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Published Jan 11, 2021

Nancy Sowder's lotus flower decoration may look incredibly complex, but when broken down step-by step, as it is in the January/February 2021 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, it is much less daunting.

In today's post, an excerpt from that article, Nancy explains how she creates the gradated "ombre" effect on the lotus flower petals, and then sharpens the lines with sgraffito. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

PS. To learn how Nancy creates her original designs, pick up a copy of the January/February 2021 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated!


You can sketch a plan before starting, but you will quickly get comfortable creating without one, letting the image develop as the process takes over. Make underglaze test tiles, fired on your clay body at the appropriate temperature. They will be an essential tool—there is no substitute for seeing the color tiles beside each other when choosing your palette.


Color and Applying Underglaze

Choose your colors in pairs for the ombré color transition of the petals (1). I use analogous colors, but don’t limit your options to that strategy. Consider the overall color layout. If your colors transition consistently from dark to light, or follow the hues of the rainbow, it may appear as though the form was painted in one step and the design scribed on top. I want each petal, and each consecutive ring of petals, to be its own separate yet unified part of the whole, for both visual and metaphorical reasons.

1 Look at fired test tiles to choose an underglaze or slip color palette for the design, and select them in pairs for blending.2 Begin painting color in the center, adding the second color before the first dries for a smooth blend.

Additionally, consider the direction of shading for the individual petals. In a lotus flower, the saturation of color increases toward the edge of each petal. It thus appears to be luminous, lit from within—I also love this as a metaphor. Conversely, painting the darker color toward the base of the petals creates the effect of shadows and the slight illusion of relief.

Once the design is laid out, begin applying the underglaze. I use underglazes with a thick consistency to facilitate blending. Don’t be careless with the application, but also don’t worry too much about the underglaze getting in the lines, you will go back over these once painting is complete.

3 Continue painting the design, working your way outward, and selecting colors to differentiate each concentric ring of petals. 4 When all painting is complete, go back over the original lines with the stylus to expose a clean line of your clay body.

Apply 2–3 coats of the lighter color, either to the entire petal, or just the portion that will remain lighter. While it is still wet, apply the second color and blend them together (2, 3). You may need to go back and forth a couple times between the two colors to get a smooth transition, which you can blend so subtly that you can’t see a line of change, or you can incorporate streaks to make veins of color in the petals. Continue until all the painting is complete.

Embellishing and Finishing Touches

Retrace your original outlines, carving back through the underglaze. A non-directional tool like a ball stylus is easier to control on intricate curves (4). Use a soft brush to clear away the bits of clay as you work so as not to smudge the underglaze.

5 You can further define this outline with marks so your overall design does not get lost in the additional sgraffito work.6 Add a variety of lines for finishing details, varying the size and shape of your marks to add visual interest.

I like to make the outline more prominent to define the petals (it also helps cover slight color mishaps). I add tiny marks along the line for this (5). Add sgraffito designs to embellish the petals with dots, stripes, leaf veins, swirls, and spirals (6). It can be helpful to think about ways to divide the shape of the petal you are working on; start with one line, then keep adding. Repeating elements (even an unintentional one) will create rhythm and unity. Use a variety of tools to add more interest by varying the weight and style of the marks.

Nancy Sowder’s Lotus Platter. Photo: Taylor Dabney.


Nancy Sowder works out of her home studio in the river city of Richmond, Virginia, creating both functional pottery and ceramic sculpture. She would love to connect via Instagram@theclaylotus.