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Published Jan 16, 2013

Cheryl, by David Gamble. Layering glazes and multiple firings can result in unusual effects in both color and surface.

I first saw these pieces in person a while back at David Gamble's home and studio in Plainfield, Indiana. I thought his idea of making clay portraits from his old kindergarten class photos was fantastic (not to mention very well carried out!).

This project also got me thinking about different ways to stretch the potential of commercial glazes. Maybe it will spark a new direction in your work! — Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, Editor

Traditional maiolica is simply earthenware that has a lead-based glaze made opaque white with the addition of tin oxide, which is then decorated with a wide palette of colors. I consider myself a painter who happens to work in clay, and am constantly looking for techniques to create interesting surfaces on a low-fire clay body in an (electric) oxidation firing. I discovered that working with commercial glazes in a "maiolica-like" fashion offers endless possibilities for rich painterly surfaces.

This body of work began with an idea to recreate a sketchbook drawing on clay. That turned into 11X14-inch wet slabs to which I attached sides to make them stick out from the wall when hung - something like a stretched canvas rather than just a hanging tile. While searching through old photos, I came across my old kindergarten class photo. I hadn't seen this photo in decades and seeing all my old friends and classmates brought back a lot of great memories. I decided to make clay portraits of my old classmates using the following maiolica-inspired technique.

Then I put another three coats of a low-fire white commercial glaze, sometimes matt, sometimes glossy, sometimes a mix (figure 2). The idea is to have the color of the bottom glaze break up through the white.

Once all of these base glazes are down and dry, I create the image by first sketching it very roughly in with a regular pencil that will burn out.

Next, I block in the colors using maiolica glazes from several different glaze manufacturers so that I have a wide range of color to choose from. They all seem fairly compatible when I fire them to cone 04, and if you add them all up, there are well over 400, though some are very close in color. That's a huge palette and they can be mixed to create even more hues to fit your projects.

Once the piece has been glazed fired to cone 04, I touch up areas, places I want to bring out more or recede - adding more of the same or a different color to a specific area.

I sometimes pile a background glaze on thick on a second firing so that it will pull apart and the glaze underneath will show back through. To me that's when it becomes an interesting surface. This helps create depth within the image and pulls your eye into the surface. While some would consider these glaze defects, I'm actively trying to create them with some control. Yes, when clay is treated like a canvas, it allows me to think about painting and paint about thinking.