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18 August, 2017  ▪  Hanna Trehub

Volodymyr Vanin: "The life span of the miniature enamel painting is almost limitless"

A creator the President collar and the author of pieces for the British Crown and the Royal Family of Serbia about the past and present of enamel painting

Enamel painting, just as jewelry, is a combination of art and technique. One can learn to paint and draw in art schools and colleges. Where and how did you learn enamel painting techniques?

I graduated from the Fedoskino School of Miniature Painting, located near Moscow in soviet times, majoring in the art of enamel. I’ve heard that that the school has closed down. The department was built on the basis of the Rostov Factory, founded in 1918, now known as Rostov Finift (enamel on metal). In soviet times, this factory made some mass market items while also having workshops where one could get intense training courses. That's where I studied.

The popular pieces with enamel fragments were various jewelry pieces that were very popular with customers as the Soviet Union’s trademark thing of sorts. Those enamel fragments had very simple images, like flowers. Workshop students never stayed to work at that factory after graduation. There is nothing complicated about teaching someone to paint flowers on enamel: a  student can learn to do this in a few months. Meanwhile, we were taught in the following manner: our teachers would put a copy of a painting in front of us and tell us to make our own copy of it. They literally exhausted us, forced us. We were prohibited to work with oil paint. It proved to be   This is how they taught us: they gave us a reproduction, and said: "Make a copy." They made us exhausted, actually forced us to work. We were forbidden to work using oil painting technique. It turned out that our teachers were not tyrants: the watercolor painting technique is very similar to the technique of enamel painting. I have not heard about any institution in Ukraine that would allow receiving the the technical skills required for an enamel master.

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I have a piece titled A Fight for Win-Win. Self portrait. It depicts two characters, Harlequin and Pierrot. Harlequin is an image of an adventurer, a provocateur. Overall, I don’t think I would take  up just any work. I Material gain is not that strong as an incentive. Money can be earned in easier ways, such as by doing a couple of pieces that take less time and efforts. If, however, the piece I am commissioned has some interest in it and excites me, I will take it. The task should be difficult. I am easy to play “you wouldn’t dare”: if someone says that something is impossible to do in enamel, that’s interesting.

It often happens that I discuss these difficult tasks, ideas of new series of works with my art manager, Yulia Gnat. One of our ideas is to create a series of Ukrainian-themed pieces in a style that ranges between works on Ukrainian themes in the style similar to Bosch and Vermeer. This series opens with the miniature enamel Even Fish Would be Singing, If It Had a Voice. In summer 2016, this artwork was displayed at the annual exhibition in Wales, organized by the Hilliard Society of Miniaturists, where it received The Sue Lee Award with the Tudor Rose award. In December 2016, it was exhibited at the 83rd annual International Exhibition of Fine Art in Miniature in Washington, DC. Unlike other artists or book illustrators, I never know what  the result will be after I pull the miniature out of the glazing in the oven. There is always a certain risk.

Miniature enamel painting. A copy of the 18th century painting Cossack Mamai by an unknown author. Displayed at the Odesa Art Museum, 2015 

Does the art technique used by the author affect the way in which he or she chooses the storyline of the work? How can one tell a handmade enamel painting?

It depends. Sometimes it's about the complexity of self-expression, and sometimes it is about  the color scheme. When I create an enamel miniature, I want to have as few layers of enamel as possible. Because each layer is a risk. And it’s not about the image, but the technique where I have to make sure that the image is not covered in blisters or cracks. Of course, a small flaw is acceptable since this is handwork: such as in enamel fragments on decorations where some cracks in enamel remain after the firing in the oven, not as a result of impact. This points indirectly to a handmade piece.

By contrast, if you look at prints on cups, the paint they use is the same one I use in my work. But they use mechanical techniques where the pattern is printed on special paper that is burned when the pieces get in the oven.

I make my artworks on copper plates. This is soft metal. Of course, you can use high-quality gold. These two metals handle enamel very well. Silver is a bit worse for this purpose. Now I am talking about armature, my special board or canvas, if you will, for enamel miniatures. I put enamel on a cooper plate in powder: I start with crushing it in a special bowl and then sprinkle the copper plate with it like with sugar powder. After I made one layer, I put it in the oven. Then I make the second, the third. As many as needed. There are different enamels, different number of enamel layers. It depends on the effect I need. A rigid heraldic image needs one type of enamel, and a watercolor portrait or landscape needs a completely different type. There is always the question - what effect do we want to have on the enamel image? Sometimes you need it to be matte, sometimes glossy. It depends. When I worked and lived in Serbia, I had a lot of orders for clock faces. It happened that the customer had an old, magnificent clock with good mechanics, and the face was either broken or damaged. And could the owner have done with such a clock?

When you look at the pieces, in particular enamel painting, they are much better and more exciting in real life than in photographs. A photo does not show, say, the opal effect of enamel in a particular work. When you need graphic and a detailed drawing, enamel is much harsher.

When you create a piece, do you draw on enamel immediately or create a few previous sketches on paper?

