Topic: Articles

A Potter’s Language

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One of the foundations of our work in clay has been the development of a language of marks. This visual language was built over a series of years while we explored color and design on ceramic surfaces. As pattern and marks are incorporated into our design language, our artistic voice becomes more refined and recognizable.

Small dishes have been an important part of the refinement of our expressive language. The small dish gives us a canvas for experimentation without a lot of commitment. We prefer to test ideas on small pots rather than test tiles because we can better judge how the techniques will work in real world scenarios. While small dishes allow us a greater freedom of experimentation, they also provide new customers with an entry level pot to begin their collection.

Bisque Slump Molds
Our small square dishes are formed in pre-made, bisque-fired slump molds. While molds can be made from plaster or purchased from a bisque supplier, we prefer to throw our molds on the wheel and bisque fire them. This eliminates any possible plaster contamination and allows us more freedom in size and shape.

To make your own, begin by throwing a series of shallow dishes on the potter’s wheel from pound of smooth, low-fire clay. Throw a wide shallow bowl with a flat bottom. The interior of the bowl should measure about 4 inches wide by 1 inch deep. It’s important that the bowl be given a flat rim in order to aid in the later trimming of the small square dishes (1).

Once the slump molds have dried, fire them to cone 04. The bisque-fired molds will be both durable and porous, and with care, they should last you for many years.


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1 Throw a shallow, flat-bottomed bowl using low-fire clay to use as a slump mold.


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2 After bisque firing the bowl, divide the rim in quarters with a permanent marker.


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3 Cut circles slightly larger than your mold. Press the slab into the mold, then cut from mark to mark to square your dish.


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4 Once leather hard, cut coils for feet. Bend into V shapes, score, slip, and attach. Add a decorative stamp at the ends of each foot.

 

Getting Started
Begin by marking the molds with a permanent marker to divide the rim into quarters (2). This gives you a guide for future cuts.
Roll out -inch-thick slabs and rib each slab on both sides to compress the clay and remove any canvas marks. When handling slabs, it’s important to always move them gently, avoiding bends and dents. Any mishandling of the slab will result in warping in the glaze firing.

Using a large cookie cutter, cut 5-inch circles from the slab. The slab circles should be just larger than the rim of the slump molds. Place each slab into a bisque mold then firmly tap the mold on a worktable in order to slump the clay into the mold. Use a smooth sponge to coax the slab into place if necessary.

Referring back to the marks made on the rims of the molds, use a fine needle tool to cut the edges of the dish into a square shape with slightly curved edges, cutting from mark to mark (3). Leave the cut dishes in the mold to firm up to leather hard.

Pretty Little Feet
The addition of little, heart-shaped, coiled feet elevate these dishes off the table and add a special touch for the user. Begin by rolling or extruding coils that are about 3⁄8 inch in diameter. Next, cut the coils into 1-inch-long pieces. Before proceeding, gently pinch the end of each coil, rolling it slightly between your fingers. This rounds the end, which ensures your customers won’t encounter sharp bits on the underside of the dish. These small details make a big difference in the quality of a finished piece.

Bend each segment into a V shape, just a little more acute than a 90° angle. Score on one side of each V and set aside. When the dishes are leather hard, remove them from the molds. Tip: Try working on a foam cushion at this stage, so you don’t damage the edges of the square dish. Score spaces for four feet on each dish, just at the edge of the flat area at on the bottom of each dish. Score, slip, and attach the feet in place, then stamp the ends of each V with a handmade stamp (4). Finally, clean up the edges, and set the dish aside to dry.


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5 After bisque firing, draw your designs lightly with a pencil. Fill in your drawing with underglazes.


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6 Outline your colorful underglaze designs with bold, black underglaze lines and shapes.


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7 Use a sponge pouncer to apply a thick, black underglaze border to the rim.


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8 Glaze with a clear or translucent glaze and fire to the cone your glaze requires.

 

A Small Canvas
After bisque firing, the little square dishes are ready to decorate. This is where the fun really begins! Draw on the dishes using No. 2 graphite pencils. Because graphite can smudge easily, take care to keep your drawings light. The graphite burns out in the firing; however, eraser marks leave a trace and resist glaze, so you never want to erase on a dish. Errant graphite marks can be rubbed out with a finger or damp sponge.

We use flexible rulers, compasses, and circle templates in order to create a variety of both complex and simple designs on the pieces.

Because you’re working on four-inch canvases, risk taking is encouraged! Be bold with your designs!

For us, this meant creating a language of usable marks. The first step is using a sketchbook daily and letting go of the idea that the sketchbook needs to be pretty. A good sketchbook will chronicle failures as well as successes. As we sketch, we discover which imagery resonates with us.

Alex prefers patterns that echo the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic he grew up with. For Lisa, a child of the 70s, the bold florals and psychedelic patterns of that period feel most like home.

Once your design is sketched, fill it in with a variety of underglaze colors (5). Next outline the colored underglaze shapes with a thick black underglaze line (6), including framing the rim of the squared dish in black underglaze (7).


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Brush Choice
One question we’re often asked is whether we have favorite brushes. Our answer is emphatically, “Yes!” We prefer to apply underglaze with Golden Taklon or white nylon artist brushes. The brushes hold up well to the abuse of glazing on rough surfaces and have just enough spring to move the underglaze around without taking it back off of the pot.

Glazing and Finishing
Apply wax resist to the feet, then dip each dish in Translucent White glaze (8). We recommend looking for a zinc-free glaze that lacks opacifiers. We choose to use a white, opacifier-free glaze because we prefer our colors to be a bit muted. We like that our end result is reminiscent of a faded vintage sign or a favorite concert tee shirt.


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Alex LaPella earned his BFA from the Appalachian Center for Arts and Crafts in Smithville, Tennessee. Lisa LaPella earned her BFA at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. The LaPellas create multiple lines of work at LaPella Pottery for both wholesale and retail markets. They travel to teach workshops and small classes on their techniques. Check out www.lapellapottery.com.

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