Throughout my life, I have communed and communicated with whimsical non-human creatures and objects, both real and imagined, whose endearing qualities animated my creative imagination. As a child, I carried on conversations with animals and plants. I lost myself in daydreams, in which at any moment I could inhabit, say, the body of a fox parading through a green meadow. As my body brushed against dandelions and wild flowers, their seeds became suspended in the air, swirling around and catching sunlight, and suddenly I would find myself floating off with them to a destination unknown.
These fictions of my mind continue to live in an atmosphere of weightlessness and harmony, and so it’s no surprise that the imagery on the surface of my pots, and the spirit that I hope lives within them, evokes moments within a daydream, where anything is possible and everything is living its most magical life. Ideally, each time one of my pieces is used becomes an opportunity to further explore the playfulness of its narrative and revisit enchanted moments.
Sketches and Stencils
The earliest stage of my process begins outside of the studio. I inspect small moments happening in nature, admire illustrated books of all kinds, and draw sketches while in the garden or on short walks around my neighborhood. These small and distinct observations in the world are used as inspiration and fresh source material.
The first step in creating a new piece starts with making stencils to use while throwing. Start by sketching out a main character in the story. This will be the largest figure on the mug. Once you’re pleased with your design and have considered which part, if any, lends itself to being used as the handle, copy the sketch onto a piece of tracing paper with a pencil (1). Flipping the tracing paper over, use a dull pencil to transfer the sketch onto a piece of craft foam (found at any local craft store), leaving behind a perfect rendition of the original sketch. Cut the outline of the entire body out of the foam using a pair of fine-pointed sewing scissors, creating a negative of the image (2). Be careful to line up each cut so that there are no jagged edges in the outline. It’s important to take your time during this process to make sure that you’re not cutting through pieces that are needed to create future negative spaces, in this case the inside of the snake loops.
Create additional stencils of any supplementary figures so there’s enough imagery to create a dynamic surface. Once finished, label the stencils with a black felt-tipped marker to help distinguish them.
Collaging and Forming
Set up your collection of finished stencils (3) next to your wheel and throw the body of the mug, making sure the walls are about ⅛ to ¼-inch thick. Smooth the throwing lines and clear the surface of excess slip with a metal rib to minimize the possibility of the stencil slipping or leaving sticky marks behind. Do not cut the cup off the wheel head. To create three-dimensional figures, hold your first and largest stencil against the outside of the form. Next, use your non-dominant hand to press from the inside of the mug along the cut-out image while supporting the stencil and outside wall with your other hand (4). This provides the resistance needed to avoid breaking through the surface. Continue shaping the figure to the desired degree of relief, rotating as needed. When satisfied, remove the stencil.
Next, place smaller, secondary characters and environmental flourishes around the main figure (5). Rely on your intuition to help while working around the narrative that unfolds. These arrangements shape the body of the mug and help direct future painting decisions. Once all of the compositional choices have been made, wipe the inside of the cup with a sponge to remove finger marks while supporting the outside with your free hand. Then re-center the rim and cut the cup off the bat.
Allow the cup to firm up, checking it every 30 minutes or so. Trim the foot and use a finishing sponge to smooth the surface, removing all stencil outlines, sharp edges, and textures from handling (6). It’s now ready for any attachments.
Adding a Handle
First, consider a handle that complements your stencils. Next, roll a coil. The length and width of the coil depend on the cup size and type of character being depicted. I consider the proportions of the main character’s body size, along with how much weight will eventually fill the cup. Personally, I avoid a large cup with a small handle, or a small character with a giant limb. Roll the coil a bit longer than will eventually be used. Visually assess different handle sizes and angles of attachment (7). Once you decide on both, place guide marks on the body of the mug where you plan to attach the handle. Score and slip both the body and the handle and attach them. Clean up all slip and score marks (8). Let it sit for a day or two so that the moisture level in the handle has time to equalize with the body of the mug.
