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Deni Drinkwater: neon sculpture
About the ArtistTechnological NotesBack to Drinkwater Gallery

Technological Notes

From its creation in 1915, neon technology remained virtually unchanged until the 1980s. Although usually associated with commercial signage and the advertising industry, a number of artists (including myself) have continued to explore neon‚s possibilities as an art form.

The following is a simple explanation of the process of neon fabrication:

Neon glass is manufactured as tubing, available in clear, colored, and phosphor-coated glass. The tubes are heated and bent over various types of gas flame burners. Once bent, the tubes have electrodes sealed onto their ends. The tube is processed by attaching the tube to a vacuum pump, then evacuating and heating the tube by using high voltage which runs through the electrodes from a powerful transformer. When the tube is cool, the noble gas, usually Neon or Argon, is introduced into the tube. The tube is then sealed off, and when the electrodes are attached to a high-voltage transformer, the tube lights up.

Neon entered the Electronics Age with the availability of small, lightweight electronic transformers. Before, artists had to find a way to hide or incorporate large, heavy copper winding-style transformers. Small electronic transformers opened up a lot of possibilities to artists since they are much easier to incorporate into a piece. I have embraced their use wholeheartedly.

When I started working with neon, I became interested in finding ways to take it beyond the simple bent tubes used in neon signs and expand the glass as an artistic material unto itself. Part of the difficulty is that glass tubing, when bent, should maintain a uniform diameter and be stressed as little as possible. Furthermore, neon tubing is a lead glass, like crystal, and once heated it must be worked quickly. If the glass cools, you can not reintroduce the worked area back into the flames as it will crack. If the glass cools unevenly or too quickly it will stress. In sign work this is not an issue, but in my work I need to push the glass to the brink of stress fractures in order to achieve certain effects.

Although I was initially frustrated by these limitations, over the years I have developed a number of methods to manipulate the glass while minimizing these problems and producing consistent results.

One of the ways that I transform the glass is by physically changing the shape of the tubing, adding bubbles, indents, and twists. I chose bubbles as a place to start because they not only visually change the size of the tube but also change the intensity of the light within the bubble (larger diameter tubing creates a more diffuse, dimmer light). I have found a bubble size to tubing size ratio that is strong (the walls cannot be blown too thin) and doesn’t create problems with the function of the tube. Creating a series of bubbles, bumps, or indents must be done swiftly and accurately as there is no going back into the fires.

The twists I put in are the most difficult to fabricate consistently. Twists cause the glass wall thickness to vary considerably in a small area of tubing. The problem comes from the different cooling rate of thick / thin glass; different cooling rates cause stress fractures. I have found the best way to deal with this is to cool the heated glass very slowly, through flame annealing. Flame annealing is done by placing the hot glass in a flame at a lower temperature than a bending flame, and then removing the glass from the flame for ever-increasing periods of time.

Electro-Kinetic or crackle neon are tubes or portions of tubes in which small glass pieces have been placed. The glass pieces cause the neon gas to wiggle through the tube rather than flow in its usual undisturbed straight path. Again, the problem is unequal heat dispersal rates during the processing of the tube.

Once the tube is evacuated and heated, the tube needs to cool, but the tube cools more quickly than the broken glass pieces inside. I use the heating transformer to electrically anneal the tube, bringing the temperature down slowly.

Another problem with Electro-Kinetic is contamination from dust, dirt, oil from fingers, etc., so of course the broken pieces must be kept very clean. I have experimented with different materials in these tubes such as bits of mirror, shell, and rocks, but the best results still come from broken glass.

The glass is just one of the elements of my work, a part of the whole. The metal is crafted carefully and precisely to fit in the aesthetic of the piece. When working with the organic forms and the surface treatments, I constantly keep in mind how not just the form of the glass but how the light will interplay with the metal. This determines how I treat the surfaces of the metal and the patterns which are ground into the surface.

Another element I use in my work is paper. I make all my paper by hand, using traditional methods I learned in Japan. I find that boiling roots (for the binder), stripping bark, pounding pulp, and then creating paper from these simple materials to be extremely satisfying. Using paper in some of my pieces allows the neon to highlight the paper’s translucent qualities and to tie the highly-processed elements into the organic element.

Taken as a whole, my work strives to create a harmonious balance between process, material, and aesthetic form while alluding to the elemental origins of the materials and inviting the viewer to contemplate our relationships to these earthly elements.

website design by bob von elgg : bigfish smallpond design


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