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Your Art Does Not Have to Match Your Sofa!

Your art does not have to match your sofa: this has been my tongue-in-cheek mantra for many years. That said, I decorate my pots with drawings of birds in conversation and imaginary flowers influenced by the color combinations on 1930’s-era fabrics. I like to have fun with my images. Making my birds smile and roll their eyes is important to me and my customers tell me how much they enjoy having my pieces on their table. My vases are wheel-thrown, altered, and stretched. I put a lot of consideration into the design of the vases in relation to the shapes of the flowers I might put on them.

I’m not afraid of color. Previously, I worked with low-fire clay, commercial underglazes, and a clear glaze. But changing to a mid-range clay after attending a workshop with Rimas VisGirda was a giant step in another direction. He fired his underglazes to cone 5 to obtain a richer color saturation, which certainly got my attention. After that, my vases took on new life.

Sometime later I found some pottery shards washed up on the beach. The shards had been buffeted by the rocks and the sea and the glaze had worn off in places. From them, I was inspired to create cracked and weathered surfaces on my vases.

I wanted my pots to look as if they had been buried for years. I knew that my clay body had to remain soft and pliable, but I needed to figure out how to give the surface a natural crackle look. I wanted to push on the walls and stretch the surfaces in various places without poking through them. A damp box, along with applying wax to the surface at key points in the process to get a crackle effect, was my solution.

1 Throw a tall vase form on the wheel, trim it, and allow it to form up just enough so it can still be manipulated.

2 Exaggerate the shape by pushing with your fingers. Add decorative handles and brush a white slip over the entire vase.

3 Place the vase in a damp box, or under several layers of plastic, to firm up but remain pliable. This might take a few days.

4 Lightly draw on the vase with a sharp wooden skewer to create a visible outline of a narrative.

To make a damp box, I took a large plastic storage container (20×36 inches) with a tight fitting lid. On the inside bottom of the container, I poured two inches of plaster and let it set up. Now, by spritzing the plaster, I can create a damp environment that enables my pots to remain flexible for as long as I wish (see 3).

Designing a Shape

I throw with red clay and trim my vases while they’re still on the wheel (1). After the vase is firm, I alter it by gently exaggerating the shape with my fingers and a long bull’s tongue rib and I add decorative handles (2). Next, I brush on white slip over the entire surface. At this point, I place the vase in the damp box and allow it to firm up-—this may take a few days (3).

5 Brush the drawings with various colors of commercial underglazes. The coverage of the underglaze can vary throughout.

6 After the underglazes dry, use a damp (not wet) cosmetic sponge to remove some color creating a weathered look.

7 Coat the exterior with thickened wax. Allow the wax to harden, but keep the clay soft and pliable.

8 When the wax is no longer sticky, gently push and stretch the pot until the thick wax cracks.

Designing a Surface

Remove the vase from the moisture box. First, I sketch on the pot with intended drawings and color selections, then I lightly draw on the vase with a sharp wooden skewer to create a visible outline of the narrative (4). I paint the drawings with bright shades of AMACO, Duncan, and Spectrum commercial underglazes (5). When the underglazes are dry on the vase, I use a cosmetic sponge to gently wipe off some of the color to give the vase a weathered look (6).

Because I want a crackled surface to emphasize the weathered appearance, I coat the exterior with wax (I use Forbes wax) (7). After it dries, the wax cracks when manipulated. I find that more cracks result after I use thicker wax. I let the wax thicken by a exposing it to the air until it reaches a cream-like texture. After applying wax, I put the piece back into the damp box to dry the wax, but not let the clay dry out. I still need the vase to be flexible.

9 Let the vase dry under plastic to set up, then use a wooden skewer to outline the drawing through the wax.

10 Paint black stain over the entire vase. The black wash will seep into all the drawing lines and wax cracks.

11 Allow the vase to dry overnight, then wipe off the wash with a damp sponge and a scouring pad to soften the burrs.

12 I decorate the underside of my pots with underglaze. Underglaze won’t stick to kilns shelves during a firing.

I carefully take the waxed vase out of the damp box. The surface should not be sticky. I begin to gently use my fingers or my long-handled handmade sticks to push out and shape the vase from the interior of the pot (8). Cracks will appear on the surface of the wax. At this point, I can decide how many cracks I want on the surface, then I let the vase dry under plastic for a few hours to set up.

Now, I use a wooden skewer to outline the drawing through the wax (9). Wearing rubber gloves, paint a black stain wash all over the vase. The black wash seeps into all the drawing lines and wax cracks (10). Let the vase dry overnight; then, put your gloves back on to wipe off the wash with a damp sponge. In addition, I wipe the surface with a green kitchen scouring pad sponge to soften the burrs created from the drawing stick (11). Allow the pot to fully dry. I bisque fire to cone 06, firing the ramp/cooling schedule as advised in the Skutt kiln manual.

I think about how the flowers and birds fit onto the shapes of my vases. The way that they fill the negative space around the vase is an essential part of my design process. My Finger-Handle vase (above left) forces flowers to sit straight up, which is a nice setting for the birds in conversation drawn on the vase. The pair of Wing vases (above center and right) allow flowers to create a fan-like shape. I really enjoy the contrast of fresh flowers with my cracked and weathered vases.

Glazing

After the bisque firing, I sand off any rough spots (always wearing gloves and a dust mask), then I wipe the surface clean with a sponge. Next, I coat the interior of the vase with a homemade satin glaze. On the bottom of my vases, I make dots with white underglaze outlined with black underglaze and add my name (12). It’s good to surprise people with a decorated bottom. I glaze fire to cone 5 (2163°F (1184°C)), again using the ramp/cooling schedule adapted from the Skutt manual.

After the firing, I apply a commercial tile sealer (I use Professional’s Choice: Matte Finish Sealer) over the exterior of the vase to protect the surface.

My process isn’t a fast process. It has forced me to slow down, pay attention to details, and keep good records. And yes, I open the kiln way too early to take a peek!

 

Scot Cameron-Bell is a studio potter living in Portland, Oregon. She has exhibited in many shows across the country and has been featured in several ceramic publications. To see more of her work, visit www.scotcameron-bell.com and follow her on Instagram @scotcameronbellceramics.

Subscriber Extras: Article and Images

Click here to read the archive article Creating a Weathered Patina by Dennis Maust.

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