Working With Colored Pottery Clay to Create Vibrant Tactile Pots

Colored clay murrini techniques (similar to neriage or nerikomi) have been around for a long time. And lucky for us, we now have a gigantic range of colors to choose from because of the availability of stains and various oxides, which are easily acquired through ceramics suppliers. Chris Campbell has been working with colored pottery clay for twenty years and, as she puts it, has not “come close to trying everything I want to do…there always seems to be another question, another idea. It’s just so much fun.”

Today Chris joins us to help spread the fun with a simple colored clay project. Even though the project only starts with two different colors of pottery clay, by mixing different proportions of the two colors, and arranging the results in different patterns in a loaf, surprisingly intricate patterns can be developed. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


“Basically, I do what I do because there is nothing else that fascinates and challenges me as much as colored porcelain. I’ve been working with it for 20 years and still have not come close to trying everything I want to do … there seems to always be another question, another idea. It’s just so much fun.”

Colored clay murrini techniques have been in use since the times of the Ancient Egyptians. Yet, even with this deep history, very few Western ceramicists try using colored clay other than in single-toned clay slips. They seem to favor glazes that hide the surface of the pot, rather than using techniques that expose the clay. You can find some agate wares and sprigging, but colored clays are not part of many potters “tool kits.”

1. Make two doorstop shaped wedges of the different colors and line them up thickest end to thinnest end as shown in this image. You can slice this now squared loaf into as many slices as you want. Fewer slices will result in bolder color changes. If you want softer and more gradual color changes, cut more slices.

2. When you remove the slices you must number each one so you will remember which order they were in. This is the most important step. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!

3. Knead each slice until the colors are blended to your satisfaction, then set them aside AFTER NUMBERING EACH ONE AGAIN. At this point I would make a small test disc of each color and fire it to be sure I liked the results. You do not want to put all the work into a patterned loaf only to find out the colors are wrong.

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4. Roll out each ball of colored clay and cut them to the same width and thickness using a simple cardboard template. You will be using half of the pieces to create a simple striped loaf and saving the other pieces for later.

5. Place the pieces on your worktable in the order you wish to stack them.

6. For this project, I have brushed a thick black slip between each layer to make a thin line between colors

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7. This is my multi-hued striped loaf.

8. Now we will be combining layers of this striped loaf with your reserved colored slices to make an attractive patterned loaf. The first thing to do is to cut the striped loaf into even slices using two identical boards or rulers as guidelines for your cutting wire.

9. Place the reserved solid-colored slices and your striped slices on your table in the order you want to use them. The order is strictly up to you.

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10. Begin placing the striped slices by measuring and trimming until they match the size of the plain-colored slices. You should note that I have had to cut some in thirds to get the correct size.

11. Alternate the striped slices whimsically with the plain pieces checking to make sure you like the emerging pattern. Use a thin coating of black slip between the layers to create a thin shadow.

12. Tap the finished loaf gently on all sides to ease the slices together. Do not worry about air pockets as you will be able to smooth them out as you use the individual slices.

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13. This is my finished stacked loaf. I recommend letting the loaf rest for a day or two before using it to build forms or for decorating.

14. This is a slice off the loaf that I can then use for handbuilding pieces.

It is simple to expand your use of color from boring single tones to the rainbow of hues available through mixing stains into clay. I use Mason Stain colors mixed with Southern Ice Porcelain to create my original designs in very vibrant colors. I mix the Mason stains with just enough water to create a creamy solution. I use my mixer to knead in the stain solution until the color is even throughout the clay body. This can also be done by hand. The finished clay should be soft as cookie dough.

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Comments
  • Very interesting. Will have to try your approach! I have two glazes that I use on my
    functional colored clay pieces. One is an Ultra Clear glaze and the other is a Clear Matt
    that doesn’t go milky. Both cone 6. It took me years of experimenting to get these two
    that I like and that don’t muck up the colors. If you go to “www.sccmembershipdirectory.com and click on my name
    Bernie Zaharik you will see examples. Image 1, 2, 9, 10 & 11 are colored clay.
    Image 1, 2, & 9 have Ultra Clear Glaze. Images 10 and 11 are unglazed. I will try to
    remember when I go to my studio and get the recipes tomorrow if anyone
    wants them.

  • Very interesting. Will have to try your approach! I have two glazes that I use on my
    functional colored clay pieces. One is an Ultra Clear glaze and the other is a Clear Matt
    that doesn’t go milky. Both cone 6. It took me years of experimenting to get these two
    that I like and that don’t muck up the colors. If you go to “www.sccmembershipdirectory.com and click on my name
    Bernie Zaharik you will see examples. Image 1, 2, 9, 10 & 11 are colored clay.
    Image 1, 2, & 9 have Ultra Clear Glaze. Images 10 and 11 are unglazed. I will try to
    remember when I go to my studio and get the recipes tomorrow if anyone
    wants them.

