Evolving From Canvas to Clay

I began painting as a child, learning oil painting before I was 10. Although I took a lot of ceramics courses in college, I majored in painting and printmaking. A few years after graduating, I found my way back to clay. Sometimes I think it’s odd how long it took me to make the connection between painting and pottery after starting out, but I just didn’t think of it as a possibility. When I thought of underglazes, I initially thought of elementary school projects, not professional pots. Then, somewhere along the way, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. I saw an entire community of decorators and felt I could make the transition from dipping pots in glaze to painting on clay surfaces.

As makers, I think we value handmade products and processes, as well as a lifestyle of doing things ourselves. I grow a lot of my family’s food and we raise chickens at our home. My subject matter (mainly farm animals) comes naturally from my daily surroundings and routine. I always try to explain it as the farm-to-table movement, but on pottery.

I’ve always painted animals. Sometimes when I look back on college, it makes me laugh; I was called “the dog painter” because I painted a lot of really large oil paintings of dogs. Now I’m often called “the chicken lady,” which to me is a great compliment because chickens are awesome. And, although I paint a lot of different animals, chickens are definitely a favorite for my subject matter because we have our own and I really love their personalities. They are smart, social creatures and it’s fun to watch a flock and see how they show emotions and interact. Whenever I paint an animal, I really try to capture their overall spirit, because I know when I look into an animal’s eyes, I’m connecting with them and I want that to come through in my work. Observation is such a big part of capturing the image, it’s more than just looking at a picture and getting it painted. Understanding the moving parts of an animal and how it acts really helps to paint it successfully. I was taught early on to sketch daily and I pass that message on when I teach—if you’re struggling with painting or drawing, I highly recommend it.

1 Holding a ribbon tool at an angle, slowly carve an angled edge into the pot.

2 Run a damp sponge over the edge on the carved line to smooth the transition.

Slip Preparation

I use a cone 6 porcelain and make my own slip from my throwing water. After a throwing session, I let the water in the bucket settle overnight to separate. The porcelain clay body I use separates into three layers: a hard-panned layer on the bottom, water on top, and the middle layer of perfect slip. Gently pour off the top layer of water and scoop out the middle layer of slip while leaving the sediment on the bottom undisturbed. Move the slip to a lidded container and stir to break up any remaining lumps. Water can be added if it’s too thick, and if it’s too runny, leave the container open to evaporate some of the water. It’s important to note that all clay bodies are different and stoneware bodies may settle into just two layers of water and slip. If your clay body is groggy, simply strain the slip to make it more fluid and avoid grog clogs while slip trailing.

Breaking the Plane and Slip Trailing

When I throw a ball of clay, I have the final form in mind and consider where I will decorate with slip trailing and underglaze painting. The texture on the pot is an important addition for me for a few reasons but mainly it’s to have another element of interest in the work when in use. I really enjoy feeling a handmade mug by a potter while I’m drinking coffee or tea; I see it as a conversation with the artist who made it.

Once a pot is thrown and in the soft leather-hard stage, I begin breaking the plane, which is separating the surface into a raised, three-dimensional section and a section that remains smooth. Doing this makes a visual breakup of the space to help ground the eventual painting to keep from having floating heads on pots. Holding a thin ribbon tool at an angle, drag along a line on the surface to create one high side and one sloped side (1). Then, use a sponge to compress and smooth the mark left from the ribbon tool (2). 

3 Keep the slip-trailing needle just above the surface of the clay and squeeze with even pressure.

4 Work from left to right if right handed, so you don’t smear your decoration, keeping in mind how the form affects the pattern.

Next, I think about the surroundings of the animal’s daily life, which helps me to choose the textured decoration for each piece. For example, if I’m making a chicken piece, I will have a slip-trailed, chicken-wire design, but if I’m making a piece with a cow or a goat or another type of farm animal, I like to decorate with a thistle grouping or wildflowers.

