Monday, 22 November 2010

How did it get to 3 years already?! Sale to celebrate.

I noticed this morning that later this week I will have my third Etsyversary - the anniversary of opening my shop on US-based selling site Etsy. I can hardly believe that it's 3 years already.

It's clearly true when they say that it takes 2 years to establish a business - it's only really been in the last year that I feel truly confident in the work I'm doing and the way my site is set up, my photographs, presentation, service etc. I still have a very long way to go and so very much still to learn, but I feel comfortable in saying that I'm now at least doing it properly - it now feels more 'professional' than 'hobby'. I'm sure that I'll look back in a year and scoff at these comments and their naivety.

At Christmas I sell more small items for gifts, so have made up some more Sterling silver earrings at lower price points for stocking filler gifts. For some time I've done a range of earrings between £11 and £12.50 that I offer as 2 for £20 which has been popular at this time of year.

I can't recall the exact date I set up my own on-line shop - but I know that it was around the same time, as I faffed on for some considerable time trying to set up my own shop (which I'm equally confident in saying was pretty atrocious in the first incarnation), approaching it from different angles and never quite getting it to work how I wanted. At that point I then accepted defeat and just embedded my Etsy shop on my own site and set about doing it properly behind the scenes.

It took some time to decide quite what would constitute 'properly' and in the end, after a lot of research and trail and error, I settled on a pre-made shopping cart called CubeCart. There are many other cart systems available and I did try several and since that time, there are now many more even easier options to choose from.

This design, my copper raindrops necklace, has been a consistent seller over time - I sold my first one off my neck at a craft fair. I made some more this week so that I can put them back on sale.

At the time I liked CubeCart because it was the only one that would let me make my own skin based on one of the defaults available just by tweaking style sheets and making new graphics (both easily within my skillsets at the time) and had multiple photos per item for sale. That seems a tad daft now, but at the time - three years ago - it was the only one easily available to me (i.e. free, included in my hosting package) that allowed multiple photographs, which for jewellery bought un-seen, I thought was absolutely vital.

My decision was heavily swayed by a site for an Australian jewellery seller that had a gorgeous on-line shop - just what I was striving for in my mind and which used Cubecart as its cart engine. It soon became evident that their site was heavily modded and way beyond my capabilities, but it proved to be a catalyst I was appreciative of - I needed to at least make some decision and get moving. And having something to aim towards was the nudge I needed.

I made an alternative style of earrings to match the copper raindrops necklace this week - as I've added a chain extension to the necklace back with a little dangle and this is the same principle, to match.

I also liked its simplicity. It's certainly less feature-rich than other systems, but with the purchase and self-installation of a few commercial mods and the addition of a few free ones too - I added in many of the features I felt I missed and would improve the site and this is still very much a work in progress. It is easy to use under the hood and I'm still very happy with it and now have well over 400 items featured on the site.

I added an articulated variant of my Sterling silver leaf spiral one piece earrings this week too - for those that like a little movement in their earwear.

It's now using an older version of the cart and would no doubt benefit from the upgrade to a newer version, but it's rather a case of "if it ain't broke . . ." I rather like its clean simplicity and customers say they find it easy to use and find things, so I'm leaving it be for now.

So, to celebrate my third on-line trading anniversary I'm holding a one week sale with 15% off everything in both my shops. The discounts are automatic and displayed in red in my own shop and if you apply Coupon code ETSYVERSARY15 during the checkout process (a welcome and long-awaited brand new feature from Etsy) from my shop on Etsy to secure the 15% discount.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Why do the simplest ideas take longest to drop?

I wonder sometimes why it is the very simplest of ideas that take the longest to sink home. Sometimes an idea comes to you that is so deliciously simple that you cannot comprehend why it hasn't popped into your head beforehand.

This is how it was yesterday, whilst doing something entirely un-related and not even thinking about this, I had an idea that was so simple, I have no idea why it was so long in surfacing.

I've blogged here (see the archive to the right for various articles) and written at length about small item photography and shown my own personal lighting set up for my jewellery photographs. My 'fat ball bucket' diffuser, whilst a source of some amusement, works incredibly well, especially as I've gradually modified it over time to address assorted problems and to increase its versatility.

It's a permanent fixture on my work bench, utilising the magnifier lamp with a daylight ring tube that I already use when working - and which was recently replaced when the one I'd had for some time just died on me.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

The diffuser bucket works well for most photographs and its integral background, when exposed correctly allows me to create 'infinity sweep' type photographs in a very confined space.

I use it daily and it makes my work much easier and its small size means that it's always around for me to pop an item under to photograph without having to set anything up, which I might well find to be an even further deterrent to getting items photographed and offered on-line - a job I find sufficiently tedious that I don't need anything more to put me off the process.

