Laying a Foundation for Layered Surfaces with Ceramic Engobes and Etching

Decorating Pottery with Ceramic Engobes and Etched Lines

ceramic engobeTo create surfaces with depth, it can be helpful to start applying decoration in the greenware stage. Colleen Riley does this as much as possible because she likes to have a little direction when it comes to the glazing stage. And also because it makes her surfaces spectacular!

Colleen has a number of ways to apply ceramic decoration in the greenware stage, and she shares a couple in today’s video clip, an excerpt from her video Layering Techniques for Sumptuous Surfaces. In this clip, Colleen applies the first layer of decoration—a ceramic engobe and etched designs that create subtle lines when the glaze breaks over top. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Five Great Ceramic Glazing Techniques

Pick up new glazing techniques when you download this freebieFive Great Ceramic Glazing Techniques.

To learn more about Colleen Riley or to see more images of her work, please visit

More from Colleen Riley

I grew up surrounded by textiles. My mother was an accomplished seamstress, performing a small miracle on every homecoming and prom dress she made for her four daughters. We spent many delightful hours together at the fabric store, in collaborative exploration of every possibility for an upcoming outfit. My grandmother, who lived nearby, always had a quilt, embroidery, or crochet project in the works. My father was stationed in India during World War II. He brought back artifacts that were profoundly exotic to a girl from the Midwest, such as a carved wooden cigarette box and an ivory-inlaid cribbage board. My favorite artifact was a piece of sari cloth woven with silver thread. Sadly, that cloth was destroyed in a flood many years ago, but it remains indelibly etched in my memory.

ceramic engobe

I admire the luscious bare clay surfaces produced in our soda kiln. But I’m also drawn to the rich, reactive surfaces of saturated matte glazes. In an effort to bring both into my work, I’ve refined a technique that exploits the best qualities of bare clay and glazed matte surfaces in a soda firing, while referencing the textures and patterns found in textiles. I start by applying slip to the leather-hard form (1). This is not a traditional thin flashing slip for soda firing, it’s made from my clay body, with added colorants such as iron and black stain, and mixed to a heavy cream consistency. Any favorite slip or ceramic engobe is worth a try, with or without colorants. After the slip or ceramic engobe has dried a bit, I scratch through the engobe to create a texture or rough pattern (2). This creates the impression of threads in a tapestry. I resist the tendency to over-design this bottom layer, considering that this texture will fight with the overlaying design if they are both too busy. (Always wear a dust mask when scratching or carving dry clay.)

After bisque firing, I add another design by brushing with wax resist, envisioning a subtractive effect similar to batik (3). After the wax dries, I pour or dip the final glaze layer (4). To avoid opaque, dense-looking surfaces, my glazes are generally applied thinner than they would be for traditional stoneware firing. This allows the underlying colored slip or ceramic engove and texture to bleed through, often creating a third different color.

ceramic engobe

Since this surface can be complex, the interior of a bowl is glazed simply (5). To create a subtle, ghosted effect I may add a complimentary design of the exterior in a slightly contrasting glaze underneath the liner glaze. Or, apply wax resist in a simple pattern near the rim of the glaze, keeping in mind that the soda is likely to affect bare clay only near the rim of the interior.

This two-step decorating process allows me to tap into my inner textile-designer self, giving great flexibility to explore patterns in a broad palette of slip/glaze effects. It’s taken a lot of experimentation to narrow down the most successful combinations, and every firing reveals yet more possibilities. The soda acts as a wash, softening the transition areas between bare clay, slip, and glaze, pulling the elements together into a more cohesive whole.

ceramic engobe

**First published in 2017.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Log In Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

Larger version of the image
Send this to a friend