Cloisonne (or email cloisonne) is a type of enamel work made with coloured vitreous enamels, outlined in fine wires (copper, brass, silver or gold). This art form originated in ancient Egypt and Greece. From there it made its way across Europe and the Asian continent to Japan.
Over time it experienced several revivals, for
instance during the Byzantium and the Art Nouveau period in France, which was
responsible for most of the nomenclature used in the West for enamelling
techniques such as cloisonne.
Its leading Australian exponent, North Queensland artist, Beat Urfer, is a brilliant technician, unequalled in my experience. With a background as an industrial chemist, he understands his materials well.
Cloisonne painting is the arbitrary media name which Beat has chosen for his works, in which he integrates enamelled vignettes, executed in the cloisonne technique into an acrylic painting.
This is rendered in the same style (colour- fields bordered by darker outlines) thus taking the ancient art form to amazing new heights through this unique concept.
Of course, however skilled an artist's techniques might be, they are just the means of conveying ideas and observations.
As an artist, Beat's interests are varied but he often explores myths and
legends, looking back into history to remind us of stories about the
human condition, as true today as they were when they were first told.
When asked about his subject matter, Beat has this to say -
"Inspiration and ideas come from virtually anywhere : reading, listening to music, observing nature, conversations, travelling, theatre, general interest in other cultures - day to day living, even cooking and watching TV!
I always have an abundance of ideas and the choice of which one gets realized is not dictated by trends and saleability. Quite often it seems that ideas are choosing me and not me choosing them!
But they generally require a certain amount of research, as I am often, initially, not fully familiar with the subjects that intrigue me. This, in itself, is a challenge which I enjoy, just as much as the challenge of the technique itself.
I aim to create harmonious, radiant, stimulating, thought-provoking work and to contribute to keeping alive an ancient art form. I also like making statements, using striking designs and strong, but not loud, colours.
After considering his initial inspiration, Beat draws the overall work on paper, then he selects the position and shape of the vignettes. Next, he draws the details for the cloisonné work and decides which vitreous enamel powders he intends to apply, also if and where and at what stage gold and silver leaf is to be placed. This is followed by cutting out the copper shapes and preparing them for the wire work.
So it is a slow process, his observations coming together in a long and painstaking path, in which, after drawing up his composition, he makes little barriers, or cloisons, of fine silver as outlines, soldered to a copper base.
These outlines then contain the powdered glass (enamel or email – hence email cloisonne) of different colours and transparency. Transparent colours are sometimes built over layers of gold or silver leaf.
For the cloisons, Beat uses fine silver, which has a melting point not much higher than some of the enamels which he uses, compared with copper, brass and gold, so great skill and concentration, born of years of practice, is needed.
Here, "Tropical Journey" on the left shows the composition of the whole.
Move closer and examine the inserts (on the right) and you will see that there are
"pictures within a picture" - a jewel of a surprise!
Born in Switzerland, Beat came to live in Australia in 1980, where he began his full-time arts practice.
His subject matter is sourced from European legends and characters from his culture of growing up in Switzerland as well as from his interest in aboriginal stories and legends.
Gordon Foulds, Art Critic, writing in Craft Arts International Magazine had this to say about Beat Urfer's work: "In viewing a body of Urfer's work, one is not only aware of the richness and diversity of his material, but also the strength of his technique and the uniqueness of his talent. The painted panels are executed in a highly individual style, while the enamel inlays have all the luminous appeal of the most colourful jewels and are created with the advanced technique and assurance of a master. With narratives that are always engaging and entertaining, we must regard Beat Urfer as a teller of stories, a weaver of tales both old and new, but in addition to this, the way in which he tells his tales always delights and informs."
Australian history also lays a large part in his investigations. Beat is
particularly intrigued with the stories of early explorers and the
deprivation that they suffered in pursuit of discovering this vast land,
then inhabited by many aboriginal groups with strong links to their
Have you ever seen a brilliant blue Ulysses butterfly flitting high in the jungle canopy or darting low into your garden bed of penta flowers? The jewel-like flash of its unfolded wings is memorable but incredibly difficult to reproduce in paint. This is where Beat's transparent yet reflective layers of glass enamel reign supreme!
Sounds easy? Just wait! Powdered glass on metal is held in place with
gum tragacanth then fired, perhaps seven or eight times in a special
enamelling kiln, with levels of enamel patiently being built up between
each firing. The whole is then ground back level, re-fired to bring back
its gloss and inserted into the main acrylic painting – hence the
description “cloisonne painting”.
Then comes the patient layering of acrylic painting, into which the cloisonné vignettes, sometimes two or three, are set in a carefully considered composition.
Beat and his wife, Monique, live in the house that they built themselves, surrounded by tall trees and bush, in the Tablelands region, inland from Cairns, in North Queensland.
Monique (also an artist) and Beat live comfortably and happily, removed from many of the distractions of city life. For that particular “fix” they visit their homeland of Switzerland for periodic exhibitions of Beat’s work.
In Europe their visits are eagerly awaited, clients appreciating the “painting within a painting” nature of his jewel-like compositions.
Beat was one of the top artists shown at our old gallery, Port
Douglas Gallery of Fine Art and held several exhibitions there, to great
Please contact Beat via this form if you have any queries or would like to make a comment or send him a message.