My initial exposure to lithophanes came when I was an undergraduate student at Ohio State University in 1970. Prof. Margaret Fetzer maintained the OSU Ceramic Department library (which included an extensive ceramic collection) and, learning of my interest in porcelain, Mrs. Fetzer ignited my interest in translucency by revealing some lithophane treasures hidden away on a back shelf.
It wasn’t until 1974, however, when I decided to attend graduate school at Northern Illinois University under Gib Strawn that my early interests actually bloomed into a body of work. My first experiments with translucent porcelain utilized stamping and carving to vary the porcelain wall thickness and reveal the transmission of light. In short order I added the use of ceramic stains and the nerikomi process to develop translucency based pattern in my work.
I didn’t revisit actual lithophanes in earnest until I moved back to Ohio in 1979 and met Laurel Blair in Toledo. Mr. Blair was surprised and excited to find a ceramic artist to share his passion for translucent porcelain and he encourage me to reproduce selections from his enormous collection as a commercial product. I declined Mr. Blairs generous offer, opting instead to create a line of original lithophanes that incorporated traditional carved wax techniques with my ongoing interest in stained porcelain.
Following further research at the OSU Ceramics library, I with met Mr. Walter Ford in 1982. Walter Ford had received a Master’s degree in Ceramic Engineering to compliment a lifetime involvement in the ceramic industry. Mr. Ford completed extensive research on the subject of photographic techniques and ceramics that resulted in his paper, “Application of Photography in Ceramics” that was printed by the American Ceramic Society in January, 1941. In his paper Walter Ford references the use of photo-mechanical processed in the production of ceramic products dating back to the early 1800’s.
Using Mr. Ford’s paper as a jumping off point I did additional research on photomechanical processes* that resulted in my own development of a technique for creating lithophanes using photographic images.
The technique for making a photographic plate with sufficiently deep relief to generate a plaster mold is surprisingly similar to the relatively well known technique used in gelatin plate printmaking. The primary modification is the addition of a dichromate that will make the gelatin solution photosensitive. Either potassium or ammonium dichromate** can be used with the primary difference being that ammonium dichromate is slightly stronger. A good starting point for experimentation would be: 100 gm Knox gelatin (unflavored), 2.5 gm ammonium dichromate, 300 cc water. Slowly heat the mixture until melted (heat slowly and avoid over-heating the mixture). Once melted, pour the fluid onto a sheet of 1/4″ plate glass surrounded by a 1/4″ reservoir of plastilin. Dry the plate in total darkness (I used my dehydrator). Once dry, place a negative on top of the gelatin mixture and expose under photo lamps (exposure times vary but start with 30 minutes). Wash the exposed plate under water to reveal the relief image. A plaster mold may then be pulled from the gelatin plate.
Interestingly, shortly after I uncovered the mystery of photographically produced lithophanes, my interest in the photographic process soon waned. Despite the intense tedium of the carved wax technique I find the original, and essentially human, marks produced to be favorable to the reproductive quality of even the finest photo-mechanically produced lithophanes. Accordingly, all of the lithophanes and translucent porcelain objects I have created over the past fifteen years have been developed using the time honored, carved wax technique.
*”The Keepers of the Light” by WM. Crawford, Morgan & Morgan, 1979
“Alternative Photographic Process” by Kent E. Wade, Morgan & Morgan, 1978
“A Unique Experience-Gelatin Plate Printmaking” by Fran Merrit & Nancy Marculewicz, unpublished 1974
** Both ammonium dichromate and potassium dichromate are likely to cause skin irritation. Rubber gloves and a respirator should be used during the entire plate making process.