After choosing a texture to create, fill a slip trailer with slip and begin to decorate. When applying, you shouldn’t feel any pain in your hand, if you do, try adding a bit of water to the slip because it may be too thick. Holding the slip trailer just above the surface of the pot, guide the slip while applying even pressure to the bottle, and rest your hand on the piece for steady lines (3). Try not to drag the tip along the pot and, if right-handed, work from left to right so you don’t smear your decoration (4). If you have a line of slip that’s bumpy or inconsistent, try using the tip of a sewing needle to run back and forth along the line to carry the slip along and even it out. Also, don’t be afraid of just wiping off an area and trying again. Sometimes it takes more time to try to fix something rather than just giving it another go.

5 Using a watered down underglaze, apply an underpainting.

6 The first layer of underglaze is laying down the background color for depth.

Underglaze Painting

While underglaze decoration can be done at the greenware or bisque stage, I paint when pots are bisqued. Because I paint on bisque, I hold my piece with a cotton knit cloth so I don’t transfer any oils from my hand onto the pot. To achieve depth, it’s important to overlap some areas while leaving other areas with fewer layers. This also blends translucent and opaque layers, which are revealed after firing.

Painting on bisque is a lot like watercolor painting in the application and mapping out of color. Although underglazes come in a wide variety of colors, when working with them, don’t limit yourself to straight-out-of-the-bottle colors; you can mix them as needed to achieve your desired look. I use Amaco underglazes, but mix Velvets, LUGs, and SMUGs interchangeably. If you’re using different brands, test and see how they mix. Use bottled/distilled water to thin underglaze when painting because you don’t always know what minerals are in tap water and how they could affect your fired painting. Work from more watered-down underglazes in the first layers to less watered-down underglazes in later layers so that the final layers are strong in pigment. Keep in mind the number of overall layers applied; depending on the amount of water added, you may have anywhere from 2–6 layers. Note: Do some testing to see which colors require more layers and which are strong enough with fewer applications. After you complete the initial line drawing with a small brush, work from larger to smaller brushes.

7 Build the layers of underglaze, decreasing water in each step for stronger colors.

8 Use smaller brush strokes and more intense pigment in the later layers.

Painting Layers

When starting, I apply a quick sketch with underglaze (if you aren’t comfortable freehanding, you can sketch with a pencil), then begin to paint (5). With each step, keep in mind the direction of your brushstrokes for two reasons: for style and because after firing, the layers will reappear and blend. Next, lay down a thin wash of each color-blocked area to build your layers upon (6). Continue painting each layer, using less and less water and moving down in brush sizes and brushstrokes (7). Near the end of the painting, begin to paint with your most concentrated pigments; this brings all the larger brush strokes together (8). Those last vibrant details make the painting pop and bring the overall image together (9, 10). 

9 Continue to add more saturated pigment and fine details.

10 Finishing touches are added to the areas surrounding the figure.

Glazing and Firing

Once the painting is completed, brush on or dip the pots in a clear glaze and fire them to cone 6. When the underglaze fires, it brightens and reveals the rich layers you’ve carefully built up.

Color Choices

Because of my painting background, I push extra color for style purposes; however, during workshops I also try to teach people to really look at the color of an object. In a self portrait for instance, skin is a combination of so many colors that blend visually. To achieve an actual skin tone, you may need to add colors you wouldn’t necessarily think of like blues, purples, and greens. When I layer paint, there is an overall background color and added brushstrokes of pink, brown, tan, white, etc., as well as brushstrokes of those cooler colors we see in our skin. So, when I look at a white chicken or sheep, I consider, “is it a warm or a cool white?” If it’s cool, I mix in bits of blue and if it’s warm, I add light brown or even pink instead of just a range of white and grays.

Poppy Chicken Mug, 4 in. (10 cm) in length, hand-painted porcelain, underglazes, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, 2018.

I hope this information leads you to fun experimentation with slip trailing and underglaze painting.

Special thanks to Audra Doughty for taking some wonderful pictures.

Nikki Mizak graduated from Frostburg State University with a BFA in painting and printmaking. She is available for teaching workshops and her work can be seen on Instagram @nikkimizakceramics and on her website www.nikkimizak.com.

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