My Field project consisted of a series of ten handmade artist books, each inlaid with a pewter medal into the cover representing a specific personal keepsake of my own, containing a series of illustrations relating to the object in question and the relationships or events it symbolises, Japanese bound with either gold, silver, or pewter thread.
While overall I am happy with the pieces conceptually, although they are all of an acceptable quality, the execution of the pieces is not at the high standard I had hoped them to be. By far the largest factor in this is of time, and there were many points in the process which were highly time consuming and simply could not be done any faster to the best of my knowledge.
The first point in the process was the sculpting of the objects, which in itself is a time consuming and delicate process, as I endeavoured to capture as many small details as accurately as possible, requiring careful craftsmanship.
However in the process of casting this into pewter, despite the mould having captured the detail well in most cases, I often found that the pewter itself did not pick up much of this detail despite me doing everything advised to optimise the mold (coated with talc/charcoal powder, and heated mould).
Even having done this however, the surface of the medals consistently came out rough, and neglecting to pick up many of the painstaking details such as the lettering on the surface of the memory stick, or the links of the chain on the heart keyring, and also leaving the previously smooth background with many marks and imperfections.
Not only this, but after casting many of the medals which were sculpted into unfired clay (due to time constraints meaning I did not have the luxury to wait for the weekly bisque firing of the kilns), they often broke on attempting to remove them from the set mould. While this largely was not a problem as the moulds still picked up the fine detail, it did make the process much more risky and frustrating in the event of air bubbles being made in the mould causing further imperfections that would have to be carefully removed later.
The only way I could find to resolve this lost detail in most cases, was to very carefully draw it back onto the surface using a dremel, which is far from ideal. This is not only more painstaking than the initial sculpting, but also more dangerous as any slip of snag with the vibrating dremel could create an unwanted mark on the surface of the medal which in itself then takes much more time to remove.
As well as drilling the details back into the sculpt of the object itself, I often also used the dremel in an attempt to smooth the background surface also. While I was not able to get the pewter smooth and polished from using the dremel alone, as it often left marks upon the surface, it was useful as a preliminary phase to file down some of the most uneven areas far quicker than by hand using sand paper.
Unfortunately however, polishing the surface with sand paper by hand is (as far as I have been informed) the only option for polishing the pewter to an acceptable standard, and any attempt to use the dremel sand paper heads only seemed to result in more marks being left on the surface. This was arguably the most time consuming part of the process which resulted in the medals not being of the standard of finish I had hoped for. I endeavoured to make sure all of the medals were polished to a passable quality, removing the worst of the marks and kinks made in the casting process and making the surface reasonably smooth contrasting the relief of the object itself, but it is far from a smooth mirrored finish.
In ideal circumstances, with a longer period of time to work with, the medals themselves would be far more polished and flawless, with the reliefs on the surface reflecting the full amount of detail in the original sculptings. This is mostly frustrating as both of these points would be for a large part irrelevant if the pewter had simply cast the surface as it is in the moulds, however if there is a more effective way of casting pewter that does not result in these blemishes (and I assume there must be), I am not privy to it, and the only advice I was offered by the technician ontop of the methods I was already using (heat and talc the mould) was simply trial and error.
The books themselves, again while all containing an acceptable level of content with a series of high quality illustrations, are not finished to the degree I would like them to be in an ideal world.
I would have liked to been able to fill the books with even more illustrations than were featured, but again due to time constraints I was only able to complete so many, and my priority was ensuring that each book had a roughly equal amount of content of an equal standard. Another point I would change if I was to remake the books, is the measuring of the pages, which were perhaps around 5mm narrower than they should have been as when I was measuring and cutting the pages I failed to account for the extra length of the spine. While I do not think this detracts from the books, it is an unnecessary imperfection that I would ideally change.
Another minor imperfection which I did not have the chance to resolve, is the noticeable glue marks on many of the covers. These marks are from glue on the inside of the covers, and expected in the process of book making. However they are most noticeable in the areas around the border of the book which I have embossed, which I originally planned to then gold leaf.
With the gold leaf strips in the embossed areas, these glue marks would no longer be visable and so I was not initially overly concerned by them, However after some consultation with a tutor who has experience in gilding, I was advised that my level of experience with gilding meant that they were “not beautiful enough”, and might detract from the skill of the handmade book. Not only this, but I was advised it may make the covers look too busy and clash with the pewter medal, and that the delicate gold, silver and bronze thread I was using to bind the books would likely be adequate to illustrate my point of value without being overstated.
While I was content not to do the gold leafing on the covers, as it allowed me to invest my time into illustrating and binding the books, I do wish that I had been given this advice when I was first consulted at my initial stage of doing tests on a spare book cover and I likely would not have then embossed the borders of all the covers in preparation for the gilding. Although I do think the embossed border is an effective, subtle yet impactful way of illustrating the pewter medal on the cover, it does raise the issue of the glue marks becoming visible and again given the time constraints I may have been better leaving them plain.
I had also considered using the metal leaf on the inside covers of the books after it was suggested to me by my tutor, however I found that I could not get the level of detail in the edges of the drawings as I would have liked, and again I was told that my skill was not high enough with gilding to produce an effective standard of work; so I instead left the inside covers plain.
