How to Make a Gestural Wheel-Thrown Mug

Sean O'Connell cuts an undulating rim in a mug form.

Sean O’Connell cuts an undulating rim in a mug form.

I really liked the following quote from Sean O’Connell’s recent article in Ceramics Monthly: “Technical ability grows naturally with experience, but conceptual rigor needs constant attention and exploration.” I think it is all too easy to let the conceptual rigor slide, yet paying attention to your influences and working hard to successfully mesh them with your technical abilities is a crucial part of making good pots.


In today’s post, Sean O’Connell discusses his influences and how he pays attention to them to make stronger pots. Plus he shares the process of making and decorating a gestural mug form. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Photo of Dish Stack, Red, earthenware with slip, shellac resist, underglaze, and glaze, by Sean O'Connell

Dish Stack, Red, earthenware with slip, shellac resist, underglaze, and glaze, by Sean O’Connell

I enter the studio with the understanding that influences are a significant part of my practice. They are integral to how and why I make pots. Some influences are specific, others a bit vague, and even others intangible. It’s like becoming familiar with a landscape; it is slow, measured, and requires exploration and time to develop a sense of where you belong.


The observations I make when looking at various sources or influences have a direct correlation to making work. For instance, architecture has taught me how to perceive shape and line from the volumes of buildings. I’ve developed a love of color from modernist painters like Richard Diebenkorn and Mark Rothko. The decorative traditions of Islamic and African cultures have had a profound effect on my aesthetic values. Through literature, philosophy, and the works of poets like Wallace Stevens, I have developed a framework of concepts that help to organize these associations. Finally, the history of ceramic art is the umbrella under which all of this finds a context. Utility provides the means of expression; it is poetry in use.



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My work informally combines these elements. I depend heavily on an association between the structure of form and the fluidity of surface composition. I use runny, drippy glazes and

undulating rims, bodies, and feet to soften the symmetry of wheel-thrown pieces. The surfaces have large amounts of expressive brushwork and dense color. The specific designs on the surface often range between floral abstractions and spontaneous mark making. Clay is left exposed and glazes are allowed to move as they please. These components are incorporated into a functional object designed to express beauty, gesture, and lyricism.




Those traits can be elusive. Technical ability grows naturally with experience, but conceptual rigor needs constant attention and exploration. In functional pottery, the concepts are simultaneously embedded in the idea of utility and its expression. In my case, I use color, pattern, and form to create an object configured for use as well as visual engagement. Color fields and tonal contrasts help to construct the landscape of the surface.


The pattern anchors color and form, giving both a more dramatic way of interacting. Combining these elements produces a utilitarian object defined not by the strictest needs of use, but by the ability to function on multiple levels of interaction with users, producing something you want to use because it performs its ordained task of service, but also introduces a sensibility beyond austerity, perhaps even poetic.



When throwing, I use a rib to create an undulating line in the body of the pot. The horizontal contoured line in the center of the pot is mirrored in the rim using a cutting wire (1). Later, this iscompressed and rolled over the outside edge. Gently pressing the soft edge of the foot upwards creates an effect similar to the body and lip contours. I attach the handle when the pot is leather hard (2).


SOConnellStep4SOConnellStep5The pot’s bottom half is dipped into an iron-rich slip made from a naturally occurring clay (3). Next, I pour white slip into the interior, then dip the exterior into the same slip (4). Large areas are first painted in shellac to define the area to be decorated and resist any wayward drips or smudges during the process. Next the design is painted on with shellac, which will act as a resist for the underglaze pigments (5).


After the shellac has thoroughly dried (approximately 30 minutes), I apply underglaze in several layers over the entire area (6). The shellac resists the pigment and adheres to the slipped surface. Later, any excess is wiped off of the resisted areas and the piece is allowed to dry before bisque firing. After applying a clear glaze or possibly a colored liner glaze, I fire the piece to cone 2 in an electric kiln.




To see more of Sean O’Connell’s work, visit




For more fabulous pottery making techniques, be sure to download your free copy of Five Great Pottery Wheel Throwing Techniques: Tips on Throwing Complex Pottery Forms Using Basic Throwing Skills.



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