As a functional potter with a penchant for patterns and textures, I keep trying to find new shapes and forms to play with. Functional bowls and mugs are great, but sometimes you need to explore new ideas and throw some clay on the wall. Sure, most people would get upset if the clay were still wet, but make something nice out of it first, and people will love to hang your forms on their walls.
About a year ago, I started making groupings of my round, textured wall pieces. It’s a great way to combine my wheel throwing and handbuilding skills with my love of textures and patterns. The majority of my work is soda-fired, and the stamped textures work well with the atmospheric firing. Soda-fired clay, colored flashing slips, and inlaid tenmoku glaze all come together to create a constellation of textured clay pieces.
Throwing a Base Ring
Start by throwing a bottomless cylinder on a bat. Throwing on a bat is important with a bottomless form to avoid distortions when you remove it from the wheel. Throw the walls of the cylinder to about 2½ inches in height.
As I refine the side walls, I keep a little ledge of clay along the interior bottom (1). This will act as a small catch lip when you’re hanging your form on the wall with a nail or screw.
Detail of finished pieces showing the varied textures and surfaces that can be achieved.
1 Throw a bottomless cylinder for a base ring. Leave a small lip on the inside bottom to hang the finished piece on a nail.
2 Use a round-ended wooden tool to add grooved indentations on the outside of the base ring for added visual interest.
3 Use a plastic rib to compress a slab to prevent warping and cracking, and to remove any canvas texture.
4 Make stamps from a coil and bisque fire them. Use them to create varying textures on the slab.
Next, while the wheel is spinning, press in a few indentations with a rounded wood tool onto the exterior wall (2). This adds visual continuity that will help group pieces together as a set. It also gives the glaze and slip a place to pool and flash.
Wire cut the ring off the bat, but don’t remove it. Allow it to stiffen up a bit. Be careful not to let it dry completely. If you want to alter the shape of the ring into an oval or square, do so at the soft leather-hard stage when the clay is still malleable, but not soft and squishy.
5 Create contrast on the slab by pulling a wide-line edged plastic trowel across the surface in a wavy pattern.
6 Create a textured rolling pin by drawing patterns with hot glue onto a PVC tube and use it to pattern the slab.
7 Position the ring on top of the textured slab, then trace and cut around the exterior leaving a ¼-inch margin.
8 Place the slab face down into the ring and rib it so it slumps. Allow the domed slab to firm up, then flip it over.
I throw slabs directly on my wedging table, stretching the clay into a slab by pulling it on the table. Gravity and momentum do most of the work. Lift the slab gently from the far edge, with fingers under the slab and thumbs on top, then swing the slab up, out, and away from yourself so now your fingers are on top. Then throw it down on the table at an angle coming back down and toward your body. Focus on that angle and having the back end of the slab touch the table first.
Once you have your slab stretched to a ¼ inch thickness, smooth it out with a rubber rib to remove any canvas texture and compress the clay for less warping or cracking (3).
9 Score, slip, and attach the domed slab to the rings and then trim off the excess. Smooth and refine the edges using a rib.
10 Cover the large grooved section with a colored flashing slip. Next, apply a dab of colored slip to the high points of each stamped impression.
11 Dry the pieces on a plastic grid, commonly used for overhead fluorescent light fixtures, for even air circulation and less warping, then bisque fire them.
12 Fill the stamped and textured areas with one or more breaking glazes, using a brush for more control.
You’ll want to texture a section of the slab that is larger than the diameter of your thrown ring. I use a lot of handmade stamps in my work. Most of my stamps are simple coils of clay that have patterns carved into both ends and have been bisque fired. When pressing the stamps into the clay, be sure to be committed and consistent to achieve a deep and clean impression. I’m drawn to the repetition of a single stamp and how it makes a whole textured pattern (4). I frequently combine stamped patterns with grooved lines for a varied design. Consider your design options and combinations before diving in.
You can use any multitude of items and objects to make texture impressions, from a plastic trowel (5), to a cheap PVC tube with patterns drawn on with a hot glue gun (6). There are tons of items in your studio, kitchen, or garage ready to help make a good impression. Make some stamps of your own, and start a good collection of texture tools.
Leave your slab sitting out to firm up to leather hard as you refine and trim the base ring.
13 Wipe away some of the glaze with a damp sponge leaving glaze only in the textured indentations.
14 Once the excess is wiped away from the high points, the stamp textures are accentuated with inlaid glaze.
15 Attach soda-resistant wadding to the bottom of every piece going into a soda kiln to keep the pieces from sticking to the kiln shelves.
