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Published Apr 11, 2022

If you have every taken a two-dimensional design or illustration course, you know that successful designs are not just slapped down haphazardly on paper (or for potters, on the ceramic surface). Composition and color are incredibly important for creating successful designs. 

So in today's post, an excerpt from the March/April 2022 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated, Jennifer Rosseter shares design and color tips for creating beautifully illustrated pots! –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

PS: To see how Jennifer makes an owl tile like the one shown here, check out the March/April 2022 issue of Pottery Making Illustrated.


Successfully designing and illustrating on clay can be both creatively and technically challenging. While I want my work to be visually engaging, real success comes when I can establish an emotional connection with my audience. Often that means moving beyond obvious solutions and creating unexpected visuals in a narrative. 

My artistic vision comes from having spent nearly every Saturday of my youth attending classes and wandering the galleries at the Toledo Museum of Art, coupled with having lived on 24 acres of woods and a creek, surrounded by wildlife. Deer and wild turkeys populated the fields as the sun rose, and dusk brought coyotes, red foxes, vultures, and resident owls perched at the peak of the barn preparing for their evening hunt. This is the imagery that poured onto my clay when I started making ceramics. 

For visual complexity and a narrative to engage the viewer, I use cast-iron industrial parts as frames and source them from antique fairs, architectural salvage, and neighboring barns. 

Design Tips

  • Emphasis: Establish a focal point with the most important visual component. Use location, color, size, or contrast. A focal point helps our brains to organize what we’re seeing. 

  • Balance: Balance the focal point with the rest of the composition using opposing elements: similar things on opposite sides; a larger element opposed to several smaller elements; or try the rule of thirds—divide your space into thirds, vertically and horizontally, and position key elements at the junctions. Remember, groups of odd
    numbers—3s and 5s—look best.

  • Proportion: Consider how the size and weight of each element relates to other elements. Position smaller elements together in groups. Establish weight with color, contrast, and texture. 

  • Repetition: Repeat shapes to unify the art. Pick a few patterns of leaves, flowers, or other shapes and repeat them to keep the composition cohesive. Our brains like things that are familiar.

  • Movement: Lead the eye through the composition using movement. Think about where you want the viewer to start and end. Create movement with the position of relative shapes, colors, or with curving lines to accomplish a visually fluid composition. 

  • Contrast: Use contrast to differentiate shapes and add emphasis. Consider the clay body when choosing colors. Elements’ size, shape, and surface texture also provide contrast.

  • White Space: White space is like air. It allows the image to breathe. Even a complex illustration won’t feel frenetic if it has appropriate white space. Use white space with intention.

  • Narrative: Engage the viewer with a visual story. Give the drawing unexpected components and allow the audience to sort out the narrative.

  • Layers: Think of the design in layers: the narrative and the execution—including color, texture, and dimension. Layers increase the visual complexity, which in turn holds the viewer’s attention for longer periods. 

Planning the Composition and Colors

I use tracing paper to work out the composition and drawing. Because it’s translucent, it allows me to rethink and rework the concept using small patches while avoiding redrawing (1). 

Choose a color palette and consider how the juxtaposition of the innate gloss or matte fired underglazes provide visual emphasis. Try out color breaks using copies of the drawing and colored pencils. Label and use this as a map while you work (2). 

A few things to consider about color: Monochromatic palettes (variations of one color) will be easily visually successful. Analogous colors (beside each other on a color wheel) will always look like they go together. And complementary colors (opposite on the color wheel) will set up bursts of bright, contrasting accents. 

1 Make a compositional drawing on tracing paper, reworking and editing with patches. 2 Choose a color palette using fired samples, paying attention to surface finish, contrasts, and harmonious color selections.

Jennifer Rosseter was a co-best in show winner of the 2021 ICAN online exhibition “Flair with Dinnerware.” To see more, visit https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/Contests/ICANOnlineExhibition/ICAN-Online-Juried-Show-Exhibition-Archives-198456/2021-ican-online-exhibition-flair-with-dinnerware.

Jennifer Rosseter is a ceramic artist, graphic designer, and illustrator residing in St. Petersburg, Florida, with a studio at the Morean Center for Clay. She embraces travel, all things design, and hasn’t met a beach she doesn’t like. To see more of her work, visit jenniferrosseter.com and follow her on Instagram @jenniferrosseter.