There are almost no sketches of my works. I allow myself to paint immediately. Sometimes, of course, I can make a small watercolor sketch for myself. But in painting overall, I paint with watercolors quite often. My last watercolor was the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. As soon as I finished this order for artwork, the war started there.

Enameled jewelry is the trademark pice of Georgia and Morocco. How many basic enamel techniques are there in fine arts? Which of these are inherent to Ukraine?

I work in finift or enamel painting. There is also cloisonné enamel, but this technique is mostly used by jewelers. We may say that this is one of the more universal techniques. There is also virtuous enamel. It is worth mentioning the works of Rene Lalique, a French jeweler and a master of glass art who worked in Art Deco. One of his artworks was a metal dragonfly, and each section of its wings was filled with translucent enamel. It's very hard to do in the oven. But these were, for instance, pieces for Sarah Bernhardt. There are few such jewelry pieces, they were impossible to make on an industrial scale.

Were there such techniques in Ukraine until the 19th century? Yes, there were. Cloisonné enamel is a very old technique. Ukrainian artists also worked in finift. Today we mostly know their works from the 16-17th centuries. I remember that the feature of artwork by Ukrainian enamel  artists was the use of brown color. There are a lot of magnificently decorated church books in the collection of Kyiv Lavra museums, which have enamel cartouches inserts, mainly with images of biblical themes or saints. This gave impetus to the development of enamel art in Ukraine.

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The artists then moved from the decoration of church books and panagia of top Church officials to decorating state orders with enamel. In the time of Peter I in the Russian Empire the single top award was established, the Order of St. Apostle Andrew the First-Called. There are not many such orders and chains that went with them today. The center of the order star there had an enamel insert, which depicted the crucified apostle Andrew, while the order chain consisted of interconnected units with enamel inserts. Very often the highest orders of other countries, not just Russia, had enamel insertions.

Orders with enamel inserts are made till this day. Of course, there are very few of them. I often had to design of such decorations from scratch, the metal design and the central enamel fragment. I worked on the creation of the collar for Ukrainian presidents: it has has seven enamel inserts, which is well thought, because it is about seven Ukrainian lands. Heraldist Oleksiy Rudenko and a team of Lviv jewelers were involved in the development of this insignia. I made the enamel insert for this chain.

Why do enamel artists often copy the work  of others rather than creating their own artwork? Is it because of the lack of ideas?

There is no special need in this. Unlike a giant painting, enamel miniature is not the area for giant imagination on a philosophic or dramatic theme. It's about small things – orders, portraits. As for me, the portrait on enamel is exactly what you want. Do not think it's that simple. No way. This year, within the framework of the British Royal Society of Miniaturists exhibition, a collection of the 18-19th century portraits on enamel was demonstrated. If you look at these works, you’ll find even the hooks attached to those images to carry them in chains, like in modern pendants. Many crowned persons, including the rulers of the Russian Empire, gave their portraits on enamel as a statement of their benevolent attitude to a court member at that time. There were no photographs then. So the trend spread among wealthy strata. In particular, girls from wealthy families loved to give their portraits to their admirers, including the military. As a rule, these were enamel portraits, that was expensive and a unique thing. There were also watercolor miniatures on polished bone.

Queen Victoria's portrait, 2013. Based on a photo. Antique gold-plated frame (brooch)

My art manager, Yulia Gnat encourages me to progress, i.e. to make more original works. And here's one thing I should tell. The technique of creating enamel is difficult and requires painstaking work. Therefore, it is difficult to achieve artistic expression in this technique, its completeness and the balance between the author's ideas and the requirements of technology. Every mistake in the art enamel can ruin everything and make you start work from the very beginning. This is not watercolor or oil painting where an error can be corrected relatively simply. A good enameler can be a good artist, but even a very good artist will never paint the way we paint on enamel. Another thing: artistic expression in enamel technique creates a 3D effect. The leads us to the question of how to work with light. Not every oil painting is pictorial art. Pictorial art is where there is work with light. When we come back to painting on enamel, the technique of working with light is completely different in it. Light is not on the surface here, it is something that goes inside the image.

I do not have white paint. If I have to make a glare, I create special background for this. I have to add a layer over the layer. It’s virtually the same as in watercolor painting – we don’t use lead white paint or things like that.

The art technique determines the artist’s mode of thinking. Interestingly, there is a difference between the language of the artist painting with oil and watercolorist, actions, the way of thinking and the order in which they create an image. If I create a copy of an image on enamel, and moreover, my original work, I make it in layers. One of my works is "Traditional Ukrainian woman with a peninsula in the outlook". It has a political layer, in addition to the portrait of a woman and the apples. An attentive eye can see the rocks of the Karadag volcano, a trademark image from the Crimean Koktebel. I did this on purpose. That’s where I spent my childhood years.

Now, back to the painting technique. When you paint an image with watercolors, you logically begin with the distant background, and then figure out those things that you want to portray on the foreground. It is the same with the enamel, but there are nuances: certain colors are smelted at a temperature of 800-900 °C. Therefore, I start with yellow or orange paints, because they are the most temperature-proof, and they must be fired the very first. You can do it in the end, but all other colors will burn then. Colors change with the temperature in the oven. For example, black becomes delicate pink after it. One should keep this in mind.

