Process of Ascension

I have been wanting to shoot plates as tiles for a larger image since I started taking photos. If you can’t have the über large format camera, tile it. I have done it in smaller scale before, but not as serious, or as thought out as I had wanted… until now. Everything (well almost everything) starts with a sketch. Sketches help make an action, so from there I made a spiral cloud. Not having the model around I just had to make a decent guess as to the length.

The cloud was made from polyester quilt batting, torn off in chunks and skewered onto a piece of 12 gauge steel wire rounded at the ends so the cloud wouldn’t slip off. Each chunk of “cloud” was glued to the next with Super 77 spray glue. It was quite the fuzzy, sticky mess. Gravity was one of the biggest issues in the making of this. As with most things, it sketched out brilliantly, but in reality, it was a mess. It fell apart a number times in the process of moving it from place to place. I just had to keep spraying it back together. It then needed the shadowing to be spray painted on, spraying at an angle to allow some of the white to show through and not lose that cloud look. To make the “cloud” look natural when it’s shot I needed to make the shadowing a lot darker than I normally would to make up for 6 to 10 seconds of exposure. 

Now, it’s time for the shoot…

Shoots like this can only happen if the model is in it for the long haul, and Brianna was there 100% all of the way. We did a couple of shots in 4x10 size, to see where the flaws were, and surprise surprise, there were a few. On the first shot poor Bri had to hold the cloud in place. Not such a graceful solution. For the second I adjusted using fishing line to keep the spiral in place and also so that Bri could wiggle out in between shots. The wet plate process that I shoot in isn’t one of the fastest or most efficient ways to make images - I average around 3 to 4 an hour - so making a prop that can be gotten into and out of can be to everyone’s benefit at times, especially for consistency. After shooting the first two plates I thought we were ready to go for the three panel shot. By shooting the first two I realized that I needed to stabilize the cloud, work out the pose a bit better, and, since I knew that this project was intended for gold leaf, that I also needed to turn the background light off (you don’t want a silver glow over the top of your gold leaf - it makes a bit messy and takes away the effect a bit). 

Earlier in the week I had downloaded a random image of a standing female to get how the individual plates would frame up. I then overlayed it in Illustrator with 3 8x10 rectangles to see where the breaks would be. It didn’t solve everything perfectly, but it did refine what I needed to look for. And considering how difficult it is to move an 8x10 camera up and down from head to foot it did help with the breakdown. First, just below the breasts. Second, just below the knee. Third, the rest with some “float.”

The first shot is kind of the easiest, but also the most important, because it sets the stage for the rest of the shot. Plus, obviously, it is the “face” of all of the shots, the focal point. After shooting and developing the first shot, Bri got back into place and I used the developed plate for placement of the second shot, lining up the cloud as best that I could.

I needed to shoot each of the plates straight at the model, without any angle to speak of, which was fairly simple for the first two plates. All I needed to do was extend the neck of the tripod for the first plate, then lower the whole camera down to the right spot for the next shot. The third plate was a bit more problematic though, as I needed to drop the entire camera and tripod to the ground to achieve a non-angled perspective. I ended up using a down and dirty plumbline from the bottom of the neck unit, marked that spot on the floor with tape, then splayed the tripod legs as far as they’d go, and lined it up.

To achieve the Ascension part of the shoot, the float, I first covered a step stool with a black cloth, then had Bri stand on it with her toes hanging over in a hopefully natural state. After exposing the model and the cloud, everything was moved aside, again marking the center where Bri had been. Since the plate is drying and still in the camera, but with the lens cap on, we quickly covered the floor with black translucent fabric, turned off all of the lights - other than the red house lights that I keep on through the shoot - and with Bri taking the lens cap off I then light painted a circle on the floor to indicate her “energy footprint,” re-capped the lens and processed the last plate. 3 for 3! Not bad considering the difficulty level.

Next, the finishing.

Practice makes perfect (or it will at least help)

Before I could really move on I needed to reduce some of the silver that had snuck in on the background of the first two plates as I wanted the gold leaf to stand out as best it could. Having experimented beforehand - and ruining a “C level” plate finding out how far I could go before destroying an image - I used potassium ferricyanide in a fairly strong solution and carefully poured it on the background areas that I wanted to lighten. I kept the solution moving without letting it sit on the main image then poured it off and did it again. Once you get going you have to move fairly quickly since the solution only lasts for about an hour or so. It seemed to help. Before moving on I first buffed out the silver images with cotton balls to remove the tarnish that had built up while the plates were waiting for their moment to shine (I practiced like crazy to make sure all would be good). I then varnished the plates for a layer of protection and to add a bit of a buffer in case of a scratch or some other mishap. I will be working on the back of the plates from here on.

To get started on this next phase I first had to make a special, see-through easel to work on. I wanted something that I could shine a light from behind to see where problems were in coatings, to see outlines and anything else that might come up. In the examples above, the second one shows the printed out outline for the shadows and the cardboard stays to keep the art in place while airbrushing. The third example shows my first attempt in over 30 years at airbrushing. Saying that I was a tad rusty would be a vast understatement.

