Depth by 1000 Strokes: Terri Kern’s Meticulous Underglaze Decoration

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The Soul Catchers, 11½ in. (29 cm) in length, carved vessel with hand-painted underglazes and clear glaze.

I admit it. I completely lack the patience (and, since I am being honest here, I might as well just say it: skill!) to do detailed drawn decoration on my pots, so I am really awed when I see other potters pulling off intricate imagery. Such was the case when I first saw Terri Kern’s work.

Terri painstakingly creates her beautiful surfaces by building up layers and layers of underglaze colors, skillfully blending colors to add shading and detail. A self-proclaimed workaholic, Kern says she tries to put one thousand brush strokes into every piece. Now that is patience. Here, I am sharing an excerpt from an article in the Ceramics Monthly archives so that you can all share my awe.  – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor


Every now and then I run into work that hits me hard. When I was recently in Terri Kern’s studio in the Pendelton area of downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, I was struck by the force of some images of her recent pieces hanging on her wall. The combination of form and surface on this work was unlike anything I have run across in recent years and very different in palette from her previous work. I became intrigued and decided to spend some time picking her brain. Kern describes herself as a workaholic, spending long hours in the studio and many hours on each piece, striving to put a thousand brush strokes onto each one. She has been making a living selling her work for over seventeen years.

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My Daily Dilemma, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, carved lidded vessel with hand-painted underglazes and clear glaze.

A Dream of You, 6½ in. (17 cm) in height, carved lidded vessel with hand-painted underglazes and clear glaze.

She is pragmatic, learning early the forms and designs that could sell well in a retail environment but like many artists wishing for a connection and dialogue with the public beyond the sales. The story she tells on each piece is important to Kern and something she wants the public to engage with and understand as well as buy.

Kern’s playful use of narration is the key to her creativity. Stories unlock the part of her brain that designs her work and she says that she has to construct the story first, and then design and complete the piece. For her, working in the studio is a constant narrative of story after story, leading to corresponding pieces where the story is illustrated through form and surface decoration.

Kern has a unique approach in her studio, centered around narration that springs from both a depiction of personal stories and her study of drawing and poetry. She does not spend time viewing contemporary work, rather she speaks of her enjoyment of 14th century illuminated drawings and the poetry of Richard Haig, which she has illustrated in the past, and which influenced some of her recent drawings. Other influences she credits to the painter Frida Kahlo. Kern spends a lot of time drawing, recently participating in an international drawing/montage collaboration with artists in China and Europe. Her drawings help her formulate narratives.

Working form a personal narrative is a common methodology in art and at some level everyone’s work is about themselves. An approach such as this is all too often offered as a value judgement, as if the means justify the end or the mere existence of the means affect the quality of the end product. In Kern’s work, the means are a vehicle to superior work, much less common when working from a personal narrative, an expression of personal emotion and experience.

The Process

Yellow underglaze is applied to block the dark hue of the red earthenware. Then, several layers of a lighter yellow underglaze are added. To create a background blend, I lay out the underglazes in the order that they will be applied, because I will blend them right on the surface of the pot. Depending on how many colors are being blended, this step can add anywhere between three and six layers of color to the surface.

Once the base layer blend is completely dry, I draw directly on the surface of the underglaze with pencil to establish the design.Before adding fill color, I’ll brush yellow underglaze on areas where the darker background color needs to be blocked out (yellow blocks better than white). I use three layers of fill color to make sure I have a nice solid layer of color. I’ll fill all areas before going back and adding blended shading.

After all the fill colors have dried, it’s time for the blend coat, which usually consists of one to three layers of a darker version of the fill color. This basically creates all of the shadows on the piece. Once all the color is dry, I use a liner brush (with packing foam taped around the handle for comfort) to apply outlines and details with a black underglaze. This black happens to be Duncan EZ Stroke 012. When creating the sgraffito areas, I paint the black underglaze on in a small area and, while its wet, I use a sharp tool to pull away the black and reveal the underglaze color beneath.

Terri Kern received her MFA in ceramics from Ohio University, and lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio. For further information, see www.terrikern.com.

Gil Stengel is a potter and ceramics instructor in Burlington, Kentucky.


 

Comments
  • hi terri,
    once again i am totally inspired by what you do! i am lucky enough to own a little sweet piece of yours and it is one of my treasures. it is a tiny pot that my 3 year-old always wants me to serve her “an olive” in. how’s that for functional art?
    thanks for sharing your techniques with us. all the best.

  • A big wave from Minnesota! I am also lucky enough to own several of your works, and had the pleasure of meeting you in Florida once. I love your work and glad to “see” you again!

  • I love your designs. A question though. It looks like a thick buildup of underglaze. Do you thin them? How do you address the possibility of cracking an/or chipping of the underglazes?
    thanks, Viva

  • Hi Terri,
    You mention the underglazes as being translucent. Are you using EZ Strokes? Or are you diluting standard underglazes. If so, would you mind sharing the ratio of colorant to water? Many years ago I airbrushed underglazes and am wondering if the consistency is similar. Your work is inspirational!

  • seriously inspired by this artist… i would call her an artist rather than just a crafts-person… i am also a painter and have been disappointed with the colors and quality of most underglazes… i am grateful you included the brand…which of course now i will have to order!!!

  • Terri, congratulations on this great article. I’ve always been amazed by your work, and hoped for the patience you have. Both in my work and life.
    I believe that patience is what separates the good potters from the great ones.
    Keep up the good work.

