Published Jan 4, 2021
The key to making good sets is to make them work well together both visually and functionally. With careful planning, carrying motifs throughout an entire set can really separate the good from the bad.
Decorating: Color Choices
I make my color choices based on how materials interact with each other and what I envision my finished work to look like. I’ve done many underglaze and glaze combination tests to help in planning more elaborate palettes (1). Discovering what patterns work on various forms comes from a sense of playfulness and lots of experimentation. To begin, decide on the division of space between the multiple parts of the set. This includes the teacup handle, the knob, the bottom of the saucer, the lid, and the teacup body. Don’t neglect a surface simply because it’s not seen when the piece is sitting idle. The cohesion between all three pieces, and their parts, comes from a repetition of elements and not necessarily a duplication of pattern. Use a different yet relatable pattern for each component.
Paper stencils can be made from cheap printer paper. I use different sized circular paper punches purchased from the scrapbooking section at craft stores. For stripes, I use a paper cutter or a ruler and cut different widths and lengths. You can cut out any shape you want, but sometimes extremely complex or large shapes can be difficult to wrap around the surface of a pot. When placing larger stencils onto round forms, you will have excess paper as the shape wraps around the pot. You can fold this excess into a V shape to get it out of the way, but this often distorts the shape of your stencil. Alternatively, consider using multiple small stencils to create the whole blocked off area.
Wipe down each piece with a damp sponge to ensure the surfaces are smooth and clean. Drop your paper stencils into a dish of tepid water (2). They only need a small amount of time to become saturated—you’ll know this when the paper turns a darker tint than when it’s dry. Pluck a stencil from the water and pull it between two fingers to squeegee off excess water. Apply the stencil to the leather-hard surface of the teacup. The stencil can be repositioned before it starts to really stick to the clay. Put it in its final position and pat it down with a damp sponge (3), or your fingertip. Continue this process all over the surface until your design is in place. Take a look at each stencil connection over difficult areas such as rims or deep curves to ensure that they’re flush against the clay. Press them back down with a damp sponge when necessary.
Brush on a generous first coat of underglaze—I use AMACO Velvet underglazes. Take care to brush in every direction, as the edges of the paper may cause you to miss spots otherwise. Once the first coat has lost its shine, move on to the second and third coats. Three layers will provide an opaque background of underglaze. As these coats are drying, switch to applying stencils to the saucer or lid and begin adding their background color (4). Make sure that the underglaze has dried so it won’t smudge before peeling the stencils off using the tip of an X-Acto blade. Note: paper won’t always burn out if it’s encased in underglaze. Add decoration to the bottom of the saucer as well. Hidden details like this can set your work apart and surprise the people who use it (5).
Accents of stripes or spots added in a different color help to add depth and variation to the surface. Apply more paper stencils using the same method as on the background layer to add the accent layer (6). When placing the accents, it isn’t necessary to worry about a visual imbalance as the final decoration layer of underglaze inlay or mishima can be used to tie the entire composition together.
Before moving on, clean up each piece, including the teacup foot, to make the edges crisp (7). Next, apply wax resist, covering the outside of the lid, along with the entire top and inside of the foot ring of the saucer, and the teacup from foot to lip (still without a handle). When applying cold wax, use a generous amount and brush in all directions to get into the raised edges of the underglaze and create one consistent coat. After the wax dries, add mishima inlay patterns. Use an X-Acto blade to incise thin line designs through the wax and into the clay (8).
This is the final chance to create balance in the surface decoration. After the lines are finished, brush underglaze into the lines (9). Use a sponge to gently wipe away all excess beads of underglaze that pooled on the surface of the wax. With both the teacup and the handle at the leather-hard stage, trace the outline of the handle’s connection points onto the cup. Score through the wax in those areas to ensure a strong attachment, apply slip to each part and attach the handle to the cup.