Saturday, August 1, 2009

Antique Bottles and Labels: a Tutorial (or, Shiny is Bad)

I realize I haven't posted a thing to this since February--February!!--because I've felt compelled to work on jewelry instead, but where does the time go? Now that my shows are out of the way for the year, I'm taking a breather from all of that, shifting gears and slowing down. Yeah, right.

Actually, for the past three days I've been experimenting in the studio (playing, for me) with creating labels and storage jars for the odds and ends I've collected to use in my work. I have plenty of plastic bins, but prefer to keep them out of sight if possible in favor of more organic containers. And something I've been wanting to do for a while has been to make really interesting labels for my antique bottles, and see if I could make new, shiny jars look old and filthy. Some of the results of that experiment can be seen above, and I thought I'd share the little tricks I learned along the way in case anyone else wants to try it.

First, aging glass bottles: go and buy whatever strikes your fancy, or use what you have on hand. I bought my new ones at craft stores. Get ones with lids or corks, or find corks at the hardware store (bring your bottles to ensure a proper fit). I begin by dry-sanding the glass with 150 grit sandpaper. Wearing a dust mask is a good idea here... Sand inside and out if you can, and focus on corners and raised areas, where the most wear would happen naturally.
Next, use pigments to replicate the appearance of bloom and caked-on dirt. For this, there's nothing like REAL dirt--in my case, some nice brown earth from the bajada on the west side of the Kofa Mountains in Arizona. Sand is great for texture, and I've heard that debris from your vacuum cleaner bag is also great. The other materials I used are pictured above: dry earth pigments, metallic pigments, ink, including walnut ink crystals, and matte acrylic medium to use as a binder. All were obtained at the local art supply or craft store, but you may have to order the walnut ink crystals online.
Before you begin, lay down some old papers or a dropcloth over your work area: this is going to get messy. If it doesn't get messy, you're not doing it right. I also recommend wearing some rubber gloves if you don't want to spend half an hour scrubbing bits of paint off your hands like I did. You can use an old, largish (1" wide or so) paintbrush, paper towels, a sponge and/or rags to apply the paint, and you'll need a container for water, and a plate or paper palette to mix your paint.
It's really helpful, when you're trying to replicate an effect, to have an example of the real thing on hand to refer to. So, if you can, try to get hold of an old, dirty bottle somewhere.
Start mixing your paint by adding the acrylic medium to the same amount of dry pigment and/or dirt. Dirt gives it texture as well as color. Now add water if you like, and just start brushing it into and over the jar at random. You can make it very thin, or thick and lumpy. Now take a damp or dry paper towel, or a damp sponge, and start blotting it up. Remember that dirt tends to accumulate in corners, or at the bottom of a jar, so more paint can go there. You're going to keep doing this sequence of application and blotting several times over, using both dark and light earth colors.
This is an intuitive and in-the-moment process, so it's critical to remember two things: One, don't overthink what you're doing. Just slap the paint on and blot most of it off. Two, removing the paint is just as important as putting it on. You want to leave residue, in random places and colors. Try creating an area with thick, lumpy paint, blot some and let it dry, and then put a thin wash of lighter or darker color over it--this looks great. Manipulate the surface, then manipulate that, and then manipulate that, over and over.
If you have a bottle with a small mouth, make a thin wash of color with some dirt/sand and just dump some in and swirl it around. Shake it back out, or give it a quick rinse and dump it out to leave a thin film of residue. Inside and outside residue looks the most authentic. You can also really cover the outer surface and wait until it's almost dry to begin blotting and rubbing it off. I even had success sanding off some of the paint. Keep going at this, using slightly different colors of paint, over and over, until you like how it looks.

Once the bottles and jars are to your liking, it's time to move on to your labels. I needed to age my paper first and then print the labels, because the ink would run if I got the paper wet after printing. I started with 24lb. Ivory Granite paper by Southworth, because it's what I had on hand, and the speckled ivory tone was a nice base for the antiquing. (For those of you who have ordered jewelry from my Etsy shop, this is what the Artist's Statement is printed on.)

You'll also need a work area with dropcloth, paper towels, some of the walnut ink or other brown ink, diluted to a thin wash and put in a spray bottle, a large (about 1-2") paintbrush, and a nice pot of strong, black tea. I like to do this outside on cement in hot sun...the paper dries FAST in our climate, but you can do it indoors as well. You'll also need some of the walnut ink crystals in a little dish. Pour some crystals into the dish, and then pour most of them back: you'll be left with the tiniest, finest particles of ink, which are the best (see the picture below). This is because they expand and darken dramatically when immersed in water.

Ok, this part's also fun and cathartic, sort of like finger painting. Begin by covering a few pages front and back with the tea, using the brush. Blot some of it off if it puddles too much. Next, you can sprinkle a tiny bit of ink crystals at random locations over the sheets, or spritz them with a little of the ink wash. You'll see the ink particles start to bloom and spread like little flowers. Grab a paper towel and start blotting: they shouldn't get too big or dark or runny. Just as with the glass-antiquing, this is a fast and loose process, with no hard-and-fast rules. I generally make several passes with the tea, crystals and ink spray followed by blotting before the pages look good to me. One suggestion I do have is less is more--don't make your surface too dark or busy, or it will interfere with your print and handwriting. Have fun and don't get cranked up over it!

