Fluidity in Form and Surface

Carved and inlaid pitcher set, wheel-thrown, handbuilt, carved, and inlaid porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2016. Photo: by Amanda Wilkey.

My interest in pattern derives from form. This grew to incorporate the exploration of color, texture, and technique. In many ways, these were approaches to learning and gathering information as much as methods of laying out pattern and design. I began as a two-dimensional artist working in various media, such as ink and watercolor. The translation of my two-dimensional techniques into my ceramic practice remains a huge part of my process in clay.

Seeing each pot as an opportunity to learn from the material, process, and form, my exploration soon broadened from the vessel and followed my desire to integrate the shape of the form with surface designs. To this day, I still search for the balance between form and surface, where one complements or elevates the other. I aim to create a pot that is both visually beautiful and a pleasure to use. I found it difficult to create surfaces at the same level of fluidity and precision I was able to achieve in the wheel-throwing process, so I began using stencils to create patterns. As I learn and explore the vessel, I find the options overwhelming, at times even daunting. Where do I start? Where do I stop? What works for me, and when and why do I decide I like something? These questions are constants in my mind. Yet, I still approach making with enthusiasm and joy, as these are questions of exploration and not rules of restraint.

Exploring and Responding

To begin, I start with the sketching process. I explore shapes, glaze movement, and silhouettes of pots I find beautiful. There are two methods I find most successful when choosing forms and patterns that work well together. The first is to allow the forms to remain simple, acting as blank canvases so as not to disturb the patterns adorning their surfaces. The second requires me to be more attentive and considers the surface and form as one, echoing the pattern in the form or vice versa, whichever may come first. The latter approach led me to develop the rounded, diamond-like shape I use.

At the time that I developed this shape, I found myself in love with narrow-based forms that belly out at the middle and top, tapering in again near the rim. The form suggests containment and creates an intimate, narrowed opening that requires the user to tip the cup slightly upward to empty it completely. This reveals more of the interior and highlights the porcelain’s translucency. The intimate shape has a precarious footing that lifts the body of the pot in a delicate way. However, the upper, bellied-out section of the vessel, as suggestive as it may be in terms of containment, was blank and austere, leaving much to be desired for the eye. As a result, I designed a pattern of shapes with the same appreciation of form as the pot itself, echoing the beauty of the object. At the time, I was acting on impulse. However, this has grown to become an integral part of my work and design ideals.

1 Each drawn shape comes to a point or curve to direct glaze flow. Each template can be flipped for a different shape.

Pattern based on form can also be seen in my stacked mugs, featuring a quatrefoil—or four-lobed form—in which the pattern echoes the shape of the rim. This results in a plethora of variety and opportunities to play with color, surface, and texture. The handles also respond to the pattern in their attachment, extending from the lobes, along with their shape.

Carving Tools

Many tools are applicable to this process (10); however, there are a few that I prefer. The first is a V-gouge tool, typically used in printmaking. These tools are well made and unrivaled in their precision in carving and clarity of line. With that said, this tool isn’t without its drawbacks. It requires a pushing motion, which demands time and practice to achieve fluid lines. It also has some limitations in forms that curve inward, such as large bowls. In these cases, I use DiamondCore Tools’ P1 V-Tip Zebra Wood Pencil Carver (https://diamondcoretools.com/products/p1-v-tip-pencil-carver) as an alternative V-tipped tool that is designed to be used with a dragging motion.

Creating the Stencils

I find that the easiest way to begin a pattern is to start with simple shapes (1). As someone who began working in two-dimensional art media, I often look at brush forms, such as rounds, mops, and filberts, and how they hold and funnel color (in this case glaze). I design the shapes that make up the surface patterns to be two sided for versatility, while also trying to take into consideration the profile shape and form of the vessel as a whole.

Once you’ve established a few shapes to work with, draw half of the silhouette out along the seam of a folded piece of newsprint. Cut out both layers along the line, then unfold the paper to reveal a symmetrical shape (2). Make at least two or three sizes to have a variety to work with on different sized forms.

