It’s important to me that my work is both functional and highly decorative. I combine handbuilt and wheel-thrown elements in my pieces, and overlay colors and patterns many times to create depth. I often make pieces in sets or groups, and like to think of them as families.

I look at the surface of a piece as a canvas, and take inspiration from a myriad of sources: traditional fabric weavings, particularly from the Southwestern US; antique quilts; fabric patterns; fashion and jewelry design; and Persian carpets, which combine references to nature with geometric patterning. Nature is a constant resource for my designs, and I like to combine imagery that exists in nature at different scales. A third type of inspiration comes from studying other artists’ work, including Henri Matisse’s layering of patterns and Marc Chagall’s use of color.

I take a painterly approach to my work, exploring beyond the bounds of one genre. The magic of decorative expression is evoked by the form. Beauty requires more than one glance, you must return to it. For this reason functional forms that permeate our daily life serve my desire to bring beauty to the user.

Making a Sugar Set: Constructing the Tray

The bottom of the tray is constructed from a rolled slab and cut using a tar-paper template, which is an excellent material for flat patterns—it maintains its integrity over repeated use because it resists water. Once the slab is rolled out, spray the pattern with water and attach it to the slab. Cut out the shape using a sharp X-Acto knife (1). Throw a bottomless ring on the wheel for the wall of the tray, approximately 10 inches in diameter (2). Slip and score the base and sides of the tray when they are both at a soft leather-hard stage (3). Attach the sides to the base, then join the two ends of the wall by cutting the seams at an angle so they match up (4). Pay careful attention to sealing the bottom seam well (5).

1 Attach the tar-paper template of the tray bottom to the slab and cut around it using a sharp X-Acto knife.2 Throw a ring on the wheel approximately 10 inches in diameter for the wall of the tray.

Create a lip on the outside bottom edge. It’s a finishing detail that I particularly enjoy that gives character to the tray. When joining thrown elements with handbuilt elements, it’s especially important to be intentional where the two elements meet. The seams are part of the design. After the bottom of the tray is built, pull the handle and attach it where the tray cinches slightly in the middle (6).

3 Score the perimeter of the slab as well as the bottom of the thrown ring, then apply slip to the scored areas.4 Apply slip and attach the base and sides of the tray when the clay is at a soft leather-hard stage.5 Smooth the interior join between the walls and the slab bottom, then flip the tray to smooth the outer seam.6 Pull a thick strap handle. Once it can hold its shape, attach it to the tray walls where they cinch in the middle.

Constructing the Creamer and Sugar Bowl

Throw the creamer body then attach a handbuilt spout (7), and a handle made from a flattened coil (8). The sugar bowl is wheel thrown, including the lid (9, 10).

Surface Prep

When the completed tray reaches a medium leather-hard stage (stiff but with a little give), I begin the surface decoration. First, divide the piece into sections. I’m not interested in mathematically exact divisions; they are only a guide and help when I’m repeating the motif in a series. For instance, each cup will generally have four sections. I can then follow the order of application of the surface decoration as I make more pieces.

7 After throwing the creamer body, attach a handbuilt spout made from a small slab. Cut away excess from the slab bottom.8 Roll and flatten a small coil to create the creamer handle, then brush on a layer of white slip.9 Throw the sugar bowl, create a gallery on the rim, then measure it with calipers. Coat it with white slip.10 Throw the lid as a small shallow bowl, matching the caliper measurements for the outer diameter of the gallery.

Next, coat the tray in white slip with a brush as the ground for the decoration (11). I prefer Betty’s Bisque Slip because it holds colorants well and it makes and excellent base coat. It allows me spontaneity in my painting. I can treat the colors almost like watercolors, which helps to create great layering effects. The slip softens the clay slightly, which is good for carving and incising lines. I like to brush the slip on unevenly; variations in the coating in some places allow the red clay to peek through. I find that this adds another surface dimension to the piece, and lends more depth to the surface. This set has three pieces and I like to do the final decoration of each piece all at the same time, so I will keep the tray in a damp box to keep it at this consistency while the other two pieces are being constructed and decorated.

Surface Design

Next, I begin to work on the composition of the surface design, pulling patterns from a sketchbook filled with what I call pattern thoughts, and putting them together in a manner reminiscent of a pieced quilt (12). The painting on this sugar and creamer set is partially inspired by a small pouch that is made up of several pieces of Japanese kimono fabric. My designs are like creating a collage in clay. I use different prints, patterns, and colors in a similar style to making a paper collage, only I’m using colored slips. I cut and paste parts of different patterns as if they are torn and pieced together. I start with one theme that will be repeated several different ways, and often layer more than one pattern on top of another.

11 Coat the tray with a layer of white slip to create the ground for the surface decoration, then set it aside.12 Choose a pattern to use for the set. This pattern collage is based on a pouch made from kimono fabric.

Surface Drawing

When all pieces are finished and the white slip on the surface is dry enough to touch without smudging, I begin creating the final surface drawing. The paper drawing provides an indication of where the patterns will be placed; however, I don’t do an exact transfer of the pattern design. Lightly sketch the drawing on the clay using a graphite pencil (13). Vary the pressure so the marks and patterns are sometimes incised into the clay. I find that a sharp pencil is also a good carving tool (14).

First, I lay out a general pattern, breaking the piece in sections. Next, design elements are drawn in each section. Then, an overall pattern is drawn over more than one part and sometimes the entire piece. The surface design is complete when there are at least three interesting perspectives from which to view the piece.

13 Sketch the decoration on paper. I loosely divide the surface into sections, then transfer the design freehand.14 Following the sketch as a guide, carve lines into the surface of the slip using slightly more pressure on the pencil.15 I keep several palettes of colored slip organized based on different color families and the frequency and quantity of use.16 Follow the pencil lines as a guide when brushing on the colored-slip layers. I handle them like watercolors.

Adding Color

My colors are stains mixed with Betty’s Bisque Slip. I handle them the way one would work with watercolors (15) and use many types of bamboo-style brushes brought back for me by friends who travel to Japan. I also use a variety of brushes specially designed and made by the owner of a local sign-making shop.

The first step in color application is to apply a color wash over different areas. I apply it lightly enough that I can still see the design. I layer a complementary color over parts of the section, then use another two or three layers of color to define the design and pull out the pattern. Often there are four or five layers on a piece (16).

I don’t want the decoration to sit on the surface of the pot, and I want the color and patterns in my decorations to create visual depth, so I also use various sgraffito techniques and black accents to highlight areas (17, 18). I emphasize a colored area by using a black linear pattern on top or work in reverse, painting on top of a black grid.

17 After the layers of colored slip are added, paint linear black elements and other details using a smaller brush.18 Outline elements of the pattern in black to create a sense of foreground and background to add depth.Completed bisqueware, decorated and ready to be glazed.Cream and sugar set, 11 1/2 in. (29 cm) in length, fired to cone 04, 2018.

Finishing Details

After the design is complete, I dip the piece in a solution made by mixing 4 parts water and 1 part Redart clay before bisque firing the piece. I bisque fire to cone 03 and glaze fire to cone 04 or 05 after applying clear and colored glazes (both shiny and matte) to add depth.

Lorraine Olderman is an artist and educator living in New York. Learn more at