Taking a systematic approach to testing combinations of commercial underglazes and glazes can lead to highly individualized discoveries.  

Since I began working with clay 25 years ago, I have been consistently building a diverse glaze palette with many colors and surfaces to choose from. Without having to mix a ton of glazes, I want to be able to apply a variety of detailed patterns, line work, and imagery to my pieces. Eventually, I found my way to both commercial glazes and underglazes. Since the early 2000s, commercial options have steadily become more accessible and appealing for a variety of reasons: the greatly expanded array of colors and surface options, brushability and consistency, overall ease of use, affordability, and acceptance within the field of studio ceramics as a legitimate option for surface design. Additionally, exposure to hazardous dry materials can be largely eliminated from one’s studio practice by utilizing premixed glazes and underglazes. Some colors can be expensive, but being strategic can limit dependence on expensive materials. 

Over the past two decades, I have developed a variety of systems for testing and exploring processes that achieve rich, colorful, graphic, and layered surfaces. To discover the potential of commercial glazes, my approach is to experiment, but never on my actual pieces, which I complete with a methodical, well-informed, and planned approach. Instead, I choose to use test tiles and very small forms that are quick and simple to produce; this makes it easy to take risks with both application processes and multiple firings. It allows me to take time to play and explore with the intent to unearth something I can use on a sculpture. 

When I make sculptures, they are intimate in scale, and there is often a familiar sense of domestic objects and natural forms in their volumes. These handbuilt forms are always layered with merging and contrasting areas of pattern and solid color. I fire to both low and mid-range temperatures (cone 04 and cone 5). In this article, I will be discussing tests using combinations of Amaco Velvet series underglazes and Amaco low-fire glazes. The following tips can help achieve the most success when testing.

1 Process shot of paper stencils and underglaze applications on test tiles.

Consistency is Important 

The best test tiles always have ample surface area and are produced in exactly the same manner as the finished work (e.g. use slab tiles if your work is slab built, or pinch your tiles if your work is pinched). The touch used on the clay will affect how the surface materials behave. It is also crucial to use the same clay, kiln, firing method, and temperature that you plan to use for your finished work. Some materials can run excessively, especially in combination; you should always place test tiles on a larger slab that will protect the kiln shelf. It is best to fire the tiles vertically, and you can lean them on posts if they do not have a supportive base. Remember to take specific notes: record the name of the product(s) used, the order of application as well as application process, and how many coats were applied. This information can go directly onto the tile using an underglaze pencil, or you can number the tiles and document the information in a manner that suits you. I use a notebook.

Playfulness and Strategy

Testing provides both the freedom to explore as well as the eternal hope of an exciting discovery upon opening the kiln. However, if you are new to testing ceramic materials, be prepared! It is good to keep an open mind and to recognize that there may be lots of results that do not meet your expectations. Over the years, I have found a playful mindset to be most productive; it gives me the right perspective to try new things, while also helping me not to overthink. Start with a general vision, but remember these are your tests and the goal is to learn from them. The more risks you are willing to take, the more variations and combinations you are willing to try, the greater the results will be. And among them will be the treasures—those amazing tests you will then choose to carry forward onto your finished pieces. 

The other side of the coin is strategy; this organizational piece allows me to get the most information I can from my various experiments. I am always careful to have a procedure in place for any given set of tests. Most of the time, I am experimenting with a number of variables— pattern, color, application technique, brush marks, and combinations of underglaze colors—in hopes of finding new palettes. I might choose, for example, to apply underglaze on top of a glaze for one series of tests, thereby reversing the conventional order of application for these materials. I think about it like a scientific experiment; there is a control and then there are variables. Be strategic and keep track of what you do. I keep notes in an old-school notebook and then take pictures with my phone. I systematically photograph each completed tile alongside the notes so that I have a handy file of results on my phone. Not only is this an easy way for me to access the information, but I can also share results quickly with friends and colleagues. There are no rules, but having a strategy is important for interpreting and ultimately recreating the results. Now let’s break down my approach and some results from a few rounds of recent tests.

