I seriously considered metalsmithing the day I hammered a copper penny into a 2 ½-inch disc. Discovering the way the metal changed upon heating and cooling and then hammering was transformative. I haven’t looked at metal the same way since then.
My preferred technique is called chasing and repoussé. Repoussé is a French word that means “to push from the back.” With this technique, a sheet of metal is hammered on the back side to create volume and give the piece its general shape. The piece is then hammered on the front to give final shape and detail. While being worked, the metal is secured in chaser’s pitch, to provide resistance to the force of hammering, but still allow the metal to move in response to the force applied. Pitch is made from either asphalt or tree resin, to which a filler (like plaster of Paris) and a fat (like beef tallow) is added. This mixture becomes soft when heated, and holds the metal in place while the chaser is working on it.
Chasing and repoussé is an ancient art form. Pieces have been found dating back to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Scythians and Celts, with the most famous work of this type being the death mask of Tutankhamen. Copper repoussé pieces have also been found in Mississippian-culture mounds dating several hundred years before Columbus’ arrival to the New World. The largest repoussé work ever produced is the Statue of Liberty.
Chasing and repoussé is a form of relief sculpture, but is unlike other types of sculpture in that it is neither additive (like clay sculpture) nor subtractive (like stone sculpture). Chasing and repoussé forms three dimensional relief by making the metal move in response to the artist’s blows. When I envision a work, I create highlight and shadow by pushing the metal to make overlapping and undercut areas. Highlights and shadows are then produced with the light actually shining on the piece. In this way, the visual effect will change depending on the perspective of the viewer, and the actual location of the light. This, combined with the unique feel of formed and textured metal, makes work using this technique a unique experience.
Although pieces can be made out of almost any metal, my favorites are copper and silver. These metals are very friendly, and move easily when hammered. While working on a piece, I can both hear and feel the difference in the metal as it tells me it has been worked enough and is ready to be heated to soften it again. They also react well to various processes used to produce color in the metal. All in all, a very satisfying process.