Making work with tiny coils is much like knitting, weaving, or braiding hair; the individual strands coalesce into a harmonized whole that is both distinct and blended.
Creating Your Palette
This process requires you to consider color first, rather than last, as there’s no glaze on the outside of the piece—all the tones come from the clay body. In my work, I’m interested in using two contrasting colors, with a gradual transition between the two. I don’t worry about each individual tone in between, and instead focus on the gentle shift from one to the next. For example, here color A is Cassius Basaltic clay and color B is JG6 porcelain (1). Weighing out specific proportions isn’t necessary; as long as the tones look like a gradual shift when they are in the greenware stage, then there will be a gradual shift in the final piece. Tip: Make more of each tone than you think you’ll need, as color matching later is difficult. Also remember that it takes very little black clay added to white clay to achieve a light gray. To mix colors, simply wedge the two clays together (each one on a clean surface) until they are homogenous (2).
Keeping colors separate is arguably the most challenging part of this process. A white fingerprint on black clay is just as frustrating as a black fingerprint on porcelain. To avoid this, roll out coils on a clean bat or smooth board. Consider the texture of the surface you’re rolling on; when the coils become even and small, a canvas texture will be visible and distracting in the final result.
To roll a coil, start by shaping a lump of clay into a rough snake. Then roll the clay, starting with your hands together and moving them out toward the edges. Spread your fingers out to create even pressure along the whole coil. It’s best to get some momentum while rolling to prevent flat sides. I like to taper the ends of my coils to tuck the edges in when attaching them to the larger piece (3 and 4).
Each time you change colors when rolling or building, be sure to change the water you’re using, clean the surface you’re working on, and wash your hands. As you work, covering your piece with clean plastic is extremely important! Even a small amount of clay on plastic can turn into a different colored dust that works its way into the crevices of coils. If this does happen, a clean, soft fan brush works well for dusting your work.
Start each vessel with a slab base. For a large piece (18 inches or taller), make the slab about a half-inch thick, and slightly thinner for smaller pieces. The thickness of the slab should correspond to the thickness of the walls, which is usually a half- to a full-inch thick in places. Even though the individual coils are small, they layer together to create fairly thick walls. I don’t use a slab roller for the slab base, but rather pound the clay into roughly the shape I’m making, usually an oval, then use a rib to compress the clay on both sides. Sharp corners are difficult to coil around, but ovals and kidney bean-shapes work well. Once your slab is trimmed and ready, place it on newspaper on top of a banding wheel. Using a serrated rib, bevel and score the edges of the slab (5). Roll out your first coil, which can be bigger since it’s going to be covered, and press it into the outer edge of the slab, creating a small lip around the edge. Roll out another large coil and press this one along the top edge of the slab, making a seal between the slab and the first coil on the outside (6).
Once your base has stiffened a bit, flip the piece over and score/smooth the first coil to the base of the slab on the bottom of the piece. This step is extremely important to remember, otherwise you have an open seam that invites cracking along the bottom.
Notes on Slipping and Scoring…or Not
As you build, there’s no need to slip and score each individual coil, because the coils are small and the clay is wet. Aside from the initial slab to coil connection, the only other time scoring is necessary is if you’ve come back to the piece on a second day and the clay has stiffed up. In this case, use a serrated rib to score the top ¼ inch of the piece and add a large wet coil along the inside and outside of the piece, similar to the first coils along the slab. Then you’re ready to build again.
The coils are small, and therefore dry out quickly. For this reason, roll each coil out one at a time and then attach it immediately, rather than rolling out several at a time. If the clay is too stiff, the coils may crack as you press them into the piece, which while structurally sound, is not an aesthetic I prefer. However, if the clay is too wet, your coils will have a tacky texture. To achieve the perfect balance, rehydrate clay by wetting your palm and rolling a golf-ball sized piece of clay between your hands (7).
Adding Height and Shaping
I create the walls by working up about two inches at a time, building height with larger coils and adding details with smaller ones (8). This process creates a façade of smaller coils over the larger skeleton coils. Working in small sections allows you to pinch the coils onto the piece with your index finger and thumb (9), and really compress and attach them. To emphasize the coalesced quality of the coils, tuck in the edges of each individual strand under the one above it.
Every few inches, use your hand to paddle the lip of the piece down with a flat hand; this compresses the coils down to create a piled look (10) in addition to shaping the horizontal curves of the piece.
The majority of shaping is done using the larger skeleton coils. You can add undulations within the same tone of clay that adds a dramatic illusion of movement within the piece even if the walls remain fairly straight. If you want your piece to gradually become wider, continue to add coils to the outside. To build straight walls, alternate skeleton coils on the inside and outside of the piece. To make a piece narrower, add coils to the inside edge.
Changing Colors/Smoothing Between
There is no scoring on individual coils, but it’s very important to blend the inside of the piece. I prefer to do this at the end of each tone so that the different tones don’t blend; this creates a gradual color shift resulting in a nice landscape on the inside of the final piece. First, use a serrated rib to blend the coils together, scraping at an angle and always supporting with a hand on the exterior (11). Next, repeat this process with a smooth rib (12), and finally repeat again with a sponge to finish. This is a great stage for shaping your piece as well; you can add a belly or just scrape and push out the walls to the desired curves.
When you reach the end of the piece, add one more coil along the inside edge of the lip. It’s a nice way for the smooth inside to meet the coiled outside of the piece and provide a convenient line to stop the glaze.
After bisque firing, I use a simple, homemade clear glaze as a liner. On smaller pieces I pour the glaze, and on pieces too large for me to easily handle, I thin the glaze and apply it with a brush.
Some of my pieces have a single coil with gold luster along the top edge (see Traverse above). My work is so much about line, and it’s nice to highlight one individual line among the hundreds, sometimes thousands.
I fire my pieces to cone 2, and recommend that you fire to the highest temperature that your low-fire clay body can handle for a richer clay-body look. Always test first!
Amy Simons was born in Ohio, raised in Minnesota, and currently lives in Washington state. She received her BFA from the University of Washington in 3D4M Ceramics in 2014 and recently completed a two year residency at Pottery Northwest. To see more, check out www.amysimons.com.