The Hummingbird Watering Pitcher

Hummingbird watering pitcher, 13½ in. (34 cm) in height, English porcelain, colored slip, glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, gold luster.

Working in clay, a familiar method and style emerge that provide relatively accurate expectations of results. This is an important foundation for any ceramic artist. It can also be a jumping off point in the pursuit of the unknown. Building on what I know and pushing a form or surface work out of my comfort zone is what excites me the most in the ceramics field. Personal challenges and growth in recent years have included scaling up my pots, learning the pinching technique, and exploring the tension between loose, gestural, impressionist mark making and tight, detailed brush work.

My pots often depict birds, which I have had a life long fascination with. Their migratory patterns, energy, and striking plumage continue to amaze me, and inspire my work. Sighting a hummingbird in the garden is a joyful, fleeting moment; here I seek to capture its ephemeral spirit. Creating the complicated form of my porcelain watering pitcher requires balancing the weight of the spout with the over all shape, and creating a design that moves the viewer’s eye around the entire piece. Stylistically my pieces aim to show the qualities of the raw clay and strive to overtly reveal the making process.

Building the Main Body

In exploring the slow, intentional nature of pinched pots, maintaining structural integrity in the foundation of the piece is crucial. Begin the base with coils and take your time to avoid cracks and mind the thickness while carefully compressing it (1). Add coils to the inner rim, working each one into the form from the inside and outside. Flare out while building up the bottom portion of the pot at a 45° angle (2). The form must be stable and strong enough to eventually hold the weight of the spout and handle. Center the base on a banding wheel to continue to coil build.

When shifting the directional planes of the piece, first trim the rim with an X-Acto knife to make it an even height (3). This rim reset helps create a clear, defined change of direction in the form.

If you need to step away from the project, apply damp paper-towel ribbons over the rim and cover the work in plastic. It is crucial to keep some moisture in the clay so that it will accept the attachments later on (4). If the piece is drying too fast as it’s being made, cover the bottom portion with plastic to control the drying. When complete, the piece is about 15½ in. (39 cm) in height and about 7½ in. (18 cm) at the widest part.

1 Begin the base with coils, compressing and evening the base to avoid cracks.

2 Add coils to the inner rim, and work into the form from the inside and outside.

3 Use an X-Acto knife to periodically even out the rim height.

4 Keep the bottom of the piece covered in plastic if it’s drying too fast as you build.

Form the Spout

To create the S-shaped spout, roll a larger coil into the shape of an elephant trunk and add pinch marks, so that it will echo the texture of the main body. Make sure it is long enough to reach the top of the piece—this way the pitcher can be completely filled without losing water through the spout. This spout is 10½ in. (27 cm) long. Cut the spout in half lengthwise and hollow it out with a loop tool (5). Keep the walls thin to avoid adding too much weight to the piece. Score and apply slip to the cut edges and attach the halves back together (6), working your fingers as much as you can from the inside while also blending the seam from the outside (7). If necessary, add a small coil over the seam to reinforce it. It may help to support the spout with foam while you blend the seam in. Finally, slightly flare the end of the spout.

Form the Filter Cup

Pinch a filter cup out of a ball of clay into a concave shape, about 2½ in. wide and flare it out a bit at the base to fit the spout. Allow it to stiffen enough that strainer holes can be punched through without altering the form. Use a 6 mm hole-punch tool to make holes in a loosely concentric pattern (8). Score, slip, then attach the cup to the inside of the flared end of the spout. Finally, cut a decorative petal pattern around the outer edge of the spout.

5 Cut the thick, S-shaped coil for the spout in half lengthwise.

6 After hollowing with a loop tool, slip and score the halves to join back together.

7 It’s helpful to use foam or support the spout over your arm as you join the long seams back together.

8 Form the filter cap, add sprinkler holes, then join it to the spout. Once joined, add petal shapes to the spout.

Form the Handle

Prepare the handle by flattening a thicker coil and adding an even pinched texture. Make the handle thick enough to hold the weight of the piece were it to be filled with liquid and avoid a very thin, ribbon-like handle. My handle is about 1¾ in. (4 cm) wide. Allow the handle to firm up just enough to be able to manipulate it without losing its shape (see 11).