The one thing you never want to do is sort out what is going to happen with the main piece of art. I worked on a number of “B” and “C” plates figuring out where the potential problems might be. One thing that I learned/remembered was that freehand airbrushing is extremely hard to do. You have nothing to rest your hand on so to work best you have to proceed with confidence. Sadly, confidence is earned, so unless I wanted to still be working on all of this a year from now, I needed to proceed with a bit of false confidence. I wanted a soft edge around the subject for this project so I couldn’t use a mask of any sort. One of the main lessons from the initial rounds of practice was that due to the nature of the unavoidable overspray I needed to make sure to angle the airbrush to shoot to the middle of the subject or the overspray would contaminate the background space where the gold is to be.

Silver leaf first

The reason that I shoot on clear plex (and sometimes glass) is so that I can add whatever I want behind the silver image/photo on the front. Traditionally you apply a black background and be done with it. But, sadly for me, I can never do anything quite that easily. The order of the processes is:
Front: the original silver image/photo > varnish
Back: silver leaf > airbrushed shadows > varnish > gold leaf > black protective painted background.

It was kind of scary, but I knew that I wanted to have some silver leaf splatters above the model’s head. Since the leaf needs to cleaned off of the plate where the paint doesn’t hit, this process needs to be done before the shadowing can be airbrushed on. The splatters were achieved by turning the compressor down to 10 psi and tightening the nozzle to just the point that the paint would splatter out. I turned the piece upside down because I knew that I wanted a heavier coverage of splatters at the top, and gravity could be used as my friend.

Shadows and gold leaf

I had in mind adding smoke to this image to add another graceful, but distressed element between the shadows, the ground, and the gold. Once I had finished the airbrushed shadows though I dropped that idea, mainly because of an odd accident (proof positive that you always work yourself to the main piece).

In prepping the plate for airbrush, I used an anti-static brush using nice even and controlled strokes. As I’m airbrushing I’m noticing that the overspray is catching on some weird horizontal stripes, which were a bit of a concern for the next two prime plates. It then dawned on me that it was possible that the anti-static brush had left a “trail.” So for the second, middle plate I decided to experiment, and after doing the normal brushing off of any lingering lint I started to brush in circular, irregular patterns. It worked even better than I had hoped, adding just the right amount of texture to the background. Every so often, things actually do work out…

After letting the shadowing dry I thought it would be best to apply a coat of varnish behind the black shadows because of the matting that was happening around the edges. After then letting that layer dry for a day or two, it is time for the fun, beautiful but tedious gold leaf.

In a nutshell, the way you do window gold leaf (from the backside of the glass), you start with your window size: 2 halfs of a gelatin capsule mixed with 8 ounces of distilled water. This stirred and mixed together carefully over a hot plate. Then you break out your size brush and coat the area that you want to apply your über thin sheet of gold leaf. Using a gilding brush, running it through whatever hair that you may have, you pick up the sheet of gold and apply it to the glass and the size. If you even breath slightly heavy the gold will literally just “poof,” fly away, and good luck catching it without turning it into a crumpled mess. Let’s just say this stuff is extremely thin and hard to work with, but boy is it gorgeous as it is applied.

Do the touchup gilding. Back up with a coat of protective black enamel and proceed to the next stage…


After all of the art is done it was time for what to me is the scariest part. No command-z here. Time to drill holes and wire it together. Again, it all seems so easy in the sketch, but then the realities of hanging the piece straight in the frame come into play.

First in this part of the process, I wanted to keep this as simple as possible so I made a whambam jig so that I could drill tiny holes in the corners 4 mm down and 4 mm from the side. Flip the image and do it again. It didn’t really work out quite so simply, but pretty close. I did have to drill the top left hole at 5 mm from the top to level the piece (and I am proud to say worked to perfection). Tying the plates together took a little practice on spare pieces of plex to make sure that the spacing between the panels was both consistent and at the right visual distance apart. I used a long but thin piece of scrap plex that wouldn’t hinder the tying of the wire at an out of sight angle in the back (I didn’t want to see twisted wire between the plates).

Some of the most time-consuming aspects of this whole piece was finding the chain and top eyehooks (they looked like brass nipples and nipple rings) to hang the final art from. I had to buy probably $30 to $40 worth of chain for what turned out to be 8 total links. And the antique eyehooks that I found turned out perfect. Both were found in the Etsy stores.

After a month and a half of working late after work and weekends, the art is finished.

The Frame

Even before I had started doing the finish work I was talking with the amazing artisans at the Batican Framery in Fresno, California. I follow them on Instagram and was constantly blown away by their frames. Traditional, bold, gothic, elegant, tasteful and beautiful, all of the Batican frames appear that they were made in times when craftsmanship mattered. I was not disappointed with the results in the slightest, in fact they exceeded my lofty expectations. I gave Nigel my basic thoughts and mockups, which he then improved upon 100 fold. I just let him go and I could not be any happier with the results, and I’m not that easily impressed.

Here are the progressions of builds until we have arrival…

The finished piece

Putting it all together for the show…

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