16 Load the pieces, now supported by wads on the bottom, into the soda kiln and surround them with cups and ornaments, filling every space.
Trimming and Fitting the Ring
When the base ring is a soft leather hard, run a wire between the bottom and the bat to separate them again, and flip it over gently by sandwiching it between two bats. This way you’re never picking up the clay ring itself and potentially altering the shape. Trim and refine the bottom of the ring, then flip it back over, again between bats. Let it stiffen up a bit more.
Place the ring on top of the textured slab. Look through the ring and decide which pattern layout looks best.
Make a cut around the ring with a ¼-inch margin. Remove the excess clay (7).
It’s critical to starve the piece of oxygen for at least 45 minutes to an hour for the exposed clay body to reduce to a dark gray or black. The double-layer reduction chamber does a more complete job of smoking the piece. Note: If using a garbage can as a reduction chamber, place one or two smaller metal cans over the piece to create a nested reduction chamber within the larger can. This enhances the reduction effects and brightens the appearance of white areas. If I didn’t reduce so heavily, the piece would take on a peach-colored cast. I never use a post-reduction water bath to crash cool the piece due to the delicate nature of the forms.
Slumping the Slab into the Ring
Carefully place the textured slab upside down on top of your base ring. Gently press it into the ring to slump it. You want to create a gentle, curved slope with the slab. Leave it sitting in the ring until it stiffens up and retains its curved shape. Check your slab often so it doesn’t dry out too much.
Groupings of textured wall pieces look great in any room. Whether hung in perfect lines, grids, or in controlled chaos—like this set in my living room.
Attaching the Slab to the Ring
Gently flip the domed disk over (8) and rest it on the top of the ring. Center it as best you can, then trace around the underside of the slab to match the ring. This will become your guide line for scoring.
Pick up the domed disc, flip it over, and score just inside of the guide line. Score and slip the top edge of your ring. Gently place the dome back onto the ring so that your scratched areas match up. Apply a little pressure to the outer edge of the ring to press the slab in place. Be careful not to press too hard, or you could distort your textured pattern.
Once the domed slab is attached, cut off the extra clay with a sharp knife, then use a stiff rib to scrape off the excess, refine the top edge, and burnish the seam smooth (9).
Now accentuate the textures and patterns with flashing slips. Flashing slips are designed for atmospheric firings—colors appear during the firing based on where the flames hit the pot and where the soda is deposited.
Typically I like to use the same slip color on the top accents as the side. I think the repetition of color is soothing to the eye on an already busy piece. Wider sections usually get full coverage so the soda firing can have some place to really play with the textures and flashing slips (10). I also like to put a single dab of colored slip in the high-relief part of each stamp; keeping the color continuity going, as well as keeping the viewer’s eyes moving around the forms.
Since my pieces will be fired in a soda kiln, I also brush the sides with flashing slip. Having the sides all the same base color will add more visual continuity to the collection.
I work on a banding wheel to brush glaze on the sides of each ring. Spinning the banding wheel while painting the sides gives a smooth and even application.
Drying and Bisque Firing
Let the freshly brushed slip dry until the shine is gone and the sides are no longer sticky or smudgy when touched. I place my pieces on an elevated plastic grid—the same grid used on overhead fluorescent light fixtures (11). I raise the grid off the table on thin boards to allow more air to flow under and through the grid so that the pieces dry more evenly and are less likely to warp. When the pieces are bone dry, bisque fire them.
Brush a darker or contrasting glaze (I use tenmoku) into all of the textures and stamps (12), and let it dry. Then take a damp, but not wet, sponge and very carefully wipe off only the top surfaces (13). Keep the glaze in the deeper recesses of your texture, while wiping the high points clean (14).
Wadding and Soda Firing
For an atmospheric kiln, place little balls of wadding around the underside rim (15). You want to make sure your piece is sitting flat and elevated. Don’t press so hard that you lose the air space that the wadding ball creates as it allows a bit of air under the pots to get some flashing on the undersides too. The wadding is resistant to the fluxing power of the soda residue in the firing. Load the piece into the kiln and be sure that they’re sitting flat on the shelf (16).
When the pieces come out of the kiln, start arranging them in a composition. The internal lip around the ring allows each piece to hang on the wall with a simple screw or nail and be rotated to try out different orientations.
Gary Jackson has a Visual Communications BA degree from Illinois State University and worked in corporate America for 18 years before becoming a professional potter. To see more, visit www.firewhenreadypottery.com, and follow Fire When Ready Pottery on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube.