I grew up in a rural part of the northeast where natural resources abound and I have been fishing in Pennsylvania rivers and streams for as long as I can remember. My best ideas come to me when I’m out on the water where I can relax and take in all the beauty of my surroundings. Nature never disappoints; there is always something new to see, hear, or touch. It’s an endless supply of material for my work as a ceramic artist.
Whenever I catch a fish, I stop to study its colors before releasing it. I love the way trout look; how they’re streamlined, and how they glide through the water without even having to swim. They just move their fins and tails and sit in the current. Their colors are beautiful, and their movements seem effortless. My work is my interpretation of the fish, and I do my best to capture their essence in each piece I create, from mugs and plates to teapots and platters.
In the early stages of my career, I used the wheel to throw pottery to create traditional, cylindrical pieces, adding the aquatic elements later. As my work progressed, I discovered that I prefer more sculptural pieces with organic, imperfect forms. To me, they’re more interesting, and much more closely related to those found in nature. That’s when I began experimenting with different forms, and blending elements of trout, salmon, and the rivers and streams they call home into every piece. Just like every fish is unique, every mug I make is one of a kind.
When the piece is still green, I press a carved block of plaster that I’ve been using for the past year to create the scales, gills, and fins. These details are then highlighted in the glazing process through layers of wash.
Glazing: Start with Black
I developed a glazing process that creates a layered, illustrative surface. This method allows me to add realistic trout spots on exteriors, highlight fishbone imprints on interiors, and create the signature water droplets that flow from the rim and down the sides of each vessel. It takes roughly three hours to glaze each piece from start to finish, which includes drying time in an electric kiln.
First, I fill the inside of the piece all the way to the top with San Miguel Icy Blue Glaze and pour out the excess. Next, I layer Amaco Velvet underglazes on the exterior, starting with a heavy wash of Amaco Velour Black on the exterior (1). While it may seem counterintuitive to start with black, I’ve found it to be a critical part of the process in achieving a natural tone. When the piece is fired, the black comes through, subduing the lighter colors for a more subtle, natural look. I water the underglaze down because I’ve found that a thick application shows brush strokes. Adding water reduces, or in some cases, eliminates the number of brush strokes that appear in the finished product, and makes it easier to later wipe away the excess from high spots.
After the wash is dry, I use a bamboo brush dipped in water to wipe the black underglaze from the raised surfaces of the piece (2), highlighting the textured detail.
Layer with Color
Now it’s time to add the color that will bring this rainbow trout to life. To introduce color, I treat the body of the cup like the canvas of a painting. I apply green to the bottom and add a red stripe through the center, or slightly off center, with the trout spots covering the cup. While the surface is still wet from wiping the first layer, I apply bright orange underglaze to add highlights (3). This is followed with a coat of intense yellow. Next, I mix several shades of green underglaze to layer over the yellow in areas. I continue to layer with rose mauve and allow it to dry. To make the stripe, I dry brush red underglaze (4). I use the dry-brush technique to avoid harsh transitions and to prevent the red from building up in a solid line. This creates a more natural appearance with a painterly feel.
Once it dries, I rub a paper towel over the entire piece. Any brush strokes that are on the surface disappear, and some of the clay is revealed. At this point, gills emerge as the orange, rose mauve, and red layers are applied (5) in another progression of layers. Black underglaze is dry brushed to enhance the definition of the fins and gills (6).
In the past, I hand painted all the trout spots, but now use an alternative image transfer method with roots in lithography (7). To make a transfer image, I altered a trout photo in Adobe Photoshop, creating a silhouette of its spots. I make photocopies of this image and cut the paper into a strip, to fit the piece. It is important to note that only Xerox copies (not inkjet prints) will work, because of the chemical properties of the toner. For the photocopy to adhere to the cup, water is sprayed on its surface just before the transfer is applied. Wearing gloves, I apply gum arabic by hand to a clean piece of glass. I’m careful to use a modest amount and spread it evenly. The gum arabic seals the paper to the glass. I place the paper (spots-side up) on the glass, then cover the paper with gum arabic (8). The gum arabic will keep the ink from soaking into the white of the paper.
A soft brayer is used to evenly distribute ink (a mixture of two parts Best Black Mason stain to three parts linseed oil) on a second clean piece of glass. Use the brayer to apply the ink to the paper (9). Roll evenly to coat all areas, but don’t get too concerned about covering every spot—I like to see some variation. The ink will adhere to the toner of the image, but not the paper.
Splash some water onto the ink-covered transfer to loosen the ink from the paper (10). Run the whole transfer under warm water to remove all the excess ink not stuck to the toner. I dab away any little spots left behind with a sponge, being careful not to smear the image.
Next, I use tweezers to pick up the paper and rest it on a paper towel (spots up). I quickly blot with another paper towel. Blotting reduces areas of ink that are too thick. This is important because a buildup of Mason stain creates blisters. I carefully wrap the paper around the cup (11) and burnish with a wooden tool. I’m careful at this step, because the transfer can only be used once. If the piece is too wet, the underglaze will smudge. If it’s too dry, the bisqueware will suck the moisture from the paper and adhere it to the cup, which can pull the layers of underglaze off. Avoid spraying the piece after the transfer is applied as the stain will bleed.
Peel the paper off to reveal the transferred spots (12). Before I spray the final coat of exterior glaze, I apply wax to the fin to prevent the glaze from covering up the details.
Create Dripping Water Effect
First, I apply Leach White glaze to the rim of the cup. After the white is dry, I dip it into San Miguel Icy Blue glaze (13). Next, the cup is dipped into Leach White glaze (blue variation). Then it’s dipped back into San Miguel Icy Blue glaze. To clean it up before spraying, I wipe the foot. I spray Semi Gloss, a Ferro frit 3134 mixture, on the exterior of the cup (14). When spraying this mixture, water beads on the wax creating tiny blue imperfections. To correct this, I wait until the mixture dries, then wipe it away with a brush. I let the piece dry and fire in reduction to cone 10 (2370°F (1299°C)).
All process images: Sam Olfano.
the author Mark Chuck is a ceramic artist in Scranton, Pennsylvania. When he isn’t working as the art studio technician at Marywood University in Scranton or teaching ceramics classes to members of the community at Abington Arts Studio in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, he will most likely be found fishing in the Lackawanna River or in a local stream. To see more of his work, visit www.markchuck.com.