Sketching and Observing
The sketchbook has recently become a major component in my process. As students, many of us were required to keep sketchbooks as a way of building artistic habits. Although I graduated from art school a while ago, I didn’t fully realize the importance of the sketchbook or utilize it as a tool in my process until a few years ago. Now, the sketchbook serves as a critical component of my process and is the launching point in my making cycle.
I always start my making cycle by reflecting through sketches about my most recent firing. The sketches can range from notes about the firing, positioning of pieces in the kiln, and different slip tests, to drawing specific pieces that come out of the kiln that spark my interest with either good or bad results. I’m looking to explore anything that happened during the firing itself or in the results achieved on finished pieces that are worth trying again, tweaking, or avoiding in future work cycles and firings. For instance, in this particular firing, I experimented with different terra sigillatas to work through some surface issues, as well as work out some difficulties with my pitcher forms.
Executing a Planned Pitcher
My pitchers are wheel thrown from about 4 pounds of wedged and centered stoneware, which I then cone-up a few times while centering before I open it. Be careful not to open the clay up too far. I want my pitcher to have a fairly narrow foot so that it has visual lift off the table and emphasized height. To achieve the right size foot, open the clay up just enough so that you can fit in four fingers. Make sure that the floor of the pitcher is about inch thick. I don’t trim my pitchers, so I need to make sure the floor is compressed and it has the correct thickness before moving on.
Next, pull up and shape the body. My goal is to always throw my cylinder to the desired height in less than four pulls (1). The more times the walls are pulled, the weaker and more unstable the shape becomes. Pull the wall up into a tall straight cylinder, then compress it to take away the throwing lines. Press a metal rib against the exterior of the pitcher, while your inside hand applies reverse pressure on the interior. This creates a smooth surface on the outside of the pitcher to which you can later add texture.
To shape the pitcher, belly out the middle section by again applying pressure with one hand on the inside and using a metal rib on the exterior surface. This time, apply more pressure to the inside of the pot so the form moves outward and creates the belly of the pitcher (2). My goal while shaping the pitcher is to keep the foot narrow, have the belly curve out until the widest part of the curve, at approximately ⁄ of the way up the side of the overall pitcher, and then finally have the top of the pitcher narrow back in to about the same width as the foot (3). The top ⁄ of the pitcher will naturally want to be wider than the foot, so you’ll need to deliberately narrow the top in and rethrow it to thin it out. I find this shape aesthetically pleasing as the narrow foot and lip give the pitcher a feeling of being full.
To finish the shape and achieve the balance between foot, belly, and lip, finish the foot while it’s still on the wheel. I don’t trim my pitchers later, when they are leather hard, because it’s too difficult to flip them over once they have a pulled spout. Instead, right after I finish throwing the form, I use a wooden rib that has a 90° angle to push the excess clay down to the wheel head (4). I then trim that excess clay away and use a sponge to soften the clay and to form the foot. It’s important to follow the curve of the belly and allow that curve to lead you into the foot so that you have a overall fluid shape.
A Pulled Spout
Now it’s time to pull the lip into a spout. Pull the lip and shape the spout immediately after making the pitcher so the clay is still very soft. I choose to shape the lip and spout at this stage as I can get the most flexibility and movement from the clay. Use very dry hands and place your fingers 2 inches below the rim, at approximately 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock on the cylinder. In a pinching motion, move the clay upward and stretch it toward the ceiling (5). I typically repeat this two times before switching the movement to pull the lip upward and backward so that the lift is even more dramatized (6). This takes some practice, because if you don’t pull hard enough then you won’t notice much lift; however, if you pull too hard you can cause the clay to tear.
To make the actual spout, turn the now stretched part of the pitcher toward your body and shape your index finger and thumb into an upside down “U” onto the area you just stretched. Next, take the index finger of your opposite hand and apply pressure back and forth between the “U” so that the clay moves downward and outward into a spout. Once I’ve stretched the lip to the desired height, and shaped the spout, I clean up the areas that were touched. I do this for the same reason I remove my throwing lines, as I like to have a smooth clean surface onto which I can add texture.
To add this texture, I use a house paint brush with the bristles cut down to make them stiffer. I start at the foot of the pot with the brush and make vertical strokes up the pitcher (7). I enjoy the finished look of the brush strokes after the firing as it adds tremendous depth and enhances the 3-D quality of the piece.
Adding a Handle
Once the pot has dried to a leather-hard stage, it’s time to add a handle. Score an area directly behind the spout with a needle tool to mark where you want to place the top of the handle. Roll out a coil of clay into a bone shape, flatten it, then score the end and attach it to the top of the pitcher using water and pressing the pitcher into the newly attached handle. To further refine and shape the remaining handle, first pinch down the sides of the handle with both thumbs and then hold the pitcher horizontally so that you can pull the handle to the finished length by using a slightly wet hand to stroke the handle downward (8). Once the handle has been pulled to the desired length, attach the bottom of the handle to the body of the pitcher where the belly reaches it’s widest point using the scratch and attach method by scoring the connection points on the handle and body, then adding slip to the scored areas before pressing the handle into place. The final step for the handle is to add a coil where the bottom handle attaches to the body (9). This is to help reinforce the attachment as well as to give the negative space a more pleasing aesthetic.
Glazing and Firing
After the pitcher has reached a bone dry stage, I brush on a terra sigillata (10). I refer back to my notes and sketches at this point to see which of the terra sigillatas were successful in my previous tests. In selecting a terra sigillata, I look for one that has dramatic flashing and performs well in the hot spots of the kiln. For a well balanced kiln load, I also want one that can melt down the ash accumulated during the firings at lower temperatures so that I can get good results out of the cool spots in the kiln as well. In the train kiln that I fire, I have found that the Cedar Heights Redart melts and takes the ash well, as well as flashes nicely.
All of my work is wood fired in either an anagama kiln or a train kiln. This pitcher was fired on its side on seashells (which are removed by dissolving them in water after the firing) in the front stack of a train kiln (11). Our firings in the train kiln last approximately 50 hours, and at this firing length I find I can get good flashing in the kiln as well as good ash accumulation.
I look forward to getting a chance to sit back down, sketch, and evaluate this recent kiln unloading and see how the next round of pots will be affected by choice of clay body, form, size, texture, surface coating, kiln placement, kiln, and firing (12).
Matt Schiemann is the Artist Programming Manager at the Morean Center for Clay and an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Florida.