Using Underglaze Pencils to Satisfy a Love of Drawing and Working With Clay

Judith King jokes that she has a split personality. Half of her wants to draw and paint, while the other half wants to make pottery. Her coping mechanism: make work that incorporates both.

But we all know that it can be difficult to draw on clay. In today’s post, Judith explains how she makes it work by using an image transfer technique to get her drawing fix. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

I’ve always been fascinated by early interpretations of the natural world. Explorers and scientists depicted insects, reptiles, and other creepy crawlies in their natural habitats, hunting and devouring their prey. While drawing these creatures, I began to put myself in their shoes: What would I long to snack on if it were me? How wonderful it would be to come upon a doughnut as large as a chair, or to have it rain gumdrops!

A split personality is sometimes hard to deal with: What to do when half of you wants to draw and paint, and the other half wants the immense satisfaction of making things in clay? At some point I had a eureka moment, and realized that I could have it all by creating images on a clay ‘canvas’. Through this daydream, a collision of worlds has developed where Candy Land meets David Attenborough’s nature documentaries; where the repellent encounter the delectable. Now the utilitarian ceramic object becomes a canvas for a unique personal fantasy world of scientific investigation and sumptuous tidbits, where everyone gets their just desserts.

Making a Platter

My two-dimensional drawings tend to be very precise, and I prefer white earthenware to make the platters so the drawings remain bright and crisp. I’ve also found that a smoother surface is easier to draw on using underglaze pencils, so using a fine grogged clay and smoothing out the areas where you plan to draw your images prior to drying and bisque firing works best. To build the platter, roll a slab of clay, place it on a hump mold and trim it to a desired shape. Refine the seams and edges, preserving some irregularities in the form and surface that add to the character of the finished piece. Add three feet with holes in them so that the platter can be either displayed flat or hung on the wall. Having three feet instead of four ensures that it won’t wobble, and when hung up the third foot keeps the platter parallel to the wall. Use a level on each pair of feet while the platter is still upside down on the mold to make sure the platter will sit flat when turned right-side-up. Bisque fire the platter to cone 04. Prepare the bisqued platter by brushing on a coat of a diluted underglaze (figure 1) (a light golden underglaze is used here) and then wiping off as much as possible with a damp sponge. This accentuates any texture you’ve left on the platter, giving the final image more depth. Once thoroughly dry, the surface is ready for an image.

Creating and Preparing an Image

Drawing a detailed image on paper serves both as a pattern for transfer to the bisqueware and as a reference for the actual painting (figure 2). I create a drawing in pencil, scan it into the computer, and then use Photoshop to finish the work and scale it to the desired size. This step isn’t crucial but it’s convenient. The design and color scheme can be rearranged and altered in Photoshop to easily compare various options. Tip: For an alternative low-tech option you can simply draw the image at any scale and then resize it and try alternate color options using a photocopier.

Some knowledge of Adobe Photoshop is useful in the following steps:

1. Scan the image. If it’s almost the right size for the platter, use a resolution of 300 pixels per inch (ppi). If it’s very small, scan it at a higher ppi so you can enlarge it and maintain detail. Open the scanned drawing in Photoshop.

2. Open a new file and make the canvas size (from the Image dropdown menu) slightly larger than the platter and with a black background and 180 ppi resolution. This file will be named the Platter Canvas. Save the file now, and several times during this process.

3. Choose the Elliptical Marquee tool from the tool palette on the left, set the Style on the Options Bar to Fixed Size and then enter the dimensions of your platter. Click on the upper left-hand corner of your canvas and a marquee circle of that size is automatically created (see figure 3).

4. On the Tool palette, double click the white color swatch. Choose the Paint Bucket tool and click inside the marquee to make the platter white. From the menu bar, choose Select, Deselect Layers to close the marquee.

5. Use the pointer tool to drag the scanned drawing onto the Platter Canvas. There are now two layers visible in the Layer palette on the bottom left corner of the screen.

6. With the drawing layer highlighted, choose Multiply from the upper left-hand Layers palette dropdown list indicated by the red arrow (figure 3). This makes the drawing layer transparent and enables you to see your platter shape through the drawing.

7. Select the Move tool and make sure the Bounding Box is chosen on the tool options bar (or Show Transform Controls, depending on your version of Photoshop). You will see a box with ‘handles’ around your image. Hold down the shift key on your keyboard, grab a corner handle (indicated by the red arrow in figure 4), and size your image to fit your platter, repositioning it as necessary by dragging it (figure 4). Press the Enter key when the image is positioned.

8. To color a drawing, create a new layer on top of it (Layer, New from the menu bar). It will show up in the layers palette as indicated by the right-hand arrow in figure 5. Choose Multiply from the layers menu to make it transparent. Use the brush tool to color over the drawing (figure 5).

