Using the potter’s wheel, I create clean, simple forms to showcase saturated surface decorations. I create visual and physical layering using multiple surface decoration techniques paired with a runny translucent glaze. This layering plays off of the subtle distortion of two-dimensional shapes on a three-dimensional object. Making multiple items for one piece, such as a lidded teacup and saucer, is when decoration becomes the most exciting and challenging for me as a maker.
Throwing: Cup, Lid, Saucer
Start by throwing a teacup that’s wider at the bottom and tapered toward the rim, using 1 pound of clay (see figure 3). Measure the inside of the teacup rim with calipers in preparation for the lid.
Next, throw the lid upside down using about 3⁄4 of a pound of clay. Bring the clay into a centered mound that is taller than it is wide. Open the center and with a curve shaped like the inside of a bowl to give it some height, bring the walls to about ¼ inch thick. Taking care to maintain a thick rim while pulling the walls and shaping the inside, then split the rim, creating a flange to fit inside the lip of the teacup (1).
Lastly, throw a saucer using about 2 pounds of clay. Give the form a slight curve, but not too much as it will make trimming the inset for the teacup more difficult (2).
Trimming and Fit
Trim a desired profile and foot for the teacup. Use a soft rubber rib to burnish the clay as it spins on the wheel so it’s smooth and ready for surface decoration (3).
Check the lid fit and make sure it has a little wiggle room in its fit to account for the thickness of the glaze. Trim the lid, securing it flange-side down on the wheel. Trim away excess clay while defining the form of the lid to reflect the form of the teacup.
Next, trim the inset for the teacup in the saucer before trimming the foot of the saucer. Measure the foot of the teacup with calipers, set the saucer on the wheel head slightly off center then secure it with three chunks of soft clay. I place the foot well off center to allow more of the design to show when the teacup rests on the saucer, and to leave room to set a little snack on the saucer along with the cup. The asymmetry also lends itself to the overall composition. Trim an inset according to your caliper measurements and smooth the edges with a rib. Double-check the fit by setting the teacup into the new inset before flipping the saucer over to trim the foot.
Throwing a Knob
Center and secure the trimmed lid on the wheel, then slip, score, and attach a small ball of clay to the top center of the lid. Using a small amount of water, center the small ball, then wet your fingers and pull and squeeze to form a solid knob shape (4).
Decorating: Color Choices
I make my color choices based on how materials interact with each other and what I envision my finished work to look like. I’ve done many underglaze and glaze combination tests to help in planning more elaborate palettes (5). Discovering what patterns work on various forms comes from a sense of playfulness and lots of experimentation.
To begin, decide on the division of space between the multiple parts of the set. This includes the teacup handle, the knob, the bottom of the saucer, the lid, and the teacup body. Don’t neglect a surface simply because it’s not seen when the piece is sitting idle. The cohesion between all three pieces, and their parts, comes from a repetition of elements and not necessarily a duplication of pattern. Use a different yet relatable pattern for each component.
Paper stencils can be made from cheap printer paper. I use different sized circular paper punches purchased from the scrapbooking section at craft stores. For stripes, I use a paper cutter or a ruler and cut different widths and lengths. You can cut out any shape you want, but sometimes extremely complex or large shapes can be difficult to wrap around the surface of a pot.
When placing larger stencils onto round forms, you will have excess paper as the shape wraps around the pot. You can fold this excess into a V shape to get it out of the way, but this often distorts the shape of your stencil. Alternatively, consider using multiple small stencils to create the whole blocked off area.
Wipe down each piece with a damp sponge to ensure the surfaces are smooth and clean. Drop your paper stencils into a dish of tepid water (6). They only need a small amount of time to become saturated—you’ll know this when the paper turns a darker tint than when it’s dry. Pluck a stencil from the water and pull it between two fingers to squeegee off excess water. Apply the stencil to the leather-hard surface of the teacup. The stencil can be repositioned before it starts to really stick to the clay. Put it in its final position and pat it down with a damp sponge (7), or your fingertip. Continue this process all over the surface until your design is in place. Take a look at each stencil connection over difficult areas such as rims or deep curves to ensure that they’re flush against the clay. Press them back down with a damp sponge when necessary.
Brush on a generous first coat of underglaze—I use AMACO Velvet underglazes. Take care to brush in every direction, as the edges of the paper may cause you to miss spots otherwise. Once the first coat has lost its shine, move on to the second and third coats. Three layers will provide an opaque background of underglaze. As these coats are drying, switch to applying stencils to the saucer or lid and begin adding their background color (8).
Make sure that the underglaze has dried so it won’t smudge before peeling the stencils off using the tip of an X-Acto blade.
Note: paper won’t always burn out if it’s encased in underglaze. Add decoration to the bottom of the saucer as well. Hidden details like this can set your work apart and surprise the people who use it (9).
Accents of stripes or spots added in a different color help to add depth and variation to the surface. Apply more paper stencils using the same method as on the background layer to add the accent layer (10). When placing the accents, it isn’t necessary to worry about a visual imbalance as the final decoration layer of underglaze inlay or mishima can be used to tie the entire composition together.
Before moving on, clean up each piece, including the teacup foot, to make the edges crisp (11). Next, apply wax resist, covering the outside of the lid, along with the entire top and inside of the foot ring of the saucer, and the teacup from foot to lip (still without a handle). When applying cold wax, use a generous amount and brush in all directions to get into the raised edges of the underglaze and create one consistent coat.
After the wax dries, add mishima inlay patterns. Use an X-Acto blade to incise thin line designs through the wax and into the clay (12). This is the final chance to create balance in the surface decoration. After the lines are finished, brush underglaze into the lines (13). Use a sponge to gently wipe away all excess beads of underglaze that pooled on the surface of the wax.
At some point during the surface decorating period, take a moment to pull a handle for the teacup and allow it to set up to leather hard.
With both the teacup and the handle at the leather-hard stage, trace the outline of the handle’s connection points onto the cup. Score through the wax in those areas to ensure a strong attachment, apply slip to each part and attach the handle to the cup.
Allow the handle to set up on the pot, then clean up the surfaces around the handle so they’re smooth. Coat the handle with wax, let it dry, and add mishima inlay lines to integrate it into the entire composition of the lidded teacup and saucer (14).
Glazing and Firing
Bisque fire your pieces. Prior to glazing, wet sand the feet in the areas where the clay will remain exposed. Also sand any sharp edges of clay from the mishima and remove all wax ash by sanding and wiping. Clean off any dust and sandpaper residue, then dip the pieces into glaze—I use Jeff Campana’s Clear Base glaze and add copper carbonate for a turquoise, Praseodymium Yellow Mason stain for a bright yellow, or Best Black Mason stain for a rich black. Clean off the feet with a sponge and fire the three pieces separately to your maturing temperature.
Rachel Donner has completed various assistantships and residencies, the most recent being at Core Clay in Cincinnati, Ohio. She just settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico to focus on the production of her ceramic work. To see more of her pieces and process, check out www.racheladonner.com or Instagram @666_tinka.
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