In this article from the December 2011 issue of Ceramics Monthly, David Bolton explains and demonstrates his use of vinyl sign masking to add depth and texture to his work. He cuts the masking with a (surprisingly affordable) sign cutter that hooks up to a computer just like a printer—but instead of printing it cuts the vinyl. Bolton then applies the masking, sandblasts the surface, and applies underglaze to the recessed areas. But after that, he takes a drastic departure from most highly graphic surface techniques by finishing his pieces with the unpredictable surfaces of wood firing. The combination of these seemingly opposite treatments actually heightens the impact of each one. —Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
The creation of my current body of work started with atmospheric firing, in this case wood firing. I fired with salt at the University of Evansville and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had my first taste of wood firing at Central Michigan University, which later led me to push for a wood kiln where I currently teach. I fire my work in a train kiln at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, and in Dan Anderson’s Mounds Anagama.
For me, the beauty is in the interaction of the glaze created by the wood kiln and the hard-edge decoration created by masking and sandblasting bisqueware. Some pieces receive a blush of color, and others have their edges blurred. Sometimes areas of the pattern are blurred beyond recognition, only to have the pattern revealed on the other side of the pot. This gives the surface of my pots a sense of wear, a sense of history.
After sandblasting, I apply black underglaze over a digitally created vinyl mask on bare Grolleg porcelain. The result at first is intense black and white that is hard on the eyes. After the wood firing, the resulting flashing and wash of ash softens this contrast.
Textiles and geometry influence my surface decoration. The forms are divided into panels to allow the patterns to run off the edge. I often think of the surface as upholstery covering a form or an altered fabric covering the human body. This logic follows through from lip to foot. The openness of a plate, for example, allows me to further follow this logic from the interior to exterior. This negates some of their function; they are probably the least functional of all my forms, due to their decoration. I find that my cups are the most functional, with the patterns only on the exterior. The patterns are very tactile and entice the user to hold the body of the cup. In this way, the surface and form work together to enhance the functional life of the cup.
Tools and SuppliesDraw shapes and patterns on the computer and “print” them out on the digital cutter (1). Peel the vinyl decals and apply them to bisqueware (2). Complete patterns can be applied with transfer tape on flatter pieces such as plates and tiles, but is not possible with most curved surfaces. Rub down the vinyl mask to adhere it to the piece (3). The masking can be cut to fit the intended space after application; simply peel up and remove the excess (4–5). Sandblast the surface (6). Apply underglaze using a fan brush (7). A fan brush covers broad areas without soaking up all your underglaze. Let the underglaze dry and remove the vinyl (8). Wax the rim and apply glaze to the interior, and the cup is ready to be wadded and wood-fired.
Sign vinyl: I use a medium tack 2.8-mil vinyl that comes in rolls 8 inches wide, 15 inches wide, and even larger. I cut it down to 8½-inch sheets to fit the cutter. (Available for purchase here)
Transfer tape: Complete patterns can be applied on flatter surfaces. I use this tape to put patterns on plates, although the curved areas still have to be altered and laid individually by hand. (Available for purchase here)
Inexpensive sign cutter: Graphtec makes this inexpensive cutter, as well as professional sign cutters that cost thousands more. The cutter comes with software that can be used on a PC or Mac. It is also compatible with Adobe Illustrator. (Available for purchase here)
tack cloth, X-Acto knife
the author David Bolton teaches at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois. His work available at Schaller Gallery (www.schallergallery.com), and he would like to extend a special thanks to Dan Anderson, Ben Bates, and Ted Neal for furthering his knowledge of wood firing.