As important as technical skill and craftsmanship are in making forms in clay, I do believe the most important aspect of any form is design. Without good design, no amount of technical ability will make a piece succeed.
The clean profiles associated with mid-century Scandinavian aesthetics are the foundations of my aesthetic approach. I doodle shapes on paper, and if something catches my eye, I explore and expand on that idea. Additional inspiration comes from parts of flower and seed pods. I find these to have such potential for functional forms and reference them as I sketch out shapes. Recently, an open hibiscus seed pod caught my eye and I played around with various sketches until I landed on a design for a bowl form. Once the design was conceived, all I had to determine was the best technique to create the form out of clay. Should I throw it on the wheel, handbuild it, or combine the two?
Creating a Bisque Drop Mold
To create a lobed drop mold for the bowl form, throw two short, wide, bottomless cylinders of equal height and diameter using 1½ pounds of clay for each one. Before cutting the cylinder from the bat, lubricate the interior of the cylinder, then use your fingers to elongate the circle into an oval shape. Cut the cylinder from the bat with a wire tool, then stretch each cylinder into a pointed oval shape (1). Set these aside to firm up to leather hard.
Once leather hard, determine how long you want each lobe of the bowl to be and measure that lobe length with a ruler, starting at what will be the tip of the lobe. Do this to both cylinders. Next, bevel cut each segment (2).
Score and slip each cut end. Carefully join the pieces together (3), and clean up any excess slip from the attachments. Measure each lobe to make sure they are all equal distance apart (4). Finally, allow this form (soon to be a drop mold) to dry before bisque firing it to cone 08.
Roll out a slab of clay then drape it over the bisque mold (5), being careful to lift the clay up along the sides of the mold to encourage the clay slab to slump. Be careful to not let the clay drop into the tight, pointed areas where the lobes connect to each other, because this would create areas that are too thin.
When the slab is sufficiently positioned over the drop mold, use a small bean bag made from a soft cloth (I used t-shirt material filled with sand and taped closed) to lightly pounce the slab so that it slumps evenly (6). Be careful to keep the slumping even throughout each arm of the form. Make sure that the center of the bowl is lower than the outer points of each lobe, and that there is an edge or crease on the outer portion of the bowl so that you’ll have a distinct guide line to cut along. Trim the excess clay from the edges of the mold, then set the slab and mold aside to dry to leather hard.
Once it’s leather hard, set the drop mold on top of foam and cut off the excess clay while holding the bowl securely against the drop mold. I do this by running a wire tool across the top of the drop mold, ensuring an even cut along the top of the bowl (7). Once the excess clay is removed the foam allows the bowl to drop through the mold without damaging or warping the curved part of the bowl. Turn the bowl upside down onto a bat and set it aside to firm up just past the leather-hard stage.
Adding Feet for Lift
For this bowl I chose to add feet to lift the bowl up off the table and give it a sense of stature as well as physical lightness. If it were sitting on its belly, it would visually look heavy. I designed the legs to echo the shape of the arms.
From a slab of clay, cut a partial circle to shape into the cone or body of the foot. Cut into four equal sections Shape one section around the tip of a spout maker (a thick wooden dowel with a point on one end), firmly pressing the cut out shape over the form so the curve is created (8).
Next, cut a circle to use for the front of the foot. Set the circle and body of the foot aside to dry until leather hard. Bevel the edges of each shape then score, slip, and attach the two pieces together (9). Clean any excess slip off the form and set aside. Repeat this with the remaining two feet. Allow the feet to firm up.
Before attaching the feet to the body, cut the circle in half, then place it flush to the edge of the curved body to do a dry fit (10). Once positioned, place a board over all three feet and use a level to determine if the feet are evenly placed so that, when set upright, the bowl will be level (11). This generally means I have to reposition one or more of the feet. Test the level at various positions to help find the proper height and location for the feet.
Mark the outline of each foot with a needle tool. Score and slip both the underside of the bowl and the foot. Attach each foot, then clean and refine the attachment (12). Take a needle tool and poke a hole to allow air and water vapor to escape to prevent any blow ups when bisque firing. Set the footed bowl aside to firm up.
Add Textured Walls
Adding vertical walls to each lobe of the bowl creates visual action, height, and substance. With another soft slab, use a textured rolling pin to indent the clay creating a look similar to corrugated cardboard (13). You can use whatever texture you desire.
Measure the lobe on the bowl using a flexible ruler to determine the length of the bottom part of the wall. Tip: Use a string cut to the exact length if a flexible ruler isn’t available. Make a template to uniformly cut the wall pieces from the textured slab (I made mine from a piece of sturdy, reusable tar paper) (14).
Cut out the wall shapes from the slab. While these shapes are still flexible, bend each piece in the middle to the approximate angle of the points in each lobe (15). If allowed to sit too long, the indented areas in the texture will crack when the piece is bent. I set these three forms aside to stiffen to leather hard.
When everything is leather hard, score and slip both the bottom of the wall piece and the top portion of each arm. Attach a wall to each arm of the bowl (16).
I felt there needed to be a frame or border between the base of the bowl and the walls. This creates a grounding structure or visual base for the textured walls.
I’ve tried various methods of forming this frame. I’ve rolled out thin coils, rolled out a slab and cut thin strips, and I’ve extruded coils. I found the extruded coils to be the most efficient. Score and slip along the seam of the wall and bowl. I don’t score or slip the coil because it’s too thin to do without damaging it.
Carefully attach the coil to the seam. Position your finger and thumb to the top and underside of the coil and run both finger and thumb across the entire length of the attached coil to ensure it’s securely attached to the form.
When all attachments are completed, clean up the rim and the indented texture of the wall (17). Because I want the texture to be visible from the top, I use a wooden-dowel tool and run it from the top down to the bottom, eliminating any debris and slip from the grooves. While this is time consuming, it’s important to the process because the overall form should be crisp and clean.
Glazing and Firing for Effect
When applying a glaze to the bisque-fired bowl, air pockets may develop in the textured walls and seams. As you encounter these areas, use a brush to force glaze into the exposed area. Make sure the feet are wiped clean where they will come in contact with the kiln shelf, taking care not to wipe too much glaze off the cone portion of the foot.
I use satin matte and crater glazes and glaze fire to cone 4 with a controlled cooling. After the kiln reaches temperature, I let it naturally drop 30°F, then slowly cool it another 50°F for 1½ hours. The glazes pull nicely from the edges, revealing an beautiful iron clay color that frames the glaze and accentuates the form.
I have made many of these bowls, some with the textured walls and others with flat walls, some with three lobes and some with four lobes. Some large and some small. Although it can be time consuming to create this bowl, there isn’t one part of it I would eliminate in order to save time. The effort put into making it is well worth the result.
Michael Hamlin lives and makes pots in Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated with a BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. He has a great passion for gardening and flower arranging and uses the plants he grows as inspiration for his vessel designs. Check out more at www.hamlin-smith.com.