Published Aug 11, 2023
A few years back, Doug Gray was interested in incorporating his digital photography into his clay work. He tried decals, but it wasn’t the look he was after – he wanted the photos to help him create the images, but he didn’t want the images to look exactly like photographs.
So he had to find another approach to image transfer onto clay. One day he had a happy accident. He discovered that an ink jet print out, will easily transfer imagery to pottery. From there he carves in the line work and adds color with underglazes. Today, he explains his simple and kid-friendly process of image transfer onto clay. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
Image Transfer onto Clay the Easy Way
The process used here works best on soft clay and can be applied to any handbuilt or thrown clay surface provided the clay is reasonably soft. In the wet state, there’s enough water present in the clay for the transfer to readily occur. No water or solvents are needed. The same process can be used to apply imagery to leather hard and even bisqueware. However, with the diminished water content of drier clay, you’ll need to add additional water to make the transfer work successfully. We will only discuss transfers on soft clay here. You can create computer-generated imagery with a digital camera and software such as Adobe Photoshop. The key is to print your images with a water-based ink, such as that used in most inexpensive inkjet printers rather than screen printing on clay. When developing images for ink transfers on clay, the cheaper the better. You don’t need an expensive printer and you definitely don’t want archival ink and paper. I use regular ink cartridges, all-purpose or copier paper, and an inexpensive inkjet printer. If you prefer to work without a computer, see the image below for various water-based inks and their results. Or see this article from the archives on image transfer paper for ceramics.
Preparing the Slab for Image Transfer onto Clay
Begin with a freshly rolled slab and a print from an inkjet printer. The digital photograph used here has been altered in Photoshop, reducing the image to basic black and white line and shape. Use non-archival ink and multipurpose paper in your printer to assure that the ink will bleed when wet (figure 1). Lay the image face down so that the ink comes in contact with the moist slab (figure 2). Soft slabs have a very high moisture content so no additional water is needed, but too much water can be a problem. Experiment to find the optimum water to clay ratio.
Transferring Imagery to Pottery
Rub the paper into the surface of the slab (figure 3) to eliminate any air pockets that might prevent the moist clay from coming in contact with the printed image. Allow the print to remain in contact with the slab for 30-60 seconds until the ink bleeds onto the clay surface. Peel back a corner to see if the ink has transferred (figure 4). If so, peel the paper up entirely from the slab of clay. If not, let it sit a few seconds more.
Note: If you can’t get the ink to transfer onto the wet clay, check the type of ink and paper. High-end, archival products that are designed not to fade or bleed and laser prints and Xeroxes don’t work for this process.
Manipulate the clay while it is still soft and pliable. If making tiles, trim it to size (figure 5). Tip: Place the straight edge over your image as you cut, so if your hand slips, you won’t cut into your image. Place a thin sheet of plastic over the slab and rub the edges gently with your finger to produce a consistent rolled edge without marring the image (figure 6). If you prefer to allow the slab to dry slightly, place it on a piece of drywall and cover with plastic (figure 7). Moisture will condense on the plastic and blur your image so prop the plastic on stilts to keep it from coming in contact with the surface.
You can easily carve the surface at the leather-hard stage. I use a triangular shaped tool from a mini ribbon set for most marks and a tungsten carbide-tipped sgrafitto tool for fine details (figure 8). Varying the depth of the cut with the small pointed tip produces thicker and thinner lines. The sgraffito tool works well for detail work. After carving, use a damp sponge to wipe the surface. This softens the edges and removes the ink so you can get a good view of your image.
I prefer to apply commercial underglazes after bisque firing because at this stage, the image is essentially a contour drawing similar to a coloring book. (Make sure you test any glazes or underglazes you use.) Apply underglazes one color at a time beginning with the lightest colors (figure 9) since you can cover mistakes with darker colors. Bisque fire to fuse colors to the surface. You can fire the tile between each application of color, or in this case, I applied three colors at one time before firing. After bisque firing, apply a black underglaze to the entire surface filling all the lines (figure 10) and wipe off excess with a sponge (figure 11).