Going with the Flow

Shades of Blue and Green, 8¼ in. (21) cm in diameter, White Millcreek Stoneware, Speedball underglazes, and clear glaze, once fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln.

My pieces capture a thought process, or intention, that’s unique to my experience as it’s being created. The design captures my consciousness and allows me to materialize it while in the process of creating. It’s not pre-planned, sometimes feeling like a spontaneous combustion that surprises even myself. Have I or do I plan ahead? Sometimes. But planning and executing are two different things. Not having a plan doesn’t mean that I don’t have control. It means that I’m willing to go with the flow. I’m willing to allow myself to be carefree, to play, to explore. If I like where a design is headed, then I don’t fight it. I will follow it and see where it goes. I can always start over on the next pot, with my original intention.

I have to trust in my technical abilities and wait to critique until I’m done. I already know from previous experience that my glaze will fit my clay body. I know how the colors change in the kiln. I’m familiar with failures as well as success. I have years of knowledge stored within these bones and fingertips that has become a part of me. I know that while creating, the repetition of design will resonate from within me like a heartbeat or a slow breath.

Clay and Form

I start by throwing simple forms with White Millcreek Stoneware or K-4, a red-brown clay body, which is textured and a cross between stoneware and earthenware. I keep the forms simple because the underglazed surface design that I do is visually quite complex and I don’t want the two competing against each other.

I throw a batch of pots that will fill my small electric kiln. I trim the pots and let them start drying. I feel at this point in the process that I have a family of blank canvases staring back at me. I clean up my throwing and trimming tools and make sure my glaze bottles are filled and fresh, and my brushes are in good shape. I use Speedball underglazes because they’re stable and have brilliant color. All of the decoration process is completed using a slip trailer and various brushes.

1 Center and throw a bowl on a bat on the wheel. Divide up the space with banding.

2 Divide and break up the vertical space into triangular shapes, then subdivide that space with dots on the band.

Deliberate Spontaneity

I do my designing at the wheel so it feels like a natural extension of the throwing process. I choose the colors spontaneously, execute the design by feel, and explore the interplay of line, color, and symbol. I do all of this work starting on leather-hard clay as soon as the pots are trimmed. Sometimes the decoration work is completed on bone dry clay since the pots dry as I work on them.

The clay absorbs the underglaze quickly, making mistakes hard to correct, so if a drip occurs or a line is misplaced, I just go with it and integrate it into the overall design.

3 Apply underglaze water symbols within the upper triangle shapes.

4 Add more water symbols within the lower negative space, then fill in the center circle with repeating water elements.

Decorating a Bowl

Begin by centering a bowl on a 14-inch sticky bat from Ci Products that is on the pottery wheel and start the decoration process by dividing up the space with two or three different colors of banding lines while the wheel is spinning (1). After the initial banding lines are in place, start to divide and break up the vertical space (2) and then subdivide the vertical spaces further by adding target dots.

Use a pencil to draw and map out triangles, using the target dots to keep all the triangles approximately the same size. Create four new triangles to raise the design within the space and then apply symbols within the upper triangles. I apply water symbols within the upper triangles (3).

5 Reach the upper edge with new triangles to disperse the royal blue color throughout the overall design.

6 Add wave designs between the upper bands, fill in and frame the remaining triangle shapes in blues, and apply dots and short lines.

Continue to add more repeated symbols within the lower negative space. Use a royal blue color to fill in the center circle with repeating symbols (4). Create triangles going up toward the upper edge, then fill them in with more repeated patterns using the royal blue underglaze (5). Add wave designs in between the upper bands. Fill in and frame the remaining triangle shapes with various blues and apply lots of dots as details (6). Step back and consider the form and determine what else it needs. I decided to add a few extra lines near the rim. Add white dots, lines, and symbols to help break up the cool colors. Apply symbols on the rim (7).

7 Add white dots, lines, and symbols to break up the cool colors, then apply water symbols on the rim.

8 With the pot flipped over and centered on the wheel, repeat the design elements on the exterior of the bowl.

9 Plot target dots, create triangles, and fill in the negative space until the decoration is complete.

10 Using a turntable, apply three coats of clear glaze with a soft brush and a light touch to the interior.

After the interior is fully decorated, turn the bowl over, center it on the bat on the wheel, and start decorating the exterior surface, repeating the design elements that were used on the interior (8). Start decorating the exterior by plotting target dots and creating triangles. Next, fill in the negative space until the decoration is complete (9).

Once the underglaze has dried, apply multiple coats of clear glaze with a brush while the bowl is spinning (10). Apply three coats of glaze to the interior first and then flip it over and apply three coats of glaze to the exterior (11). Be sure to allow each coat of glaze to fully dry before applying the next. Tip: When glazing the exterior of the bowl, place a paper towel underneath the rim to prevent the inside from getting damaged when lifting it up (12).

11 After the interior glaze has dried, flip the bowl over and apply three coats of clear glaze to the exterior.

12 Lift the pad of folded paper towel that you placed beneath the rim so as not to damage the interior surface when lifting.


Let the glaze and the pot dry thoroughly overnight, then fire it to whatever cone your clay and glaze goes to. I prefer to once-fire my pieces, because once I remove them from the kiln, they’re done.

Blue Star #1761, 10¼ in. (26 cm) in diameter, White Millcreek Stoneware, Speedball underglazes, clear glaze, fired to cone 6.

When asked about my designs and how I think of them, I sometimes answer with a quote from Paul Klee, “A line is a dot that went for a walk”… or that it was music, or a memory, or perhaps it’s more like meditation or yoga at the wheel. Whatever it is, it flows through me and out my fingertips into the space before me.

Kym Nicolas has been working as a self-taught, professional artist for over 40 years. She works in her home studio located in Paris, Michigan. Her work has been shown in galleries, magazines, and numerous retail locations throughout the US. She is also featured regularly on CBS’s Sunday morning program. You can see more of her work at www.kymnicolasdesigns.com and at www.facebook.com/kymnicolas.

  • Christopher H.

    this design speaks to me about islamic designs and so I appreciate the work that has gone into producing a spectacular piece that I am sure will resonate with others and be appreciated even more into the future.

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