Afternoon Art Project: Intaglio Cameos

Posted on September 4, 2011 by


On my lazy Labor Day Sunday afternoon, I undertook and documented a little art project. It was easy, fun, and I got to play around with melted wax and seals. Did you all ever do that growing up? So much fun! I thought I’d share my project, plus a little bit of historical background:

A standard cameo is an image, usually a portrait, carved into a precious stone or similar material. The image is a positive image, that is, the features of the carving stick out from the background. Historically, cameos are cut such that there are two contrasting colors or opacities – one for the background and one for the image. Conch and other shells give good contrasting colors, and are popular materials for cameo jewelry. Here is a shell cameo brooch that belonged to my grandmother:

My Grammy's Cameo. Probably late 19th century, shell with silver mounting. Probably not very valuable.The artist made this cameo by taking the shell, which was visibly all that white color, and carving away parts of it so that the positive space in the image made up the top, white layer, and the negative space made up the darker, bottom layer. This is what makes it a positive image, also called a relief.

Sometimes, however, cameos are cut in intaglio, making a negative image. This means that the parts of the image are recessed, rather than sticking out, from the background (“intaglio” is a fancy art word that means “carve into” in Italian. It also refers to a family of printmaking techniques). Seals and signet rings are also made this way, but these usually can only show us a positive image by making an impression in wax. With just the seal object, we can only see the negative image, which is usually not very appealing.

With an intaglio gem, a negative image is made just like a signet ring, but the carving material is transparent or translucent. This allows us to see the positive impression of the cameo through the back of the carving. These cameos are called gems by art historians, and they were often made of precious or semi-precious stones, but they can also be cut from rock crystal, or, more recently, glass or plastic. Sometimes, these intaglio carved cameo gems were also used as seals, but often, they were valued as great artworks in and of themselves. After all, they were cut into previous gems and were expensive and difficult for artists to produce. Most engraved gems of the ancient world were mounted in rings even if they weren’t used as seals, but over time, the gems wound up in treasuries without their ring settings, and were often incorporated into medieval reliquaries.

If you see intaglio gems or other seals displayed in a museum, they will almost certainly be displayed next to a positive impression in wax (it might actually be a plastic or resin, I haven’t been able to find out the identity of the exact material, or the process by which museum preparators make these). This allows you to see the product of the tool, if the object is a seal for wax or clay, or simply lets you see the positive image of the carving more clearly, as some intaglio-cut gems are not very easy to make out. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I spent nearly all of my spare time these days, has an excellent collection of Roman intaglio gems on display, and the Morgan Library has a good case of Mesopotamian cylinder seals.

Anyway, on to the actual project. Sorting through some things that belonged to my grandmother, I found a large number of cameos like the one above. I also found this object, which I believe was a finial for a lamp.Grammy's lamp finial. No idea why she kept this around, but is sure is neat!Like most modern intaglio-cut cameos, the image has been etched into glass rather than a stone. Glass is much cheaper that crystal or stone, but it isn’t as durable: that black scratch on the face of the cameo is a scratch on the flat side of the glass. Interestingly, the edges of the finial have been carved in relief – with the image protruding from the background – in a floral border. So, the finial has both relief and intaglio carvings.

The picture above, by the way, shows the positive image as seen through the flat side of the glass. Here is a photo of the carved side:

Back of Lamp FinialNot much to look at, is it?

I wanted to try to produce a positive impression from the glass cameo, so I figured I’d do it the easy way, with wax. But because the finial is so broad, it wouldn’t work well as a seal – I couldn’t press it into a pool of wax. Instead, I poured wax into the finial itself, making a cast. It was a fairly straightforward process. I cut off a little bit of wax from the bottom of a candle, held it in a metal teaspoon, and then held a butane lighter under it until the wax had melted. Then I poured the liquid wax into the cameo, making sure to fill it over the edges of the cameo portion of the finial. When the wax was still pliable but solid, I used a butter knife to get under one of the edges and the whole thing popped right out! It was ok, but I thought I could do better so I tried it again, this time using more wax around the edges. It came out much clearer. Here’s my finished wax positive:

Wax positive of engraved finialCleaning up took longer than making the cast! Wax had gotten all over the spoon and the finial, even in the nooks and crannies of the relief border. To clean them, I brought a small pot of water to a rolling boil, then submerged each item and moved them around a bit. The wax came right off! The finial also looked much cleaner, and while I might be concerned about taking off the patina of age on an old object, I highly doubt that the finial has any value other than as a fun novelty, so I don’t feel so bad. Here’s a picture of the cameo and the wax impression together:The two positive images!If you’ve got any intaglio-cut cameos at home – maybe an old engraved plastic trophy or a piece of etched glass – making a wax cast is a fun way to spend a few minutes! And if you have seals for sealing letters, I’m sure you know how fun it is to play with those.

Posted in: Decorative Arts