Beyond Wax Resist: Alternatives for Interesting Resist Decoration on Your Ceramic Art

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We’ve all used our trusty old friend wax resist to keep glaze from going where we don’t want it to go, and it works like a charm. But that is not the only use for wax resist. Pottery can also be decorated with wax resist and other types of resists like latex. And what about using resists that aren’t quite as effective as wax or latex resist in order to get interesting surface effects. So many possibilities!

Belgian potter Russel Fouts has done a great deal of experimenting with various “permeable” resists and today, he shares some of the results of his experimentation. Russel uses these resists on his smoke-fired work, but they can also be used in combination with any other glaze or firing treatments with great results. So give them a try! –Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


 Wax Resist Definition:

Melted wax or wax emulsion used to prevent slip or glaze from adhering to a clay surface, either in decorating, or in preparing work for glazing. Source: Clay: A Studio Handbook.

Alternative Wax Resists

by Russell Fouts

I smoke fire in an electric kiln using newspaper in aluminum foil saggars. Since the combustible material is trapped inside the foil, there is almost no movement of the smoke so it is prevented from making patterns on the pots. To compensate for this, I rely on resists to create interesting surfaces. But the problem is that traditional resists – like wax or latex – prove unsatisfactory because they resist too well and don’t allow for “accidents” to happen. Traditional resists work by creating barriers that repel liquids like slips, glazes, washes and over/underglazes, but I’m also interested in controlling how much and where my work absorbs smoke.

Rethinking the concept of a resist and what makes it work, or not work, opens up a whole new world of possibilities for resist decoration. My efforts are now entirely directed toward the use of “permeable” resists. Resists that sort of resist and sort of don’t; that block while still allowing some interaction with the surface underneath. Once you understand how resists create barriers, you can broaden your resist decorating “palette” and use their special characteristics in your work.


Non-Traditional Resists

What materials repel water? Think about all the different materials that contain waxes, oils or greases, including the oil from your skin. Soften any of these resists by warming them a little and the quality of the line changes. Here are some hard and soft resist materials you can try.

Hard Resists

• Lipstick – makes a nice greasy line
• Eyebrow pencil
• Wax crayon – scratchy, “crayon-y” line
• Butcher’s grease pencil or china marker
• Chunk of wax or a candle – produces a very similar line to the china marker, and you can adjust the width of the line by choosing bigger or smaller pieces
• Oil pastels – similar line to wax but fatter, and you can use it sideways.
• Bar of soap
• Leftover chocolate – (As a Belgian, this is a real sacrifice for me.) different kinds of chocolate make different kinds of lines; the harder, the more scratchy, the softer, the fatter the line.

Soft Resists

• Full strength white glue, wood glue or any acrylic glue – trail like slip or dilute for brushing
• Acrylic floor polish – as the ads state “waterproofs and resists black heel marks”
• Acrylic artist’s medium
• Liquid beeswax – nice to decorate with and works in a pinch for waxing bottoms or feet
• Paste wax or Vaseline – good for smudgy marks when applied with a cloth or fingers
• Left over oil-based creams on your dresser
• Any oils – they can be brushed, smudged or spattered

 Paper Resists

While paper resists won’t work on bisque where I do most of my decoration, tape does and comes in many different forms and widths. Drafting and pin-striping tapes come in extremely fine widths and are very flexible. Stickers are also an option. If you want a shape or thickness in a tape or sticker that isn’t available, cut the exact shape you want out of paper, glue it to the pot with diluted white glue and smooth it down with a rubber or foam roller. Or stick the edges of your paper cutout down with a border of tape. You could also cut your design out of self-adhesive shelf paper or even masking tape.

Application

Treat liquid or soft resist materials like any other decorating material. They are the same as oxides, colorants, terra sigillatas, slips or glazes, and you can use any means you think of to apply them to a surface. Feel free to dip, pour, spatter (one of my favorites), spray, splash, squirt or brush as inspiration directs you. Also, consider that “bad” tools can often leave the most interesting marks. Look for orphaned tools; balding brushes, spitting sprayers, decrepit sponges, ragged bits of cloth or loose bits of string. How about a mop? Not a mop brush but the hoary, old, string mop standing in the corner.

