I love color and patterns. I’m an avid quilter, bead artist, and have spent many years decorating Ukrainian eggs, known as Pysanky. As much as I love and appreciate a beautiful ceramic glaze, I wanted to use the clay as a canvas for intricate designs, making a platter or bowl that could be used functionally or presented as a piece of art to hang on the wall. I love the patterns of Islamic ceramics, Native American ceramics, Roman mosaics, sacred geometry, and tessellations, to name a few. I’m also inspired daily by the amazing patterns found in nature. The order and symmetry of a geometric pattern has always intrigued me; the rhythmic application of dots calms and centers me.
Material and Tool Choices
I work with a white earthenware and use commercial underglazes on greenware, which allows me to be precise in the application of my designs, while the colors remain true through both the bisque and glaze firings. After much experimentation
with several brands and trying to make my own underglazes, I decided to use AMACO Velvet underglazes almost exclusively. The liquid consistency, the color range, uniformity, and the ability to mix them to develop new ranges of color makes them perfect for my technique.
I transfer the underglazes to the softest possible two-ounce squeeze bottles that I can find and add a screw-on metal tip. I use different-sized tips depending on the size of the dot I want to make and the thickness of the underglaze itself.
Keeping my work in the lower firing range allows me the widest range of colors available. I do most of my decorating on greenware, and am always mindful of the fragility of the piece I’m working on. I have found that the application of underglaze to an unfired base makes the crispest mark as the liquid immediately starts to be absorbed into the dry clay. I also discovered that I could easily remove a mistake or replace a line at this point by using a sharp-edged tool. When I tried decorating on bisque ware, I found my dots would tend to bleed into the surrounding area making it almost impossible to completely remove a mistake. The underglazes also took much longer to dry, which slowed down my decorating and made smearing an issue.
1 Center the platter on a Giffin Grip, then apply underglaze with a brush and a squeeze bottle.
2 Draw concentric guide lines on the underglazed areas using a water-based marker. A pencil will repel underglaze.
3 To begin adding your pattern, use a large MKM Decorating Disk to mark the outer edge of the platter.
4 Make a dividing line across the platter. With a smaller MKM disk, mark the inner section to help additional segmenting.
The challenge of translating flat designs to the concave surface of a bowl, the flat surface of a plate, and finally back to the egg-shaped outside curve of a bowl took me to the wheel and my centering tool, the Giffin Grip. The grip holds my piece in place without moving so I can center and mark multiple pieces in one session.
Creating a Ground and Base Pattern
Most of my platters are 13 inches across, including a rim. There is no grit in the clay I use, it’s a high-talc clay body so I can smooth it at the leather-hard stage to remove any rough or uneven areas, giving me a very smooth clay canvas to work on. I start by applying a background color on the rim (1), or in the center of the platter. I leave the platter locked in place until three coats of underglaze have been applied and have dried.
Next, I mark my outside rim and inside of the platter without having to try to match a previous centering. I find that 20–24 divisions usually makes the optimal grid that I can work with from the outside in toward the center. I mark my work lightly with a pencil. I use mechanical pencils with no sharpening required so I can get a consistent mark on the piece. If I press too hard, I leave a groove in the soft clay, which is something I want to avoid, so I have learned to use a very light touch. Next, I make concentric circles in ¼-inch increments by eye (2), which then allows me some flexibility in design.
5 Draw all dividing lines with a pencil, deciding on placement of teardrops and larger dotted areas.
6 Mark the rim of the platter with scallops. The dividing lines and concentric circles guide placement of the shapes.
7 Using an extra-fine tip, follow the marked lines and apply dots. The process becomes meditative for me at this point.
8 Outline the teardrops, then fill them in with underglaze. A larger tip can be used for filling in larger areas.
Intricate Pattern Marking
Once I’ve finished the background and initial pattern work, I move from the wheel to my decorating station and start my segmented marking. I use a large (3) and a small MKM decorating disk (4). These disks have been invaluable tools for my work, allowing me to be as precise as possible, as any variation in spacing affects the whole piece. I mark the outside with the large disk, then move to the center (5) and match up the segments and make intermediate marks to keep my accuracy in check. When making my teardrop mandala pattern, I must continue dividing the segments in half, reaching a total of 48 or more divisions. I then mark all my teardrops and add the scalloped edge (6). Now the fun begins!
