Art Term Tuesday: Emboss & Embellish

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

Emboss and embellish are often paired together when discussing their use in art and craft, i.e., the artist “embossed and/or embellished their work to add a unique, dramatic flair”. The two terms, however, are independent of one another: embossing refers to a specific process while embellishing has a more wide-ranging meaning. Though often linked to craft projects, these adjectives apply to fine art, too. Take a look at the images below, are they embossed or embellished?

Embossing is a technical process that results in an impression produced by pressure or printing. You’ve most likely handled an embossed paper, such as documents sealed by a notary or letterhead from a business or an individual’s personal stationary. Some printmakers “sign” their prints using an individualized seal, like in the image below.

Only applicable to raised impressions (relief), embossing alters the surface of metal, leather, textiles, or paper by providing a 3D effect on a selected area(s), dependent on the level of pressure. Embossing requires two die, one that is raised and one that is recessed. An engraver makes the dies using metal plates, engraving the desired mark onto the two pieces of metal. The pair of die fit into one another, so that when the paper (or other material) is pressed between them, the raised die forces the material into the recessed die and creates the impression. The raised pattern is visible to the eye and by touch, providing texture to an otherwise 2D surface. Both a functional and fine art process, embossing requires a specific relief process, while artists can pull from multiple techniques to embellish an artwork. As seen in Fernandez’s print, below, artists can even mix the together!

Sandra C. Fernandez, American, b. 1964. Porque Sam Fue Todo Corazon (Because Sam was All Heart). Etching, chine colle, and blind embossment on paper, 2014. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2014.332.6. Image courtesy of FMWoA.

Embellishing refers to any design implemented that adds interest to the piece. Details like lace, feathers, embroidery, piping, and/or beads can make an artwork, or garment, more attractive; and, thus, more eye-catching. Some additions, like zippers, buttons, and buckles, are both decorative and functional. Scholastic alum photographer Jocelyn Cooley and professional printmaker Lesley Dill both embellished their work with string. How would the works resonant differently without this addition? What about in the case of Fernandez’s print?

For an artwork on canvas, the artist may choose to create a scanned image of the work, painting over specific areas of the scan to enhance the color or bring forth texture using thicker brushstrokes. This results in a work that is neither a print nor an original, meaning the work can be sold for cheaper and open the artist to a new, broader demographic. A photographer may also choose to embellish by printing a super high resolution photograph, using high quality artist inks, and painting over areas of the image to enhance color or provide texture. Similarly to the artwork on canvas, these prints are different from a poster you may hang in your bedroom because of the highly-pigmented, archival inks and 100% cotton paper or canvas used. Known as giclée  print, the artist can use brushes and palette knives to go over the entire surface (or specific areas) with a combination of paint and a thick, clear acrylic medium to increase the texture, color, and saturation. Embellishing techniques are as distinctive as the artworks themselves. Some artists may choose to add jewels, sequins, or glitter to their artwork. Why did Renee Stout feel the need to add sequins to her print while Liz Whitney Quisgard added jewels to her textile work?

Renee Stout, American, b. 1958. Erzulie. Monotype in red with sequins. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Chris Brink, 2016.261. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
Liz Whitney Quisgard, American, b. 1929. A Quartet of Circles. Needlework, yarn on buckram, 2009. Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2019.111.1-5. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Whether purposeful or done to fulfill a customized commission, the actions taken to add details and ornamentation ensures both the hand of the artist is present and that it is one-of-a-kind. Take Vivian Wang’s glass sculpture that is embellished with gemstones. What does this addition add to the work?

Isn’t adding gems or embroidery just mixed-media? Not quite! There is a fine line between an embellished work and a mixed-media work. When an artwork employs more than one material or medium, such as wood and glass, it is mixed-media; and, while an embellishment like a jewel affixed to a textile is two different media, the artwork itself is predominantly yarn on buckram. The “just a touch” of glitter or jewel makes it an embellishment, while a mixed-media work is purposefully employing multiple media to tell its story. The textiles wouldn’t lose their narrative if the jewel wasn’t present, but it does add a little something extra to the story.

Want to see some embellished works in-person? Check out more Liz Whitney Quisgard in her solo exhibition, Dazzle, Pattern Color, Bling: The Alluring Patterns of Liz Quisgard, on exhibit through February 26th.

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