But whilst it works really well - in some ways it's a tad too efficient. It uses only one light source yet gives me a good all round diffused and reflected light, which still maintains a little shadow detail to give items form. But occasionally the light is too flat and too well diffused. Some pieces need a bit more reflection and a bit shadow to bring out their form and show their details.

The texture and depth of this copper etching is rather lost in this well diffused image using my bucket diffuser. For some pieces you want to kill reflections, sometimes you need them, to show the piece accurately.

I've found this to be the case with the recent copper etched pieces that I've made. Because the etching is quite deep and oxidised to bring out the design, when photographed within my diffuser, it looks somewhat flat and the texture isn't as evident as I'd like to see it. Some pieces featuring crystals etc. can sparkle quite a lot and the diffuser can also kill this too efficiently. I'm also aware that the elbow grease I've invested in my highly polished silver work sometimes isn't obvious from photographs either.

Photographing highly polished silver is a perpetual battle. You don't want the wrong reflections in the piece, but neither do you want to kill the hardp-worked shine you've given it. My habit is to give pieces my own reflections to give the impression of polish.

One of the features of my recently pimped fat ball bucket diffuser was to use the lid, lined with scrunched aluminium foil, as a further reflector. Placed over the top of the bucket, this lifts the light within the photo area by about a third of a stop and also helps diffuse the light further - it also solved the problem of items on shelves above my work area being reflected in shiny pieces through the hole in keep in the top (originally the base of the bucket) for taking overhead photographs.

The additional shine and shadow with using the diffuser and separate reflector is much better at showing dimensional detail like the soft edges (through polishing, they can be quite sharp otherwise) of this deep etching which looks rather flat when too well diffused.

So for pieces where the bucket diffuser isn't the best solution, I'd got into the habit of removing the bucket and using this lid reflector to the left of my area facing the light and placing a piece of tracing paper stuck into a frame of mounting board to the right, in front of the light - this was actually a cheap photo mount (matt) that I'd picked up from a clearance bin.

This was the first piece I tried the new diffuser with - as the etch hasn't yet been oxidised, I needed an oblique lighting angle to show the depth and detail of the etching and I also used the blank wall of light of the diffuser itself to reflect off the highly polished surface to remove all other unwanted reflections.

This set up worked quite well for larger items or where I needed more shadow, or where I wanted to hold the items for scale, hereby having much more space to get my hand in holding the item and take the photo with the other one.

With small earrings especially, I like to photograph them being held to give a sense of scale and this isn't possible within the confines of my diffuser. This was taken using my tracing paper diffuser sheet and a scrunched foil reflector facing the light, and angled slightly downwards, to allow some of the limited light to be scattered back into the scene.

The frame itself was a little cumbersome and would occasionally fall over whilst taking photos due to the weight of the frame and its size. And the tracing paper within the frame would crinkle after extended use with being close to the warmth of the light and from being handled etc., so needed replacing periodically. My idea yesterday was to laminate a piece of tracing paper - making it lightweight and more robust for use.

So using a couple of A4 laminating pouches, I laminated a piece of good weight tracing paper that I usually use for pencil illustration work (so therefore slightly heavier than you're likely to get in a tracing pad from a stationers) and a piece of very white looking tissue paper that I'd kept aside for such a use that already looked quite translucent.

Using my laminated tracing paper diffuser I still had good even light over the piece, but a little more contrast allowed the texture and polished surface of this copper etching to be illustrated rather better.

The tracing paper laminated well and is pretty consistently toned over the sheet as it was smooth (new off the roll) to start with - and this is slightly more opaque. The tissue, which had already been creased up and smoothed out, does show a few trapped creases, but considering the quality of the original, has smoothed out incredibly well, but went noticeably more translucent as it laminated. This now gives me two versions of the diffuser depending on how much light I want to allow through.

It's worth noting here that the further your diffuser is from the light, the more diffuse the light will be. So if your diffuser is close to your light source, you'll still see some shadow detail, but as you move the diffuser further from your light and closer to your subject, the softer the shadows will become. So knowing this gives you a little more creative freedom too.

The new diffusers are lightweight and easy to prop up with a clip or two and as I always work atop my pile of A4 backing papers, the two new diffusers will just stack in the pile and be available whenever needed.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

If you go down to the woods today . . .

I've said it before and I'm sure to repeat it in future - I find one of the most powerful restoratives - both physically and mentally - is to get out into the fresh air and preferably amongst trees. I find being outdoors to be absolutely vital to my health and a brisk walk somewhere lovely is as good for me as anything a doctor could prescribe.

No matter what life throws at us, as long as I get to walk in woodland periodically, I can usually cope with whatever I have to. The last month or so has been a little demanding with two minor operations and trying to recover whilst still working and ensuring that no customers are let down or inconvenienced - along with a multitude of minor domestic irritations like a broken shower and computer and guttering coming down in bad weather.

