Everyone struggles with composition. There is no perfect formula for composing a great piece, but I have developed some reliable techniques to help with this important piece of the equation. With practice, you will begin to develop your own methods for composing the surfaces of your work.
Start decoration on the surface of your ceramics with the focal point of the pattern or image—for example, it could be the largest flower in a repeat pattern, or the largest part of the image. If you’re using a pattern that’s visually balanced, begin adding the decoration in the area where you’d like the focus of the form to be. The focal point doesn’t necessarily need to be in the center of your work—in fact, it’s often best to set it off center unless you would like the form to be symmetrical or uniform. Starting from the focal point and working your way out can be a good way to complete the surface, as this approach allows you to make sure that you place the focal point of the piece in the right spot.
In general, it’s more visually pleasing to break up patterns and forms into odd numbers—one, three, five, and so on. When you’re composing using sections and motifs, consider dividing the form into odd-numbered sections. You can do this by evenly measuring out the form from the top or bottom and marking with a pencil.
Varying the scale of imagery in a composition and mixing up the amount of space between imagery in a pattern creates movement and points of interest. Additionally, varied thicknesses and line qualities can bring interest to a composition.
Using color to move your eye through a composition can also be effective. Color can emphasize the focal point in a composition if very little color is used elsewhere or you make use of complementary colors. Don’t forget that the clay has its own color.
With clay, we have the ability to easily add textures to the surface of our work, which is definitely something to take advantage of. You can place texture on your work in the same way that you compose color or line. And, textured areas can emphasize the focal point in the surface.
Overall Pattern vs. Motif
Cylinder forms and multifaceted forms, such as mugs or tumblers, can be more challenging to decorate than the single plane of a plate because there is no obvious start or finish to the surface and you must consider both the inside and outside of the form. When working on a three-dimensional shape such as a cylinder, there are endless ways to break up the form. Consider each of the following approaches:
Motif: Using a single motif creates a focal point without decorating the entire surface. Consider using motifs to begin to build a narrative by delineating two sides of the form (1).
Sectioned: Taking a cue from the form, I will decorate just the rim or base of a piece with an image or a repeated pattern. This is similar to using the shifts in planes to direct where you apply surface decoration, but you can also section a straight-sided object and almost create an illusion of a change in plane through the use of pattern and color on the surface (2).
Overall: A pattern that covers the entire surface can be striking and encourages the viewer to interact with the whole object. The trick is figuring out how to make the pattern fit correctly onto the form (3).
Inside and Base
A three-dimensional form has a base and an interior space that should also be taken into consideration as surfaces for decorating. When making things by hand, we have the ability to add detail in unexpected places. Try decorating the base of your work to add interest—especially on functional pieces that are seen upside down in a dish rack or hanging from a cup hook. Sometimes adding a single-color liner glaze to the interior of a form or a simple border to the base can help the piece feel more finished.
Don’t Forget the Bottom
On a functional piece like a mug, the bottom may be revealed when you are taking the last sip of coffee, giving the person sitting across from you a flash of an image. Underglazes generally won’t stick to a kiln shelf when left unglazed and fired. Experiment with decorating the bottom of a piece.
Designing a Repeat Pattern
Although there are many sources out there for existing surface patterns, it’s always fun to create your own, especially if you plan to sell your work. I use hand-drawn methods for making repeat patterns for my surfaces as well as other products. It’s a great way to come up with new imagery.
To create a block repeat, draw marks on both sides of a blank square at the same measured points (4). Then draw an image that fits in between the marks, beginning and ending at the marks (5).
Repeat the square four times to create a larger square and an overall repeat pattern (6).
On a blank piece of paper, draw a design in the middle of the paper, staying away from the edges (7).
Turn your piece of paper over and draw two lines, dividing the paper evenly into four parts, then numbering the parts 1 through 4, as shown. Cut your drawing in half vertically (8) and tape it back together so the numbers are in the order, as shown (9). Turn the paper back over to the design side (10). Cutting and rearranging the paper moves two of the blank border areas to the center of the paper. In the blank center of your paper, fill in the drawing, staying away from the top and bottom edges. Cut the tape, then tape the drawing back together, as shown—back to its original numbering (see figure 8). Cut the paper in half horizontally (11) then tape it back together so the numbers are in order, as shown (12). Flip the paper back over to the design side and complete the drawing in the center where it’s blank (shown as a faded area in figure 13), keeping away from the left and right edges of the paper. Undo the tape, reconfigure the numbers to their original order, and tape the paper back in place. Flip the paper back over to the design side, to see how your pattern now repeats on all four sides (14 and 15).
To learn more about Molly Hatch, visit www.mollyhatch.com.
Molly Hatch is a ceramic artist, designer, and the author of the book, New Ceramic Surface Design, published by Quarry Books, an imprint of The Quarto Group, 2015.