Fooling the Eye with Nature-Inspired Ceramic Sculpture

Making a Realistic Clay Wall Sculpture

ceramic sculpture

Clay is a wonderful material because it can be made to look like just about anything. From Sylvia Hyman’s cardboard boxes of mail to Brett Kern’s “inflatable” dinosaurs, the trompe l’oeil (French for “Fool the Eye”) tradition is strong in ceramic sculpture.

Kathy Pallie chose to emulate the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe in a commission for a resort hotel there. In today’s post, an excerpt from Sculpture Techniques, Kathy shares how she created her wall installation that looks like a grove of aspen trees. –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Building Trees

Using white earthenware clay, I extruded 46 tubular forms ranging in diameter from 1 to 6 inches. Each clay tube was 52 inches long, allowing for shrinkage during drying and firing so that it would meet the required height of 48 inches. Depending on the diameter of the tubes, they were extruded onto either a wooden dowel or a PVC pipe with a base, so they could stand upright as I worked on them and would not distort or collapse on themselves (figure 1).

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ceramic sculpture

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To create a convincing replica, I worked from many photos of aspen trees, some of which I had taken while in Colorado, others from printed materials (figure 2). I also had some sections of small aspen tree trunks. Since the bark color seems to vary from grove to grove, these various images and pieces gave me good reference material.

ceramic sculpture

Each tube was formed into an aspen tree by building up sections, adding nubs and eyebrows with coils and wads of clay (figure 3), and creating a textured bark by adding crumbled dry clay and slip (figure 4).

I created nubs and branch stubs by rolling a small ball of clay, attaching it to the tree trunk, then taking a eucalyptus nut that I found in the garden and pressing it into the ball. The eyebrows were created by rolling an uneven coil of clay, attaching it to the tree, and blending the edges into the bark.

After creating the texture, I slid the tree off the dowel with a pulling and curving motion, creating a natural looking tree trunk. As the pieces were long and fragile, I dried them horizontally on a bed of egg crate foam (figure 5). When they were leather hard, a keyhole slot was cut into the back of each tree.

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**First published in 2015
  • Viv T.

    You did not glaze fire the trees? The last step is acrylic paint on bisque? Did you put a sealer over the acrylic paint? Thank you for your great how-to. I’II bet it looks wonderful hanging on the wall!

  • Cathy S.

    Me too, until I realized, noticed, the little arrow heads at the side of the pics when I moved my mouse around, near or on the pictures. I could control the slideshow when I used them.

  • Mary D.

    Very comprehensive descriptive article. My only wish is that the slideshow of images either scrolled more slowly or was clickable to move through at the reader’s own pace–I had to watch it through about 15 times to digest all the text & images.

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