Putting It All Together

Anchor attachments are used to stabilize the top part of the spout while also acting as a decorative element. The amount of support depends on each piece, sometimes just one main connection between the top part of the spout and body of the piece is enough, other times I add two. Score and slip the spout anchor attachments near the top of the main form (9). Remember to support the pot from the interior when manipulating from the exterior.

Next, cut a hole for the spout at the base of the pot. Attach the spout as vertically as possible, while still maintaining an elongated S shape. This part feels awkward—have temporary clay supports ready to slide under the spout to stabilize the piece (see 11). The pot may be off balance until the handle is added. Work the seams well (10), and remember to create a bit of texture on any area where clay has be added or attached so that the surface is cohesive throughout.

Add the handle and an anchor attachment. Add another clay support below the handle (11). Cover the pot with plastic and let it firm up overnight.

9 In preparing to join the spout to the body, cut a hole at the bottom and attach supports to hold up the top of the spout.

10 Add the handle, then work the seams well to blend the joins. Add light finger texture to the blended seam areas.

11 Prop up the pitcher’s handle and spout with waster clay supports. These should remain in place during drying and firing.

12 Attach porcelain sculptural elements to the leather-hard pitcher with colored slips.

Surface Decoration

I like to capture the striking plumage and energy of birds in their natural habitats. To do this, I employ expressive brushwork, and build color and depth by layering tinted slips, stains, and glazes.

After a day’s rest, the surface of the pot is sponged down in preparation for painting, gently smoothing but not erasing finger marks. Surface work is applied when the clay is still leather hard.

In creating a composition, start with three colors and a couple main design elements. For me, the focal point is the birds. Parts of the composition are accentuated by adding small sculptural elements of interest, such as clay nubs where the eyes of the birds will be and also bits for feather accents. Colored slip is used for some sculptural attachment points, like the wing feathers, and creates areas of interest by allowing the slip to ooze around the attachment point (12).

Make your own tinted slips by adding colorant to a sieved porcelain slip. I look for a barely-there change to the slip color (cobalt stain is very strong and very little is needed for a medium blue). If you’re new to working with tinted slips or looking for a very specific shade/saturation of color, testing is recommended.

I use wide brush strokes to paint slips and Mayco’s Wonderglazes as background colors, over which more detail is added using Mayco Tuxedo Black Wonderglaze. The Mayco black generally provides a clean, steadfast line (13). The black may also be diluted, yielding a watercolor-like effect. My last pass at this stage is with a wire-loop sgraffito tool, which is used to remove the immediate surface and bring forward white porcelain areas as highlights in the design.

13 Apply defined brushstrokes in black glaze over the underpainting.

14 Coat the interior with a liner glaze. Cover the exterior in a light wash of diluted clear glaze.

15 Loosely paint colored glazes over the design for an extra layer of dimension.

Sandwiching Glazes

Slowly dry the piece under loose plastic for 4–5 days before uncovering to completely dry. I bisque fire to cone 04, with the clay supports under the handle and spout left in place, and to cone 6 for the glaze firing (with the supports removed).

Glaze the interior with a liner glaze. For the exterior, I begin by brushing one coat of diluted clear glaze (3:1 glaze to water) over the entire piece. Brushing on a diluted glaze ensures that all nooks and crannies are fully glazed, while still being able to see the design underneath for the next step (14).

Parrot Tea Set, to 7½ in. (19 cm) in height.

Use a broad brush to apply swaths of colored glazes over the existing imagery (15). Doing this with similar or complementary colors adds another dimension and depth to the final surface.

Cover the exterior again with an undiluted clear glaze using a handheld atomizer. The coverage is complete when the texture looks similar to a wet towel. Applying another coat of the glaze in this way ensures that a thinner coat is applied, which helps maintain the clarity of the line work. Sandwiching color in between the clear glaze coats also allows for more movement and a watercolor-like effect.

Bird Migration Among Pines Vase, 9½ in. (24 cm) height. Tea set and vase: English porcelain, colored slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, gold luster.

Finally, make sure to clear the spouts holes of any glaze, then the piece is ready for the glaze kiln. Because I’m after maximum dimension in these forms, I’ll often add a couple reflective touches of 22k gold luster, and do a third firing to cone 018.

Emilie Bouvet-Boisclair is a Canadian-born ceramic artist working in St. Charles, Illinois. She earned bachelor’s degrees in fine art and sociology from the State University of New York, Geneseo. To see more, visit www.TwinettePoterie.com and follow her on Instagram @TwinettePoterie.

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