  • VERY NICE DECORATION AND TECHNIC. COULD YOU HELP ME TO BUY THIS BOOK OR DVD OR VIDEO?
    MY E-MAIL; yveline.tournier25@laposte.net
    ADRESS IN FRANCE:
    Yveline TOURNIER
    13 RUE DE FRANCHE-COMTE
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  • What beautiful work! I just wonder if you use the red clay to get the vibrant colours? They are like works of art. thank you for sharing your technique.

  • You have officially become my greatest muse. I am so enlightened by your work. How insightful! True talent I must say 🙂

  • Your work is beautiful.
    Do you work on green ware or are the pieces bisqued when you paint them.
    What cone do you fire at?

  • Thanks for the great article….I seldom read one thoroughly. I too, have had a similar “life journey” this year in the loss of my mother and dear friend, facing a deadline on a commisioned piece, broken-hearted. Through this my whole work has changed, grown…and is really “about” something now. The pain still lingers, but there are stories to be told, emotions to be shared and work to be done. Thanks so much again Terri

  • Wonderful work! The boat form is magical. Great inspiring work. I am sorry for your loss, yet grateful for the imagery it provoked. Brava!

  • Terri….Beautiful art! I have a couple of questions about the underglaze application sequence. In the first photo, you’re applying a yellow underglaze to what looks like leather hard clay. In the next photo, the piece is covered in white. Then in the next photo, it appears it’s back to applying yellow over a white covered bowl (the outside of the foot ring is white while the inside is yellow). And a white covered bowl also shows up in the 7th photo. Do you cover in a white underglaze to begin? I don’t have the patience you obviously do, but I believe your technique can help me in my underglaze work. Thank you!

  • Terri….forgot to ask. What clear glaze do you use? I’ve always been unhappy with the shiny gloss of the brand I use.

  • Has anyone yet to find out if the is painted on bisqueware or greenware?

  • I would love to know the artist’s answers to the questions asked in the comments

  • I too like this work very much and I extremely anxious to hear the answers to the questions posed.

  • Tournier,

    This is actually not a book or DVD, but an article that appeared in Ceramics Monthly’s November issue.

    Sherman

  • Thanks to everyone for your great questions—and for your patience. Terri is working on responses as we speak, and I will post them here for you when they are ready.

  • To Viva from Terri:
    Viva,
    I usually don’t thin the underglazes. When the layers of underglaze are applied I apply them in thin layers by using the pressure of my brush upon the surface of the bone dry form.
    Each underglaze color is different. I’ve learned over the years which colors are more prone to cracking (purples and greens) and pay special attention to make sure that the layers dry thoroughly between applications.
    The only way to get to know your materials is to use them everyday and push their limits so that you know what they can and can’t do. Taking good notes is also helpful.
    Good Luck.
    Terri

  • To Kathy from Terri:
    Kathy,
    I use only one EZ Stoke – the EZ012, cobalt jet black. All the others are regular underglazes. I usually don’t thin them with water. If an underglaze color is one that I don’t use much, I will occaisionally have to thin it if it gets too thick.
    Each color of underglaze has its own liquid concistency so there’s no “uniform” ratio of water to underglaze. I judge the mixture based on my experience of that particular color, my brush pressure and the color that is painted under it that I’m trying to cover up. It’s all in practicing with the colors that you’ve chosen for your palette and figuring out for yourself what they can do.
    Good luck.
    Terri

  • To Cheryl from Terri:
    Cheryl,
    I work on green ware. I currently bisque at cone 03 and glaze to 06.
    Good luck.
    Terri

  • To Brenda from Terri:
    Brenda,
    The yellow is applied to bone dry clay. The yellow is a stronger color than the white and blocks out the darkness of the red clay. White is applied next because I’m trying to provide a neutral background for my color blend. In the 3rd photo, yellow is one of 5 colors that is a apart of my color blend. Once the color dries, photo 4, the yellow is hard to see but its there. The yellow inside the foot ring will have black painted over the top and sgraffito will be applied to that surface. The “white” that you see in photo 7 is actually a pale green and will also be covered with black and sgraffito will be applied here as well.
    All the colors in my new palette along with the red clay are new to me. I’m still experimenting with these colors and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. The way I do things isn’t necessarily the right way, it’s just my way. Keep experimenting until you find what works for you.
    I’m also searching for a new clear glaze as they’ve stopped making the glaze that is represented in the magazine.
    Good luck.
    Terri

  • سلم ايديكم على هذه الاعمال الجمياة ارجو منكم مساعدتي في اقتناء هذه الكتب على الايميل suaad_73@yahoo.com

  • الاخ علي وجدت كتب على هذا الموقع كيف اقتنيها ؟؟؟؟ممكن مساعدتي علما باني خزافة ويوجد كثير من الاعمال جميلة جدا ولااستطيع الاستفادة منه لانها باللغة الانكليزية وانت العربي ارجو مساعدتي على الايميلsuaad_73

  • Terri,

    Fabulous work and lovely creative images!
    Thank you for so generously sharing your work and your techniques.

    Have you ever worked on white clay or porcelain?

    Thanks again!
    Karen

  • The color combination is excellent.Craftsmanship and glazing superb.Keep it up the same standard. Good wishes.

  • Hi Terri,
    Thanks for sharing your beautiful work.
    I’m wondering about your brushes. What kind do you use for the base coats, shown in the photo to create the background blend. And when you say you use a liner brush, what is that?
    Thanks for your reply.
    Warm wishes!

  • I know this is an old post – I just wanted to send a thank you to you, Terri Kern. I brought students down to the pottery festival in Cincinnati a couple of years ago… You were so very kind to us, and incredibly friendly and willing to share your wisdom with my students. They left there that day talking about you, your work…. they were so incredibly inspired! I am in awe of your work, and even more grateful for your kindness. (:

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