How to Use Subtractive Layering to Make Surfaces with Great Depth

Angelique Tassistro’s intense layered surfaces came about through what we in the ceramics world call a happy accident. After spending hours creating a checkered pattern on a large platter, she dripped an unwanted blob of glaze smack dab in the middle.  


Halfway through cleaning off the platter, she saw a lovely line that was softer and less rigid, and she realized she was on to something. In today’s post, an excerpt from the September/October 2013 Pottery Making Illustrated, Angelique explains how she creates her signature surfaces.- Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Imagine hours spent strategically glazing one platter with the perfect-checkered pattern. Then, imagine as one of the last dots is being applied, a giant blob drips from the paintbrush splattering the perfect design. This happened to me. It was late, and I was completely exhausted! But the pressure of deadlines was ever present. At that point, it seemed the only thing left to do was to wash it all off and start fresh. And then, half way through cleaning off the platter and through the tears, I saw something quite lovely. It was less rigid, less defined, it was softer and sweeter. Since the “incident” as I know call it, my process has evolved organically. I create bold patterns and wash them away to discover something a little more subtle and understated, yet at the same time, with surprisingly more complexity and depth.



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My surfaces are created by layering five different underglazes, one on top of another. Two colors cover the entire piece and are then complimented by three accent colors. I use a mix of Amaco Velvet underglazes and Spectrum underglazes. Sometimes I mix the two brands together to get the unique color I’m looking for. If this is your first attempt at layering color and working with underglazes, I suggest you make it easy on yourself and select five commercial colors that appeal to you. Choose your color palette the same way you would if decorating your living room. For example, choose a neutral base with a complementary partner and then pick three accent colors that go well together but don’t necessarily match. Be bold and have fun with your color choices.


After each step, you will need to allow your piece to dry completely. It is vitally essential to the process that you do this. Obviously, this can be a bit time consuming. I recommend breaking the steps up according to what can be done day by day. This is a minimum three-day process.



Day One: Layer


Start with a clean, dry, bisqued piece—make sure all dust and dirt are washed off and have been allowed to dry overnight. If the clay is even the slightest bit wet, it won’t absorb the color properly. With a large mop brush, cover the entire piece with your base color (figure 1). It should be thick enough so you can’t see through it to the bare clay. If the underglaze is really thick, water it down and go with two thin layers. Make sure all brush marks and drips are cleaned up with either a wet brush or a sponge before this layer completely dries. If the bisque piece is dry, it will absorb the glaze quickly, and you will be ready for the next step in about 10 minutes.


Tip: If you start with the piece upside down, you can flip it over so that it rests on its foot and finish the first layer without a wait.


Next, with a large wet mop brush, apply the second layer of underglaze color (figure 2). While this second layer is still wet, carve a pattern into the surface. Think about a pattern ahead of time, making sure that you have space for three accent colors. While carving, use very little pressure so as not scratch or gouge the clay. You’re only carving through the 2nd layer of color, revealing the base layer (figure 3). Work in smaller sections and more quickly if the top layer of color starts to dry.


Tip: Use a banding wheel so that you can move your piece quickly without having to touch it.


Again, pay attention to the thickness of the underglaze. If it is thick or seems slightly dry, wet your brush a little before you apply more color. (Some formulas are more “chalky” than others and tend to dry out quickly.) You might find it more helpful to cover the entire surface at once. This will give you a larger canvas for your pattern. Now, let everything dry just long enough so that the colors will not smudge or run together—generally 30 minutes.


Add Your Accent Colors


Adding accent colors is one of my favorite parts because the possibilities are endless. One slight shift in color can change the feel of the entire piece. When adding accents, it’s important to let each separate color dry completely before adding the next layer of color so that the colors don’t blend. I can’t stress this enough. For this particular pattern, I fill in the circles with a sea–grass colored underglaze (figure 4) and fill any open areas or larger spaces with big circles of hunter green underglaze (figure 5)
. Next, I go back with the wooden carving tool and add more carvings (figure 6). Lastly, I add small blue-green underglaze dots to all hatch marks (figure 7) or where the carved lines connect. Of course, this is not a rule, it’s just what I do. Use it as a starting point to create your own unique pattern. Tip: The three accent colors stay more dominant if they are darker in color than the base and top layers. When you’re finished, let the piece dry overnight. Try not to let it sit for more than 24 hours—there is such a thing as too dry. If you let the underglaze become too dry, you will have to scrub it off and you will lose all of your color in the washing off phase.


Day Two: Organic Water Works


Now comes the really fun part. The work done on day one will be washed away, but only part of it. Be sure to hold on to the piece tight because once it becomes wet, it will be slippery! Start on the bottom. Turn the faucet on so the water comes out in a light but steady drizzle and begin to rotate the piece under the stream of water. Don’t let the water run on any single spot for too long and continue to slightly rotate the piece. Holding the piece upside down, scrub the bottom of the foot really well using a sponge. Then, gently, and using very little pressure, start removing some of the layers of underglaze, again using a sponge (figure 8). If you start to see the color of your clay body, STOP! You don’t want to remove all of the color. If you see any thick spots or lumps of underglaze, lightly rub this area with your finger until it dissolves. (figure 9) When you’re happy with the effect, hold the piece on its side so all of the excess water runs off. Allow the piece to dry overnight.


Day Three: Creating Depth


Once the piece is completely dry. Gently rub the surface with a clean dry cloth to make sure there are no little bubbles left by the water or any large lumps of underglaze (figure 10). Using a black underglaze pencil, highlight the shapes and circles to further accentuate the design (figure 11). The dark pencil line will make your designs pop and give the piece depth. If you’re good with brushwork, feel free to use black underglaze and a fine tip brush. Next, cover the piece with a clear glaze (figure 12). I use two thin layers of clear transparent covered by one layer of transparent matte. Allow the glaze to dry and fire it again. Recently, I have started adding carved ledges or rims to platters and other serving pieces because I love the contrast of a black matte glazed rim opposite the wild, colorful glossy pattern of the interior (figure 13).


Finally, and most importantly, fill with food and enjoy the feast. It’s my goal to not only focus on the functionality of a piece, but also to create pieces that truly celebrate the relationship between food and art and that capture the essence of the feast in everyday life. By experimenting with this distinctive color process, I am able to create a piece with its own unique flavor.



Angelique lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina. She received two BAs from Louisiana State University in 2000 in Ceramics and Photography. She is the founder Fly Coop Studios. Her studio is open to the public and is located in the Asheville’s River Arts District.



For more interesting ceramic decorating techniques, download your free copy of Five Great Pottery Decorating Techniques: A How-to Guide for Decorating Ceramics with Slip Transfers, Chinese Brush Techniques, Ceramic Slip, Sgraffito, and More.


  • Jennifer H.

    Sorry folks! Chunks of the text mysteriously disappeared during the posting of this article. It’s all there now! Enjoy!

  • Molly .

    Do I have the whole article? It just stops after 3 lines under “Add accent colors” I would like to know the rest of the procedure

  • Judith S.

    Hi Angélique, Your demo is great. I would love to understand what you mean by underglaze. My underglazes seem more watery. Or do you mean slip. Or a base glaze ? I would very much appreciate your input. Judith, Geneva, Switzerland

  • Kevin K.

    Beautiful work. I usually use a scrubby to work through a top glaze to a lower layer after both glazes are dry. I’ll try this wet technique.

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