Every aspect of our lives feeds into the other. What is it that inspires us? How did the breakfast you made and ate this morning affect your mood and physicality later in the day? 

This same concept translates into us as artists and our aesthetic style. When I was younger, in the early 90s going into Taco Bell (Cinnamon Twists. . . yum) I’d admire the wallpaper with colorful shapes and patterns, which have now translated into my admiration for Memphis Group design (a design style blending Art Deco with Pop art). Having a conversation with a friend about the one food we couldn’t live without, his is bananas, directly influences my pottery imagery. Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and seeing the bridges, arches, and textures of buildings that have deteriorated over time, squinting my eyes to see only shapes and color; that has translated into my collage work. 

Inspiration and Imagery 

As makers we all have a stockpile of art supplies we haven’t used in years, yet get offended when someone says we should get rid of them, right? Just me? Doubt it! Well, I have an insane amount of construction paper, Bristol board, frames from thrift stores, paints, inks, pens, markers, gold foil leaf—the list goes on and on. Play is crucial to my making process. Giving myself a break from throwing, I’ll take half a day to open my treasure trove of unused art supplies, get into my 6-year-old brain, and start going to town cutting out shapes from paper (1). I see these paper cutouts as a puzzle and will place them all on the floor to see what shapes, colors, and textures go together to create the beginnings of a composition (2). 

1 Create paper cutouts and drawings to use with one another in a collage. 2 Collage paper cutouts and drawings to one another.

After placing several shapes on top of one another, I’ll draw and/or paint on some of those shapes to give the composition more visual depth. From there, each piece takes on a life of its own. Does it need glitter? Or an added random piece of sheet metal? Maybe some crumpled paper for the background? 

Next, I place each cutout on a frame or a canvas to create the composition, allowing me to make adjustments before adhering the pieces permanently (3). Then, I apply paint to the canvas/ frame to create a textural background (4). Finally, I adhere the cutouts to the canvas/frame using glue (5). I prefer cheap glue sticks, that way if I need to remove a piece and readjust, I can do so easily. 

3 Combine more pieces to add into the collage in image 2.

4 Use paint and ink to create a background texture and color on the frame/canvas for the collage to be adhered to. 5 Adhere the paper cutouts and drawings to the painted and textured composition on the frame/canvas.

Digital Manipulation 

Once the collage is finished, and before I frame it, I change gears completely and scan the collage into the computer. I use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to make a black-and-white image that can be printed and cut into stencils to decorate pottery. 

My fondness for doing computer work has made me something of an anomaly in the pottery community. Years of working for my dad as his bookkeeper and having several good friends being graphic designers helped nurture the fun I could have on the computer. Sometimes it is just really great to sit on a cozy couch or chair with a mindless show on in the background and get to business! I don’t see it as a chore, rather I see it as another creative outlet that will feed back into my physical making. 

6 Open a photo of the collage in Adobe Photoshop. Change the image to black and white so you only see shapes and textures. 7 Copy the black-and-white file into Adobe Illustrator. Click “Make and Expand” and clean it up to further simplify the shapes.

In Adobe Photoshop, I convert the image to black and white (6), then in Adobe Illustrator, I use the Make & Expand tool to make it crisp and stylized (7). Then, it’s back to Photoshop to clean up the image, using the Selection Tool, Paint Tool, and anything else I may find appropriate (8). It can be quite a lengthy process, but I’m just working with what I know, so there’s probably a much easier means of shortening clicks and time on the computer. Ultimately, it’s vital to make the image look exactly how you’d like it when cut into a stencil. 

8 Further clean up the image in Adobe Photoshop if it is needed.

Creating Stencils of the Collage 

I use a Silhouette Cameo 4 machine to cut vinyl stencils. Compared to the Cricut Cutter, I prefer Silhouette for several reasons. The cuts are cleaner and less jagged than the Cricut. It takes less time to cut stencils on the Silhouette. I prefer Silhouette’s programming, and the machine itself is cheaper than the Cricut! One perk of the Cricut I’ve found is the registration/ alignment of vinyl is more user-friendly and less likely to shift when cutting. In all honesty, I purchased both a Cricut and Silhouette to test them both out and then returned one. Silhouette was indeed the winner! 

The Silhouette comes equipped with its own program I use to prepare the image of the collage for vinyl cutting (9). Typically, a more complicated stencil, such as a collage, will take about 10 to 15 minutes to cut a 12×12-inch sheet of vinyl. Once the vinyl is cut, now it’s time for weeding. 

