Paul Dempsey: Pushing the Boundaries with Copper
Paul Dempsey, a native of Lynchburg, Virginia, says his journey from learning photo retouching in the 1970s to becoming an accomplished painter and sculptor in 2021 has been a long strange trip.
He’s spent years working in graphic arts as a color specialist, retoucher, illustrator, digital artist and as a self-described “web geek.”
He said his early apprenticeship afforded him the depth and understanding one might acquire through a typical bachelor of fine art program. His freelance career took off in the 1980s and 1990s with commercial clients such as Celestial Seasonings, Coors, Lucent, and Apple Computer.
Approaching 70, he continues to challenge himself in copper and egg tempera, with a particular interest in Celtic themes. Inspired by the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia where he lives, he pursues intriguing projects for select clients or himself.
Over the last few years, he’s been developing techniques for working in sheet copper and copper clay made of 90% copper, and 10% binder. He first carves and models the clay. Then, when it is fired, the binders burn off leaving just copper. He then finishes the piece with traditional patinas used on sheet copper.
“There are so many things you can do with copper,” he says, noting he also does repousse work. “It’s not terribly expensive to get into.”
When he started, his tools were a pitch plate for repousse and a small torch. He still uses them but he’s since branched out.
As he delved into making fireplace inserts in the early 2000s, he found the repousse very time consuming. That led him to cold cast copper.
Cold cast copper involves making a mold of an original piece in a forensics quality silicon. Then, Dempsey casts the piece with a special resin that is by volume about 60 to 70% copper powder. The inside of the mold is dusted with copper powder prior to casting to give the entire surface a nearly 100% copper face.
“I use a black dye in the resin to make sure recesses in the carving remain dark when the piece is burnished,” he says. “These pieces usually need no patina added, but in both these instances I did a submersion bath of liver of sulfur to get a nice dark brown finish to each piece, then burnished back the surface and sealed that burnish with a hard finish wax to prevent further oxidation.”
His most recent copper work involves integrating copper foil into his painting and frames.
“I love the feel of copper leaf,” he says.
Many artists working in egg tempera will choose gold leaf but Dempsey said he prefers copper as he did for the piece, Three Goddesses, a 14" x 14" hand-colored and gold/copper leafed intaglio print on canson paper.
“Copper foil just has a vibe,” he says.
It’s all part of his internal drive to push his own boundaries.
“Artists find a groove, find a market and (their work) becomes like a craft,” he says. “I really try hard not to do that. I’m definitely trying to push the edge of what I can do, trying to be better.”
Also in this Issue:
- E.S. Spencer Schubert: An Artist’s Path to Portraiture in Bronze
- Modern Gothic: The Inventive Furniture of Kimbel and Cabus, 1863–82 Opens at Brooklyn Museum
- Paul Dempsey: Pushing the Boundaries with Copper
- Richard Hunt: Returning to His Roots