I like to believe that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks. In my years as a potter, I had never been overly interested in the prospect of using wax resist. Perhaps I had used it in a beginning college clay class and didn’t respect the care needed in its application. Perhaps I had just never found it to be a necessary tool in my own artistic pursuits. Nor have I really done a lot of carving into the clay to adorn my pots. But when conceiving how to create some new pieces I was sketching, where bands of sgraffito patterns meet glossy, brilliant glaze, it became apparent that I would need to add wax resist to my technique arsenal. I’ve since thoroughly enjoyed using it in my work.
Begin by centering a 4-pound ball of clay on the potter’s wheel. Your left hand keeps the clay centered while your right hand presses down in a karate-chop fashion to flatten and compress the clay. Once centered and flattened to about inch thick throughout the bottom, lift the lip of the platter. Use your left hand to support the clay on the inside/top of the form, while your right hand presses in to lift the clay (1). Then, pull the clay up and out to allow ample room for a decorative border (2). I like to lift my walls slightly taller than I need them at the beginning and then flatten them wider once the clay has stiffened up a bit to prevent the dreaded flop-over that can occur when stretching the clay out too far. After about 30 minutes, use a rib to flatten the lip and refine the form (3).
1 Pull the clay up from a centered and flattened lump to create a lip.
2 Use a rubber or metal rib to create a smooth, gradual slope to your plate.
3 After stiffening, create a ledge separating the rim from the interior.
4 When the clay is leather hard, flip it upside down. Use a small trimming tool to remove excess clay, leaving a -inch-thick plate.
Trimming and Defining Space
Once the clay has become leather hard, trim the bottom of the platter to create a foot ring. I use a small loop tool to take off the majority of the clay since it has less tool-to-clay surface area meaning less friction, and thus less chance of the platter being pulled off center (4). Once the desired amount of clay is removed (leaving a -inch wall throughout), I use a larger trimming tool to level the surface and remove any trimming marks (5). I want the marks I make when carving my design to be the only information for the viewer to read. Use a pencil to demarcate where you may want to sign the bottom of the form, as well as a border to the underside of the lip.
With the bottom trimmed and finished, center the piece face-up and use a pencil to mark a crisp line to create a definitive border between the carved underglaze area and the glazed center (6). To ensure that the glaze applied later has an adequate thickness all the way to the edge, use a small loop tool to create a slight shelf on the inside of the border.
5 Use a large, flat trimming tool to remove trimming marks to create a smooth underside to the plate.
6 Turn the plate right-side up, then recenter the piece. Use a small trimming tool to refine a crisp edge for the glaze interior.
7 Apply underglaze to the bottom first, so that you don’t mar the underglaze on the rim by later placing the plate upside down.
8 Lay out an image or pattern around the rim using a sharp drawing pencil or a needle tool.
Underglaze and Carving
When the clay reaches late leather hard to nearly bone dry, apply multiple coats of AMACO Velvet underglaze using a hakame brush and a banding wheel. First apply the underglaze to the underside, including the outside border and the foot (7). Flipping the piece right side up, apply a generous coat to the outside border.
Once the underglaze has dried just to the point of not being tacky, begin sketching out a design with either a freshly sharpened pencil or a needle tool (8). Carving while the underglaze still has a bit of moisture allows for smoothing over any mistakes in the sketch. After the design is laid out, use a Kemper WLS Wire Loop Sgraffito Tool to remove the underglaze and create your pattern (9, 10). Sometimes I carve softly to create a smooth, pure white surface. Other times I prefer to be a bit more aggressive, leaving my carving marks and a bit of the underglaze, which shows the process in the finished piece. In both instances I want my work to look carefully hand-crafted.
After the top is finished, turn the piece over and repeat the process on the bottom of the form (11). The carving process leaves the clay surface with some small burrs. Don’t attempt to remove them at this point as you run the risk of the white clay discoloring the underglaze.
Slowly dry and bisque fire the piece. Then, use a small piece of wet/dry sandpaper to remove any burrs from the carved clay and give it a rinse in the sink. Allow the piece to dry.
9 Use a thin-tipped carving tool to thicken up the lines and edges of the drawn image.
10 Remove layers of underglaze to add depth to the image. Carving deeper into the clay will result in a flat white color.
11 Carving shallow, wispy strokes creates a visual mix of bare clay and underglaze, resulting in a variety of textures and shading.
12 After bisque firing, pour a clear glaze onto the border of the plate. Glaze the underside and foot interior as well.
Waxing and Glazing
Brush, pour, or spray a coat of clear glaze onto the underside and border of the platter (12). A thinly brushed coat, left intentionally uneven, can create a semi-gloss surface that contrasts nicely with the liner glaze. Once the clear glaze has dried thoroughly and you’ve wiped the foot clean, use wax resist (I prefer Aftosa brand), a banding wheel, and brush to completely cover any surface that has already been glazed, being careful not to allow any wax to flow onto the center of the platter, as this will prevent your liner glaze from adhering (13). Most wax resist comes very viscous, so I like to water mine down a bit to make it more brushable. Note: It’s important to let the glaze dry thoroughly as adding the wax before the glaze is completely dry can make the glaze peel off of the clay surface. Tip: Wash your brush with hot soapy water immediately after using wax resist.
When the wax is dry, pour a liner glaze into the center of the platter, swirl it around for 3–5 seconds, then pour it out (14). The waxed area will resist the liner glaze, leaving the carved portion untouched. If any small beads of glaze remain, carefully wipe them away with a damp sponge. After a day of drying, fire the piece to cone 6 using a slow cool program. I slow cool my glazes to achieve a semi-matte surface, allowing for more interesting surprises when I open the kiln.
13 Allow the plate to fully dry, then coat the clear glaze with wax resist. Don’t apply wax to any part you wish to further glaze.
14 When the wax is dry, pour a contrasting glaze into the interior of the form, make sure it’s fully coated, then pour it out.
After the pieces are unloaded, the foot ring and any sharp spots are brushed over lightly with a diamond sanding pad to smooth them out, before sending the pieces off to the gallery. Then it’s time to return to the studio, to see if this old dog can learn even more new tricks.
Clay Cunningham is a potter, painter, and art instructor. He lives in Council Bluffs, Iowa with his family. He attributes most of his artistic vision to the late Russ Schmaljohn, who taught at Northwest Missouri State University. His work can be found at the Old Market Artists Gallery in Omaha, Nebraska, (www.oldmarketartists.com). Check out claycunninghamceramics.webs.com, Instagram: @clay657, and Facebook.com/Clay Cunningham.
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