Mixed Media Fine Arts

The Cool Mix - Old and New Metal in Mixed Media Sculpture

Mixed media sculpture is three-dimensional artwork that incorporates more than one material in its creation. This blending of disparate elements allows for rich versatility and the layering of objects. This blog post introduces the ideas of handling old and new metal in mixed media art, where metal is the primary medium.

Most of the metal I use in the studio is re-use – either found metal or scrap or metal that has been gifted from friends. The metal is frequently dirty and marred and almost always irregularly shaped but I don’t mind. Discarded metal has a history, a patina from the hands that have touched it before passing it along. It is easier to see potential in a discarded object.

Of course, new goods are almost always essential as well but there can be an obscenity to new things, an off-putting eagerness in the way merchandise gets paraded out in slick anonymous displays. The scent is disingenuous - sterile from manufactured uniformity and pretentious from constructed seduction. Since new materials are often utilitarian they tend to be added later in the process to a partially constructed piece. Then suddenly, once coupled, the new bits transform. Functionality in congress with inspiration unites the piece. Thus the beauty of the new metal emerges.

Handling Old Metal

My studio brims with rusted gears, wheels, and old, long forgotten metal pieces. There are also collections of found objects, discarded wood, bone, paper, fiber and glass – anything that speaks to me and helps to formulate a visual statement. The scrabbled beauty of things that have been cast off and abandoned are a good place to find inspiration.

When working with old metal and found objects, you will encounter rust, dirt, grease and other types of deterioration. It is important to make a deliberate decision about how much you want to clean and at what point that cleaning should stop. With every bit of the old patina that is stripped away, you lose a subtle beauty. It is therefore best to start with a small patch. You can always clean more but you can never move back in the opposite direction.

A word or two about safety: When working with metal, wear gloves. You need to protect your hands from jagged edges, welding torches, grinding wheels and cleaning abrasives. You also want to protect the piece itself, from oils on your hands, stray dirt and paint and so on. This means you’ll need to determine which type of gloves is appropriate for the work you are doing – latex, leather…there are so many types of gloves and uses for them we could devote an entire blog post to the subject. In addition to gloves, safety glasses are almost always a good idea; use earplugs when you’re grinding; and, a respirator when you are using chemicals. Don’t skimp on safety when you’re in a rush or because it’s inconvenient. Some post I’ll tell you about all the injuries you’re avoiding by putting safety first. For now, take my word for it. Skin burns, eardrums burst, lungs absorb and more than smoke gets in your eyes.

When you clean, use the least aggressive means first; then sit with the outcome for a while before moving onto the next level of abrasion. Consider also that you may only need to strip a small area where you will actually be welding, soldering or otherwise creating a bond (*when arc welding you’ll also need a clean spot for the ground). Here’s a basic rundown (this is not an exhaustive list but it will give you the idea): 1. Soap and water; 2. Mild sculptural degreasers; 3. Denatured alcohol; 4. acetone. Then, only after you have cleaned and made a decision about the look you want to end up with, move on to: 5. Sanding; and after that; 6. Grinding.

If you decide that you want to keep some or all of the metal’s natural patina you must understand that a patina is by definition, corrosion. Therefore what you need to learn is how to control that corrosion using metal oils, waxes, lacquers and other solutions. Similarly, you may wish to learn how to create and control new forms of corrosion using chemicals. But again, we’ll leave these details for another blog post.

Handling New Metal 

You’ll always need new stuff. Early on there are consumables such as filler rod, gas and flux. Later, there are connectors (e.g. bolts, rivets, adhesives) and in the end you’ll need to finish your piece (e.g. pigments and coatings). Also, new metals are utilized - either to fill out the work or as the central focus. This is why metallurgy is important.

Simply put, there are two types of metal: Ferrous Metals, which contain iron and Non-Ferrous Metals, which have no iron content. A magnet can help here. For the most part, if a magnet sticks to it, you’ve got a ferrous metal. Ferrous metals include: Mild steel, carbon steel, stainless steel, cast iron and wrought iron. Non-Ferrous metals (and non-ferrous alloys) include: Aluminum, copper, brass, tin, zinc, bronze, sliver, gold and lead.

There are a lot of reasons to understand the kind of metal you are working with. Some metal (especially new metal) is coated and this coating requires special attention, depending on what the coating is. Some coatings become toxic when heated (e.g. galvanized steel) and some are just a pain in the butt. For each type of metal there are discrete methods for nearly every aspect of their use: cleaning, cutting, joining and finishing. Each of these must be considered in order to create the look and feel you are going for.

Forthcoming posts will discuss the specifics of the materials methods for working with metal when creating mixed-medial metal sculptures. One thing you can count on is that is will always be more complicated to join together diffuse types of materials.

Some artists work very deliberately from detailed plans. Others have a more organic process. Either way, at some point you’ll want to sketch out your idea in order to make decisions about how to move forward. Skipping this step is a rookie mistake. It was an experienced person who coined the adage measure twice - cut once. This is important to remember when you’re standing in front of large pieces of sheet metal or expensive copper tubing. Plus, nobody wants to have to take something apart that they’ve just spent the morning welding together. Better to double check measurements for accuracy so you don’t waste time and materials. You could ruin your whole piece. You’ll certainly ruin your Zen.

I love the quote by Hubbard (1908), “Art is not a thing, it is a way.” In art, every day is about learning. Every action is a creative gesture. In mixed media metal sculpture the artist and the expression of the art form a working dynamic. The processes involved in combining materials are essential to the message and they transform the work. If the imagination is a spark it is one that can be ignited by learning and creativity. Or as Nietzsche put it, “I am not a human being, I am dynamite.”