2 Round 1: Testing underglaze and glaze combinations (four underglazes and three glazes).

Round 1—Underglaze & Glaze Combos

Ultimately with these tiles, I was hoping to achieve an unusual and soft color combination, one that offered a tight, crisp edge for the stencil design overlaid with a semi-transparent glaze layer. Just like I do on my sculpture, I began by applying underglazes over a paper stencil at the leather-hard stage (see 1). On each leather-hard tile, I applied three coats of one underglaze color using a paper stencil on the left edge. Then the tiles were bisque fired.

Underglazes Used:

  • V-325 Baby Blue (tile 2a)
  • V-309 Deep Yellow (tile 2b)
  • V-333 Avocado Green (tile 2c)
  • V-323 Salmon (tile 2d)

After the tiles were bisque fired, I applied three coats of each of the three glazes listed below in horizontal stripes across the tiles. Finally, I dropped a series of dots, or drips, of the glaze A-40 Seafoam on top of everything down the right edge of each tile (see 2).

Glazes Used:

  • LG-14 Gray (top stripe on tiles 2a–2d)
  • LG-760 Soft Yellow (middle stripe on tiles 2a–2d)
  • ST-53 Ivory Beige (bottom stripe on tiles 2a–2d)

Results were mixed, as expected. Some combinations were too cloudy and did not show the underglaze stencil as I’d hoped. In the end, I preferred the look of the Ivory Beige glaze over the V-333 Avocado Green (see 2c, bottom stripe) and the V-325 Baby Blue (see 2a, bottom stripe) underglazes. These tests gave me new options and I look forward to using these combinations on a piece in the future. 

3 Round 2: Testing an assortment of layered glazes.

Round 2—Layered Glazes

For the next round of tests, I wanted to focus on the relationship between layered glazes that tend to flow atop stamped or carved texture. This exploration of runny glazes was the strategy, then I threw caution to the wind when choosing colors and the specific series of glazes I used.

First, I completely covered the textured, bisque-fired tiles with two coats of a 50/50 underglaze mixture. I used an orange on the first three tiles (1 part V-360 White + 1 part V-384 Real Orange) (see 3a-c) and a blue on the remaining three (1 part V-360 White + 1 part V-341 Blue Green) (see 3d–f). Because I wanted to soften these very intense colors, I chose to mix them with white underglaze. 

Next, I took one of each underglaze base and covered each with new combinations of an assortment of six random glazes. Every glaze listed had two coats applied. 

  • Tile 3a: 2 coats of F-60 Golden Yellow over entire surface, on left half 2 coats of LM-25 Robins Egg Blue, on right half 2 coats of LG-14 Gray (over orange/white underglaze mix)
  • Tile 3b: 2 coats of F-42 Celadon over entire surface, on left half 2 coats of LM-25 Robins Egg Blue, on right half 2 coats of Gray LG-14 (over orange/white underglaze mix)
  • Tile 3c: 2 coats of LG-20 Medium Blue over entire surface, on left half 2 coats of O-11 White Clover, on right half 2 coats of ST-40 Green (over orange/white underglaze mix)
  • Tile 3d: 2 coats of F-60 Golden Yellow over entire surface, on left half 2 coats of O-11 White Clover, on right half 2 coats of ST-40 Green (over blue green/white underglaze mix)
  • Tile 3e: 2 coats of LG-20 Medium Blue over entire surface, on left half 2 coats of LM-25 Robins Egg Blue, on right half 2 coats of Gray LG-14 (over blue green/white underglaze mix)
  • Tile 3f: 2 coats of F-42 Celadon over entire surface, on left half 2 coats of O-11 White Clover, on right half 2 coats of ST-40 Green (over blue green/white underglaze mix)
4 Round 3: Testing layers of depth and color with two glazes.