You've lived and worked abroad long enough. Why did you come to Ukraine while you could choose any place in the world?

I had been living in Serbia for 9 years. And I always wanted to live in Crimea, because I was born in Feodosiya. Then Crimea was annexed. I have not been home once ever since. I have not visited Crimea out of principle. In the past, it had been difficult to get a ticket to go there. Now, checkpoints separate us from Crimea. I have a feeling that someone is trying to take away my homeland, and I am very angry at them. One can go to other countries, in particular Western Europe, and stay there to live. I was offered to teach at The Hague, but I refused because of the problems with the language.

How many societies of miniaturists, in particular, enamel artists, are there in the world? Is there at least one in Ukraine?

There are at least two in the UK. One is the British Royal Society of Miniaturists, which has existed since 1896. At first it was called the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers. The first exhibition of this organization was held in 1896 at the Contemporary Art Gallery in London, and was dedicated to modern miniatures. King Edward VII granted the society the Royal status in 1905. The second society is the Hilliard Society of Miniaturists in Wales.

There are many techniques of creating miniatures. But when it comes to enamel, there are only two masters in the entire UK who work with enamel on a decent level. One is Gillie Hoyte Byrom who works on gold. Certain elements of the images created by her contain those visual and light effects produced by this metal. She creates portraits of kings, aristocrats, and also less high-born people. But she does not do landscapes or other images.

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In the UK and the United States, some societies of miniaturists create their own environment and pool of people, in which their art develops pretty good, including in terms of sharing their techniques. In our country, there is almost nobody to establish such societies with. In Russia, there are masters who work with enamel, but they create items for church use of mediocre quality.

The revival of enamel painting technique in Ukraine is hampered by the lack of places where such technique could be mastered. Have you ever thought of establishing an enamel art studio in Ukraine? What challenges would you face in that?

To make the enamel miniature is one kind of work, and to teach another person to create it is a completely different thing. To have the result, you have to commit yourself to a teaching process. You need to understand the person well, learn to communicate the information in a clear way. You need to have patience and faith in the future result. You may not be able to teach a person, and there are no guarantees. I mean, this is uncertain, a very risky thing.

I must say though that I’ve had thoughts of creating my studio and teaching enamel art there. But this brings about the questions of premises and equipment. You need to have an administrative skill in this regard. Plus, it is better to start the teaching of enamel art with children, especially those who have done art school before.

Miniature enamel painting. A copy of the early 19th century painting Zaporizhzhia Cossack by an unknown author. Displayed at the Zhytomyr Ethnographic Museum, 2014

Would you depict the Maidan or ongoing war developments on enamel? How difficult would this be in enamel miniatures?

Massive dramatic canvases, such as Maidan on fire on February 18, 2014, are not for enamel miniatures. But it would be cool to make the portraits of our heroes on enamel, especially the Heavenly Hundred or at least some of the most well-known of them, Serhiy Nihoyan, Mykhailo Zhyznevsky, Yuriy Verbytskyi. You can paint rallies, fire, smoke on miniature, but it won’t look  spectacular.

Experience of exhibitions abroad has shown that seeing a painting on enamel on a photo is not enough. The viewer should immerse in it, to be personally attached to work. Only then you can understand how the work, created on a certain plot and in a particular technique, affects the audience that sees it.

Enamel miniature is an elitist, unique thing that is connected with aristocracy, good taste. For today's politicians in Ukraine to appreciate such work, they should at least find out what it is about, and what historic context the person that has such items in his or her collections enters. Someone like Pshonka (ex-Prosecutor General under Yanukovych Administration - Ed.) or Yanukovych did not have such items in their collections. Enamel painting is something that doesn’t disappear, it stays int eh family forever - this is about portraits. S

Such items are among those family values that are not sold. Enamel miniatures sustain colors and images almost forever. Michelangelo frescoes chip over time, they need to be restored. Enamel is glass. Unless somebody breaks it, the lifespan of enamel painting is virtually unlimited.

Volodymyr Vanin is a Ukrainian miniaturist and enamel painter. Born in 1965 in Crimea, he studied at Aivazovsky Art School in Feodosiya, then graduated from the famous Fedoskino School of Miniature Painting. In 1991, he moved to live and work in Belgrade (Serbia), where he worked for the British Crown, for the Royal Family of Serbia for 9 years. While working in Serbia, he was invited to come as enamel miniatures teacher at the Art Academy in The Hague (Netherlands). However, he rejected the offer, and returned to Ukraine in 1999. He took part in the creation and painting of seven enamel medallions for the Collar of the President of Ukraine, one of three symbols of Ukrainian presidential power, which all the Presidents of Ukraine put on during the inauguration. Since November 2016, Vanin has been Associate Member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers (London, UK), and since February 2017 – member of the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society of Washington, D.C.

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