Safety
Most of the materials discussed are safe to use. All natural materials should burn out safely in your kiln although you need a good venting system if you’re firing indoors. Paper, tape and natural strings can either be left in place or removed as you wish. Left on, the ash residue can leave interesting traces. Plastics like acrylics and floor finishes require adequate ventilation. Trailed white glue and pin striping tape should be removed before firing.

I hope you’re getting the idea. The list can go on and on. Basically ANYTHING that makes a barrier against water or smoke works in some way and each one has its own special character. Think about trying these techniques at different stages of the pot’s or the decoration’s development. There are a lot of ideas here but I seriously doubt that I’ve exhausted all the possibilities.

If you have any other non-traditional resist ideas to share, post them as comments below.

Russel Fouts is a potter living in Brussels, Belgium. He specializes in a technique of smoke firing in his electric kiln and also makes functional majolica work. To see more of his work, visit www.mypots.com.

Originally published December, 2012.

Comments
  • Great ideas and I will give a couple a try as I am glazing today. I do have to argue one point with Russel though, there really is no such thing as “leftover” chocolate. Heaven forbid! : )

  • Would like to try this in my electric kiln, can you tell me what cone you are firing to with the aluminum foil saggar?

  • Another effect can be achieved by [1]waxing over a glazed area and [2]brushing over the waxed area with another glaze.This can leave modulated areas and globules/spots on top of the base glaze.

  • Barbara Harvey, You just need to burn the paper or, actually, get the paper to smoulder in the saggar.

    Paper burns at 451F (about 223c). Just keep the kiln around 500F. Longer will give you a stronger smoke affect, shorter will give you less.

    Don’t go over 650F or the foil will start to break up and let air back in.

    Search this site. I also have articles on the firing and the wrapping technique.

    Good luck

  • I always thought that reduction in an electric kiln was bad for the coils, made them brittle or something. Does anyone know anything about this? I would love to experiment with this but don’t want to endanger the kiln as I work at a public high school.

  • Nancy, you’re not going to damage the elements at this temperature. You’re only going hot enough to burn paper which only requires 452F (223c). Honestly, I’ve known people to do this in there household oven. Also, if you bisque in between, you’ll clean / reoxidize the elements. I’ve had this kiln since 1996 and have never replaced the elements. I also do ^04 maiolica in it. I also have a friend in North Carolina who does saggar firing with oxides and sulfates in her electric kiln. It’s a real mess when she opens it. She’s factored the price of kiln repairs into her cost of doing business. Very sensible, I think. I wouldn’t worry about your kiln using my method. On the other hand, this method will generate a little smoke so make sure your kiln is vented or fire it when no one is around.

  • Is a resist able to only resist and direct the smoke on terra sig pieces with nothing added over the resist? In your Gallery you have many pieces with “soda resist.” Can you describe that? It doesn’t seem to be in your resist lists.
    I am working in Nicaragua with Potters for Peace and looking for different techniques to use at very low temperatures – mostly on greenware. They mostly fire one time only here to about 900°F. I have had trouble getting marks on the clay with organic materials inside foil without the use of Ferric Chloride – which is not available here unless we make it ourselves! And I am still not sure it will work on raw clay. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  • Great ideas, thanks!! Will give them a try, because the cold wax I have is awful. Unreliable, uneven and fit only for the trash! I look forward to experimenting and being less scared of blowing up the works!

  • I just finished a naked raku firing. It could work very well to dip your pieces in slip after they are bisque fired. 24 hours after that I then dip them in a lowfire white crackle glaze. The slip keeps the glaze from sticking to the piece. The crackle glaze allows cracks to develop in the slip to allow smoke to creep “under” the slip and permeate the terra sig surface of the pot.

  • Elinor – The full article in pdf format is on my resources page on my website. Smoke resist; terra-sig and soda resist are explained there. There is also another document with some formulas. There are many other documents you may find interesting as well.

    The problem with smoke fired decoration on once fired pots is that there is a lot of organic matter in the clay. This is normally burned out in a bisque firing. If you once fire, the organics burning out are probably obscuring your decoration. I’d get rid of the foil and just try using terra-sig, soda ash and other smoke resists to decorate the pots. See my article.

    There are a lot of post firing decorating techniques that can be used as well.

    Kate – I’ve done naked raku. Wally Asselbergs is a good friend of mine. Actually, the slip and glaze in naked raku are acting as a resist against the smoke. Yet another semipermiable resist technique.

    My email address is on my website if you want to contact me directly.

    Russel

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