A little over a year ago a happy accident resulted in my work going in a new direction. A painter by training, I had been using clay as a canvas for my more illustrative work until a deadline and an attempt to repair a broken pot led to developing the process that I currently use, combining wheel-throwing, handbuilding, sculptural techniques, and painting to produce landscapes that focus on perspective and depth.
I use cone 5–6 Archie Bray Foundation Grolleg porcelain. Any translucent porcelain will work. Porcelain has beautiful clarity and its color is the perfect canvas for bright underglaze and glazes. Note: Using high-fire clay will limit your underglaze color palette. Warm colors, fine brush strokes, and many details will burn out.
For cups and basic bowls, I start by either dry throwing or handbuilding a V-shaped cylinder with straight walls using fresh, soft clay. The walls should be even with uniform thickness.
I dry throw using slip and a thin sponge with most of the water wrung out. I pull using the sponge on the inside. The sponge needs to be a little wet to avoid making too many marks. Having a little slip on my outside hand reduces friction without adding too much water. I sometimes switch the sponge to the outside hand. A metal rib cleans up any stray marks. The less water used, the sooner I can start adding to the surface without warping the piece.
It’s important to allow the cup or bowl to dry just enough so that it’s no longer tacky, 30–45 minutes. If it gets too dry, it can crack or become difficult to build onto the surface, and the clay added to the form falls off in the firing or simply doesn’t stick.
Building Up the Surface
After placing the vessel on a heavy-duty banding wheel, I begin building up the surface of the cup with coils formed into mini tree-trunk shapes. After rolling the coils out with fresh clay, I use a rolling pin and pony roller to flatten them (1) and then use a sharp knife to cut them into different lengths and widths (2). Since these are landscapes, I think about depth of field and perspective when applying the coils to the exterior and interior surfaces. I begin with the nearest trees, which are the largest coils. Without adding slip or scoring, I apply the coil (3) and dip my finger in water and run it along the length of the coil to press it on.
I continue to fill in the area with additional tree trunk coils, making them progressively smaller as they become more visually distant, then repeat the process on the interior of the vessel.
Once the tree trunks have been applied, I begin adding knots to the closest trees (4), defining their edges with a rib, then adding scored lines to the background to increase the visual depth (5) and adding horizontal lines to the tree trunk to mimic the bark of an aspen tree (6). Next, I add smaller branches, and then the leaves in the form of small dots. This stage must be done quickly, as the drier the clay becomes the less likely the dots will stay adhered to the surface after the bisque firing. The process is similar to adding coils to a pot to build height. I’m a lefty, so I hold a small pinch of clay in my right hand and tear a small amount off with my left hand and with two fingers, roll the clay into a small dot. I apply it directly to the surface of the pot, without slipping or scoring, and start on the next dot, which I connect to the first dot. I apply dots one at a time, and move in one direction, adding dots and building up the surface (7). I add dots to both the inside and outside of the form. When adding them to extend the rim height, I attach dots to both the inside and outside and pinch the two together to build structure and strength and continue to layer the dots while moving the vessel counter-clockwise, to build the rim to an even height (8). There’s no limit to the height of the rim or number of leaves added, it just depends on the composition and balance of the piece. I check throughout the building process to make sure the edges of the rim are even.
Detail Work with Sgraffito
Once the vessel is leather hard, I begin adding raised detail on the leaves, tree trunks, branches, and background. I add a few clay dots to imitate small leaves and apply them with a tiny dab of water on my finger. I add more incised lines and added clay details to the smaller tree branches and to the eyes, which are characteristic of Aspen trees. At this stage, any more than a small drop of water will change the shape of the vessel. Too much water on the dots, even a fine mist, could result in the collapse of the rim.
I finish off my detail work with carved lines, accomplished with the sharp end of a metal paisley-shaped rib (9). I then take a damp sponge and smooth out the top of the rim to remove bubbles and sharp edges.
When the rim is completely dry, I flip it over onto a foam base and clean up the bottom of the vessel. With the meaty part of my hand, I tap the base of the form to curve the bottom so it sits better after firing. I take a damp sponge and wipe around the base. I don’t do much else to the vessel to avoid obscuring the details I’ve added.
Once the vessel has been fired, I wash it to remove dust and allow it to only partially dry. If it’s too wet, the underglaze will run, and if it’s too dry the underglaze is hard to apply and dries out too quickly.
Using a very fine China brush, a flat acrylic brush, and a very fine liner brush, I begin to apply underglaze (10). I treat the surface as I would a prepared canvas, with one exception: I don’t overlap different colors (11), as the chemical interaction during firing can result in muddy colors. While I apply color, I also make sure to regularly replace the water for cleaning my brushes to avoid colorant contamination. To lighten a color, adding white underglaze works better than thinning out the underglaze with water, which fades too much when fired. The number of layers depends on the landscape and scenery. To remove underglaze from the surface so that it only highlights the texture on the tree bark, for example, I wipe the surface with a clean, damp sponge (12). Highlights and accent colors are added last (13). There is no hard and fast rule about layers, it’s best to experiment and find out what works best for you.
Once I’m satisfied with my painting, I use black underglaze to highlight the trees in the foreground (14). To create the highlights for the background trees, I use progressively lighter gray underglaze, made by mixing black and white underglaze.
I glaze the work with one of six different glazes: clear and blue crackle, blue chun, blue and green celadon, and commercial satin and clear glazes. The choice depends on the intended effect and how much color I want to emphasize. Sometimes I combine two glazes to create different effects, for example, an ice blue vernal pool inside the pot and clear, bright leaves outside.
My landscapes are inspired by places I’ve lived and visited in my travels. Aspen trees, a recurring motif in my work, were everywhere in Colorado where I lived for many years. I call many of my landscapes In Dreams because the glazes lend a gauzy, dreamy quality to the landscapes I’m creating from memory, the way I imagine fairy tales or dreams.
Heesoo Lee is an artist living in Helena, Montana, where she was recently a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. To see more of her work, visit www.heesooceramics.com.