Have you ever watched the TV show 'Modern Masters' - it was running for a long time on HGTV channel. I used to watch all the episodes, about potters, woodworkers and all sorts of creative people.
I saw an episode a while back about David Jefferson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who re-created the art of making porcelain lithophanes (episode MAS-508) and I was enchanted by the images backlit in porcelain.
There's a museum in Toledo, Ohio with a huge collection of them and lots of information on their website about them.
I'm not interested in creating the actual lithophanes, it seems very time consuming and tricky, but I love the look of them. For a while I've been thinking about how I could get that look in beads.
An actual lithophane has to be backlit for the image to show, so it's impractical for beads unless you favor holding your necklace up to the window to see the image. (No, I don't want to do that)
So I've been trying to find a way to capture the spirit of the ornate, light and beautiful lithophane images, without using the actual technique. No wax carving, mixing porcelain slip, plaster molds, firing porcelain.
Something must be in the air, a recent blog post by Caroline ( 'Caroline's Miscellany') just had a post about lithophanes and her cup collection with lithophanes in the bottom. So there are lots of collectors of this art form from history.
So, what's a lithophane? The Greek origin of the word means "light in stone" or to "appear in stone". An article in the Toledo Blade has a lot of background, but here's some basic information.
The two images at left show a lithophane panel of porcelain, the top one is not back lit. It just looks like a lumpy white fired clay panel.
The second one is the same panel with a light behind it. The thickness of the porcelain determines the amount of light that shines through, setting the picture's white, medium and dark areas. A lithophane can be very detailed, almost photographic.
Aren't they warm and lovely, like looking through a magic window into a lost vision of the past. This sconce was made by David Jefferson, the panels are lithophanes.
A lithophane is a three-dimensional porcelain plaque with sweet, romantic, literary or religious themes. They were made into lampshades, sconces, or put into stained glass panels and put into doors or windows. They reveal their image when backlit by sunlight, candles or electric lights, and were popular from 1830 to 1870 all over the world. Collectors have versions from Japan, China, Germany, Switzerland and England.
The image starts with a sheet of beeswax on a backlit glass panel, and an artist uses precision tools to carve the image. Where the wax is thin, more light will shine through. Some are very complex and have images of landscapes, characters, even The Last Supper by Leonardo was reproduced as a lithophane.
From the wax model after carving by the artist, a plaster cast or mold is made for pouring the fine grain liquid porcelain into. Porcelain is made with very fine particles and when fired is almost like glass. The images have a subdued, light night-like quality, like old engravings.
When the dry porcelain is pulled from the plaster cast, it takes up all the fine details from the wax carving made by the artist, to be fired in a kiln up to 2,300 degrees. Only about 40% of those made survived all the steps to final creation, either cracking in the mold, breaking when pulled from the mold or warping and shattering during firing. (Now do you see why I don't want to take up making actual real lithophanes?)
I've been experimenting, and later I'll show some beads that I made this weekend, in the spirit of the old porcelain lithophanes, but wearable and very vintage-looking, now that I've explained - what's a lithophane. I'll show my version, interpretation of the look. They can't require backlighting so they aren't exactly like a real lithophane, but I think they might capture the idea and feeling of them.