Functional Mandalas

My current work is inspired by the complex and gorgeous mandalas found in Eastern religions. Traditional mandala designs are circular and combine complex geometric shapes and patterns that radiate out from the center. In fact, mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning circle, and refers to a sense of wholeness. Mandalas have been used by multiple cultures throughout history, and for many, hold religious or spiritual significance.

For me, creating complex mandalas on my simple functional forms is an immersive and highly relaxing process. As I work, I try not to think too much about how the final piece will look. Each pot starts as a blank canvas and each mandala grows organically.

Clay and Form

A smooth-bodied clay is best for this process, since sand or grog in the clay may interfere with your ability to carve clean lines. Porcelain is especially suited, as its translucent whiteness makes an ideal canvas for any design or finishing technique; however, any smooth clay will work well.

When applying an intricate or complex decoration, it’s best to keep the form smooth and simple. An open form is easiest to carve, so shallow open bowls or plates are ideal, but this technique can also be applied to more vertical forms. When creating a vertical form, such as a cup, think about the mandala wrapping up and around the form rather than lying flat on the surface. Offsetting the middle of the mandala so that it’s partially visible on the vertical slope adds design interest.

Sgraffito or Mishima

There is no need to plan the exact design prior to starting the carving process, but you must decide whether the design will have a dark background with white details (sgraffito) or a white background with a colored design (mishima). To create a sgraffito design, apply two to three coats of thinned slip or underglaze in your color choice right after trimming the piece. Allow each coat to dry before applying the next.

When creating sgraffito pieces with handles, like mugs or pitchers, apply the underglaze prior to making any attachments. It’s much easier to apply small touch-ups after attaching the handle than it is to coat the body smoothly and consistently with the handle in place. Once the handle is attached, coat it with the underglaze or leave it the clay color, which adds a note of contrast to the piece.

1 Tools for marking and carving include: dividing disks, stylus, wood-carving tools, compasses, stiff paper strips, soft brushes.

2 Carve horizontal concentric rings with a compass or center the pot on the wheel and carve lines as the wheel spins.

Tools and Safety

Before beginning the carving process, consider what tools to use and how to work through the process safely. Any number of carving tools will work, from expensive loop tools to empty ball-point pens. Styluses are nice because they are as natural as using a pencil and require no special skill or technique. Other useful tools include a compass, strips of stiff paper, and standard wood-carving tools (1).

As you carve, material may come off in small bits or crumbs that stick to the surface. Resist the urge to scrub the crumbs from the piece too soon, as this may mar the lines. Gently sweep the loose crumbs away with a soft brush in order to see the work as it progresses.

Caution: This process will produce dust that you don’t want to breath in. Wear a dust mask while carving, or keep a bowl of water nearby to sweep the crumbs into before they’ve dried. Clean all carving debris from your work table with a wet sponge.

Preparing to Carve

As in all ceramic processes, the timing of carving is critical. Allow the piece to dry to a hard-leather-hard state before beginning. Carving too soon allows your tool to cut too far beneath the surface, leaving a channel with ragged edges. Carving too late may apply too much pressure, increasing the chance of stress cracks. A damp box is ideal for keeping your piece at the proper working consistency.

It’s much easier to deal with the design as a whole if your form is divided into manageable sections. Carve horizontal concentric rings with a compass or simply center the pot on the wheel and carve lines at different intervals as the wheel spins (2). Use a dividing disk to mark vertical divisions. Any number of sections can be drawn, but twelve provides a lot of flexibility in pattern size and shape. An odd number of sections can make it difficult to make your design symmetrical if you want to combine sections to make larger patterns in some areas. Use a water-based brush pen with a soft tip so you don’t leave unwanted lines in the design. Mark according to the dividing disk and then use a flexible ruler or piece of stiff paper to draw from the center point, through the mark, and to the rim (3).

3 Divide the piece vertically into evenly spaced sections. Mark with a water-based brush pen with a soft tip.

4 Lay out the main mandala structure with a carving tool/stylus, working from the center and finishing at the rim.

5 Fill the main mandala shapes with detail and pattern, working from the rim and moving inward.

6 The completed sgraffito bowl mandala design on the interior, ready for bisque firing.

Creating the Design

As you carve, your pot will be drying, so maximize working time by first completing the parts of the piece that will dry more quickly. Begin by outlining the main shapes of the mandala working outward from the center until the radiating pattern is complete (4). Once that’s finished, fill each shape and add detail, starting from the rim and moving inward (5). Note: If you’re carving both the interior and exterior surfaces, carve the outside first because its surface will dry faster than the inside.  After a night in a damp box to keep the piece at a workable consistency, complete the inside.

Often, people say they can’t apply this technique because they can’t draw. I had similar concerns, but found that an easy way to create shapes, fill them, and add interesting detail is to use simple doodling techniques. This drawing process enables complex results by combining simple, repetitive strokes (6, 7). Many patterns are readily shared on the Internet or you can create your own. You can also add interesting detail using dot-painting techniques or combining the two for an even more complex surface. Experiment, look at what others are doing, and remember there are no mistakes, only design opportunities.

If you’ve chosen to create a mishima design, carve the bare form when it’s leather hard and clean up any stray crumbs or burrs. Next, coat the piece with a contrasting underglaze using a fairly stiff brush and making sure to work the color into all the low-lying areas of the design (8). Allow to dry to almost bone dry. Then, using a sharp metal rib, scrape the excess underglaze off of the surface (9). Be sure to wear a properly fitted respirator during this process as it’s quite dusty. To remove residual dust from your piece, rub it with a dry sponge, blow with an air compressor, or carefully pat it with a barely damp sponge without smearing the inlay.

7 Completed sgraffito bowl design on the exterior, ready for bisque firing.

8 For mishima, coat the carved piece with a black or contrasting underglaze. Work it into all of the low-lying areas of the design.

9 Using a sharp metal rib, scrape the excess underglaze off of the surface leaving it in the recesses only, then bisque fire.

10 Paint the mishima piece with colored underglazes as desired, then allow to fully dry.


Finished, carved pieces should dry slowly before bisque firing. Once bone dry, make sure there are no crumbs or burrs left from the carving process. A dry brush or dry sponge usually knocks them free and going back with your stylus helps remove any stubborn bits from within the carved lines.

After bisque firing, paint the mishima pattern using colored underglazes (10). All commercial underglaze colors seem to work at low-fire temperatures and most work well at cone 5; however, some will burn out at higher temperatures (especially reds, purples, and yellows). The only way to be sure of any color or product in your environment is to test. Once colored, bisque fire the bowl a second time to set the colors and prevent unwanted interactions with the glaze coat (11).

11 Bisque fire the bowl a second time to set the colors and prevent unwanted interactions with the glaze coat.

12 Apply a clear glaze, then fire to the appropriate temperature for your clay and glaze.

Martha Cofran’s painted cup from 3 different angles, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, porcelain, clear glaze over semi-translucent underglazes, fired in oxidation to cone 5, 2019.

Finally, touch up any nicks or scrapes in the underglaze or painted surface of your bisque-fired piece, then apply a clear glaze. Fire to the appropriate temperature for your clay and glaze (12).

All photos: Laura Hardwood,

Martha Cofran is a studio potter who lives and works in Westminster, Colorado, where she teaches adult pottery at a local community center. To see more of her work, follow her on Instagram @202pottery.


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