When working with clay, as with other mediums, many of the most interesting techniques arrive unexpectedly. This was the case with Steve Kelly’s deceptively simple etching technique, born of a desire to do something that seemed simple but proved difficult: inset a crisp-edged rectangle onto a vase. Says Kelly, “I wanted to cut a perfect rectangle onto a vase form I’d made—an inset that was deep and clean but on which you couldn’t see any tool marks.”
Initially he thought a simple wood block stamp would work. He tried pressing cut wood blocks into the clay, but they warped the form and created a pillowed effect. Next, he tried using various tools to carve into the clay, but the edges were never as sharp as he wanted them to be. “It’s really hard to freehand cut a straight line,” he says. “There was a fussiness to the lines that I just didn’t want. Often what makes something beautiful is that it looks like it was done with ease. I wanted the lines to look natural, as if they just appeared on their own.”
Another problem facing him was how to carve into thin porcelain pots without compromising their strength and structure. It was hard to cut a uniform depth across a wide surface. He considered using shellac, but shellac creates fumes when applying it and when burning it off in the firing process. “I wanted something less toxic that also created stronger, straighter lines that did not deteriorate during the etching process.”
The breakthrough came, like so many do, when he was doing a completely different task. While boxing up some pots for an order, Kelly looked at the packing tape in his hand and then at the bone-dry vases on the counter. “Suddenly it dawned on me that if I placed the tape around what would be the outside edge of the rectangle, I could make a crisp barrier. Then, I could sponge the surface to wash back the exposed clay. Because the tape is completely waterproof, the line would stay clean and true. Water and tape—what could be easier?” He tried it, and it worked. The lines were precise, there were no tool marks, and most importantly, one couldn’t tell from looking at the piece how it had been done—it looked effortless.
Kelly explains, “it’s important to be open to thinking of the most simple everyday object as a potential clay tool, and to find inspiration in ordinary places and tasks and at every stage of the clay process.”
After that first rectangle, Kelly quickly learned to stretch and turn the tape on the pot to create a blend of curves and angles. Kelly has been exploring this technique for several years, and now most of his vessels feature elaborate etchings. Each takes quite awhile—from a half-hour or more for a mug to up to two or three hours for a large platter or bowl.
No longer simple rectangles, the etched shapes now call to mind graffiti and other forms of typography. Like graffiti, which engages the architecture it inhabits, the etchings on Kelly’s work also interact with their forms. They wrap around the curves, they cut into the lip, and cut across the foot.
In time, the etching process changed his throwing style—he began making forms he thought would make interesting canvases for his etchings.
Kelly explains, “When I demonstrate this technique, I always point out that it’s super simple. It doesn’t take complicated tools or engineering to pull off some pretty cool effects.” This meant finding the right clay. Stoneware, he found, was too groggy, and left the wiped surfaces bumpy. However, porcelain wipes cleanly away, leaving the etched and un-etched textures the same.
As for shape, Kelly says he likes his pieces to have a “strong architecture”—exaggeratedly rounded bellies or nipped-in waists, for example—so the etchings have more to collaborate with. “And,” he adds “a lot of my forms tend to lean inward, so that you can really see the sides,” he says.
Another integral part of the process has been finding the right glazes and applications. Kelly works primarily with glazes that accentuate the surface texture. Celadons and oribes are great for their color variations over the cut edges and curves, depending on thickness. On the other hand, he also likes to use clear glaze next to a bare porcelain surface, because it creates a play between matte and sheen that is pleasingly subtle. When he does glaze the whole piece, he applies the glaze by dipping the piece. “After I dip them I turn them upright immediately so that the glaze pools in the etched edges.” Other times he glazes the interior and then chooses a few etchings to accentuate with glazes on the outside.
As for the etchings themselves, Kelly says it’s best to follow one’s intuition. “I think about them as abstract compositions. The shapes become figures that interact with one another,” he says. “I usually start with a big, swinging, gestural shape and then react to that shape with smaller ones.”
Kelly enjoys playing with the idea of rules. “In art school I enjoyed the limitations and rules the professors would place on projects. It gave me something to push against. Since then I have always tried to create my own arbitrary rules.”
On the rules he follows, Kelly adds, “One is the idea that I cannot cut the tape—I don’t cut shapes into the tape or form stencils. I’m stuck with the limitations the tape roll gives me. It gives me a language. I’m allowed to bend it, stretch it, turn it. For better or worse it gives me a language.”
On the rules he breaks Kelly adds, “The lip and foot are often barriers that don’t get crossed. There’s a certain sacredness to not crossing these boundaries. So I do. If a cut goes under a bowl, through the foot, it encourages you to pick it up and see where it goes. The same with the lip—I love carrying shapes through the lip to the interior of the bowl.”
As he puts it, “you have this medium of clay, which can be manipulated at all of its different stages. When it’s wet clay, you can pull it and push it and shape it. When it’s leather hard, you can carve it, press it, and paddle it. But it can also be worked when the pot is bone dry. It’s more limited, but I like playing with that limitation. What can I do at that stage? I can etch it.” And it is along that edge that Kelly’s pots come to life.
To make surfaces using this etching technique, first throw and trim a few forms using porcelain (1, 2). As a beginning etcher, throw the pot thicker than you would otherwise until you get the hang of removing clay from the surface. They should be large enough to have some room on the surface to say something. Allow the pots to dry completely. They should be room temperature to the touch. If they’re still cool, that means they’re still holding moisture and the tape will not adhere to the clay. When the piece is ready to etch, look at the surface and develop a plan for the first move. Where do you want the etched shape to take the viewer? Around the bottom (3)? Over the lip? Tear off a piece of packing tape. Lay down one side of the first shape, and repeat until you’ve created the outline of the shape in tape (4). What’s left will be an exposed area of clay surrounded by tape.
Using a large bucket of clean water, begin sponging the surface back (5–7). Be sure to rinse your sponge repeatedly. This is a tricky process at first, so be prepared to break through the wall on a couple pieces, until you get a sense of how much material you are removing as you work. Regularly check the interior of the pot to see if it starts to look wet. If it does, then you are getting too thin and need to back off. When you get to the desired depth, remove the tape (8) and begin your next shape. Note: the etched areas become very thin so be careful not to hold the pot in those thin spots or you’ll break though. After etching the entire piece, clean the whole surface with a sponge to create uniformity (9).
After bisque firing the piece, sand the surface to remove any other imperfections (10). Then, glaze the piece using a glaze that accentuates the surface texture (11).
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