Round 3—Depth with Two Glazes

The goal for these tests was to see how only two glazes could create layers of depth and color by simply varying the number of coats. First, I painted a design of scalloped lines on the lower right corner of each bisque-fired tile with V-336 Royal Blue underglaze. In this case, all three tiles were painted with the same color and same design, which I then covered with one of three different glazes (see 4). This glazed area was then thoroughly covered up with wax resist. The final step was to add four layers of two different glazes in reverse numbers of glaze layers on the remaining area of each tile. 

  • Tile 4a: LG-760 Pale Yellow over scallop pattern, wax applied over that, then 3 coats of LG-20 Medium Blue, and 1 coat of F-55 Pink
  • Tile 4b: LG-14 Gray over scallop pattern, wax applied over that, then 2 coats of LG-20 Medium Blue, and 2 coats of F-55 Pink
  • Tile 4c: LG-24 Light Blue over scallop pattern, wax applied over that, then 1 coat of LG-20 Medium Blue, and 3 coats of F-55 Pink
5 Round 4: Testing carving and inlaying underglaze color, followed by applying a variety of glaze and underglaze combinations.

Round 4—Carving, Inlaying, and Masking

These five tiles were carved at the leather-hard stage and then inlaid with V-336 Royal Blue underglaze, which was scraped off, then sponged, so only the carved arch design remained. The tiles were bisque fired and stripes were applied using very thin masking tape. I then tried a wide variety of glaze and underglaze combinations (see 5).

  • Tile 5a: Underglazes: 2 coats of V-318 Rose painted into tape-resist stripes, then V-336 Royal Blue dots added between stripes, V-309 Deep Yellow painted inside the arches, V-232 Salmon added for the arches. Glazes: 2 coats of LG-14 Gray over entire arch area, and F-55 Pink over the striped area 
  • Tile 5b: Underglazes: 2 coats of V-318 Rose painted into tape-resist stripes. Glazes: LG-20 Medium Blue painted inside arches, LG-14 Gray added for the arches, 1 coat of LG-10 Clear over entire arch area, and LG-24 Turquoise over striped area 
  • Tile 5c: Underglazes: 2 coats of V-320 Lavender painted into tape-resist stripes, then A-40 Seafoam painted inside arches, F-42 Celadon added for the arches. Glazes: 1 coat of LG-10 Clear over entire arch area, and LG-760 Pale Yellow over striped area 
  • Tile 5d: 2 coats of LG-20 Medium Blue and V-309 Deep Yellow painted into tape-resist stripes (alternating), F-42 Celadon painted inside arches, LG-20 Medium Blue added for the arches, and 1 coat of LG-10 Clear over the entire tile
  • Tile 5e: F-42 Celadon taped stripes, LG-14 Gray dots between stripes, F-42 Celadon inside arches, V-309 Deep Yellow for the arches, 2 coats of LG-10 Clear over entire tile
6 Erin Furimsky’s Shifting Up, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, white earthenware, 2020. Photo: Tyler Lotz.

An art studio is a complex environment with many parts that must function together in order for one to create successful and fulfilling work. Once I am absorbed in making a piece, I find it can be difficult to shift gears and begin testing. Therefore, I often choose to insert testing into transitional times, such as following a holiday or studio break, or when it feels intimidating to start a new sculpture. It can also be a great way to stay productive in the studio when there is not time to dive into a long-term project. Exploring surface materials and application techniques takes a surprising amount of time, but the rewards are worth it. 

7 Erin Furimsky’s Origin (detail), 9 in. (23 cm) in height, white earthenware, 2021.

the author Erin Furimsky is a studio artist and educator in Bloomington, Illinois. Her work has been shown at galleries and museums in the US and abroad. She has been a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation and Red Lodge Clay Center. You can see Erin in a variety of streaming videos on CLAYflicks (https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/clayflicks).

Topics: Glaze Chemistry