Sewer Rat Mug, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, sgraffito on porcelain.

I personify gestural characters on the surface of my functional pottery to capture the climax of the story, taking a moment, a split-second reaction made by the character and freezing it in time. I use the sgraffito technique to carve these creatures and dynamic scenes into the clay. I first discovered carving in undergraduate school, but was heavily invested in sculptural pieces. My main mediums were metal, wood, glass, and ceramic. I come from a family of gardeners, and I began using this as my imagery to talk about the medicinal benefits of different types of plants. I’m still very passionate about this topic, personally having gone through Lyme disease and using different herbs and supplements for my health. I began shifting gears toward my current work to find some humor in the process. When thinking of a beautiful porcelain vessel, I don’t necessarily expect to find sewer rats and trash carved into the surface. I really appreciate the irony of mixing the two contrasting elements together.

Sewer Rat Teacup, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, sgraffito on porcelain. Sarah Anderson working in her studio in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Building the Form

When I begin making a sewer-rat vessel, I start with throwing the form on the wheel, creating a cylinder shape using a little over a pound of clay. My favorite tool to use has to be the metal rib. I like to leave a small indentation at the top of the mug, splitting up the proportions. The metal rib makes it easy to create that precise line. Then, I flare out the bottom of the mug with a right-angled wooden tool, and smooth that edge out with a sponge. After this, take the right-angled wooden tool to make four equal creases all the way around the cylinder (1). Once this reaches leather hard, I trim away a small circle in the middle where I carve my name and leave enough room on the sides to start adding feet. 

1 Throw a form with volume, then use a rib tool to create a dividing line. 2 Add feet to the bottom of the form and pull them like small handles.

In my surface design, personifying and adding a relatable personality to everything is my goal. I’m excited to incorporate more sculptural elements into my work, and I’ve started with the addition of clay feet. I tried a few iterations of this, and ended with these small pulled feet that would create the smoothest transition from the pot to the table surface. Start with three small and equally sized balls of clay. Adjust the size depending on the thickness you want the feet to end up being. After slipping and scoring these into place at equal distances from each other, smooth them into the base of the mug. After adding a small amount of water, I use my thumb, index finger, and middle finger to evenly pull up the clay into a point (2). Once all three are pulled to the same thickness, use a metal rib to slice off the pointed part (3). 

Choosing a Color Scheme

After throwing the mug, decide on the color scheme to use on the piece. I usually choose something warm like reds and oranges. I like to have a dark red as my color base to create a lot of contrast on the white clay body. The clay body that I use is Helios porcelain from Highwater Clays, and I use the Velvet Underglaze series from Amaco. I mix the Cinnamon, Bright Red, and Red to get both the vibrancy of the Bright Red and the rust color from the Cinnamon. Using a banding wheel to rotate the mug, add the underglaze with a wide, soft-bristled brush (4). Once the underglaze turns from glossy to matte, it’s time for the second coat.
If I can still see the clay streaks through the underglaze, I add more color. I usually give my pieces two to three coats. I add a secondary color on the bottom where I carve my name as well as on the top of the rim. After finishing the base colors, I let this set up while working on the handle.

3 Cut excess clay from the feet, then check that the mug sits evenly and is level. 4 Paint on layers of underglaze until it is no longer transparent.

Constructing the Handle

I love one-finger handles, and I create them by using a pinching method. To make a small handle like this (see 5), start with a nugget of clay that is about the same length that you want the handle to be. Begin by making a wishbone shape, thinner in the middle and thicker on the ends, and maintain this shape throughout the pinching process. I make a diamond shape on the end, and pinch in and up until I get to the other end of the clay. Flip it around and do the same thing again until it starts getting thinner in the middle, but keeping the thickness on the ends. I’ve found that attaching the handle to another surface (like an empty bottle) while refining it prevents messing up the surface of the mug. At this stage, smooth out the pinching marks to create a polished finish. 

When attaching the two parts, the mug should already be coated with underglaze and should also be leather hard, but the handle should be soft leather hard, as it will dry faster due to its size. Underglaze needs to be scraped off before attaching the handle via slipping and scoring, as pictured (5). I place the mug into a damp box and let this connection set up and homogenize overnight before carving and adding the secondary colors. 

5 Attach the handle to the body of the form. Be sure to scrape away excess underglaze at the attachment point.

Added Elements

I’ve begun incorporating small sculptural elements I’ve thrown and manipulated to add to my functional pieces. On this piece, I made a long rat tail, then wrapped it around the base of the handle, getting the initial shape. I let it harden slightly, and then added a peach underglaze. Like the handle, scrape off the underglaze prior to attaching any added elements, to make a solid connection between the two (6).

6 Add a rat tail for some flair.

Carving the Imagery

I begin my carving process by drawing out the characters and background elements on paper and collaging the scene. It helps me to physically see this cut out and placed around in different compositions when I’m working on a new design. I want to keep in mind a 50:50 ratio of carving, being conscious of where I place things in the scene and where I will be carving away the background. Aesthetically for balance, 50% of the area should be left with color and 50% should be carved away. In order to duplicate a specific character on multiple pieces, I’ll lightly trace the drawing with a dull pencil to leave a faint outline that I can then carve. I use a Kemper wire-stylus tool, as well as carving tools from the Diamond Core Fine Point series to carve the clay. I’ll lay out the composition and outline everything once (7) and then go back in and carve a secondary line outside of the outline (8). I’ll use my Kemper wire stylus to carve away the negative space, leaving behind a thin vertical line (9, also see 10). I’ll go back one more time and carve the outline again to clean up debris. 

7 Carve the outline of the imagery. 8 Add a secondary line to outline the imagery.9 Begin to carve away the negative space, revealing the clay body. 10 Paint secondary colors of underglaze onto the rats.

At this point, I’m also racing against time. The top of the piece has less clay mass than the bottom, so it will dry out faster. On larger pieces, I wrap the top to keep it from drying out when I’m not working on that section. Once I’ve finished carving away the negative space, I’ll begin adding underglaze on top of my characters and foreground objects (10, 11). I’m very interested in creating a depth of field, and the secondary colors help me achieve this.

11 Paint secondary colors of underglaze onto the trash can. 12 View of the final product at the greenware stage.

After slowly drying (12), I bisque fire the mug, add a clear liner glaze, then glaze the handle and the rat tail to create some contrast from the surface. I like to leave the exterior surface of my work unglazed and textural. After firing, I lightly sand it down and add a 511ceramic tile sealer (available at hardware stores) to the outside. For vessels that need to be food safe, I apply Liquid Quartz to the surfaces.  

Mushroom Mug, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, sgraffito on porcelain. Fishing Frog Mug, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, sgraffito on porcelain.

Mushroom Teapot, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, sgraffito on porcelain.

Sewer Rat Jar, 6½ in.  (17 cm) in height, sgraffito on porcelain. Sewer Rat Sugar Jar, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, sgraffito on porcelain.

the author Sarah Anderson is a full-time ceramic artist based in Indianapolis, Indiana. To learn more, visit