9 Send the finished file to Silhouette Studio and “print” or “cut” the stencils on vinyl sheets.

Weeding is the next step and is just how it sounds. Using a dental pick, pull out certain pieces of cut vinyl that are unnecessary from the vinyl sheet (10). The bits of unwanted vinyl are where you’d like to see glaze. So, empty spaces without vinyl are where you’ll brush on glaze and the areas with vinyl will resist glazes from penetrating the bisque surface. 

Tip: When you go to the dentist for your bi-annual cleaning, ask them if they have any dental picks they’re getting rid of and if you could have them. You can use a metal file to sharpen the pick as needed. 

It’s important to have a weeding game plan, even when you’re in the image rendering stage. Simpler stencils can be used right away, but for stencils that require a lot of weeding, contact paper must be applied to the vinyl to keep all the little bits and pieces of the image together (see 11). 

10 Remove the cut pieces from the vinyl stencil to reveal the positive image. 11 Apply the vinyl stencil to a piece of bisque-fired pottery.

Once contact paper is applied, I can decide which stencils will be transferred to the bisque-fired pottery (11). I prefer to decorate my pots once bisque fired, that way I don’t spend hours of time decorating a piece just to have it crack or crumble in a later stage, plus the vinyl sticks extremely well to the bisque. 

Stencils that have lots of detail or patterns that I’ll overlap onto the whole surface of a pot can be a lot to look at. After all, more is more! With this being said, I typically use more complex stencils on simple forms. This is an aesthetic choice. Using simple forms allows for a clean canvas that allows for the surface decoration to be the focal point. I spend about half of my time in the studio handbuilding and half of my time wheel throwing. For the most part, I’ll use stencils only on my thrown forms because they tend to have a more straight-walled, smooth surface that the vinyl conforms to well. Surprisingly the vinyl doesn’t have a lot of flexibility when applied to bisque. 

Applying the Stencils 

I use a green Mudtools rib to press the stencil and contact paper over clean, dry bisque (12). Once the vinyl is stuck onto the bisque I’ll remove the contact paper, leaving only the vinyl stencil on the bisque. Note: I sand the feet of all my pots on a Diamond Core Tools diamond bat grinder after bisque, then wipe down the whole form using a sponge and clean water. It’s important to let the bisque dry for 48 hours after doing this so that the vinyl adheres well to the pottery. 

12 Use a stiff rib to compress the stencil to ensure it is fully adhered to the bisque.

You can apply any surfacing material over your stencils, but I typically use either a glaze or underglaze, depending on the colors and sheen I’d like on each piece (13). I only use very soft bristled brushes for applying surfacing materials, as a harder bristled brush won’t apply enough material to the piece, especially within the lines of the stencils. Do your typical 2–3 coats over the stencil. 

Once I’ve painted enough coats, I lift the stencil from the bisque using a dental pick, removing the vinyl pieces from smallest to largest to minimize the amount of surfacing materials that may break off during the removal process. 

13 Paint over the cut stencil using Amaco underglazes. The black vinyl resists the underglaze from penetrating into the bisque.

After all the vinyl is removed, I use a clean, dry, soft-bristled brush to lightly brush over the dried surfacing material. This dislodges any burs of excess surfacing material that could potentially cloud the design. 

Firing and Lusters 

Finally, I fire all my work to cone 5 on a medium firing schedule and place a 9-minute hold at cone 5. While vinyl stencils may be used on glaze-fired pottery to apply lusters, be warned that you’ll want to use fairly simple stencils, without many little bits and pieces, because the luster can be a bit trickier when using vinyl to resist areas. 

Didem Mert’s Rain-Bubbly Collage Collection, mid-range porcelain, Amaco underglazes, glazes, fired to cone 5, luster, fired to cone 018. Collage: wood, paper, paint, adhesives.

Again, every aspect of our lives feeds into the other. I’ve always been interested in all forms of art making, not solely ceramics. When thinking about style and what inspires every one of us, it’s important to remember that our own work in one medium can inspire another body of work in a different medium. For this reason, there is a common theme within my pots, collage work, sewing, jewelry/metalsmithing, drawing, painting, and even my home decorating. One of my metalsmithing professors from graduate school, Cappy Counard, is always in the forefront of my mind saying, “Notice what you notice.” Look a little closer at those things you notice, and you will find ways to push your style and work! 

Want to see this process demonstrated live? Sign-up for Didem’s “Stencils, Drawing, & Surface Workshop” on her website at www.didemmert.com/workshops/stencils-drawing-and-surface-workshop

Didem Mert (she/they) was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her BFA (ceramics) from Northern Kentucky University in 2014 and her MFA (ceramics) from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2017. They currently live in Sebastopol, California, and work as a full-time studio potter and artist.