THREE WAYS TO MAKE LITHOPHANE ORIGINALS:
1. Hand-carving original art for the production of lithophanes:
The best lithophanes produced in the nineteenth century were hand-carved, even those that have a photographic appearance to them. Skilled artists worked from photographic references while carving a translucent wax slab that mimicked the behavior of translucent porcelain. Most likely the carving tables were near a window and had an angled mirror beneath them to provide constant illumination.
I highly recommend a wax from the Kindt-Collins Company (800-321-3170) called KC-1767-s. It is a dry white wax with excellent carving properties, it casts easily, and does a reasonable job of mimicking the behavior of light going through porcelain. A five-pound chunk should be enough wax to make about a dozen lithophane panels 5 x 7 inches.
To make a 5x7 inch slab of wax 1/4 inch thick:
2 pieces of 8x10 inch glass, one clean, one with silicone applied.
3 pieces of 1/4 thick wood strips (balsa from a hobby store OK).
6 metal spring clamps.
Arrange 3 wood strips on clean glass in a 5-7-5 U-shape. Place the other glass on top and secure with spring clamps. Put it in an oven at 200 degrees F to warm it.
Melt some wax in a double boiler. Use a thermometer in the wax and do not exceed 200 degrees F. When liquid, stir well to distribute the solids contained in the wax and cast into the warm glass mold on the open 7-inch side, letting the wax run in against the plain glass. Let the wax cool slowly, then remove the silicone treated glass and the wood strips. The remaining glass will be useful to support the wax while working and will also aid in forming of the plaster mold. Larger surfaces of wax, when adhered to glass, may crack upon cooling. Simply use a hot tool to fuse additional wax into the cracks.
Carry out the carving over a light source and try to ignore the somewhat unattractive surface that emerges; concentrate instead on the light-dark image being transmitted through the wax. Mistakes can be repaired by using hot tools and adding wax. If more opacity and whiteness are desired, a small amount of white colorant sold for use in candle making can be added in the double boiler. When the carving is finished, cast a plaster mold, press or cast the clay into it, dry, and fire. It is useful to make a few quick studies to establish the entire workflow. The studies will also show that the finished porcelain image contains a little more contrast than what the wax indicates.
2. Walter Ford’s chemical process for producing lithophanes from photographs:
Walter D. Ford was a ceramic technician, inventor, artist and creative thinker. He held many patents and published the following paper in 1940. It is quoted:
“Careful examination of a negative will always reveal some traces of surface modeling or relief. This relief is more noticeable when the gelatin coating on the film is relatively thick and when a pyrogallic acid developer is used. At best, however, the relief of the negative is slight and certainly not enough to make it worthwhile to cast or mold. If, however, a suitable compounded gelatin composition is attached to a glass plate, a high degree of relief will be obtained, and from this original, moldings or replicas may be cast in plaster.
The gelatin composition is:
Knox Gelatin 100 g.
White Sugar 25 g.
Potassium bichromate 1 g.
Distilled Water 300 cc.
Heat this solution until it melts, stir thoroughly, strain through muslin, and pour about 2 cc. of the liquid to one square inch of surface on a level glass plate. Dry this coated plate in a calcium chloride drier. Expose the dry plate under a negative for one hour under a 1000w lamp. Soak the exposed plate in distilled water to produce the relief, and, after a sufficient relief is obtained, make a plaster cast.
From this cast make a plaster mold having the same relief as the original gelatin. Form a porcelain piece on this mold by any method desired, and dry and fire to complete vitrification. When it is removed from the kiln, there is no interesting photographic likeness visible to the eye. There is only a relief, which is a reverse of that on the original gelatin, but when a light is placed on the back of the piece, a perfect photographic likeness of high quality is reproduced. This results from the variable thickness of the porcelain, which allows a variable intensity of light to shine through this porcelain piece.
Such a translucent application so far is limited and is applicable only to porcelain lamp shades and similar ware.”
(Mr. Ford did not predict the wild popularity of nightlights, unicorns, and fairies. I have not tried his process, but his method is consistent with published nineteenth-century recipes for producing photographic bas-relief surfaces. Let me know if you try it.)
3. Using digital technology to produce lithophanes from photographs:
If you own the digital carving equipment, this is the easiest method and offers the most control over the image because you can set and alter how the gray levels are distributed in the image and tailor your carving to the behavior of your porcelain. If you want to test the waters before committing thousands of dollars to equipment, many sign shops now have raster carving ability and may carve samples for you on a per job basis. There are also vendors to be found on the Internet that will carve a plastic lithophane from your provided photograph. This plastic lithophane can be used as the original model for a plaster mold, and you can work in clay from there. For a detailed overview of the digital carving process and helpful tips, please click the Link to Info button at left. It will take you to an illustrated article I wrote on the subject.