I like the simple contrast of black on white and white on black for framing and highlighting my designs. My favorite go-to colors are black, red, and chartreuse. I find I have to force myself to go outside that comfort zone of colors and use something different. I recently started working with tulips and other flower colors using yellow, orange, and pinks. On some of my mandala designs I like to use the rim’s color in the center as well for contrast and to force the viewer’s focus to move in and out of center.
9 Detail of the bisqued-fired platter showing the way the shapes expand as they move out from the center.
10 Applying glaze to the bisque-fired platter with a brush and squeeze bottle while slowly rotating the plate on the wheel. This method ensures a more even coat of glaze.
11 Draw a skull using templates and circles. Use additional paper templates to further embellish and layer the pattern.
12 Detail of a finished skull platter. Open areas in flowers will have decals applied after glaze firing.
I start with dots—lots of dots! I select my outline color, which is usually black, and use an extra fine tip (7). At this point I go into automatic mode and concentrate on each dot, working in a rhythmic meditative state. I find this pleasant focus in many of the crafts I have pursued in the past. Beadwork, hand quilting, knitting, and crocheting are all similar in how my mind is taken over as I enter a calm, meditative state. If I lose concentration for even a few seconds, I find I’m doomed to make a mistake and will have to pause to remove and replace the offending dots!
Once the concentric rings are dotted, I start filling in my teardrops (8). I outline first, then flood each teardrop with underglaze, then wait for them to dry. Next, I dot the outside of the teardrop shapes. Then, I add larger white dots to the inside of each teardrop, followed by adding dots around the outside of the larger dots. Then, I fill in rings of dots between the rows of teardrops (9), and so on until I run out of “dot-able” room!
Firing and Clear Coating
I bisque fire my pieces to cone 04 with a 30-minute hold, which starts the first transformation. The gray clay background turns to bright white, completely changing the vibrancy and interaction of colors. All potters know that moment of complete satisfaction and wonder when a kiln is opened and we see the result of many hours of work.
13 An underglazed bone-dry skull platter, ready to be bisque fired. Pencil and marker lines will burn out in the firing.
14 A fired skull platter with Frida Kahlo custom decals from Forage Studios/Mariko Paterson (www.foragestudios.com).
The next step is applying a commercial zinc-free clear glaze that I brush on. I use Mayco Crystal Clear Brushing Glaze S-2101. I use the Giffin Grip again on my wheel to center the piece, then use a larger squeeze bottle, and a soft fan brush to apply the clear glaze while the wheel is quickly spinning (10). The glaze is fed from behind the brush, spreading the glaze in concentric circles from the outside to the center. I then remove any excess glaze off the surface with the brush and wipe it back into a jar. Each coat of glaze must be completely dry before the next layer is applied. I found that three very thin coats, though time consuming, resulted in a more consistent and successful glaze firing.
Once the clear coats have dried, I fire the piece to cone 06 with a 30 minute hold. This final firing is another transformation of color, intensifying the palette even more.
Additional Decorating Thoughts
I have also been working with skulls and enjoy embellishing this symbol of death with color and whimsy. I mark my skull platters in the same way, starting with a grid, and then use various paper templates to mark my pattern (11–14). I also use circle drafting tools that I’ve cut apart for ease of use.
Every culture has its own interpretation of patterns; I find they are similar yet distinct. I’m especially drawn to mandala-inspired designs and am pleased to see the recent interest in adult drawing of coloring patterns and intricate designs for relaxation. These are a great way to not only relax, but also to inspire you with patterns and train your eye.
Irene A. Lawson has been working in ceramic patterns for ten years and has a ceramic studio in Northwest Washington state. Her work is available at Good Earth Pottery www.goodearthpots.com and on her website at www.irenelawson.com.
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