Learning to dart and alter thrown forms can add dramatic results to traditional forms. If you’re willing to experiment and test the limits of what you thought was possible, you may find yourself surprised by the results.
Begin by throwing an 8-inch tall, bottomless cylinder. There’s no need for a foot since this cylinder will be shaped into an oval. Open up the clay into a ring with a 4-inch interior diameter. Then raise the walls, keeping them as even as possible and establishing a rim. Add slight volume to the cylinder or keep it straight sided—altering is much easier on cylinders that don’t have dramatic curves or angles. Cut the cylinder off the wheel or bat, but leave it in place to set up.
Stages of Dryness
Knowing when to alter your clay is very important. Once the cylinder has reached a soft, leather-hard stage, you can begin shaping it. Work as wet as possible, but make sure the clay is not sticky or showing fingerprints as you work. If the cylinder is too dry then cracking increases significantly. If it’s too wet, the process of altering creates a sticky mess.
Press with flat hands on opposite sides of the cylinder to shape it into an oval. When preparing to cut a dart, remember the widest part of the dart is where the cylinder will move in toward its center the most. To begin forming a pitcher shape, decide which side will have the spout and which will have the handle. Start with the spout side, cut out a narrow flame shape to remove a small amount of clay from the top two-thirds of the form (figure 1). Angle the cuts so the seam edges meet with parallel bevels. This way there is more surface area for the clay to rejoin. See the result by pressing the cut edges together. Determine if this is the desired shape. Repeat this process until you have the shift in form you’re looking for (see figure 3). Once you have it, score and slip the edges together.
Score and slip thoroughly, lightly press the edges together all the way up and down the seam, then go back over the seam with more pressure once it meets well across the length of the seam. Then work down toward the foot to cut the second dart. Make this a triangular dart to angle it in at the bottom. For each cut on this form, use the same beveled seam. After the front profile is set, work on the back or handle side of the cylinder. The upper cut on the handle end is the most complicated. It’s a pair of vertical curving lines forming a long, tapered triangle that requires a perpendicular, horizontal cut at the bottom in order to close after the clay is removed (figure 2).
By removing these small darts of clay, the profile of the pitcher is dramatically changed (figure 3).
After all the darts are finished, press outward from the inside creating a soft curving line that moves across the lower side of the pitcher’s body. This line visually connects the profile ends and offers more movement through the unaltered area of the cylinder. It also gives a balancing softness to the alterations made by removing clay.
From a thrown and compressed slab, add a small fill-in piece to the handle-end opening, which provides a ledge for attaching the lower end of the handle. Use the same thrown slab to cut a spout. Cut away clay from the cylinder rim, then score and slip the spout into place. Then, alter the profile of the spout to develop the line quality to fit the pitcher. Work to have the curve of the body continue through the spout so there’s one fluid movement for the contents of the pitcher to follow (figure 4).
Compress, Compress, Compress
After all the alterations are made, recompress all of the seams again. Do this before you put on the slab foot. It’s much easier to get to the inside the form before adding the slab bottom. Even if you compressed the seams well when making each dart, they need more compression at the very end. With each additional alteration, the previously made seams are stretched and therefore stressed. This stress happens most significantly when pressure from the inside is added to develop the curve in the body. So take your time with this step. Use a firm but flexible tool to give each seam strengthening compression on both the interior and exterior. If there are any thin areas on the seams, firm up these areas by adding small coils of clay.
Lastly, add a simple flat slab on the bottom. Set the pitcher form on top of the compressed slab. Trace around the foot, leaving a mark, then cut along this line. Score and slip the slab and the bottom of the body, and then connect them together. I use a long, narrow, wooden tool on the interior to compress the seam. On the exterior, softly paddle the seam with a rib then compress it with your thumb.
The handle is added last. I prefer a simple pulled strap handle. Let your handle dry until it’s no longer sticky. Then cut out an angle from the upper section. This makes the handle bend in a more dramatic angle, which helps it relate to the profile shapes already created in the body (figure 5). Score and slip these pieces into place.
Lastly, smooth out marks or unevenness with a wet, green kitchen scouring pad to quickly remove any unwanted clay. Recompress around the handle attachments and then use a soft sponge to take away the marks from the scouring pad. All of this smoothing and finishing is done at a hard leather-hard stage. Allow the piece to dry very slowly before bisque firing.
Deborah Schwartzkopf is a studio potter living and working in Seattle, Washington. To see more of her work, visit http://debspottery.com.