Ring Master, 24½ in. (62 cm) in height, ceramic, 2018.

For many years, I have been attracted to objects that wear their history, and have collected these things as inspiration for my ceramic pieces, and to use in my assemblages and collages. I like the quality of these things, and how time has given them a story that can be read into. In my ceramic work, inspired by things I have scavenged, I often invent my own found objects and materials. In my more recent work, I have used clay fabric to dress up my characters and clay tape and stitching to hold them together.

Texture has been an integral part of my ceramic work for as long as I have been working with clay. The malleability and consistency of clay allows for endless options for tactile surfaces, and in my case, permits me to recreate in my pieces textures and finishes found in the real world. In this article, I share the steps taken to create my ceramic figures and the finished surfaces.

Gracie, 18 in. (46 cm) in width, ceramic, 2017.Sophia and Charles, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, ceramic, 2019.

Building the Figure

Beginning on the wheel, I throw the parts that will be used for the bodies of the figures, as well as other objects such as wheels and hats (1). At the same time, I handbuild any other parts that might be needed. This includes, but is not limited to, coil- or slab-building less symmetrical parts such as animal legs, carts, and musical instruments.

When the thrown and handbuilt parts are leather hard, I score and slip them together to construct the figure’s general armature. Most of my figurative ceramic pieces range in size from between 10–30 inches, with the average being around 20 inches tall. Much of my inspiration comes from looking at vintage toys, dolls, and stuffed animals and the size of these objects has influenced the scale of my work. 

When the structural form is complete, I roll out thin slabs of clay (2). My slabs are generally between 1/8–1/16 inch thick and the size of the slabs vary, but they are usually no larger than 12 inches in any direction. I roll them out, using a rolling pin, onto textured fabric or textured plaster molds, and carefully attach them with slip to the armature, trying not handle them too much, so that they keep their fluidity and natural-looking folds and wrinkles (see 3). I have boxes of various textured fabric pieces that I have found over the years, and use these as inspiration for the wide variety of textures and patterns that I incorporate in my work.

1 Wheel-thrown and handbuilt leather-hard parts ready for assembly.2 Create textured thin slabs by rolling over fabric or press molds.3 After leather-hard parts have been assembled, add thin clay fabric-formed slabs to the piece.4 A collection of the basic tools used for handbuilding and creating fine details.

Once the textured slabs are attached to the armature (3), I begin to add other elements that contribute to the character and personality of the piece. Adding clay buttons, stitching, and manipulated texture helps to reinforce the visual quality that I want to achieve. A small extruder as well as a tracing wheel are used (4) for stitching effects, and I have made plaster molds of various buttons that I’ve found (5). Clay buttons are used for eyes and other decorative elements on my figures. At this stage, I am often referring to photos of vintage dolls and stuffed animals to get ideas for surface quality, texture, and overall gesture and personality traits. Once satisfied that all the details needed at this building stage are in place (6–9), I dry the piece very slowly, partially covered with plastic. This stage is very important to prevent cracks from forming in the slabs. When the work is completely dry, I load it into the kiln for a cone-03 bisque firing.

5 Make press molds of buttons or various textured objects from plaster or clay that can be used later in the work.6 Attach textured slabs to the clay armature and add holes for extruded clay stitching.7 Use a rolling tracing tool to create simulated stitching marks.8 Add extruded clay coils to simulate larger stitching. At this point, the building is almost complete.

Adding Color and Depth

After the bisque firing, the pieces are much less fragile, making it easier to apply color. An important advantage of applying color to bisqueware instead of greenware is that you can move the material around and wipe it away if you need to without damaging surface detail. Since most of the color I use comes in the form of thin and rather translucent underglaze and stains, the white talc clay body I use is important and serves as a neutral ground. This clay body also has a small percentage of fine grog for strength in the dry and fired state.

9 Add texture to the extruded coils with a small wire brush.10 After bisque firing to cone 03, apply underglaze color.11 Sponge away some color in areas to give the appearance of worn fabric.12 Finally, add color to detail areas.

The first step in decorating with underglazes is to choose the colors for each area, and then apply watered-down layers to all of the surfaces (10). I paint on patterns and designs that mimic the fabric patterns I am trying to imitate, leaving the surface thin and washy in places to create the look of worn and faded fabric. In certain areas, some of the underglaze can be sponged away to achieve a worn look (11). After the fabric colors are in place I paint the buttons (12). Once underglaze coloring is complete (13), I fire the color to cone 05 to set the underglaze in place. Next, the whole piece is covered with a dark stain wash made from watered-down underglaze (14). While the stain is still wet, it is partially sponged away to reveal the color below (15). I try to leave just enough stain on the piece to bring out the various textures and accentuate shadow areas. When the staining is complete, dry brush a light yellow or white underglaze over certain areas to add highlights and create contrast (16). Next, add any glaze that might be needed for buttons, hats, and areas that will need luster later, such as zippers, snaps, and buckles. Lusters applied over previously glazed and fired surfaces achieve the best results.

13 Underglaze color is complete and ready for cone-05 firing to set the underglaze so it will not be affected by water.14 After firing, apply a dark stain over the entire piece.15 Carefully wipe away some of the dark stain to create contrast and to mute or tone down the color.16 Once the stain has dried, dry brush a lighter tone over certain areas to create highlights and more contrast. Apply any glaze that is needed at this time as well.

The piece then goes in for a third firing to cone 05. When the piece is cooled, I often apply luster over some of the glazed areas for accent, and fire a last time to cone 017.

Ricardo, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, ceramic, 2018.Angeline, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, ceramic, 2018.

the author Keith Schneider is a ceramic and mixed-media artist and a ceramics professor at Humboldt State University living in Arcata, California. To see more of his work, visit www.keith-schneider.com and on Instagram@k.schneider.art.

Topics: Ceramic Artists