9. To add other elements to the drawing, create a new layer and use the Brush tool to create other forms. If you use a new layer for each drawing element, you can easily manipulate each drawing item separately (figure 6).

10.Once the image is complete, try different color combinations to help you decide which underglazes to use. In this example, you would click on the layer with the alligator painting and then choose Layer, New Adjustment Layer, Hue/Saturation from the menu bar. This automatically creates a new layer and the sliders are used to change the hues. Tip: Turning the visibility of the Hue/Saturation layer on and off in the Layer palette easily allows viewing of the new color choice vs. the original.

11. Print the finished image to its actual size in black and white as a pattern for transferring the drawing, and also printed in color as a reference guide to use while painting the platter (figure 7). Sometimes my drawing will change between the planning and execution phases, as it did in the water section of the platter shown.

Transferring the Image to the Platter

Drawings can be done freehand directly onto the platter surface, but the transfer method explained here works well for complex images. Note: Trying to erase unwanted pencil marks from the platter lifts off the thin wash of background underglaze. Using this transfer technique enables you to position the image very accurately, and preview exactly how it will look on the platter. Prepare the image for transfer by rubbing a soft graphite stick or pencil on the back of the image (figure 8). Tip: If you hold the image face down on a window or a computer screen, you can see the drawing on the reverse side. Tape the image right-side up onto the platter and trace the image with a ballpoint pen. Using a red pen enables you to see what has already been traced (figure 9). The amount of detail traced depends on the image, but make sure to trace at least all outside contours and important visual details. When you lift up the paper, the graphite tracing transfers to the platter creating guidelines for painting.

Painting the Platter

Apply light washes of color to the graphite transfer image using diluted underglazes (figure 10). Watercolor brushes work very well for this step, as thinned underglaze behaves very much like watercolor paints. In areas where you want the illusion of contour, use a dark underglaze pencil and then smudge the pencil in the direction of the contour using a blending stump (figure 11). A good rule of thumb is to work from the light colors to the darker hues, and to build areas from washes of color underneath to an overlay of detail. Tip: If the image has a focal point, paint that first, as any mistakes on this crucial part can be lifted from the platter with a wet paint brush without risk to surrounding areas.

For detail areas and lines, use underglaze pencils (figure 12). Note: Because the underglaze pencils are dry, the marks lay on the surface of the bisque ware. If you want the lines to stay put, take a very fine brush dipped in clean water and trace over the underglaze pencil lines (figure 13). For a softer look on the finished piece, this step can be omitted.

Since underglaze pencils are so wonderfully “smudgeable,” the method of applying a clear glaze over the image makes a significant difference to the appearance of the finished result. In the example here, I sponge a diluted matte transparent glaze quickly and lightly over the image, and then brush two more coats over the whole platter (figure 14). This minimizes smearing the lines. For a less precise effect, omit the sponging step and brush the glaze over the whole platter in one direction, thus ‘pulling’ the underglaze pencil lines slightly into the top coat of glaze. The platter is then fired in an electric kiln to cone 06.

Judith Berk King is an artist living and working in Miami, Florida. She studied fine art at Kensington and Chelsea College in London, England, and received her MFA from Miami International University of Art & Design, Miami, Florida where she currently teaches. To see more of her work check out



  • very timely article!I haven’t made a platter in some time but will now plan one.I use plastic grocery bags trimmed and the sides and handles cut off,then I can save them.I simply draw the design on the plastic to the dimensions I need then draw the design onto the bisc clay or dried greenware usually bisc.I stopped using underglazes as after about 2-3 applications and the piece was dry I still had to put on a couple of apps.of clear glaze to protect the finish now I just use reg.commercial glazes thinned down slightly,works great.

  • Your work is beautiful, this image sweet and whimsical. I don’t really get, however, why you go thru all that computerized stuff when, ultimately, you’re going to just draw your image on the platter anyway. I do sketches to figure out the image and placement, of course, but this seems like a lot of extra steps to go thru! I did get a few nice tips on using the underglaze pencils which I didn’t know before, so thanks for that.

  • Really beautiful! I admire well planned things (since I am not one of those).
    Thanks for the tip about fixing underglaze pencil lines with water.

  • I was so excited by the prospect of finding a new way to get a drawing onto a platter, only to find out the technique used was the tried and true ‘graphite on the back of the drawing’ process. Still very nice work, and some good points on color and washes and the use of underglaze pencil. I always learn something from these articles, and love seeing how other artists work. Thank you for all the detail in your process! I use Photoshop too to experiment with color combinations. But I am looking for a technique to actually transfer the toner from the computer printout (just the black toner line, not the color necessarily) onto the platter. Any suggestions?

  • Thanks so much for this post! Some details I needed, some I didn’t, but I’ve been looking for ways of working with underglaze pencils for a series of myth-based decorations I’ve wanted to do, and this article was a big help in that direction!

  • Any suggestions for places to purchase underglaze pencils?

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