My porcelain pottery combines traditional functional forms with decorative surface design through hand-painted brushwork. I use a direct and spontaneous method of brushwork for its fluid and graphic lines that integrate with the form of a thrown pot. These varied and rhythmic brushstrokes evoke the undulating and dynamic lines of Arabic and Asian calligraphy.
The brushwork technique I use is inherently both imprecise and controlled, and I find freedom, as well as excitement, working within this duality. A single fluid stroke can represent the wing of a bird or the petal of a flower, ultimately serving as a powerful vehicle for metaphor through exaggeration and gesture.
When balancing the decorative brushwork with the pot, I look to the form as a guide for the surface decoration. The complementary imagery of organic shapes and mark making is directly correlated to the lines of the pot. In a box form, it may be wide petals of a flower bloom resting on the lid to express volume and a winding vine wrapping around the pot to connote movement and gesture.
Forming the Box
Using approximately 1¼ pounds of clay, throw a straight-walled, compressed ring without a bottom. Throwing to a height of 3½ inches and opening to a diameter of 5 inches provides ample interior space for the box, while maintaining an intimate, functional size.
Next, create a flange using a wooden popsicle stick that has been cut in half width wise and sanded on both sides at the cut end to form a sharp edge. One corner of the cut edge has also been sanded to produce a curve at the inside edge of the flange where the lid will sit. This prevents a 90° angle from being formed that may produce a weak spot in the wall. To form the flange, with the wheel turning, gently press the stick into the wall, parallel to the wheel head, occasionally stopping to clean excess clay from the stick (1). While the stick is being pressed farther into the wall, support above and below the inside groove to keep the outside wall straight and allow the flange to form. Then, angle the stick slightly upward and press on the top part of the flange, causing it to taper in slightly, which will assist with lid fit. When the flange is completely formed, use a rib to reshape the top portion of the wall, so that it remains straight (2).
Shape the box by pushing out to form four corners, working from the bottom to the top, but skipping over the flange area (3). Pull outward to reshape and square the top shape. Use a wire tool to release the pot from the bat and gently lift it for final shaping (4). To ensure the top and bottom line up as the box is being built, mark each with a needle tool to serve as a key.
Allow the form to dry to just before leather hard, and then cut into the wall at the top of the flange to remove the lid section (5). Trim away the excess clay from the top and bottom pieces to form a snug fit (6). Smooth the trimmed edges and place the pieces together.
Roll out two ¼-inch-thick slabs and attach one to the bottom piece to form the floor of the box. Drape the other slab over the lid piece and gently press down to form a gradual curve, leaving enough excess clay for attachment (7). Tip: Mark this top slab with a needle tool to ensure it lines up with the top of the box when attached. Let the draped slab dry to leather hard, flip the slab over, trim to fit, and attach it to the lid ring (8). The attachment seam can be smoothed or left as a ridge, which adds security when lifting and holding the lid with one hand.
For a decorative base layer, I apply paper stencils to the leather-hard clay. Abstract and geometric shapes serve as a design guide for later brushwork, while asymmetrically dividing the surface of the pot to offset its regularity. Paper resist allows for a graphic and clean edge when underglaze is applied. The paper stencil is quickly soaked in water and attached to the surface. Apply two thin coats of underglaze, leaving multiple brushstrokes that provide a textured layer (9). Peel away the paper after the final underglaze coat has been applied (10). Let the box dry, and then bisque fire it to cone 05.
I apply all of the brushwork imagery on bisqueware using Amaco black underglaze. Glaze the interior of the box before decorating, as the slight layer of moisture that comes to the surface aids in the flow of the underglaze. I prefer a dense, opaque black line; therefore the underglaze is thick and undiluted. I use a pinstriping brush for the brushwork and wrap the small, thin handle in foam to prevent hand strain (11). Due to the length and cut of the hairs, it has the ability to articulate thick and thin brush marks in one stroke by holding a sufficient amount of underglaze and keeping its shape (12). I use varying amounts of pressure with the brush to achieve different marks. Pulling away achieves a delicate thin line; pressing down with a slight side drag of the brush produces a wide bold stroke (13). I decorate the pot with large, focal images first and connect the design with varied brushstrokes throughout (14).
When using a new brushwork design with specific or intricate imagery, I draw a sketch first that allows me to translate pen lines into a brushstroke design. The drawing also assists with visually placing the image on the pot. Brushwork is very similar to drawing processes in this way. When the brushstrokes are to be made, your eye guides and directs the brush over the surface of the pot, similar to how your eye will direct the pencil over a piece of paper. Tip: Commitment and confidence are established by recognizing where the stroke will go and what it will look like.
When all of the brushwork is completed, apply wax over the underglaze and brushwork areas to achieve another layer of surface texture, as the resisted areas will produce a matte effect against the glazed areas. As a final step, glaze the box with a very thin coat of satin-matte glaze that will produce a smooth surface while still maintaining the integrity of the brushwork lines. The box is then fired to cone 6.
Julie Johnson received a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA in ceramics from Utah State University. She has been an artist in residence at the Carbondale Clay Center in Colorado, and was awarded an artist fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She currently resides in Trumansburg, New York, where she is a full-time studio potter. She is a member of Handwork Cooperative in Ithaca, New York, and the Finger Lakes Pottery Tour. To learn more, go to www.juliejohnsonpottery.com and @flxpotterytour on Instagram.