  • Fantastic colours! Great instructions. Love working with coloured clay. But I’ve had some real challenges where the pieces come apart when drying. It’s frustrating to bits! Do you have any advise when it comes to that? Do you always use slip between each layer? Do you ever go over the combined slab with a rolling pin to consolidate the layers more?

    Beth, I throw with coloured clay and it’s great fun. Espesially if you use one dark colour then it just looks like dirt and mess before you scrape/clean the surface with a rubber or metal ribb. It’s tricky to not over-do it so you loose the lines again.

  • Fantastic colours! Great instructions. Love working with coloured clay. But I’ve had some real challenges where the pieces come apart when drying. It’s frustrating to bits! Do you have any advise when it comes to that? Do you always use slip between each layer? Do you ever go over the combined slab with a rolling pin to consolidate the layers more?

    Beth, I throw with coloured clay and it’s great fun. Espesially if you use one dark colour then it just looks like dirt and mess before you scrape/clean the surface with a rubber or metal ribb. It’s tricky to not over-do it so you loose the lines again.

  • I’m very excited by what you’ve shown us, Chris but I have many more questions now that my appetite is whetted. How thick are your slices to hand-build with? Do you build in a plaster or bisque form to support clay for scraping clean? How do you fill in the air pockets in your ‘block’ of patterned clay? Could you glaze only the interior of functional pieces with clear glaze so they will hold liquids?
    I would love Bernie’s ^6 non-yellowing glossy clear and matt clear glazes. My best clear glaze ‘yellows’ the porcelain just a little and dims the brightness of my porcelain.
    Can’t wait to hear the answers! Ann E. V.

  • I’m very excited by what you’ve shown us, Chris but I have many more questions now that my appetite is whetted. How thick are your slices to hand-build with? Do you build in a plaster or bisque form to support clay for scraping clean? How do you fill in the air pockets in your ‘block’ of patterned clay? Could you glaze only the interior of functional pieces with clear glaze so they will hold liquids?
    I would love Bernie’s ^6 non-yellowing glossy clear and matt clear glazes. My best clear glaze ‘yellows’ the porcelain just a little and dims the brightness of my porcelain.
    Can’t wait to hear the answers! Ann E. V.

  • This looks a lot like what I do with polymer clay….I am excited to try this out with my pottery…thank you!

  • This looks a lot like what I do with polymer clay….I am excited to try this out with my pottery…thank you!

  • It’s late tonight and I will certainly answer as many questions as I can tomorrow …
    and in the interests of self promotion … I do teach workshops …

    WEEK LONG SUMMER WORKSHOP – August 15-21, 2010

    Touchstone Center for Crafts
    1049 Wharton Furnace Road
    Farmington PA 15437
    1.800.721.0177
    http://www.touchstonecrafts.org

  • It’s late tonight and I will certainly answer as many questions as I can tomorrow …
    and in the interests of self promotion … I do teach workshops …

    WEEK LONG SUMMER WORKSHOP – August 15-21, 2010

    Touchstone Center for Crafts
    1049 Wharton Furnace Road
    Farmington PA 15437
    1.800.721.0177
    http://www.touchstonecrafts.org

  • I’m going to try it with low fire white clay and mix stain in it.

  • I’m going to try it with low fire white clay and mix stain in it.

  • Sorry, in Ultra Clear glaze above the batch is times 100 not 10.
    Clear Matt glaze (cone 6) for porcelain and clay.

    Flint 4.8
    Wollastonite 25.7
    Frit 3124 34.3
    EPK 35.2
    Total 100.0
    I have good success firing to cone 6 and shut off. A slightly nicer matt firing to cone 5 with a slow cool as outlined in “Mastering Cone 6 Glazes”. Use thin. I dip. Good luck!

  • Sorry, in Ultra Clear glaze above the batch is times 100 not 10.
    Clear Matt glaze (cone 6) for porcelain and clay.

    Flint 4.8
    Wollastonite 25.7
    Frit 3124 34.3
    EPK 35.2
    Total 100.0
    I have good success firing to cone 6 and shut off. A slightly nicer matt firing to cone 5 with a slow cool as outlined in “Mastering Cone 6 Glazes”. Use thin. I dip. Good luck!

