Clay Culture: Digital Calligraphy

Adam Chau, studio potter, designer, and former program director at the Maine FabLab in Biddeford, Maine, shows that industrial tools don’t always have to produce rigidly controlled, repeatable results.


Everyday we hear about new advances in technology. Processes like 3-D printing are now household topics, but still a magical novelty that open up a world of seemingly infinite possibilities. With all of these improvements in the digital realm, some people are left wondering what qualities from the old world are being left behind. Educational institutions are quickly acquiring digital manufacturing machines like CNC routers and 3-D printers to keep up with the times. What’s a ceramic artist to do with these fully automated machines that produce seemingly perfect, seamless objects?

1 Diagram to explain movement of the tool path into underglaze and onto the ceramic plate.

2 Brush tips created with 3-D printed plastic shafts and ferrules and various types and densities of animal hair.


One of my main concerns when learning about the use of digital technology (3-D modeling, printing, etc.) in the studio was the lack of spontaneity in form or surface building. The computer had too much power over the final object; designing became rigid, with perfect cubes and spheres to manipulate. Even when making custom shapes using modeling software, everything is laid out on a grid, subconsciously making me choose proportions based off of perfect lines. That being said, I liked the idea of streamlining my studio practice, just not at the price of losing the unique quality of a single handmade object. While researching how to blend qualities of industrial design and studio ceramics, I found other artists and designers experimenting with technology. Dr. Katie Bunnell, head of Autonomatic (a digital-craft group at Falmouth University) uses decal printers in unconventional ways to exploit how the machines print, resulting in abstracted images. is an online network and resource for learning about digital fabrication processes in ceramics.

All of the works that I saw were still heavy on manipulating software; I wanted to experiment with hardware—the actual physical components of automated machinery. My theory was that if I radically changed what people thought of as absolute tolerances (like making sure that a cutting tool was exactly ½ inch in diameter) then I might come up with a product that would change every time, even when the machine went through the same motions. My initial tests were carving into clay using a CNC machine with handmade tools. When this produced unsatisfactory results, I realized that the surface decoration of ceramics is just as important to industry as designing the form.

3-6 Plates, 6 in. (15 cm) in diameter, porcelain, CNC brush-decorated black underglaze applied using different brush tips, fired to cone 6.


Enter the idea for digital calligraphy. It seemed to be too obvious: different brushes create different marks. I started to make brushes using 3-D-printed shafts and ferrules for animal hair in a variety of lengths, diameters, and densities. I assumed I would get some differences between marks; what I didn’t realize at the time was how radically different each mark would be, even when my CNC machine executed the same movements exactly every single time. There is variety between objects; each plate is independent from its counterparts, yet still part of the same body of work. Longer brushes deviate from a printed look, giving a more serpentine graphic, while shorter ones have a more linear path. Different properties of various animal hair used also influence the outcome; fox hair doesn’t retain as much underglaze, for example, and opossum hair always comes to a fine point at the end, both of which influence the results.

Digital calligraphy is just one example of the digital/handmade fusion. My hopes are that people interested in both areas find innovative, creative ways to push the field forward.

the author Adam Chau earned a Master of Design (MDes) in Designed Objects from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BFA in Ceramics from Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine.


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