If you’ve ever gone through the process of making a pot, then you know how intimidating dealing with surfaces can be. It almost seems unfair that you expend so much labor encouraging a wet lump of clay to transform into a (hopefully) uncracked and bone-dry piece that is then able to withstand its first trip through the heat-blast of a bisque firing. You only just get it back safe into your arms and then are reminded that the step where things can really go awry is still ahead of you. So, when you have a very specific glaze outcome in mind, it can be a very daunting task to achieve it. 

I have been trying to translate drawings onto clay for over 20 years, and the reasons that make it brain-breaking for me are also the reasons that make it fulfilling. For one thing, there are so many (MANY!) variables to achieving glaze surfaces. The thickness and application are crucial; as is the firing; as are the ways glazes interact with each other, clay bodies, coloring oxides, slips, and underglazes. To make it even more intimidating, if just one of these elements is off, the outcome is off, and at that point you’ve invested approximately a million or so years into something that leaves you feeling a bit like a deflated balloon.

I know, I know, it sounds like I am making a case for either leaving everything on the bisque shelf forever or dipping everything in a tried-and-true, predictable glaze then getting the heck out of the glaze room, sanity intact—but in fact, I am not! What I am actually encouraging is wild experimentation, but a kind of strategic wildness that allows you to collect the information needed to make the surfaces you’re dreaming of. The following article includes both a list of ideas to psychologically prepare you for the journey and some techniques that will hopefully expand your mark-making toolbox. 

Psychological Preparation

First, it is helpful to allow yourself to make some ugly pots—know that you are going to do this regardless of your intentions so liberate yourself from expectations of perfection. Monsters will be made, but they will be your monsters, and you should be proud of giving yourself the space to be imperfect. In my opinion, the greatest teachers in finding your style in this exacting medium are curiosity and levity, and they will get you through even the worst kiln unloading.

Second, since you know you’re going to make some deep weirdos during experimentation, make a bunch of little pieces that you don’t have a particular attachment to in order to really try out your ideas without holding back. I know it sounds obvious, but you don’t want to try a new glaze combination on a huge piece you’ve been working on for weeks. Keep in mind that you need to set yourself up with test objects that will reveal to you the information you’re seeking. For instance, make sure there’s texture if you want to see how a glaze breaks, or verticality if you want to see if something will run, etc. 

Third, take notes! You need to know the duration, method, and the order of application, as well as any other pertinent information that will help you to recreate the results should you happen to discover the greatest glaze combination of the last 700 years. 

The final and preparatory step before dipping your piece into a bucket of glaze is to zoom up and out of your body—right into the vastness of time-space—until earth is about the size of a navel orange and, glancing down, consider that on this particular floating ball, people have been making things from clay for around 25,000 years. Twenty-five THOUSAND years! And you, crouching over a bucket labeled “vermillion creamsicle,” slightly terrified to plunge your little bisque-child, are the recipient of all of that cumulative experiential knowledge. If you can think of your work as your contribution to the collective knowledge soup, then adding to it can be a way to settle your debt of gratitude, so experiment freely, and learn something for all of us!

Surface Techniques

Okay, on to technique. The first thing to know is that for all of the techniques I am sharing here, you need an oil-based wax resist. Water-based resists will wash away and ultimately erase all your hard work, so go get your hands on some wax resist and double check that it is, in fact, oil based.

Water Etching (1)

This technique appeals to me because you can achieve crisp glaze lines and solid glaze application while retaining the fluidity of a gestural mark. To start, glaze your pot and let it dry. Decorate/draw with wax (2) and let it cure. I usually give it around 20–30 minutes. You can draw your idea out first in pencil if that helps to get the composition sorted. Once the wax is dry, take a wet sponge and start to wipe away to reveal the clay body beneath while leaving the wax-protected glaze behind (3). It is very important to use gentle pressure, no scrubbing like you’re trying to get melted cheese off a pan. I also find it useful to rinse the sponge after every couple of wipes to make sure it’s clean. The drying time of wax is very important, so if the wax starts peeling up, this means it has not dried long enough, you are wiping with the sponge too hard or, god forbid, both.

1 Water-etched mugs, tumblers, and pitchers, fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln. 2 Using a wax-filled brush, draw anywhere you would like to have glaze remain.

The other great thing about this technique is that you can use it multiple times on the same cup, creating striking color blocks. All you need to do is apply another glaze to the surface and repeat from the first step. The amount of times you can do this on a piece is limited only to your patience or lack thereof (4).

3 Wipe the surface gently with a wet sponge, rinsing it every couple of wipes. 4 Example of multiple glazes water-etched 6 separate times on the same cup.

Wax Resist Inlay (5)

I was so excited when the idea to inlay glaze into another glaze occurred to me. I had long been experimenting with the technique in the greenware stage (referred to as mishima or inlay) and somehow it felt like a new ballgame to try it with two glazes. You can also try this with oxides and underglazes. Depending on the glaze being inlaid into, the results can be crisp and solid or melty and misty—choose your own adventure. 

Start by applying a layer of glaze (a full three-second dip), let that dry, then completely cover the surface with a layer of oil-based wax (6). After that has set up—I usually give it around 30 minutes—carve line drawings through the wax layer with a fine stylus tool (my tool of choice for this technique is the Kemper Wire stylus) (7). You do not have to carve all the way down to the clay body, you simply have to remove the wax wherever you want it to hold the second glaze, so a relatively light touch is all that is needed. A fairly fine line seems to work best for retaining the inlaid glaze. Once you have carved your drawing into the wax layer, take a paintbrush and work the glaze into the lines, I find a slightly circular motion with the paintbrush during application helps it to get into those fine lines (8). When all the carved lines are filled with glaze, take a damp, clean sponge and wipe away any of the extra glaze that is beading up on the waxy surface, unless you like the way they add to the surface, in which case you can leave them. 

5 Example of a wax-resist inlay surface, fired in a gas kiln to cone-10 reduction. 6 Cover the surface of the pot with a layer of wax and allow time to fully dry. 7 Using a sgraffito tool, carve a linear illustration/pattern into the wax. 8 Apply glaze inlay in circular brush strokes to get into the fine grooves.

As for any of these techniques, a light touch with the sponge is useful in not undoing your hard work by removing the inlaid glaze. If that does occur, however, you can just re-inlay into your carved lines until you are satisfied with the application. 

Wax Resist and Wash Drawings (9)

Similar to water etching, a glaze is first applied and allowed to dry. Then a drawing is done in wax resist and left to set up for about 20 minutes (10). Often when I do this technique, I have combined it with wax-resist inlay in order to add sharp detail into the shapes (11). Once the resist is totally dry, apply a layer of either underglazes, oxide wash, or glaze on top of the carvings and around the wax to create a contrasting color, which reads as the background after the piece is fired (12). I use a fritted chrome-oxide wash (40% chromium oxide mixed with 60% Ferro frit 3124, plus water), and then fire the piece to cone 04.

9 Example of a resist drawing with a wash. Fired in a gas kiln to cone 10, reduction cooled. 10 Prepare for the resist drawing by painting with wax resist and allowing it to set up for about 20 minutes.11 Carve into the form in order to add fine detailed lines. Not a necessary step, but a fun one. 12 Apply a chrome wash over the carvings and the wax drawings to get the image to pop.

Maggie Boyd is a Canadian artist living in New York City while making drawings, pots, and sculptures. She loves teaching classes about her ever-evolving approaches to drawing on and with clay and is currently working on a book about this very subject. To see more, visit Maggieboydceramics.com and on Instagram at @maggieboydceramics.