

When I got a test plate back, I was surprised to find that the edge of the decal could be both seen and felt. It wasn't obvious, but once you'd noticed it, it was hard to ignore. Patrick, my contact in Production at EI, explained that this was a flux shadow. I didn't like it, so Patrick outlined three approaches to eliminating it. I'll refer to these approaches as Techniques A, B, and C, but for those who must open every box to see what's inside, A is on-glazing with a flux topcoat and full-coverage decals, B is on-glazing with a non-flux topcoat, and C is in-glazing.

Each of these approaches has limitations. Technique A works for relatively flat pieces, but it can't be used for bowls. Technique B tends to yield a matte finish, rather than a glossy one. Technique C has a poor track record. Patrick had found that it was rarely successful.

Technique A was a variation on what had been done for the test plate. I was confident it would leave no flux shadow on the relatively flat pieces it was applicable to. I had EI run additional test plates using Techniques B and C. As promised, neither produced a flux shadow. Surprisingly, Technique B produced glossy results. It also yielded a more intense black than Technique C. 

I recommended we use Technique B for the dinnerware. Unlike Technique A, it was applicable to all dish shapes, and it yielded deeper blacks than Technique C. I then threw myself into production of the artwork, a task that ended up stretching over the next eight months. For details, see Part 1 of this report.

Three months later, we ran some samples to test the colors for my bowls. I reminded Patrick of the importance of avoiding a flux shadow. He told me he'd selected Technique C for just that reason. He didn't say why he'd chosen Technique C over Technique B, and I didn't ask.

After five more months (i.e., at the end of July 2022), I submitted final artwork for the full dinnerware set. Patrick started work on a dinner plate as a pre-production test. We expected smooth sailing. The seas were not cooperative. After three failed trials, Patrick, taking into account the tribulations I'd endured with the artwork, began to talk of a Beardsley curse. After several additional failures, he concluded that Technique C was not going to work for the project.

The stumbling block was the large swaths of solid black, especially on the rims. Patrick had been unable to find a way to fire the plates such that these areas emerged a uniform color and texture. The picture below is an example of his results. The black in the middle of the plate is deeper than that on the rim, there is cracking in the color at the rim extents, and striations are present at the rim edge in the upper left.

We retreated to Technique A. It dodged the problems of Technique C, but a new issue became apparent. Some areas that were supposed to be white were coming out grey. In the image below, compare the original artwork (above) with the image on the plate (below). On the plate, there's a grey haze around the peacock and the headdress that is not present in Beardsley's drawing:

Patrick explained that the black areas tend to bleed a little, and there's no practical way to eliminate it.

At this point, I'd been working with EI for more than 13 months, and pre-production testing was in its fifth month. I was having only 41 pieces produced, so the business case for continuing to work with me had long since evaporated. EI as a company and Patrick as a individual had invested far more time and energy in the project than could ever be justified, and they had done it with a cheery attitude and an earnest commitment to the project's success. I would have liked to find a way to eliminate the flux shadows on the bowls that I knew Technique A would leave behind, and I would have liked to play around with techniques to reduce the bleeding giving rise to grey areas, but EI hadn't signed up for what had become a research project. You don't ask people who've already gone above and beyond to go  higher and further. I told Patrick that testing was over and it was time to make the set.

The dishes showed up about two months later. Creating them involved printing, hand-placing, and firing 82 decals, one for the top of each piece and one for the bottom. Most decals were unique. Bottom decals had to be matched with their top-of-the-plate partner and had to be oriented the same way. Opportunities for errors were rife. I was pleased to see that only one decal had been placed incorrectly. 

I noticed some significant loss of detail in fine white lines present in the artwork. Compare the artwork below (left) with its appearance on a plate (right):

I also saw that the black rims were not as uniform in color as on the test plates we'd run. Contrast the mottled appearance of the production plate (left) with the more uniformly black test plate (right):

Patrick explained that in an effort to minimize the bleeding of blacks into adjacent white areas, he'd tinkered a bit with the production process. That had resulted in some loss of fine details as well as a reduction in the density of the blacks.

During the months between initial firing tests in autumn 2021 and pre-production testing at summer's end 2022, Technique B had somehow dropped off the radar. I hadn't forgotten it, however. When Patrick remade the plate with the mis-placed decal, I had him make a second copy of the plate using Technique B. That allowed me to compare the results of Techniques A and B on a piece of my dinnerware.

It was an interesting exercise. The rim color for Technique B (right) was much better than for Technique A (left):

That photo was taken under unusually strong light, and it exaggerates the difference. Even under normal lighting, however, it's clear that Technique A's black is mottled, while Technique B's is nearly uniform.

On the other hand, Technique A (left) retained drawing details better than Technique B (right):

Technique B yields better solid blacks, then, but it leads to a loss of detail beyond that which Technique A already incurs.

That's how the story ends. I finally have a set of dinnerware based on Aubrey Beardsley's drawings, something I'd yearned for since 1989. But it's not the set I'd envisioned. The areas that should be solid black are more dark grey. If you look closely, or if you see them under strong light, you see that the color is somewhat mottled. The images lack details present in Beardsley's drawings, and some areas that should be white have a grey haze to them. The set is still nice. To the casual observer, it's very nice. It's just not as nice as I'd hoped. 

I suspect it would be possible to do better, but getting there--finding the right combination of toner, topcoat, kiln temperature, firing time, and who-knows-what-else--would be time consuming and expensive. It'd be a research project--even more so than this endeavor ultimately became. That's not in the cards.

I'm lucky I got this far. Without Enduring Images' dedication to seeing this project through, I wouldn't have. I remain grateful to them and to Patrick for their exemplary patience, cooperation, and assistance.

No comments: