Detailed and Unstructured

For me, one of the most challenging parts of making pottery is determining how to decorate my work. If the form is complicated, a simple glaze solution usually works best. If the form is simple, my possibilities are unlimited. I like order and detail. Keeping things tight, tidy, and orderly is my natural inclination—a trend that was evident throughout my career as a graphic designer. In general, I tend to keep my forms simple as I enjoy adding very colorful, highly detailed decoration. Interestingly enough, I’m always drawn to designs that appear more loose or unstructured in other artists’ work. This design speaks to both.

Defining the Structure and Composition

The bowl, a simple half sphere forming a continuous curve, is bisque fired and has 2 coats of clear glaze on the entire surface. Once the glaze is dry, start the design by finding the center (1) and drawing concentric circles with a compass (2). Divide the circles into the desired number of sections, in this case 18, with a MKM Decorating Disk at the center of the bowl (3), sketching lines up to the rim. Draw two concentric bands at the top edge to form the decorative border, establishing the rim (4). The lines are drawn from the center up the curve, mapping out the pattern to the rounded surface. Due to the increased surface area, there are twice as many segments at the top of the bowl, 36 on this piece. The rim and the center graphic share the same graphic elements (and ultimately colors). These areas are quite structured and symmetrical, defining the shape and the curve of the bowl. Pencil in the segments so you
have an outline for the glaze application (5).

1 Find the center by draping a fabric ruler from rim to rim.

2 Use a compass to draw concentric circles at the bottom of the bowl.

3 An MKM Decorating Disk helps to divide the area into desired number of sections.

4 Pencil in lines following the curve of the bowl. Continue dividing the bowl into sections.

Applying Black Glaze

Next, begin applying the black glaze, using a small squeeze bottle with a thin, needle tip typically used for slip trailing (6).Glaze trail these lines quickly to produce a loose line quality and to keep the lines as thin as possible.

After the border and center are completely outlined, start adding the leaf shapes freehand, moving quickly to keep lines fluid and soft (7). Alternate size and shapes intentionally to keep the design fresh and lively. Working in a circular pattern, start at the base and move in a spiral around, adding the leaf outlines. The repetition of the shapes is fun, and I let it go where it wants in size and proximity without really thinking about it. It builds itself naturally (8).

Once that part is complete, add small leaves to areas that seem like “holes” when looking at the entire surface (9). It might sound silly, but I think squinting a little helps me identify these gaps–similar to finding hidden shapes with a different perspective. At this point, everything is still black and white—white clay with a clear glaze layer under black glaze outlines.

5 Add decoration. Lightly wipe pencil marks off with a towel. The sketch remains faint, but the graphite won’t repel glaze.

6 Begin trailing outlines with a black glaze.

7 Fill in the shapes of the circular pattern.

8 Glaze trailing complete on the inside surface.

Adding Color Gradients

I knew I wanted to use a gradient effect for this design, and had already tested a range of colors that would work well together this way, eight total for the leaves. To contrast, I selected colors from the opposite side of the color wheel for the center and border (10). I think the color combinations really add to the energy of this piece—cool, pastel, almost Victorian colors for the border and center, then bright, gradient, analogous colors from the opposite side of the color wheel for the leaves.

I apply the colored glazes using the same bottles with thin tips as used for the black glaze. Start with the darkest red, again working in a circular pattern, adding color to one round of leaf shapes (11) and then estimating how many more to include, overlapping into the area where the next shade will begin. This allows the color gradient to flow more naturally into the next shade, avoiding any type of visual or obvious line where the color switches. Because of their visual weight and effect on the volume of the gradient, keep the number of darker red colors smaller in relation to the lighter, brighter colors—approximately half the number. Note: Due to the volume of the bowl, the weight and effect of the darker hues feel balanced and equal with the lighter shades.

9 Example of a hole in the pattern fixed by adding a small shape.

10 This color wheel shows the relationship between my colors.

11 Begin adding color glazes in a circular pattern.

Starting in the center, the dark red begins very close to the lavender teardrop shapes. Place them rather close in that area due to the shared warm color relationship. Again, in contrast, stop the yellow leaves short of the lavender tear shapes at the rim. The white area gives your eye a place to rest, and keeps the elements from competing—a decision reflected in the top edge as well. The last step is to add black line details to the leaf shapes (12).

The same leaf design and color scheme is repeated on the outside of the bowl with a small shift in placement. This  differentiates the outside from the inside even though the same shapes are used.

12 The final step is to add black stems over the colored glazes.

Finished glazed bowl before firing.

Overall, I love the energy that occurs between the formal border and center composition of the looser, organic leaf shapes. It’s a kind of visual chaos that I think makes for an interesting visual effect.

Another unexpected feature of this piece is the subtle, raised surface produced by the layering of the glazes. This texture, along with the smooth glossy surface entices you to run your fingers over the finished leaves. It has an appealing feel, and is a final sensory touch to the colorful symmetry of this design.

Lori Martin is a ceramic artist and graphic designer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Learn more about her work at


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