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Published Aug 3, 2016


Courtney Murphy deftly combines two somewhat disparate influences in her work: simple, well-designed industrial objects, and folk art and children’s artwork. The result is forms that have a wonderful balance of playfulness and refinement.

In today’s post, an excerpt from the November/December 2011 Pottery Making Illustrated, Courtney explains how she combines underglaze decoration over a majolica glaze to create her delightfully simple illustrations. She also throws in a couple of recipes! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

I’ve always been drawn to spare and simple forms, and much of my time is spent looking at the textiles, artwork and household items from the mid-20th century. I have a deep appreciation for simple, well-designed industrial objects, as well as children’s artwork and folk art—things that are less refined and show the hand of the maker. In my work, I attempt to seek a balance between these two interests. I strive for the clean lines and gracefulness, while my drawings and color choices are more influenced by children’s artwork and folk art. The simplicity of the form creates a canvas for a more playful element in the drawing.


For many years I worked with a white mid-fire clay. I used underglazes, drew incised lines and created areas of color on a white background. I liked the work that I was making, yet it didn’t really feel like me. It felt somewhat too clean and precise.

During this time, I would often take classes and workshops focused on earthenware. It was fun to work on a larger scale, to work a little more loosely, coil building new forms and trying out new surface decoration techniques. I liked the option of working on a larger scale that earthenware provided, and often thought about switching over, but at the end of each class or workshop, I would always return to my white clay, where I felt more comfortable.

I spent the fall of 2009 assisting Jerilyn Virden at Penland School of Crafts. Jerilyn creates beautiful double-walled forms using earthenware. Living at Penland for two months, and working with earthenware every day provided me with the right incentive to change my clay body as well as my style of work. It was a bit of a bumpy transition, as I tried to learn a new palette of glazes and surface decorations, but at the end of two months, I had a few pieces that seemed promising.

That winter, I left for Montana to begin a two-year residency at the Archie Bray Foundation. Once I arrived, I immediately started testing slips and glazes. I really loved Posey Bacapolous’ cone 04 satin majolica recipe. At Penland, we had been working with earthenware in the 02 to cone 2 range, and Posey’s glaze was beautiful at cone 01—no longer satiny, it looked more like enamel. I’d originally envisioned using a satin glaze, but I liked the way my drawings fused into the surface of the glaze at a higher temperature.


Waste Not, Want Not

After all of those years working in white clay, I had a huge supply of underglazes. I didn’t want the jars to go to waste, so I started testing all of my colors over the majolica to see what would happen. A surprising number of the underglaze colors looked great, those that didn’t were very dry or bubbled. I put a big ‘X’ on those and boxed them up, so that I wouldn’t accidentally use them. The colors I use are mainly Amaco Velvet underglazes and Duncan underglazes. Testing is required as certain colors will work fine, but a similar shade won’t work. I often mix the colors that do work to create new shades.

After switching to earthenware, I started brushing two to three thin layers of a terra sigillata on the bottom of bone-dry work to enhance the color of the clay and create a nicer feel on the bottom (figure 1). Once the sig has lost its sheen, I burnish it by wrapping a plastic grocery bag tightly around my thumb and rubbing the coated area (figure 2).


Glazing and Decorating

After the work has been bisqued to cone 04–05, I begin glazing. I don’t use wax, mainly because I’m pretty clumsy with it. Instead I scrape the excess glaze off with a rubber rib, then sponge the rest off, leaving about ¼ inch of the clay exposed on the bottom (figure 3). To cut down on drip marks, once the glaze has dried a little, I use a soft drywall screen to sand out the larger drip marks. I always wear a mask and sand while holding the piece away from myself and over a bucket of water to minimize dust (figure 4). Because the glazing and decorating process takes a while, glazing is done in small batches. I using three different colored versions of my base glaze: yellow, pale mint green, and white. I try to focus glazing with one color at a time, otherwise it gets confusing, as all of the glazes look the same in the bucket. This helps me to avoid touching up a piece with the wrong color.

When I first switched to majolica, I knew that I would miss the precision of the incised lines, but found that an 18-gauge slip-trailing bottle creates a very nice fine line (figure 5). A 16-gauge bottle will form a thicker line. I use this less often, but it is useful for drawing dots on pieces. I fill the bottle with underglaze and add water if needed to get a smooth flow from the bottle. Before drawing on a pot, test that it’s flowing evenly on a piece of paper. Globs do happen occasionally, but they are easy to clean up if you let them dry, then scrape them off of the surface using a metal rib (figure 6). After scraping, rub out that spot with a finger, and redraw the line.


There is definitely a window of time when this process works best. I start drawing lines on top of the majolica about a half an hour after glazing. Line drawing comes fairly easily as long as the glaze doesn’t get too dry and powdery. Once it has reached this stage, the slip trailer does not flow as easily. Lightly misting the glazed piece with water sometimes helps, but it’s much better to decorate while the glaze still has some moisture in it.

When not in use, I plug the bottles with a sewing pin, the type with a little bead on the end. This works really well, and it’s nice to have the pin available in case the tip gets clogged. It’s important to remember to keep the pin in the tip when the bottles aren’t in use, because they do dry out easily.

The line drawings dry really quickly. Usually I’ll draw on five to six pots, then start coloring in my drawings (figures 7 and 8). I find it easier to pour my underglazes into a plastic ice tray, preferably one with a lot of compartments. The empty compartments are good for mixing underglaze colors together.


Drawing Inspiration

My drawings aren’t planned out beforehand; I tend to work more intuitively, looking at the space and seeing how I want to divide it up. I’ve spent the last two years trying to find the right balance between too little and too much decoration.

My drawings are mostly inspired by the idea of connection. I have moved a lot over the past several years and being in a residency situation involves a lot of people moving in and out of your life. Some of these connections have stayed very strong despite the distances. My drawings often occur in groupings of two to three similar elements, dotted lines sometimes connect these elements, creating lines of communication.

I’m also intrigued by the new connections that are formed when a pot leaves my studio to become a part of somebody else’s life. I find this to be one of the most interesting aspects of being an object maker. Using pots made by friends who are far away really does help me to feel connected to them. It’s a really nice part of being a potter.

Courtney Murphy is a full-time potter, currently finishing up a two-year residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. To see more of her work, visit her website at or her Etsy store at