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Published Apr 27, 2022

Image transfer is hot hot hot in ceramics these days, and we have shared a bunch of different image transfer techniques here on Ceramic Arts Network. Today’s post has another great way to transfer images to ceramic surfaces—and one I hadn’t really seen before.

In today’s post, an excerpt from the Pottery Making Illustrated archive, Sarah Dunstan explains how she carves designs into porcelain slip on newsprint and then transfers the designs to slabs for handbuilding. I can’t wait to try this out! - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

P.S. Read the complete article from the September/October 2015 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated to see how Sarah Dunstan builds her bottle forms from slabs.

Born and raised in Cornwall, in the far south west of England, I knew right from the start of my ceramics career that my studio would be in St. Ives. Just twenty miles from my hometown, this small, pretty fishing port has been known as an artists colony since the late 1800s. In 1920 Bernard Leach arrived here with his young family, and Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada, setting up the Leach Pottery with its Japanese climbing kiln. From this grew a unique creative mix of artists, potters, and writers that continues to live and work in St. Ives to this day.

After graduating from Cardiff University, I established my first pottery in 1993. Since 2002 I have worked from the Gaolyard Studios, founded by former Leach potter John Bedding. Early in my student days, I discovered slab building and this is the construction method I have used ever since. For some years my work was made in porcelain—delicate intricate forms with a glossy high-fired finish.

However my sketchbooks (1), an important element in my practice, contain a collection of sketches and found images, details, color, and texture, rather than drawings of any final form. The desire to reflect this more closely in my work led me to completely change the materials I was working with. I began to play on the surface of the clay more using colored porcelain slips, painting, printing, and making transfers—similar to what I was doing in my sketchbook—and experimenting with new finishes and techniques.

As my work changed, I found that the surface decoration was now largely obscuring the translucency of the porcelain. I wanted greater freedom of scale and construction, and I realized that I could achieve this using stoneware clay for the slabs. Over many years I perfected a method of creating porcelain transfers that finally gave me the look I had been searching for. I paint the porcelain slip onto a sheet of newsprint, then when just dry enough I draw the pattern or image onto it with a needle tool. Unwanted areas of slip are then removed and the resulting image is transferred onto the prepared stoneware slab. My finished pots take a variety of forms ranging from 2-inch tall beakers to 16-inch tall jugs and platters that are up to 19 inches in diameter.

Prepping the Body of the Form

As with all my pots, the bottle form has a set of paper templates—designed through trial and error—to create the final shape. All the decoration is applied while the clay is a flat slab; once the piece is assembled there is only minimal finishing and glazing to be done.

First roll out a 3⁄16-inch-thick slab of pale-colored stoneware clay for a bottle form. Cut out the template shapes (2). Cover the remaining clay slab to keep it moist to make the top, bottom, and neck at a later stage.

I then paint the slab with colored slips, building up layers to give the depth of color I want and leaving the clay raw in a strip where the seam will be (3). While the slips are drying, I start creating the transfer. Note: There is no definitive time scale for the drying/stiffening process: I build all my work free hand, without molds, and judging when a slab is ready to be assembled is simply a matter of experience. It’s critically important that no part of the slab is allowed to dry too much—if any part dries too much, it can be rehydrated by placing it on damp newspaper and covering it with plastic.

Start by painting a thick layer of porcelain slip onto newsprint (4). This sheet is then set on top of a dry plaster bat to remove excess moisture, before being placed back on the work table. Again, experience will tell when the surface is dry enough to be worked. Using my sketchbook as a reference, I draw into the slip with a needle tool until the entire design is outlined (5). Tip: To keep the surface from drying out, I periodically lift the sheet and dampen the table underneath with a spray bottle. When the slip on the newsprint loses its sheen, I remove unwanted areas of slip using a scalpel, leaving only the design (6).

Applying the Image Transfer

Next, place the completed transfer face down on the painted slab and very gently work with a rolling pin to apply pressure and join the slipped image to the slab (7).

Then carefully peel back the newsprint, leaving the image in place (8). Sometimes it’s necessary to encourage the transfer to stick by applying light pressure as the paper peels away.

**First published in 2015.