The book covers themselves were fairly straight forward to construct once I was familiar with the process and using appropriate care and precision.
I had to alter this process slightly when making the covers for the Japanese bound books, rather than the traditionally bound ones which I made in my book binding induction. As the Japanese bound books have no hard spine, I had to construct two separate covers.
However, most Japanese bound books are made using a soft paper or card cover, rather than being hard bound like mine. Because of this, I needed to adapt my method to accommodate for the folding cover and pages, and so made a thin spine for each of the covers allowing them to bend.
The process of inlaying the medals into the cover was again, a reasonably straight forward if not delicate process. After having glued down the book cover, I then traced around each of the medals and carefully cut this out with a scalpel. This was difficult at times, as the book cover is quite thick and so takes many cuts, which can result in slips or the line being cut to far in or out from where it should be meaning the medal doesn’t fit perfectly. Perhaps, given more time I could have experimented with having the shape laser cut out of the book cover, however not having much experience using the laser cutter since my induction 3 years ago I felt it would be more reliable for me to do it by hand.
The medal in then pushed into the space, and held in place with super glue, with the inside cover page then being covered with a thick card like paper so as to hide the inlay.
The medals themselves are intentionally non-uniform circles, as I wanted it to be clear that each medal had been individually inlaid into the covers and felt that the asymmetrical nature of the medals’ shape gave them a more personal quality to the books.
The final part of the process was binding the books. After much deliberation, I decided on making the books Japanese bound as this allowed me to illustrate individual images and then experiment with the sequence, as well as use a series of different types of paper, including tracing paper, to strong effect. I had initially planned for the books to be unfolding concertina books for a long time, but eventually decided against this as I would have to be far more precise in planning in advance exactly what images in what sequence I wanted to include, and there is also the issue of joining the different lengths of paper. While it is possible to buy long continuous rolls of paper meaning I would not have to attempt to make joins, these are very expensive especially when looking at more specialist high quality paper, and would again not allow for me to use varying types of paper for each sequential image. Another issue I had in constructing my own concertina book, was I had great difficulty in making the pages uniform. Any slight discrepancy in the height or width of the page, or if it was not folded precisely parallel to the other pages, it became immediately evident and made it look incredibly unprofessional.
I had also constructed a more standard format of book made with page “signatures” – groups of long page strips folded within each other and sewn together at the spine, before being glued into the hard spined book cover. While these books were visually effective, looking possibly the most professional of the various methods, it again had the draw backs of being unable to rearrange the drawings at will, and while different paper types are able to be used, they would need to be in a set sequential and even order.
Although the Japanese bound books do also need to have uniform pages, small discrepancies within a few millimeters do not ruin the aesthetic of the book and are simply evidence of it’s hand crafted nature. As well as these practical reasons, I also found the style of Japanese binding to be the most visually appealing, especially with the specialist thread that I ordered.
For the large part I am very happy with the use of the thread, and think it adds a beautiful quality to the covers of the books, as well as making them distinct from the usual japanese bound books using linen or cotton thread, these threads – the gold thread especially – were incredibly delicate. Unfortunately I was unable to find metal coated threads in the various necessary colours (gold, silver, and bronze) in uniform thicknesses. The silver thread was the easiest to work with, being a slightly thicker silk thread comparable to the thickness of linen thread which is most typical for book binding. The copper thread while much thinner, was still manageable, and involved me tripling up the thread on the needle before sewing, which was slightly troublesome at times but for the most part straight forward. The gold thread however, was especially difficult to work with. Unlike the bronze and the silver threads, which were standard silk threads coated with metal leaf, the gold thread was flat and ribbon like. This meant that it had much less structural integrity than the other two, and was prone to snapping. Without the time to start the binding again from scratch, and not wanting to waste the valuable thread, I could only attempt to very carefully and delicately tie the snapped lengths back together in a way which is not noticeable from the outside of the book, and although they were durable when I had finished binding them I can only hope that they do not fall apart upon being repeatedly handled. Illustrating this, half an hour before the show deadline after rushing to the photography studio in order to take photographs for my professional practice documentation (website, press pack, and business cards etc), one of the gold thread books got knocked to the floor immediately after I had taken photographs of it, the impact of which caused the threads to burst apart.
It being 30 minutes before the deadline, and with the gold thread being notoriously the most difficult to bind, I did not have time to fix this book for the show. This is a disappointing setback, and certainly in future I would aim to find a thread that was closer in description to the more workable silver and bronze threads, rather than the flat type which I have used for these.
Overall, I am pleased with the format of the books and I feel they are both original, interesting and desirable items. Certainly given more time for finishing, they have the potential to be very high quality and beautiful objects of a professional standard, and also something which I believe to be quite saleable. They combine a set of skills and materials which do not often come together, sculpting, pewter casting, book binding and illustration, with the use of specialist threads, to create a set of unique pieces.
I am also pleased with their display, clearly showcasing each individual piece in a setting alongside their original objects in a manner which is formal, yet not intimidatingly so, and still accessible and inviting to handle. Arguably the best of both worlds, and the ideal form of display for this series of artist books.