Freeze Frame: Using Photography to Capture Inspiration for Ceramic Art

The surface of this piece by Lee Akins was inspired by a cave wall in Gunung Kawai, Indonesia, shown below.

A few years ago, my husband, a musician and sound artist, bought a super nice digital SLR camera. He intended to use the camera as another tool in his creative arsenal. He wasn’t planning to switch media start an exhibition career as a photographer. But he knew that the photographs he took would inform his sound works in some way. And they do. It may be hard to put a finger on, but if you listen to his work and look at his photographs, a connection is obvious.

Ceramic artist Lee Akins uses his camera in a similar way. Although he does not intentionally match up specific photographs to specific ceramic work, there is obviously a connection that happens somewhere along the way. Taking photographs of things you like can be a great way to help develop your voice in ceramics. Today we’ll see some of Lee’s photographs and learn how he uses stains, glazes and underglazes to create surfaces inspired by his photographs. Plus, Lee shares some of the slip and glaze recipes he uses to achieve the effects that he wants. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

“I enjoy photography,” Akins explains. “My photographs are of nature and other subjects. Photographic images serve as a source, an idea and an inspiration. I never look at a photograph to make a piece, but there’s some connection. It’s surprising to see them match up so closely after the fact.”

The surfaces of Akins’ work are very intricate. The texture, pattern, color and value are the result of tool marks, ceramic media, and firing processes. The texture is derived from Akins’ conscious effort to leave marks of the forming process, rather than covering them up. Additionally, some marks are from stamps (found and made) and others are from textured paddles.

Color in Akins’ work is the product of stains and glazes, as well as the firing atmosphere. One of his favorite colorants to work with is copper carbonate. “Painting copper on and wiping it away is one of my favorite techniques. It’s very simple, yet very effective. Earthenware seems to take on a sheen with copper,” Akins explains.

To develop a patina, Akins uses commercial underglazes layered with oxides. They give a strong, intense color and bring out the texture. In oxidation firing he glazes and layers more. He elaborates, “It’s more like painting on a piece. Many times I’ll build up by putting a material on and sanding it off. I’ll then apply another one and dust it off. Finally, I’ll apply another one unevenly.”

Traditionally, earthenware is fired to Cone 04 (1971°F). The temperature range at which Akins’ work is fired is Cone 01 (2080°F) to Cone 1 (2109°F). “Firing higher affects the color. It also affects the clay. It’s harder and more vitrified. When struck it has a nice ring to it,” he says. Akins looks forward to evolving as an instructor and artist. “I find if I don’t continue exploring, I rely on the same thing. There are several themes that I return to, but I keep trying to find new and exciting forms and surfaces.”

Although Lee wasn’t looking at this photo of weathered wood from Lake Katherine in New Mexico specifically when constructing this vessel (inset), the texture found its way into the piece.

Scotchie Crackle Slip Recipe
(Cones 04-01)

Gerstley Borate 25%
Kaolin 50%
Silica (Flint 25%
Total 100%
Use on leather hard clay.
“Green Jar” (above top) is made of coil-built terra cotta clay coated in Scotchie Crackle Slip and copper oxide, fired to Cone 01 in oxidation.

Peeling Paint Glaze Recipe
(Cones 08-01)

Gerstley Borate 80%
Titanium Dioxide 20%
Total 100%
For Green Add:
Copper Carbonate
For Blue Add:
Cobalt Carbonate
For Black Add:
Cobalt Carbonate
Red Iron Oxide
Black Stain

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