Creating Subtlety and Complexity

I strive in my work for clarity, subtlety, and complexity layered with a bit of humor, whimsy, or irony. Slab construction and coiling offer gesture and nuance. Each cup quietly leans, each thimble slightly droops. Textures and patterns are applied to dress up each cup, as if imparting personality and character. Polka dots, directional lines and stitch marks, blocks of color, and the shifts created between dry and glossy surfaces add drama and complexity. To achieve these effects, I use several basic surface-decorating techniques—namely paper resist, carving, inlaying, wax resist, and decals.


I approach handbulding with a balance between form and surface in mind. I believe that this marriage is achieved when the form is dynamic and not merely in service of or inferior to the surface, and the surface is similarly not overwhelming the form.

Start by rolling out a ¼-inch-thick slab of clay. I use B Mix without grog from Laguna Clay as a light, neutral background. Use a rolling pin to transfer lace texture by pressing a piece of lace onto the surface (1), then peel away the lace. The clarity of the lace texture depends on the nature of the lace and the amount and the evenness of pressure used in rolling. For example, to achieve a sharp impression of lace, ensure that the slab is flat without dimples or bubbles and roll as firmly and evenly as possible.

1 Roll out a slab with a piece of lace, so the texture becomes embedded in the clay.

2 Use templates to cut out your desired shapes from the textured clay slab.

3 Score the attachment areas, apply slip, and seal the seam of your cup form.

4 Score the cup bottom and the attachment area on the base, apply slip, and attach.

Once you have the textured slab ready, use a set of templates to guide the cuts for the pieces of the thimble cup (2). I made these vinyl templates, and the body is about 10 inches (26 cm) in length, and the round bottom is about 3 inches (8 cm) in diameter. Working with templates is useful for consistency and efficiency since I often work on a small series of cups. When the cut-out body and bottom pieces reach soft leather hard, start by forming the body, then attach the bottom. Diligent slipping and scoring are necessary at this stage when joining the seams (3) to avoid unwanted cracks because I leave all the seams exposed and unblended (4). This way I don’t end up with awkward blank patches without texture.

To complete the body of the thimble cup, score, add slip, and attach a coil to the rim, then pinch it in an upward direction (5, 6). This coil adds height and makes the cup generous while pinching offers a subtle surface texture and a blank area for additional layered surface decoration.

My thimble handle is inspired by traditional Korean thimbles that are often a flat oval shape made of either layered fiber or leather. Cut out tombstone shapes in clay, then curve one using the pad of your middle finger (7) before attaching two together to form a hollow thimble handle (8). When the handle reaches leather hard, cut the open end to match the curve of the cup body (9), then attach it to the cup along the seam where the pinched area joins the textured bottom. I find this placement sensible and functional. There is a continuous visual line wrapping around the form, which includes the thimble’s seam, while at the same time, the thimble shape serves as a place for holding the cup. On another level, I enjoy how the thimble handle changes the personality of the cup, which would otherwise be generic, while the reference to a traditional Korean thimble relates to my background.

5 Add a scored coil to the top of the cup form and pinch to attach.

6 Continue to pinch the coil up to add height and to create a soft, textured band.

7 To make the thimble handle, cut out and curve dome shapes over your finger.

8 Take two of the domes, score the edges, apply slip, then attach them together.

Sgraffito and Inlaying

My love of color is evident when it comes to surface embellishment. I like colors that are intense, as if I’m colorblind and am somehow compensating for it.

One technique that I use for surface enrichment is sgraffito. I apply three layers of underglaze, blue in this case, then carve through the underglaze using a small tool to reveal the color of the clay underneath (10). I love how the simplest technique can enrich and activate a surface. After the cup is bisque fired, I apply and inlay a second, often contrasting underglaze color, like pink over chocolate brown, to finish the surface. To inlay the contrasting underglaze, apply it over the texture then sponge off the excess, leaving the second color just in the depth of the texture (11).

9 Cut the thimble’s open end to match the cup’s curve, then attach.

10 Carve through the layer of underglaze to reveal the clay underneath.

11 Sponge off the pink underglaze to accentuate the lines against the background.

12 Once the underglaze layer becomes dull, remove the stickers to reveal the pattern.

Paper Resist

The other technique I use at this leather-hard stage is paper resist. Place 1¼-inch round stickers in a pattern, usually on the pinched area (12). I choose this relatively smooth area because when paper resist is done over a more heavily textured surface, like the lace pattern, the underglaze tends to bleed into the crevices of the texture. Apply three layers of underglaze over the stickers and the pinched surface. I prefer using a soft watercolor brush to reduce brush strokes and create a bright, graphic, polka-dot pattern. Once the underglaze layer has dried to a dull surface, remove the stickers, revealing the polka-dot pattern.

13 Apply wax resist to the underglaze colored area, then glaze to create contrast.

14 Arrange and apply decals, wrapping them around the cup form in a pattern.


After bisque firing, apply wax resist to mask the colored areas, with special attention paid to the edges of the polka dots (13). Then, glaze the cup by pouring a liner glaze in, then pouring it out of the interior and/or dipping, depending on the number of glazes you use. I often use a celadon glaze inside as a liner and satin glazes on the outside in preparation for adding decals.


Adding decal images has become an integral part of my current work. Once the thimble cups are glazed and fired, decaling follows. Decal images are either borrowed or purchased online, then altered using Photoshop to meet my needs. For example, I usually need to change tones to ensure clear imagery and scale to fit my work. I have come to enjoy this final layering process tremendously. It’s here where I have an opportunity to bring a bit of whimsy or a twist of irony to an already highly embellished cup full of character and personality. Lately, I’ve been keen on using images of fruits and vegetables along with gardening tools (14). They are fun shapes—happy and bountiful—while gardening tools speak of my interest in and the importance of understanding our food in relationship to the environment. Even though these are utilitarian thimble cups, they are loaded with my own subtle and sometimes mildly socio-political messages.

Ashley Kim resides and works in San Diego, California. She earned her MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington. She is a member of the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego and the annual San Diego Pottery Tour, where she hosts a visiting artist. Her work can be seen at L’atelier Gallery and Mingei Museum Collectors Gallery in San Diego, Freehand Gallery in Los Angeles, and Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana, among others. To learn more and follow her work, visit or @ashleykimclayworks on Instagram.

  • I enjoyed reading about all the different techniques and steps in your process. From start to finish it gave me lots of food for thought. Thanks Ashley for sharing this with us.

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