Mishima begins with making an incised drawing or other impression in clay, laying a slip into those marks that contrasts in color to the clay, allowing all to dry a little, then carefully removing the excess slip from the surface to reveal the incised marks. This process makes it possible to achieve a very crisp line, much like pen and ink or drypoint, and reminds me of the illustrations in the Thornton Burgess childrens’ books I loved when I was first learning to read. I’ve been exploring mishima for only three years, but it’s been around and in use for more than a millennium.
My early drawings began with birds and horses and have moved on to rabbits, bears, wolves, and a growing list of creatures, usually accompanied by helicopters, surveillance cameras, and blowing or floating trash. I’ve named a current series Marine Debris and found I can use these images to voice my concerns about human defilement of this planet.
Let your pieces dry to a soft leather hard before drawing on them. Begin with a smooth surface and sketch the drawings lightly with a pencil (1). Once you’re satisfied with the sketch, draw into the clay with a skewer, kept sharp with sandpaper. Using a small brush, lay black slip into the incised lines (2), then let the whole piece dry to a stiff leather hard before beginning to scrape off the excess slip with a knife or the edge of a flexible metal rib (3). Caution: Be sure to wear a dust mask when scraping any dry material.
My wash is a 1-to-1 mix of iron chromate (Fe2(CrO4)3) and Gerstley borate to which I add a pinch of cobalt carbonate. I don’t measure carefully because I like the variability in the fired results. I add the Gerstley borate to partially flux the wash in the cone 08 bisque firing so I can mask over it while glazing and not lose anything, and to minimize glaze crawling in the cone 6 firing. Caution: Wear gloves as iron chromate is toxic, and wear a dust mask when removing dry material. The way I do mishima, the clay isn’t dry, so I don’t worry about it becoming airborne. When I clean the surface, I gently remove the excess with a soft brush onto a large sheet of paper (4), then dump that into a small bowl to be fired and properly disposed of later. I’m doing tests with black stain; however, so far, I prefer the look of the iron chromate. Stains are definitely in my mishima future, especially as the pieces get larger.
After the drawings are cleaned, go back into them with thin washes of the same slip to develop shading and texture (5). You can also try sgraffito in places to make fur look furry and bring out the highlights in the creatures’ eyes (6).
After allowing the piece to dry, bisque fire it, then mask off the drawing (7) before applying a contrasting color glaze to the remaining areas of the form.
When my wife and I relocated to Portland, Oregon, in 2012, I decided not to build another fuel-fired kiln, after many years of firing with gas or wood, and instead converted to mid-range electric firing. This lowers my studio’s carbon footprint, since most of my region’s electricity is generated with hydropower and wind. It’s a small step, but I feel good about taking it, even though this means much of my former reduction–fired-surface treatments work very differently or not at all. This move has opened the door to new opportunities including mishima, and with ongoing glaze reformulation and testing I get to explore a whole new world.
People have asked why I don’t make these drawings on paper instead of clay. That’s a good question. Last year I set up a drawing table and acquired paper and drawing implements, but so far I’ve hardly touched them. The drawings happen on clay. I love the activity of incising and I love the metaphor of the viewer being unable to see the whole drawing at once, that it’s necessary to pick up the piece. I deal with the vagaries and rigor of the ceramic process. Unlike drawings on paper, these drawings become drinking vessels, serving pieces or flower holders and, with luck, will be around for millennia, providing glimpses of our present time.
Dennis Meiners is a full-time professional studio potter living in Portland, Oregon with his wife Leslie Lee, and a canary, an extraordinary dog, and an ancient cat. You can follow/purchase his work and see videos of his processes at MeinersandLee.com, on Etsy at dennismeiners, and on Instagram @dennismeinersceramics.