Once these shapes are cut out, trace them on a piece of tar paper with a ballpoint pen or pencil (which are easier to see on the dark material), then cut them out with an X-Acto knife. These are the stencils you will use on the forms. Tar paper is a great material for templates that’s very affordable (about $20 for a large roll at your local hardware store), durable, and water resistant.

2 Draw half of each shape onto the edge of a folded piece of paper. Cut along the line, but not the fold, to create symmetrical shapes.

3 Divide the pot into sections from the top using an MKM Decorating Disk.

4 Use a square as a jig to mark the divided sections lower on the pot.

5 Trace the template onto the pot. Line the points up to the middle of the rim and foot.

Dividing the Pot into Manageable Sections

Once you have your stencils, begin by first dividing your pot into fourths or fifths from the top using an MKM Decorating Disk (3). Often, either section size will work, and the decision is based on the idea and shapes I’m exploring and what’s most applicable at the time. For example, when decorating a tall, narrow tumbler, I may decide that I want long, thin shapes to exaggerate the height of the form. In this case, dividing into fifths may work better, as more points of division will translate into more repetition of the shape, each separated by narrower gaps. This also allows for the dense accumulation of line to create the exaggerated effect of height that I desire.

When marking the sections, I use Tombow watercolor markers, which work well on clay. These can be found at most art supply stores. Once divided, you can use a square or ruler as a jig to line your marker up and mark lower areas around the pot, if desired (4). Typically, I don’t feel inclined to do so unless the form is tall, such as a vase, where a lack of symmetry is more noticeable. Instead, I simply line up my tar-paper shape and aim the point toward the middle of the of the foot or rim, which, for the most part, should line up well (5).

6 Carve the traced lines using a V-gouge tool, working in one direction at a time.

7 Fill in the previously carved outlines with additional curves and lines.

Laying Out and Starting the Pattern

Line up the edge of the stencil at one of the marked points, making sure to put as little pressure as possible on the piece and supporting it gently from the inside. Use a pencil to outline the stencil. Once the initial shapes are laid out at each point, begin overlapping or building off of these shapes, utilizing them as structural points within the pattern.

When filling in a pattern between the shapes, use the points and overlaps of the first round of shapes as measurements just as you did when starting. You can map out shapes in between the first layer of pattern, roughly spacing them out using the pre-established lines as markers and allowing them to overlap, creating new shapes within the pattern.

Once laid out, go back and carve one side of each shape at a time, working around the vessel to create a better workflow (6). This helps train your hand to create a beautiful, well-carved line in the same direction every time, allowing for more control of the line quality. Once one side is done, flip the piece over and work in the opposite direction (7), completing the other side of the pattern, then add detailed carving within the outlines. The different visual effects achieved with various templates is visible in images 8 and 9.

8 Try wider shapes in a pattern to play with the proportions of vessels.

9 Use narrower shapes in a pattern to elongate a vessel form.

10 Tools used to create carved and patterned surfaces.

Wheel-thrown cups fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2016. Photo: Tyler Zoller.

Filling in the Blanks

Once the pattern is mapped out and complete, I freehand carve the blank sections once they’re broken up and easier to manage. Any technique can be incorporated—water etching, mishima, or simply blocking in the shapes with color. Carving is just one method to explore within this layout method. The carving generally relates to glaze control, separation, and flow throughout the piece in my designs. I often use a simplified carved line in reference to the brush forms mentioned earlier. The carving also provides a clean edge to separate colors and a moat to catch and direct glaze. There are several other methods, as previously mentioned, that could be just as effective—such as creating the pattern layout on bisque ware and marking it with pencil, then filling in the shapes using glaze, or to use slip trailing techniques within the layout.

My finished pots are fired to cone 10 in a reduction kiln or to cone 10 in a soda kiln.

Dallas Wooten received a BFA from Indiana University Southeast and has exhibited work nationally. Currently, he is in his second year of graduate school at Ohio University. Follow him on Instagram at @DallasWootenCeramics.

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