Published Sep 20, 2023
Relief carving techniques do not have to be reserved for ceramic sculpture or ceramic tile. Many ceramic artists create highly decorative surfaces on their functional pottery with relief carving techniques.
Julie Woodrow is one such potter. Her incredibly fun and vibrant carved pottery is made with both additive and subtractive sculpture techniques. The result is delightful narrative pieces that are as much of a pleasure to use as they are to look at. In this post, an excerpt from the Pottery Making Illustrated archive, Julie shares her relief carving techniques. - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
Relief Carving Techniques–Layout your Design
If you habitually work from a sketch, challenge yourself to use guide lines as a structure to create a three-dimensional sketch directly on your pot. First, break up your space by segmenting the bottom of your pot equally in quarters (eighths) or thirds (sixths). Continue these guide lines up the sides to the rim of the pot. From above, check your lines at the rim to make sure each section is pretty close to even. I’m continually amazed how this separation of space allows complex designs to bloom out and around a form. Next, use a sharp pencil to lightly lay out your design (1).
Relief Carving Techniques–Define your Edges
Drag your pencil or sgraffito tool at a shallow angle for clean, deep, clarifying lines. Provide counter pressure on the inside of your pot with your hand to gauge the force of your pencil, gain awareness of wall thickness, and keep track of the moisture content of your clay. Repairs are simple. If you carve too deep, score, brush on slip, and add clay of a similar moisture content to fill the area.
Relief Carving a Leather-Hard Pot
Use your pencil to lop off any 90° corners beside your lines. Try a variety of shallow, intermediate, and deep angles (2). When separating an object from the background, create a gentle slope up and away from the deepest defining line. Many small changes in the angle of your carving strokes create lovely curves and a sense of depth and volume. Try tucking rounded shapes into one another to generate undulating curves and a sense of depth and volume (3). Construct stair steps that create progressions, tiers, or levels. Overlap abrupt angles to produce surfaces that mimic structures such as shingles and fish scales.
Clean Up and Rehydrate a Leather-Hard Pot
Let clay crumbs dry a bit before sweeping them away with a dry brush. If you try to remove them when they’re still moist, they will clog your carved lines and make you crazy! After you clean up, pour water into and out of your leather-hard pot (4) and pat or spray the surface with water. Remember to repeat this step as necessary while you are carving and wrap work in plastic to encourage moisture back into the clay.
Relief Carving Techniques–Add Extra Dimension
Slip and score to attach small bits of clay to the high points of your design (5). Break free from the contour of your pot, enhance dimension, and add pizazz. The raised areas created by this technique are an especially satisfying addition to drinking vessels where fingers will irresistibly gravitate to these charming little bumps.
Relief Carving Techniques–Add Texture
Activate your surface with textures (6). Notice that some textures are static or move around in all directions while others have a distinct grain or directional flow. Use that awareness to your advantage. Compliment your textures with the inclusion of some contrasting refined smooth areas (7). I also like to leave small areas rough and random to remind me of the fundamental nature of clay.
Julie Woodrow has a BAE from The Ohio State University and a Masters degree from the Art Academy of Cincinnati. She has taught high-school art students in Worthington, Ohio, for 24 years and shows her work at Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus ( www.sherriegallerie.com) and Lillstreet Gallery in Chicago (https://lillstreetgallery.com ). To see more visit juliewoodrow.art.
**First published in 2018.