While examining the evolution of my ceramic work over the past few years, it’s very easy for me to trace a stylistic shift in my ceramic work back to my love of quilting patterns and Islamic tilework. I’ve always wanted my artwork to be a reflection of the idea that these repetitive shapes and patterns come together to create a cohesive design; to be enjoyed as a whole rather than defined by a single focal point. I have come to appreciate that from a distance these rhythmic patterns seem to be without flaws, but upon closer inspection slight imperfections can be found. These flaws demonstrate a quality that only handmade items have. The stamping of each pot is my favorite part of the process. Adding any pattern to a work is the ultimate form of control. There’s a thrill to literally pushing back at the clay.
The bowl was the first successful piece I created on the wheel; a seemingly easy form, with the clay and centrifugal force doing most of the work for me. It was also the first form I pushed aside in search of further exploration and challenges. However, as I have expanded upon both my creativity and body of work, I find myself revisiting the bowl. The bowl form can be as complex or as simple as you plan, but incredibly challenging when you sit down with a specific shape and outcome in mind.
Seeking the perfect blend of pattern and ease of application, I have tried an assortment of stamps over the years: carved bisque stamps, metal stamps, and wooden stamps. All of them left something to be desired, I felt they did not produce clean edges or were too stiff to use. While discussing this issue with a friend, she mentioned she had access to a 3D printer. The possibilities for design suddenly felt endless and I could more easily incorporate my vision and personality into my stamps. We found a site (www.thingiverse.com) that offered hundreds of pre-designed 3D patterns, plugged one in and printed my first stamps. We made a handful of simple shapes, which I played with for a while, with the majority sitting idle in a box on my work table. That is, all but one. This stamp has become my holy grail of pattern application, the stamp I now use on almost all of my pieces. In the past couple of years I have modified and re-designed its shape to better fit my needs and to add variety to my patterns. Today I use various sizes of this stamp, the positive and negative shapes, as well as elongated versions (1).
Throwing the Bowl
I always start my throwing process by wedging and weighing my clay, which enables me to control the size and shape of my forms much more efficiently. I tend to throw nine bowls at a time; three weighing 1 pound, three weighing 1½ pounds, and three at 2 pounds. Depending on how my pieces turn out, I can turn these into nesting sets or just one offs if necessary.
After centering 2 pounds of clay, begin to open the form. I want the inside of the bowl to be a gradual slope from rim to bottom. Using a soft red rib, form the curve from the outside of the bowl, pushing from the inside outward with lessening pressure as you move up to the lip. Because I will be stamping the lip of the bowl, I leave a little extra clay at the rim as I raise the walls and keep the lip squared. I prefer a taller bowl, with a narrow foot rim, as it lends itself more easily to my stamping process. Smooth away all the throwing lines inside and out to create a clean surface to stamp (2).
When trimming, I place a damp Xiem bat mat on the wheel head and work with my pot directly on the mat. This tool creates a surface for the pot to adhere to, and not only do I find I have less clay wasted, but I also have less clean up. With my index finger outstretched, I find center and make adjustments after the pot hits my finger while turning on the wheel (showing me which side is off center) (3). I then lightly tap the top of the pot to make sure it’s secure on the mat. I trim to achieve a slight flare on the foot and a deep center circle that will allow me to add stamping details later.
I prefer to stamp when the clay is leather hard. The stamps, which are made of plastic, tended to stick to the clay when I tried using them at wetter stages, warping the piece too much. If the clay is too firm, I’ve found that I get cracking along the stamp’s seams and at the lip rim.
Starting at the lip rim, I begin with my largest stamp, pressing half of the stamp firmly into the clay until the depth of the stamp is flush with the clay’s surface (4). Moving around the rim, I line up the edges of each stamp until I’m ¾ the way around. From here I mock stamp the clay, leaving the smallest trace of pattern behind until I reach the very first stamp impression I made. I do this so that I can make any adjustments to my spacing so as to have the most uniform coverage, leaving no gaps that interrupt my pattern. This becomes easier with practice.
After completing this first round of stamping, I have the beginnings of the pattern set. Moving to the next smallest stamp, I press it into the center of the first larger stamp’s impression (5). I continue this cycle using gradually smaller stamps all the way around completing 3–5 levels of depth with progressively smaller stamps (6), depending on the thickness or my intention for the pot.
I then move on to the second portion of my stamping process. I choose the stamp that will best fit in between the two half stamps at the rim. I continue stamping all around the pot, choosing multiple sizes as I continue down the pot (7). Depending on the size of the pot, I will continue this second cycle of stamping for 3 or 4 levels. For this pot I completed three. When I’m satisfied with my stamping patterns and am pleased with the overall piece, I stamp my signature on the foot and add one additional signature stamp to the inside of the foot.
Now I clean up any rough edges and smooth away any unwanted textures made by the stamps. I also create a scalloped rim at this time. The stamps I use make the template for the peaks and valleys of the scalloped rim (8). This extra step seems to truly complete the pot and blends in well with the stamping pattern to create an aesthetic I enjoy composing. To enhance the sense of depth of the stamps, I place my index fingers at the largest stamp indentations and place my thumbs at the center of the smallest stamp indentation. I then push into the pot’s center with my thumbs and outward, toward myself, with my index fingers. I repeat this at each stamp placement along the rim. To add more dimension and depth to the deepest stamps, I also push in gently from the outside with my thumbs. Finally, I look down at the rim of my pot and make minor adjustments to assure the pot is as symmetrical as possible.
Bisque and Decoration
After my piece has been bisque fired to 1850°F (1010°C) and cooled, I add line work using AMACO’s Velour Black underglaze (9). I love the effect of the glaze pulling the underglaze during the firing. Using the smallest brush I can find—for this piece I used a Continental Clay 00 brush—I paint the outline of the medium stamped shape. After much experimentation, I’ve found I prefer to choose the medium-sized stamp shapes to outline. I’ve gravitated to this size as the outlining doesn’t take over the piece as it does when I’ve outlined the largest shapes, nor are the lines over-concentrated as when I’ve outlined the smallest shapes.
The glaze I mix for these pieces was formulated for dipping; however, I paint them on as it affords me better control of the application. Also, to save time, I’ve found that if I allow the glazes to thicken to sour cream consistency, I avoid the need to paint on more than two layers. I typically choose one color for the rim, the top most layer of stamps, and the top section of the inside of the bowl, as I feel it connects the inside surface with the outside (10). I determine my color placement by working lightest at the top to darkest at the bottom for my pieces. I have found the darker colors aren’t only more vivid, but they also run more, covering up the majority of the lighter colored glazes when I have placed them toward the top.
Making each level of stamping a different color, I paint on the glaze colors I have selected from the top down. I continue my glazing process by painting the foot rim up to the bottom layer of my glazed stamp areas with a commercial clear; I’m currently using AMACO’s Mixing Clear. I do this because the majority of commercial glazes don’t run, while the colored glazes I’m using tend to flux a lot and run. I’ve found this clear glaze acts as a stopper or barrier against my own glazes, serving to limit excess running and thus preventing loss. I finish glazing by painting the darkest color used on the inside of the bowl as well as in the foot’s inner circle. All that remains is to fire and enjoy the piece. I fire to cone 6 in an electric kiln.
Cate Brus-Austin is a studio potter living in Denver, Colorado. She received her BA from the University of Northern Colorado in 2014. She has shown her work in several galleries across the US and hopes to attend graduate school in the near future. She is a founding member of the Colorado Clay Collective. More information about Cate and her work can be found at http://ceramiccatepottery.com or follow her on Instagram @ceramicateaustin.