Topic: Articles

The Inspired Vessel

SD_large jug and platter RT


Born and raised in Cornwall, in the far south west of England, I knew right from the start of my ceramics career that my studio would be in St. Ives. Just twenty miles from my hometown, this small, pretty fishing port has been known as an artists colony since the late 1800s. In 1920 Bernard Leach arrived here with his young family, and Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada, setting up the Leach Pottery with its Japanese climbing kiln. From this grew a unique creative mix of artists, potters, and writers that continues to live and work in St. Ives to this day.

After graduating from Cardiff University, I established my first pottery in 1993. Since 2002 I have worked from the Gaolyard Studios, founded by former Leach potter John Bedding. Early in my student days, I discovered slab building and this is the construction method I have used ever since. For some years my work was made in porcelain—delicate intricate forms with a glossy high-fired finish. However my sketchbooks (1), an important element in my practice, contain a collection of sketches and found images, details, color, and texture, rather than drawings of any final form. The desire to reflect this more closely in my work led me to completely change the materials I was working with. I began to play on the surface of the clay more using colored porcelain slips, painting, printing, and making transfers—similar to what I was doing in my sketchbook—and experimenting with new finishes and techniques.

Figure 1.

As my work changed, I found that the surface decoration was now largely obscuring the translucency of the porcelain. I wanted greater freedom of scale and construction, and I realized that I could achieve this using stoneware clay for the slabs. Over many years I perfected a method of creating porcelain transfers that finally gave me the look I had been searching for. I paint the porcelain slip onto a sheet of newsprint, then when just dry enough I draw the pattern or image onto it with a needle tool. Unwanted areas of slip are then removed and the resulting image is transferred onto the prepared stoneware slab. My finished pots take a variety of forms ranging from 2-inch tall beakers to 16-inch tall jugs and platters that are up to 19 inches in diameter.

Prepping the Body

As with all my pots, the bottle form has a set of paper templates—designed through trial and error—to create the final shape. All the decoration is applied while the clay is a flat slab; once the piece is assembled there is only minimal finishing and glazing to be done.

First roll out a 316-inch-thick slab of pale-colored stoneware clay for a bottle form. Cut out the template shapes (2). Cover the remaining clay slab to keep it moist to make the top, bottom, and neck at a later stage.

Figure 2.

I then paint the slab with colored slips, building up layers to give the depth of color I want and leaving the clay raw in a strip where the seam will be (3). While the slips are drying, I start creating the transfer.

Figure 3.

Note: There is no definitive time scale for the drying/stiffening process: I build all my work free hand, without molds, and judging when a slab is ready to be assembled is simply a matter of experience. It’s critically important that no part of the slab is allowed to dry too much—if any part dries too much, it can be rehydrated by placing it on damp newspaper and covering it with plastic.

Creating a Transfer

Start by painting a thick layer of porcelain slip onto newsprint (4). This sheet is then set on top of a dry plaster bat to remove excess moisture, before being placed back on the work table. Again, experience will tell when the surface is dry enough to be worked.

Figure 4.

Using my sketchbook as a reference, I draw into the slip with a needle tool until the entire design is outlined (5). Tip: To keep the surface from drying out, I periodically lift the sheet and dampen the table underneath with a spray bottle. When the slip on the newsprint loses its sheen, I remove unwanted areas of slip using a scalpel, leaving only the design (6).

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

Applying the Transfer

Next, place the completed transfer face down on the painted slab and very gently work with a rolling pin to apply pressure and join the slipped image to the slab (7). Then carefully peel back the newsprint, leaving the image in place (8). Sometimes it’s necessary to encourage the transfer to stick by applying light pressure as the paper peels away.

Figure 7.

Figure 8.

Forming the Bottle

While the clay is still very malleable, lift the slab to form a cylinder, being careful not to smudge the decoration (9 and 10). Score and use slurry to seal the join (11). Use a wooden dowel on the interior of the cylinder pressed up against the seam, and secure the join with light pressure on the slab from your hand on the outside (12).

My work has always drawn inspiration from functional metal objects and, in keeping with this industrial aesthetic, I leave some edges and joins raw and rough to resemble welded seams.

Figure 9.

Figure 10.

Figure 11.

Figure 12.

Adding Attachments

The cylinder now has to firm up so that it can be handled without warping it or marring the surface—at least a few hours, often overnight if covered with plastic or a bucket. Once it’s stiff enough to hold it’s shape (a bit softer than leather hard), place it on the left-over clay slab to mark the shapes needed for the top and bottom pieces. Cut these about 18 inch bigger all round than the cylinder, then score and add slip to the joins while assembling (13). Finally, roll over the joints with the dowel to bevel and finish them off.

Figure 13.

The neck of the bottle is formed from clay rolled slightly thinner than the main body. A hole is cut in the center of the cylinder top, and the neck is attached (14). Joints are moderately refined and potters’ marks are added to finish the piece (15). The completed piece is now left to dry slowly, under newspaper or plastic.

Figure 14.

Figure 15.

Firing and Finishing

Once dry, I bisque fire the bottle in an electric kiln to cone 06, then I glaze the inside with a transparent glaze. Next, I paint a wash of manganese dioxide and black iron oxide over the outside of the pot, which is then sponged off, leaving a faint residue in the edges and detail. Caution: Remember to wear rubber gloves and a dust mask and work in a well-ventilated area. I brush a bronze glaze onto the top and neck of the bottle and allow it to dry before firing it in an electric kiln to cone 6.

My unusual combination of materials and techniques pushes the limits of reliable production, and took years to perfect. The creation of intricate one-off transfers for each pot is very time consuming but is also very rewarding. For me, the rich velvety surface of the fired slips combined with the precise delicacy of the decoration most accurately expresses those moments that I captured in my sketchbooks.

Sarah Dunstan works from the Gaolyard Studios situated in St. Ives, Cornwall. She graduated from Cardiff University, then returned to her native Cornwall to established her first pottery in 1993. She was elected Fellow of the Craft Potters’ Association in 2012 and is represented by numerous galleries throughout England. Visit,, for more information and to see more images of her work.

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