Please click on any of the photos for a larger view.

Our walk today was around Beacon Fell, a county council run country park, north of Preston in Lancashire. We've been visiting there for something like 40 years and they've recently reworked some of the woodland sculptures - this fellow is magnificent and stands around the same height as me and something like 40 feet long.

One of the perils of being self-employed is not ever really being able to take proper time off. You have to work like the clappers in advance to cover as many eventualities as you can if other people are going to cover for you. Any down time leaves you itching to get on with something and feeling guilty when you don't and then putting in extra time after any break to clear the accumulated backlog. So something innocuous can end up feeling like a military campaign.

They were just installing this new natural sculpture when we were last there two weeks ago, but we were delighted to see it finished today - you just happen upon it in a clearing as you round a corner in the path.

When we got up this morning, the sky was clear blue and the sun was shining. There was a bite to the air, but it was a perfect day to get out and stretch our legs, so soup was warmed, flasks filled, scarves and gloves packed and off we set. Even though we had lots to do, we felt that a dose of perspective-realignment, fresh air and getting the blood circulating, were rather more important today.

I was a little off my game still, so the walk was a relatively modest one, but the trees did it again. I just love being in woodland - I just cannot conceive of living without being surrounded by trees. By the time we had travelled 20 miles from home and had set off walking, the weather had deteriorated somewhat and the sun was only evident occasionally, but even in cooling damp air, the smells of the woodland and the feel of leaf litter underfoot was a great joy to me.

It really pleases me that even in the current economic climate, the county council still do things like this, I really do hope that art of this nature won't be a future victim of the economy. Their worth isn't something that can be calculated on a spreadsheet.

I love to hear birds amongst the trees and to be greeted by the occasional stick-carrying dog and to exchange a few words with fellow walkers and to me, there probably isn't a restaurant on the planet where I'd enjoy my food any more than eating hot soup and fresh bread in the outdoors after a brisk walk. And there aren't many restaurants where you can eat still in your muddy boots and survey the scenery - although my husband did declare today that it's a tad disconcerting to eat whilst wearing a hat.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

New Adventures in Etching

In my previous blog post, I'd shown some new pendant designs using sheet copper, where in the past I'd worked largely with wire based designs. My intention, when stocking up on sheet, before I got distracted with some other ideas, was to set up to do some etching. I'd been accumulating the necessary materials over time and working out the methodology and designs in my mind and sketchbook.

I had in mind that I wanted to combine my love for photography and an extensive portfolio of available images with my jewellery making. It was my idea to take suitable photographs and put them into a stylised monochrome format in order to etch these into copper sheet and finish by oxidising to bring out the texture of the image. I had several images in mind that I thought would prove suitable and had been in my minds eye for some time. All of the designs I've made thus far have been based on a photograph I took, albeit some of them have ended up very abstract and not obviously image based at all. But this way I know that they're unique and original.

I've always loved daisies and the first image I intended to try etching was one of my daisy photos. This is just a standard lawn daisy photographed in the grass outside my front door. I don't like cutting the grass and getting rid of them, so often leave particularly abundant patches of them to grow unhindered.

I hoped that this particular image had enough contrast and detail that it would be self-evident in a very simplified form and set to work to improve the contrast, reduce the colours of the image and retouch it into a very much stylised graphic format, as shown.

The etching method I'd decided some time ago to work with was one using a pure and saturated salt solution in combination with an electric current from a battery holder. I liked the simplicity of working with household chemicals and whilst it does produce a potentially dangerous solution of copper salts that will need careful disposal, the process itself is pretty innoccuous and I was happy that I could work comfortably with the materials within my domestic work space.

The process necessitates putting the image onto the meticulously prepared (i.e. smooth and very clean) metal surface as a resist - something that will mask the copper where you don't want it etching and leaving spaces where you do want to eat away at the surface. Consequently, the image needs to be worked in negative (and mirrorred), to give rise to the image the correct way round once appearing on the sheet metal surface. Hence my daisy image has been reversed.

As with many jewellery making techniques, meticulous preparation is at the heart of the eventual success - the results are directly proportional to the care taken setting it up - cut corners and you cut quality. And like many techniques, the core of the work is in the preparation, the process itself is relatively easy, but getting to that stage is where the effort lies.

And like many techniques, the methodology often needs fine tuning and honing as you work. It's all very good working from a tutorial - and this one was detailed and extensive - but there's no substitute for hands-on experience and practical problem solving - something you can only really do for yourself. So I knew as I set off to produce my first item that the initial results would not be perfect, in fact, I was lined up for a total fail, as others had said they hadn't done well with this particular technique.

