Art Imitating Life

I began my undergraduate studies as a painting major, but fell in love with pottery while taking my first ceramics class. I’ve always been interested in combining drawing and painting with my pottery, anything involving surface decoration is easily my favorite part of the process. I’m currently using a combination of mishima, paper stencils, and sgraffito on my work. I’m inspired by human interaction with the natural world, and my origami crane design specifically relates to art attempting to imitate life.

The Design First Layer

Begin the mishima drawing when the clay is just past leather hard. Cushion the cup with foam (I use acoustic foam). Use a stencil cut from a plastic folder to create the outline of the crane. This material is inexpensive, flexible, and durable. Trace around the inside of the stencil with a needle tool, scratching through just the surface of the clay (1). Draw the rest of the details of the crane freehand (2). If the needle tool creates too many crumbs, let the clay dry a bit longer. Use a brush to remove the clay crumbs from the drawing. I use a makeup brush, but any brush will work.

Next, use a paint brush to apply watered-down underglaze (to the consistency of milk) onto the drawing (3). Let the underglaze dry completely, then use a damp natural sponge to remove the excess (4). Use a clean part of the sponge for each pass across the surface so the drawing doesn’t smear. During this step, clean your sponge frequently and never use the same part of the sponge twice without washing it. If you notice the underglaze smearing, let the area dry for a few minutes before sponging again.

Tools: Thick and thin needle tools, make-up brush, foam brush, glaze brushes, and paper and plastic stencils.

1 Draw the outline of a crane onto the sides of your cup with a plastic stencil and needle tool.

2 Draw details free hand with a needle tool. If the needle tool creates too many crumbs, let the clay dry a bit longer.

3 Use a paint brush to apply watered-down underglaze onto the drawing. Let the underglaze dry completely.

The Second Design Layer

Apply pre-made paper stencils as soon as the mishima is complete. In the past, I hand-cut all of my stencils from sticky notes, but have recently started using a Cricut die-cutting machine to cut stencils out of printer paper. This has saved me time and ultimately allowed me to create more detailed stencils. Wet the stencil by placing it on top of a damp towel and pressing over it with a wet sponge. The wet stencil should adhere easily to the surface of the clay. Make sure the inside edge of the stencil is completely secured to the clay so the underglaze doesn’t bleed through. Press a wet finger around the inside of the stencil to make sure there are no gaps. Use a glaze brush to paint underglaze inside the stencil (5). Depending on the opacity of the color, apply 2–3 coats of underglaze. Carefully lift up one edge of the stencil and remove it.

4 Wipe the excess underglaze away with a damp natural sponge.

5 Paint underglaze into a paper stencil placed on the mug’s surface.

The Third Design Layer

I also use paper stencils to create relief clouds using a slip made from my clay body (cone 5–7 Grolleg porcelain from Columbus Clay). I use an immersion blender to mix some of my dry reclaim clay scraps with water and store it in a plastic container.

I like to layer the clouds over the mishima drawing to create depth. Follow the same process for adhering the stencil. Use a hake brush to apply a thick layer of slip inside of the stencil (6). Swirl the brush to create texture. Remove the stencil and let the slip dry completely (7). To prevent the slipped clouds from cracking from drying too quickly, I put the cup in a damp box overnight.

6 Place a cloud stencil over the mishima and apply slip inside the stencil.

7 The finished cloud stencil in relief and in relation to the other design elements.

8 Apply wax over the cup’s exterior, then carve details through the dried wax.

9 Carve a cloud shape around the mishima using a pre-made plastic stencil.

The Fourth Design Layer

Apply wax over the stencils when the underglaze and slip are completely dry. I use Forbes wax resist from Highwater Clays. Let the wax dry completely, then outline the stencil and add details with a thick needle tool (8). At this point, I also carve clouds around the cup with plastic stencils and the same thick needle tool (9). Brush the crumbs away and paint underglaze into the carved stencils (10) and cobalt wash into the carved clouds (11). Let the underglaze dry for a few minutes, then wipe away the excess with a damp sponge.

To finish the cup, carve a mishima drawing on the bottom (12). Allow the cup to become bone dry, then bisque fire to cone 05. I do small touch-ups with underglaze if they are needed, then apply Forbes wax resist on the bottom of the cup and over the paper stencil cranes and clouds. I use liquid latex on the crane, then dip the entire cup in glaze. After the glaze is dry, I wax over and around the crane, remove the latex, and paint a clear glaze onto the crane. The cup is then fired to cone 6.

10 Brush the crumbs away, then paint various colors of underglaze into the carved details.

11 Paint a cobalt wash into the carved clouds. Wash excess underglaze off with a damp sponge.

12 Carve a mishima drawing on the cup’s bottom, allow the cup to become bone dry, then bisque fire.

Origami Crane Mug, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, porcelain, mishima, underglaze, paper stencils, sgraffito, glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2019.

Origami Crane Mug (alternate view), 4 in. (10 cm) in height, porcelain, mishima, underglaze, paper stencils, sgraffito, glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2019.

Meghan Yarnell is a junior high-school art teacher, part-time potter, and full-time mother of three living in Perrysburg, Ohio. She received her BFA from Bowling Green State University and has been making pottery out of her basement ever since. Visit Instagram @meghcallie and Facebook @meghcallieceramics to see more.


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