I have always loved the surfaces that soda firing creates. As a student, I was entranced by its unpredictability and the fact that there was so much variation in how pieces could turn out based on their location in the kiln and how a kiln fired. After I left school, I didn’t have access to a soda kiln or even a gas kiln; however, I did have an old electric kiln. So my option was to switch to low-temperature electric firings. I really struggled with my surfaces. I had become so dependent on the soda kiln taking care of any variation and surface that without it, I was lost. I made some pretty ugly pots in trying to understand a new firing temperature, which also encompassed new glazes and slips, but through them I found my current approach to surface. I figured out that a white slip over textured red clay, especially when the slip was just the right thickness, allows the red clay to show through its surface. It had the same depth and atmospheric feeling as my former soda-fired pots.
Over time, several forms developed on which this textured red clay and white slip combination worked well. Unfortunately, I felt my thrown plates fell short. The surface felt shallow, as if throwing and trimming my plates removed all of the looseness I was trying to achieve. As soon as I tried making a plate from a slab, I found I could make it much more cohesive with what I was trying to do in my other forms.
My New Process
In my new process, I roll out a 3-pound slab of red earthenware to a thickness of about 3⁄8 inch, compressing both sides thoroughly with a rib. Then, I transfer it to a sheet of newsprint. Later in the process, the paper makes it easier to pick up my plate shape without distorting it.
While the clay is still fairly soft, I arrange flower and leaf templates cut out from craft foam across the slab. When I’m happy with their arrangement, I gently roll them into the clay (1).
The next step is adding texture. I use a tool that is designed for creating faux wood grain in paint. Texture is created by dragging the tool dynamically across the clay, creating waves and zigzags (2). Before I apply slip, I draw flowers and leafy vines into the clay using a pointed wooden tool (3).
Press Forming the Plates
Now that my slab is prepped, I need to turn it into a plate. I press form my plates; this technique is really simple, but I did run into a few hurdles during development that I had to solve. The biggest difficulty was achieving a symmetrical rim. I was using a combination of found objects to create my dinner plate base shape and a small plate to press form the interior space of the plate. It worked well enough, except I always ended up pressing in the small plate a little off center, creating a lop-sided rim that I had to Surform into shape. My solution was to cut a piece of Masonite to the size I wanted my plate to be and then cut out the inner circle for the well of the plate, giving me two pieces that fit together perfectly to form my plate.
I use the larger ring form as a template to guide a knife as I cut out the plate shape (4). I lightly texture the back of this circular slab of clay with the same faux wood-grain tool as before. Next, I smooth the edge of the slab on both the back and front side by pressing lightly on it with my finger through a piece of plastic bag. This eliminates the need to tidy up the rim later.
The clay form is left to set up before I set the basic plate shape with floral design facing up on a piece of thick upholstery foam. Recently, I have started placing a craft-foam ring with a scalloped interior edge that matches the size of the Masonite rim onto the foam (5) before I add the slab of clay (6). When I press into the clay, the craft foam transfers a scalloped impression onto the bottom of my slab around the foot. I started doing this after seeing how ceramic artist Chandra DeBuse uses foam to define the foot on her dishes.
Here is where my two-piece Masonite template comes in handy. I register the large Masonite shape on the plate form, making sure it lines up with the edges of the clay (7). Then when the center circle is added, it registers exactly in the middle (8). I remove the rim and press the center firmly into the clay (9).
When I started making these slab plates, I knew I wanted to dip them in slip just like my mugs, so that the slip would break over the clay texture in the same way. The challenge now was how to dip it in slip, but still be able to set the wet piece down to dry. The solution: brush wax on the foot of the leather-hard pot (10). When I use craft foam to scallop the foot it is easy to determine where to apply the wax because the foam creates a clear line to follow.
Holding the plate with two fingers on either side, I dip it into a basin of white slip (11). As long as you give it a good quick shake, the slip pools right off of the wax. The layers of texture show through the slip, creating a fun canvas to draw designs into. I let everything set up until I can handle it again without distorting or smudging the slip, then use a Dolan knife to carve sgraffito designs into the slip (12, 13).
I slowly dry these plates over 2–3 days, covering and uncovering them with plastic to control the speed and avoid warping issues. They are bisque fired to cone 04.
The finished color comes from underglaze, which I thin down and brush on like watercolor paint (14). This technique suits me because it doesn’t have to be perfect. I think when the underglaze is loose and painterly it suits the texture best (15).
Once the underglaze is applied, the plates are completely dipped into a clear glaze and fired to cone 04 on stilts.
the author Kaitlyn Brennan lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She completed a BFA in ceramics at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and a Post-Baccalaureate in ceramics at the University of Florida.