Topic: Articles

The Nature of Carving

Both functional and decorative, my carved porcelain pots are created to be joyful, tactile containers for nature’s beauty. I am greatly inspired by the flowing forms of botanicals as well as the graphic arts, including ornament, calligraphy, and historical patterns. The loose narratives in my work center on quiet, metaphorical expressions of life that celebrate themes of abundance, growth, and vitality.

My process for creating low-relief (bas-relief) carving is primarily reductive and has evolved over time as I have sought greater complexity and depth of relief. Work begins on the wheel, and I throw forms using enough clay to accommodate middle and background elements, and most top-level dimension. When needed, adding small bits of clay to areas such as leaf tips creates higher relief. It is more efficient to add a little clay using sculpture techniques than to throw pieces with much thicker walls that would require the removal of more background material.

Considering Plate and Surface Design

This carving project starts with a 9-inch plate without a flange, which offers a simple surface area to carve. Smaller plates and tiles are also ideal for carving practice. When creating a design, I refer to my sketches and botanical photos (found readily online), as well as botanical illustrations and historical patterns. I also keep plants in front of me to observe contours and the ways that leaves overlap.

On paper, I create a drawing to fit my wet-plate measurement (1), then scan and refine it in Photoshop. Tip: Scan and save your design digitally so it can be resized and reused.

1 Throw or handbuild a plate using a clay body without grog, then sketch a design on regular or tracing paper.

2 Shade the back of the paper with graphite to prepare to transfer the design onto the plate.

Creating the Plate Form

Using porcelain or a smooth stoneware without grog, throw or handbuild a plate with approximately 30% more clay than usual to account for reductive carving. I use a Laguna mid-range porcelain for its whiteness and translucency. Expect to adjust the amount of clay and wall thickness for future pieces based upon the degree of relief you wish to achieve.

Maintain a dense or substantial rim when forming the plate because carving that approaches an overly thin rim can lead to cracking. At the leather-hard stage, trim a foot-ring with an inside groove so the plate is ready for hanging without additional hardware. Tip: To maintain moisture, lightly mist the plate with water, then wrap in plastic and store in a damp box between carving sessions.

Transferring Designs and Carving Outlines

Shade the back of the drawing with pencil (or use carbon paper) (2). With medium pressure, transfer the design onto the clay surface by impressing outlines with a blue ballpoint pen. The ink visibly marks the tracing process and minimizes tearing of the paper (3). Next, refine the design on the clay surface with a soft-leaded pencil and roughly shade negative spaces to guard against accidentally removing clay that should remain (4). Carve the drawn outlines with a pointed loop tool.

While carving, frequently brush away clay crumbs, then lightly mist the plate with water to maintain moisture. If the clay becomes too dry, carving becomes more difficult and creates more dust, and the plate will become more fragile. Avoid over-misting, which can make the surface become gummy and cause carving tools to cut too deeply. Since the rim dries easily, keep it covered in plastic as much as possible when working.

3 Transfer the design by impressing it onto the plate surface with a ballpoint pen, or sketch directly on the plate with pencil.

4 Refine the plate sketch with pencil. Shade the negative space as a guide for background removal.

5 Carve outlines with a sharp, fine-tipped tool. Remove background in larger areas, then move to smaller areas.

6 Carefully smooth the background areas where clay was removed with a damp sponge.

Removing Background and Smoothing

Use flat-sided carving tools to remove even amounts of background (5). Shave away clay in successive passes, removing up to approximately ¼ inch overall to make the background level. As needed, change from medium- to smaller-sized tools with profiles that suit tight spaces. Dental or wax-modeling tools are ideal. Assess the plate’s weight to decide if it feels about right. If it feels heavy, remove more background and take the relief a little deeper. The goal is a structurally sound plate that is not overly heavy.

Smooth background areas with a well wrung-out, damp sponge, pinching it to fit into smaller spaces (6). Rinse the sponge frequently to avoid slip build up. Lightly smooth raised elements, making sure not to rub down the relief. Cut-up yellow sponges work well, as do flat-tipped paintbrushes for reaching tight areas. Refine the background with detail tools, and assess raised areas to decide whether a leaf or petal’s tip, for example, needs to be a bit higher. If so, score and lightly wet that spot, add a tiny coil of clay, compress well, and sponge smooth (7). Patience here is key. I call this the ugly stage because the carving still looks crude. It takes a considerable amount of time spent carving and sponging to make the relief uniform before moving on to detail work.

Carving Contours and Details

Referring to your drawing, as well as plant specimens and photos, carve contours and create undercuts—slight recessed areas under the edges of elements—where a tinted transparent glaze can pool. These areas contribute to the impression of depth and shadow (8). I find that contours bring even stylized designs like mine to life because in nature, nothing is perfectly flat! Next, alternate between adding background texture with a ball stylus and continuing to refine elements using small tools to carve details on petals, veins on leaves, and texture on branches (9). At this stage, small paintbrushes dipped in a bit of water are ideal for cleanup.

7 Refine the background relief with detail tools, then add clay to build up areas if needed, compress, and sponge smooth.

8 Carve contours and create undercuts to further refine imagery using a Kemper wire stylus and mini wire sculpting tools.

9 Carve details and add background texture using dental or wax modeling tools, and ball styluses.

10 Sculpt a bee and add delicate decorative elements using slip and a slip trailer.

Slip Trailing and Drying

The last steps before firing are sculpting the bee and adding delicate elements, such as flower stamens, via slip trailing with deflocculated slip made from my clay body (10). Once the bee’s slip is firm but still moist, compress, sponge smooth, and then carve and impress details to define its form.

Dry the plate evenly under plastic with extra protection around the rim for several days, flipping it once to allow the foot ring to become drier, then flipping it back and gradually loosening the plastic as drying progresses. Drying is completed on wire shelving for even air flow until the plate is bone dry.

Glazing and Firings

After bisque firing the plate, sand any necessary areas with super-fine sandpaper, remove tiny burs in carved areas, rinse, and dry the plate. When glazing, I first spritz the carved surface with water and then use a combination of dipping, pouring, and brushing to apply my celadon-like transparent glaze that I tint with stains. Lightly dampening the surface before glazing helps to lessen air bubbles created when dipping a highly textured surface, and brushing helps to coax glaze into crevices. Once the glaze is dry, lightly rub out any bubbles and retouch the glaze as needed. After glaze firing to cone 6 in oxidation, the bee and selected details are coated with 22k gold luster to symbolize bees’ preciousness in our ecosystem.

Grace DePledge is a small-batch potter working from her home studio in the mountains of Oakhurst, California. Find more of her work at www.gracedepledge.com, and on Facebook and Instagram @gracedepledgepottery.

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