I’ve been working with clay since my high-school days but didn’t become a full-time potter until 2001. I now make my living selling my work at art fairs and for the most part, I really love what I do.
I’ve never been the fastest, most prolific potter and I really don’t like the concept of cranking out the same shape over and over. Consequently, it takes me a long time to build up enough inventory to keep up with sales. After a few art fairs, I figured out that I needed to find a way to make items that were quicker and easier to complete, and were repeatable so I could bring down the price a bit but not compromise the integrity. I needed to come up with my own voice, a way to carve out my own niche.
Picking the Process
I started by checking out the work of some of the other artists at the art fairs and quickly noticed that the painters, photographers, graphic artists, and printmakers had the answer—they created an original and used that original to create more pieces.
I didn’t like the idea of creating the original and sending it somewhere to be reproduced—I still wanted to be involved in the creative process from start to finish. I decided to use the print makers’ model and created images, carved them in clay, bisque fired them, and then used that to imprint images into clay slabs. I was already carving patterns on the rims of bowls and plates, so it was not too much of a change from what I was already doing. However, after a few uses, this technique failed. The bisque tiles would break if I used too much pressure as I was making the impression on the clay slab.
I then took a lesson, again from the printmakers, and used a rubber material from Dick Blick Art Materials called EZ Carve. First, I sketched the pattern on the rubber using a soft-lead pencil and then carved it using a Speedball Lino Cutter. My favorite carving tip is the No. 2 V-Shaped Medium Line Cutter. This worked perfectly and I can now get about 200 impressions in clay before it begins to show too much wear to reuse— this is good because it leads me to create new designs as the old ones break down.
I love using these rubber templates—they have offered a way for me to create intricate patterns and textures that are repeatable and quick to use.
Pairing Process with Form
Now I just had to design work made from slabs so I could incorporate this new technique. I began making plates, vases, bowls, tiles, trivets, candle holders, and more. Your imagination is the only limitation here.
One of my first projects using these carved templates was a cylinder vase—a wrap-around, soft-slab project that’s quick and easy. The same pattern can be used to make tall, short, fat, skinny, flat-bottomed, or three-legged pieces. The variety in shape and size while using the same pattern for uniformity, making pieces that are individual and yet have the same voice, appealed to me.
Defining the Image
There are many things you can make using this technique. While the piece shown here is a wrap-around cylinder, give the process a try with other forms and have fun carving out your own niche.
First, draw a pattern on the (EZ Carve) rubber using a soft lead pencil. You can use a permanent marker to fine tune the sketch, which makes it easier to follow with the carving tool.
Then, using a Speedball Lino Cutter and the carving tip of your choice (figure 1) start carving your pattern. If you cut deep, the line thickens, if you cut shallow, the line narrows. It’s easy to intentionally vary the weight and thickness of your lines, which helps to add interest and dimension to your pattern.
Once your carving is done, clean the freshly carved rubber template with a stiff brush to remove the loose crumbs so you don’t roll these into your slab. Before you roll the slab out, it’s helpful to lay the rubber on the canvas and trace its shape so you know how large to roll the slab to accommodate the entire image.
Printing the Image
After the slab has been rolled out to fit the template, position the carved rubber on the slab, leaving enough of a boarder to trim away after you have rolled the image into the slab. Start in the center and work your way out to the edge. Pressing the image into the slab from all directions assures a good transfer (figure 2). If you have an area with greater detail, you may need to use a pony roller or a rubber mallet to focus on that area to get a complete impression.
Before you lift the rubber off the slab, neatly trim the slab to the shape you want to work with for your cylinder. Because the rubber material has been carved, the texture causes the rubber to hold onto the clay. Lift the rubber off gently, starting at the corners. Lift from every corner to release the rubber, little by little. Once the edges are released and heavily textured areas are free, the rubber lifts off quite easily (figure 3). Just be careful as you lift that you don’t destroy or distort the image. The deeper the carved lines, the more the clay wants to hold onto the rubber. You can minimize this by lightly sprinkling baby powder or baking soda onto the freshly rolled slab before you position the rubber on the slab.
Forming the Vase
Carefully lift the slab off the canvas and flip it over. Roll the slab onto a cloth-covered tube (figure 4)—I use a cardboard tube that I got from a roll of newsprint. I use end rolls from a local newspaper that still prints their own paper but large rolls can be purchased at your local home store. Once on the tube, stand the slab up on end, using the tube as support if the slab is very wet.
With soft slabs it’s not necessary to score the surfaces you are joining as long as sufficient pressure is applied to marry the fresh, wet clay. To ensure a tight bond, first compress the seam using a roller (figure 5) then add decorative elements that lock these seams together. In this case, I’m using buttons of clay and a stamp to add visual interest and reinforce the connections (figure 6). Leave the tube in place for this step so you have a firm surface to press against.
To complete the form, I flare the top of the vase to give the piece more shape (figure 7). When the pattern calls for it, I also push the clay from the inside to give the images a more three-dimensional quality. In this case, I have given the leaves more shape (figure 8). After you’ve established the shape of the cylinder, roll another slab and add it to the bottom once the piece has stiffened up and can hold its shape. At this stage, score and slip the edges of the slab and bottom of the vase. Once the bottom has been added, lift the entire cylinder with the bottom in place and lightly tap it on the table top to make sure the bottom is well adhered, then use a sponge to clean up the excess slip that oozes out.
For all practical purposes, the piece is finished but I like to add a bead to the bottom of the piece—this gives the bottom a more finished look. You can use a commercial tool for this or a popsicle stick, carving the profile into the end of the stick. Use the stick to press the excess clay (from the freshly added bottom) up against the cylinder. It shaves off the excess clay and leaves behind a beautiful beaded rim (figure 9). Once the bead has been created, smooth with a sponge to finish the form (figure 10).
Glenn Woods is an artist and instructor living in Palm Harbor, Florida. See more of his work at www.potteryboys.com.