  • I have been working with colored clays I make by adding Mason stains to Aardvark B Mix…a white cone 5 claybody. Mine are pastel usually but to get darker colors I just add more stain. Can get a bit expensive with reds and blues! I have also used a red claybody and white with good results although I have been careful to use clays with the same shrinkage percentages. You can also play around with clays of different textures.
    I have not had any problem with pots leaking but I do compress my layers either with a rolling pin or by pounding and paddling.
    I have not attempted anything as complex and discrete as those shown..you inspire me! Thanks.

  • I have been working with colored clays I make by adding Mason stains to Aardvark B Mix…a white cone 5 claybody. Mine are pastel usually but to get darker colors I just add more stain. Can get a bit expensive with reds and blues! I have also used a red claybody and white with good results although I have been careful to use clays with the same shrinkage percentages. You can also play around with clays of different textures.
    I have not had any problem with pots leaking but I do compress my layers either with a rolling pin or by pounding and paddling.
    I have not attempted anything as complex and discrete as those shown..you inspire me! Thanks.

  • I can’t WAIT to try this. My only question is, what is the best way to keep the clay moist? I would think, with all this handling, that it would want to dry out. Thanks a lot!!!!

  • I can’t WAIT to try this. My only question is, what is the best way to keep the clay moist? I would think, with all this handling, that it would want to dry out. Thanks a lot!!!!

  • I am passing this along to one of my advanced ceramic students (high school) she is excited to try it! Thanks so much for sharing it.
    I have a question though. What cone do you fire these to? When used as stains on pot exteriors I have found some mason stain colors burn out when taken to ^6 and hotter. Do you have problems with the colors when mixing them directly into the porcelain?

  • I am passing this along to one of my advanced ceramic students (high school) she is excited to try it! Thanks so much for sharing it.
    I have a question though. What cone do you fire these to? When used as stains on pot exteriors I have found some mason stain colors burn out when taken to ^6 and hotter. Do you have problems with the colors when mixing them directly into the porcelain?

  • Hi Kay … I add water to the Mason Stains then add this to wet clay. If you check out my website …www.ccpottery.com … under murrinis you will see images of my process. See you this summer.

  • Hi Kay … I add water to the Mason Stains then add this to wet clay. If you check out my website …www.ccpottery.com … under murrinis you will see images of my process. See you this summer.

  • Ultra Clear glaze (cone 6) for colored porcelain and clays.
    Wollastonite 23 X 10 2,300 gm
    Frit 3134 30.2 3,020 gm
    Kaolin (EPK) 24.9 2,490 gm
    Flint 14.6 1,460 gm
    Custer Feld 7.3 730 gm
    Total 100 10,000 gm
    I add 1% Bentonite 100 gm
    Fired to cone 6 oxidation, no soak very good clear with all colors. I dip, rather than brush.
    Best for me is fire to cone 5 with 30 minute soak. Clear matt will follow. Bernie

  • Ultra Clear glaze (cone 6) for colored porcelain and clays.
    Wollastonite 23 X 10 2,300 gm
    Frit 3134 30.2 3,020 gm
    Kaolin (EPK) 24.9 2,490 gm
    Flint 14.6 1,460 gm
    Custer Feld 7.3 730 gm
    Total 100 10,000 gm
    I add 1% Bentonite 100 gm
    Fired to cone 6 oxidation, no soak very good clear with all colors. I dip, rather than brush.
    Best for me is fire to cone 5 with 30 minute soak. Clear matt will follow. Bernie

  • Thank you, Chris, for sharing this fun technique. I wondered how, in Step 8, you draw through the wire into the loaf without it skittering around or sliding. Do you have some way to keep it in place?

  • Thank you, Chris, for sharing this fun technique. I wondered how, in Step 8, you draw through the wire into the loaf without it skittering around or sliding. Do you have some way to keep it in place?

  • Can you explain color mixing a little more? Do you use a commercial mixer to mix your colors or is a normal stand mixer sufficient? Which utensil do you attach, Dough hook, Paddle? How much clay do you do at one time? Do you find that some colors of Mason stain take a lot more stain to clay ratio to get proper color? Thanks again for all the exciting information. Can’t wait to try it all.

  • Can you explain color mixing a little more? Do you use a commercial mixer to mix your colors or is a normal stand mixer sufficient? Which utensil do you attach, Dough hook, Paddle? How much clay do you do at one time? Do you find that some colors of Mason stain take a lot more stain to clay ratio to get proper color? Thanks again for all the exciting information. Can’t wait to try it all.

  • Robin Hoppers book “Making Marks” has an area about throwing with colored clays. It can be purchased through the Potters Council Bookshop link at the top of this page.