Painting the Figures
Begin by laying down the base color of all figures with a medium round-tipped brush (9). The underglaze should be close to the viscosity of cream. Because I’m right handed, I paint from left to right to avoid smudging any underglaze that has already been put down. Once all figures have their first coat of underglaze, proceed by adding a second and sometimes third layer if needed. On occasion, depending on the figure being painted, I dip my brush into three or four different colors to get a smooth color run, which adds depth and detail (10). After the color of the clay can no longer be seen underneath the figures, I consider where the highlights and shadows should fall: a gray may be used below the cap of a mushroom, an orange flash on top of a chanterelle, or a nice yellow and white mixture to tip the exposed belly of a snake. This process might require several brush changes. Don’t worry too much about painting outside of the stencil lines; this flooding can be cleaned up during the final stage of background painting.
Once base colors have been applied (11), it’s time to paint details. When adding details, I’m guided by creating depth and individuality without placing the characters at odds with one another, preserving an atmosphere of harmony and delight. With a loaded fine-tipped brush held just above the surface, add in the shape and veins of leaves; add dots on berries; create mushroom gills (12); and give beaks and feathers to birds, scales to lizards, and spots to ladybugs. Place your pinky finger against the mug while painting to ensure stability and clean lines. The last detail, and my personal favorite one, is to paint in the pupils of all the figures. I save using black underglaze until the end, as it’s the most contrasting color and the hardest to paint over if a mistake is made.
Painting the Background
After all details are painted to satisfaction, fill in the background with a color that gives good contrast. I use Amaco’s Chocolate Brown underglaze. With a fine-tipped brush, start by painting around the tightest areas between figures (13). Create tapered edges and points along flower petals, work around snake tongues, and use this time to get into the spaces that aren’t easily reached with a larger brush. Once this level of precision is completed, switch to a medium round-tipped brush and begin to fill in the rest of the body of the mug (14). Tip: Loading the brush with a good amount of underglaze and lightly pulling it across the surface rather than spreading it out saves time. Continue on by painting the lip, foot, and underside of the mug. Be sure to leave the bottom of the foot clear of any underglaze; at temperatures of cone 6 and above, some underglazes may flux and stick to kiln shelves, chipping the foot, and ruining the piece. Check the body of your mug for any thin areas of underglaze and fill in where necessary.
Because the piece dries out while painting, place the mug into a damp box for a minimum of 24 hours or until leather hard before moving on. This makes the sgraffito process cleaner and much more enjoyable.
Holding the cup upside down with your non-dominant hand inside of the piece, begin the sgraffito process, carving small notches into the background and working from foot to lip, rotating as needed (15). I use a Kemper wire sgraffito tool for this process. Take care to not allow your palm to catch or drag any of the burrs from carving. Once a small section of the cup has been carved, use a large, flat brush to clear the edges of marks while also removing any excess debris (16). This reduces the chance of sgraffito debris transferring underglaze onto any other part of the piece.
While carving, consider how far apart you want your notches to be. With all-over patterns, less is more. Tip: Making a lot of marks within a tight space tends to dominate the area and take attention away from the figures and the hard-earned detail work.
It’s important to practice confident and fluid marks. Don’t think too much about placement and let your hand and gesture flow. If you get too caught up in thought, marks can be stuttered and messy. Have fun with it!
Once the surface has been decorated and carved, add wax resist around the connection point of the handle to help with even drying. When the mug is bone dry, bisque fire it to cone 06.
Glazing and Firing
Because all of the decorative work happens pre-firing, the glazing process is fast and simple. Once the piece is bisque fired and cooled, wash it with a sponge and wet sand the foot. Leave the piece out for a full day to dry completely. Working along the outer circumference of the piece, wax resist from just below the lip down toward the foot. Once the wax is dry, after approximately 30 minutes, fill the inside of the mug with a clear glaze, allow it to sit for about three seconds, then dump it out. Immediately wipe the outside surface with a wet sponge, clearing it of any unwanted glaze. The piece is now ready for its final firing to cone 6.
Finished photos: Charlie Cummings Gallery.
Many thanks to Evan, Erin, and Jan Z.
Senta Achée lives and works in North-Central Florida. When she is not in her studio, she works as a gallery assistant at the Charlie Cummings Gallery in Gainesville, Florida. To see more of her work, visit www.hellosenta.com or @sentaur on Instagram.