While the little brown spots made with the ink crystals aren't strictly necessary, they do add a nice dimension to the overall wash, and replicate mildew or "rust", as it's called in the antique trade.

If you have hot sun on your sheets, let them dry in it. Use rocks to weight the pages if there's wind. Or, you can dry them in a warm oven, but you need to keep an eye on them. Remember that magic number, Farenheit 451, which is the combustion point of paper. After the paper is completely dry it will be fairly warped and won't go through your printer (this is the voice of experience here). So you'll need to iron it. Use a dry iron on the wool setting to get it nice and flat, and pay special attention to the edges and corners, where your printer will need to grab hold of it to feed it through. Some of my finished sheets are pictured above, along with an untreated sheet, just to give you an idea of what you're aiming for.

Now for your labels. This is strictly up to you, and I'm no computer genius, so I won't give you a step-by-step description of mine because I don't remember how I did it. I can say I created the documents in Word, just playing with the text and putting a border around it, and using a combination of brown and grey type. Look through what you've got and use an old-fashioned serif face: mine was Modern No. 20. You can look around the Internet at images of antique and vintage labels, or do what I did and go see the latest Harry Potter film 6 times (so far). Besides just loving the story and everyone in it, I am constantly amazed and impressed by the stunning amount of detail and attention to the props and set design, which is what I'm looking at in those repeated viewings. Seeing the Potions classroom and that outrageous portable potion-brewing chest in Slughorn's office galvanized me into doing this little experiment in the first place. These things are all only seen for fleeting seconds in the film, but the artists involved took immense care with even the smallest details, and everything is just spot-on perfect.

So, I ended up going for a kind of alchemical look and actually figured out how to put a half-tone alchemical symbol into the background of my larger labels, visible on my big apothecary jar of feathers a couple of pictures below. I also chose a latin phrase as my studio motto, "Ex Tenebris Lux", which translates as "out of the darkness, light". This refers to the light of spirit emerging from the apparent darkness of matter, as well as the journey of the soul, and is at the bottom of all but the tiniest of my labels. I added some other goodies and lines for contents and provenance, and (after a few bouts of swearing) I had my design.
After the labels were printed on the aged paper, I wrote them out with a nice fountain pen I have with brown ink. Another great type of pen is a glass nib pen, if you're into such things. It's easier to write them out flat than when they're already affixed to the jars.

So the last bit is to put the labels on the jars. Plain old glue is fine, like Elmer's, that's used for crafts and scrapbooking. It doesn't have to be waterproof. Glue your labels where you want them and let them dry. Now, you need to do one last little finishing touch to make them look properly decrepit. Put some ink wash (like in your spray bottle) into a cup and some darker ink in another dish. Use a little brush and have a paper towel on hand for blotting. Dip the brush in the ink wash and go around the outer edge of the label, one side at a time, blotting the ink as soon as it's down. This will moisten the edges and darken them slightly in a random way. Avoid creating a line of wash parallel with the paper edge; think irregular. As soon as you blot the wash up on one side, dip the brush in the dark ink and draw it along the edge, not on top of the paper, but along the glass outside of it, so only the tip of the brush is making contact with the very edge of the paper. If you're doing it right the edge will darken slightly and bleed into the label. Avoid getting the printed section wet unless you want some of it to bleed (which is an option).
This little detail will make a lot of difference, and will prevent your otherwise very old-looking labels from having raw, clean edges. There are a couple of photos here that home in on the edge detail so you can see what I'm talking about.

And that's're good to go! Here's a few of my bottles: the little ones on the basket are antiques, and the long, tall one is a brand-new craft store special.

Here's the big apothecary jar with a half-page-sized label. You can clearly see the round alchemical image with the ouroboros as the background.
Two more antique bottles housing my bead mixes....

...and another closeup of a newly-antiqued bottle. Notice the edge treatment.

So, I hope somebody out there finds some of this helpful and gives it a try! You know, this would be a really fun thing to try with kids (of all ages), especially if they're bored and/or into Harry Potter or other magical fun. If young ones are involved, there are plenty of nontoxic inks and paints out there to choose from. This would also be a great idea for gifts!

Feel free to contact me with questions, and let me know how it works out if you give it a try!!

'Till later,



melanie said...

this is great! Your new old bottles look awesome!

mamabeaks said...

this is so cool....i love bottles and containers and I love this look. I think this looks like a great fall project for me to try. thanks for sharing.:-)

Steph said...

Woww! Great tutorial ! Thanks for sharing. I think I will give it a try!

AHH said...

So helpful--thanks. I'm antiquing jars and bottles to add to our genuine old bottles for the flowers at my daughter's wedding. Hard to tell the difference! One tip: Plaid Gallery Glass Window Color, in Clear Frost, is a great way to matte the glass without having to sand it.

Jones Morris said...

you need to do one last little finishing touch to make them look properly decrepit. Put some ink wash (like in your spray bottle) into a cup and some darker ink in another dish. Use a little brush and have a paper towel on hand for blotting. RS Glass bottle