    Another clay? You can use any clay that fires reasonably white. Low firing clays will give you paler colors since the stains tend to get darker the higher they are fired. You can also use two different colored clay bodies as long as they fire to the same temp.

    Glazes? I stopped using them since I could never find one I liked. I just sand the finished pieces.

  • Robin Hoppers book “Making Marks” has an area about throwing with colored clays. It can be purchased through the Potters Council Bookshop link at the top of this page.

    Another clay? You can use any clay that fires reasonably white. Low firing clays will give you paler colors since the stains tend to get darker the higher they are fired. You can also use two different colored clay bodies as long as they fire to the same temp.

    Glazes? I stopped using them since I could never find one I liked. I just sand the finished pieces.

  • Bernie- I manage a non-profit arts center clay studio — would LOVE to have your Ultra Clear and Clear Matt glaze recipes. Thanks so much for offering!

    Chris- Thank you for a great demo I can share with our students!

  • Bernie- I manage a non-profit arts center clay studio — would LOVE to have your Ultra Clear and Clear Matt glaze recipes. Thanks so much for offering!

    Chris- Thank you for a great demo I can share with our students!

  • How thick are your slices to hand-build with?
    They can be any thickness depending on what will do next.

    Do you build in a plaster or bisque form to support clay for scraping clean?
    No

    How do you fill in the air pockets in your ‘block’ of patterned clay?
    I don’t bother since you can roll them out of each slice.

    Could you glaze only the interior of functional pieces with clear glaze
    so they will hold liquids?
    Not with great success since the pieces often still leak.

  • How thick are your slices to hand-build with?
    They can be any thickness depending on what will do next.

    Do you build in a plaster or bisque form to support clay for scraping clean?
    No

    How do you fill in the air pockets in your ‘block’ of patterned clay?
    I don’t bother since you can roll them out of each slice.

    Could you glaze only the interior of functional pieces with clear glaze
    so they will hold liquids?
    Not with great success since the pieces often still leak.

  • I wrap the pieces in a damp … not wet … cloth between steps. If you need to leave it for a longer period of time, simply put the wrapped pieces in a plastic bag. It will keep for years if you make sure the cloth stays damp.

  • I wrap the pieces in a damp … not wet … cloth between steps. If you need to leave it for a longer period of time, simply put the wrapped pieces in a plastic bag. It will keep for years if you make sure the cloth stays damp.

  • Great article!
    My question is: where can I buy colored porcelain or colored clay?

    Thanks a lot!
    tinne

  • Great article!
    My question is: where can I buy colored porcelain or colored clay?

    Thanks a lot!
    tinne

  • I am new at working with colored porcelains. I love Southern Ice but the cost is high when you are still in a learning curve. Do you have another porcelain you recommend? Do you find this technique and colors can be sucessful with a low-fire white clay body?

  • I am new at working with colored porcelains. I love Southern Ice but the cost is high when you are still in a learning curve. Do you have another porcelain you recommend? Do you find this technique and colors can be sucessful with a low-fire white clay body?

  • My ‘clear’ glaze that I use over coloured clays has a yellow tinge to it. Do you have a good clear stoneware and earthenware glaze recipe I could try. UK terms if possible, can’t always get American raw materials over here.

  • My ‘clear’ glaze that I use over coloured clays has a yellow tinge to it. Do you have a good clear stoneware and earthenware glaze recipe I could try. UK terms if possible, can’t always get American raw materials over here.

  • If the loaf is sliding it means you have used too much slip or the slip was too thin.
    Mine is as thick as yogurt and I lightly brush on one coat.

    The wire I use is home made from the thin wire used to fly hobby planes.
    You can buy it in many hobby stores or order it online.
    Buy the thinnest guage you can get.

  • If the loaf is sliding it means you have used too much slip or the slip was too thin.
    Mine is as thick as yogurt and I lightly brush on one coat.

    The wire I use is home made from the thin wire used to fly hobby planes.
    You can buy it in many hobby stores or order it online.
    Buy the thinnest guage you can get.

  • Sandee .. I use a commercial Hobart mixer since I do hundreds of pounds at one time. A normal stand mixer might burn out since it is heavy work it might not be rated for.

    Pinks and yellows take twice as much stain as blues and dark greens do. I add a lot of stain in the initial mix then add white to it later.

  • Sandee .. I use a commercial Hobart mixer since I do hundreds of pounds at one time. A normal stand mixer might burn out since it is heavy work it might not be rated for.

    Pinks and yellows take twice as much stain as blues and dark greens do. I add a lot of stain in the initial mix then add white to it later.