The first etched incarnation of the daisy, which is softer and more granular than I'd intended, but still significantly better than I was expecting.

But despite not working with the ideal materials (I was missing something that I hoped wasn't going to be a deal breaker) and improvising a little, my first etch was better than I'd dared hope. The image had obviously transferred to the metal (using a laser printed original and heat) - which was actually the area where I was improvising and crossing my fingers - and the etch had happened as predicted.

It's funny how past experience continues to inform current work. As a technical illustrator specialising in airbrush work, a technique I often used to transfer line illustrations to board to airbrush them, was to photocopy them and then iron this onto the art board, so I'd already settled on this as a potential transfer method.

From a long time in my past, some technical airbrush illustrations. The top one is the front suspension of an Aston Martin Vantage - which Aston Martin helped me with, I took measurements and reference photographs directly from parts on their shop floor. The second one is an SME tone arm - it resides on our turntable.

Where my print had missed in places, I'd patched it in with Sharpie, one of the recommended techniques, but that proved to be insufficiently resilient and gradually lifted during the etch and left holes in the design which then started to etch too. So the result was a little soft around the edges and had quite a lot of background noise where it should have been clean - see the photo above of the finished pendant.

On subsequent etches I used a metallic Sharpie and that was rather better - nail polish was better still, but hard to apply in small amounts. It was evident that the quality of the transfer of the design to the metal was the really vital stage. It's also vital to cover all of the metal you submerge as anything not protected will etch. I also learned that any duct tape used to cover edges etc. needs to be burnished down tightly, any place where a droplet of etching solution can get inside will also etch.

Digging around on line for methods of transferring my images to the sheet metal (I was trying to avoid the delay and expense of getting some printed circuit board transfer paper, the recommended technique) I found a post in a model makers forum for making printed circuit boards where I think this chap had stumbled upon something that worked, by accident and so I decided it was worth a try as I did have the materials to hand. His recommendation was to use the laser printer, but print onto glossy inkjet photo paper. The glossy coating sticks to the toner too, making the transfer much thicker and with more distinct edges and when done, it lifts off relatively easily after soaking in some nail polish remover (I tried every solvent in the house before I made this particular discovery).

The image transferred to the cleaned copper sheet - you can see from the paper peeled away after transfer that not all of it transferred at the edges. See the finished pendant at the bottom of the article.

It worked incredibly well - the image transferred was crisper, thicker and looked much more resilient, see above. I now had to hold my breath while I waited to see if it stayed stuck to the metal during the etching process. I had visions of it dissolving clean off as I watched.

Take 2 - the initial and cleaned up etch from the better transfer - the edges are crisper and cleaner and the background has remained clean.

The finished pendant from etch no. 2. I cut the sheet to shape and rounded the corners and polished the flat surface, oxidising it to fill in the texture of the etch and only polishing back the top surface.

I was absolutely delighted with the results - a much cripser etch and the areas around the design had remained predominantly clean. I was so encouraged that I went with a much finer design next, with some lettering, to test how much detail would actually show in a sketch-like original. I haven't yet oxidised it to see how good it looks finished, but I was incredibly happy with the results, it had worked rather better than I'd expected. This is my parents' boxer Chelsea and this will go on a keyring for my Mum's birthday. So I have to hope that she doesn't read the blog.

The process to get an image onto metal started with a photograph which was actually the size I have it here. I partially digitised it as a sketch and then hand worked it to bring out more detail and make it a bit more blocky to be more suitable to etch, then it's reversed and mirrored before printing - where your image is white will be etched, so had I used the middle positive image I would have got a raised Chelsea with an etched away background - I wanted the image etching, so had to make a negative and then mirror it to ensure she faced the right way and the writing wasn't backwards.

The initial resist transferred to the sheet metal is on the left - the image area looked clean and detailed and my transfer paper was largely clean, which is a good sign. I blocked over the plain areas I wanted keeping clean with a mask of hand cut duct tape to be on the safe side. The resulting etch on the right - it too will be oxidised to show the detail, which I hope will look like a sketch on the metal.

The finished piece, oxidised and the flat polished surface partially polished back and hanging from
a heavy weight hand made oval jump ring.

My head is now fit to burst with the ideas tumbling over each other in there waiting to see the light. I just need to fine tune my workflow to make it more economic to make things to sell, the method at the moment is a little too work intensive to be profitable.

These are a couple of smaller pendants using the abstract designs I created by coarsely halftoning some photographs - one using a square 'dot' and the other was a linear pattern - the resist for the square one is shown above. I've finished them simply, with a very chunky oval shaped jump ring to keep the costs down by reducing the amount of work I do on them (they're already quite labour intensive) - I like the tube bails I've used recently, but these add to the time I spend on a piece.


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