  • I fire these colors to Cone 10 … the colors get darker the higher you fire them. Sometimes the burn out of colors is due to the clear glaze used over them, not the firing temp.

    I color my own porcelain so I don’t know much about commercially prepared colored clays. It is easy to color your own clay. Then you get the colors you want, not just what they mix.

  • I fire these colors to Cone 10 … the colors get darker the higher you fire them. Sometimes the burn out of colors is due to the clear glaze used over them, not the firing temp.

    I color my own porcelain so I don’t know much about commercially prepared colored clays. It is easy to color your own clay. Then you get the colors you want, not just what they mix.

  • Drying is another critical step in the process … you have to dry slowly to keep all areas at the same moisture level. Mine take a month to dry. I cover the tops with a sheet of paper, then with two thicknesses of dry cleaning plastic … I open and check them but keep the drying as slow as possible. Not all clays need to dry for a month … your results will vary … but do try slowing down and your results should improve.

    I do not always use slip, sometimes I just put a quick spritz of vinegar water, sometimes I will use an Amaco underglaze in between.

    I never use a rolling pin on the loaf. I just gently drop tap it on all sides. You can work our any air holes later when you roll the slices out to use.

  • Drying is another critical step in the process … you have to dry slowly to keep all areas at the same moisture level. Mine take a month to dry. I cover the tops with a sheet of paper, then with two thicknesses of dry cleaning plastic … I open and check them but keep the drying as slow as possible. Not all clays need to dry for a month … your results will vary … but do try slowing down and your results should improve.

    I do not always use slip, sometimes I just put a quick spritz of vinegar water, sometimes I will use an Amaco underglaze in between.

    I never use a rolling pin on the loaf. I just gently drop tap it on all sides. You can work our any air holes later when you roll the slices out to use.

  • I have worked in coloured clays since 1972 when I began working in clay. I would like to read more about ways of working with coloured clays, especially about various methods of mixing large amounts of coloured clays. What are the ways of mixing 200 pounds of blue clay? What would be the best machine to use to mix this amount of clay.?

    Cheers
    Frank Trotz

  • I have worked in coloured clays since 1972 when I began working in clay. I would like to read more about ways of working with coloured clays, especially about various methods of mixing large amounts of coloured clays. What are the ways of mixing 200 pounds of blue clay? What would be the best machine to use to mix this amount of clay.?

    Cheers
    Frank Trotz

  • I am definitely going to have a go at this. I love working with porcelain but have tried colouring the clay this way. Enjoyed reading your article, very clear and precise.

  • I am definitely going to have a go at this. I love working with porcelain but have tried colouring the clay this way. Enjoyed reading your article, very clear and precise.

  • Love the technique! My burning question is, where to procure Southern Ice???

  • Love the technique! My burning question is, where to procure Southern Ice???

  • Seattle Pottery was carrying it earlier this year, but do not know if they are still selling Southern Ice. Frost is about the same quality, fires at Cone 6.

  • Seattle Pottery was carrying it earlier this year, but do not know if they are still selling Southern Ice. Frost is about the same quality, fires at Cone 6.

  • Wow, really liking the finished slabs! I think it’s an interesting idea based on the concept of integrating color into the initial product . . . That being said, I am curious if this is done using two different type of clay. Both are cone 10, I presume? Or at least within that range.
    But I digress. You said that you always fire a test piece to make sure you like the results. What do you do if you don’t like the colors? It seems like a really risky move to prepare all that clay and get a turnout with *possibly* really icky colors. Have you ever had that experience?
    That being said, again, I really do like the results. Great article!

  • Wow, really liking the finished slabs! I think it’s an interesting idea based on the concept of integrating color into the initial product . . . That being said, I am curious if this is done using two different type of clay. Both are cone 10, I presume? Or at least within that range.
    But I digress. You said that you always fire a test piece to make sure you like the results. What do you do if you don’t like the colors? It seems like a really risky move to prepare all that clay and get a turnout with *possibly* really icky colors. Have you ever had that experience?
    That being said, again, I really do like the results. Great article!

  • I test the colors several times. First when I initially mix them, then I test them in combination with white and other colors, then I test the blends for each batch and again test before and after I make patterns … So there are no surprises and ample opportunities to tweak the color. Yes, I work with Southern Ice at Cone 8.

  • I test the colors several times. First when I initially mix them, then I test them in combination with white and other colors, then I test the blends for each batch and again test before and after I make patterns … So there are no surprises and ample opportunities to tweak the color. Yes, I work with Southern Ice at Cone 8.

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