For the past 12 years, we have worked in a shared studio space. Working together in such close proximity can prove to be both a challenge as well as a source of support. When clay work begins to feel stale or uninteresting, we can always turn to one another. Collaborating on sgraffito work allows us to explore construction and form as well as document our thoughts on family life, our environment, and current global events. During the making process, we share duties, giving each other a chance to move fluidly between throwing, altering, handbuilding, and carving. The shared act of making work this way is more like throwing spaghetti at each other, rather than at the wall, to see what sticks. By working together, we find a fresh view, propelling each of us forward in our studio practices.
We both come from drawing and printmaking backgrounds. Marks developed through drawing on paper are immediate and full of life. When working with sgraffito, it’s our intention to preserve that immediacy and organic feel. Developing a confident mark is the first step in creating graphics with this process. Keep a sketchbook and practice drawing with a brush and ink or pens to develop confidence in creating imagery. When drawing becomes habitual and fluid, the blank page or vessel form is less precious. Carving then becomes an act of trusting in the mark-making process.
Beginning the Decoration
To create the consistent, velvety blacks similar to those found when pulling a fresh woodblock print, we coat smooth white stoneware or porcelain with commercial black underglaze. Once a vessel has dried to leather hard, it’s brushed with two thin layers of underglaze (1). Use a soft, fat mop or hake brush and a banding wheel to create smooth, even layers. Allow the underglaze to dry until the surface looks chalky.
Test an area in need of refinement near the rim or foot ring. If the area carves cleanly, proceed with image development. If the underglaze and clay smear or look muddy, give the piece more time to dry before testing again. Wall thickness, underglaze application, air flow, and ambient humidity can all play a role in drying and determining the ideal time to carve.
Get to know your tools. We have collected a wide range of implements for carving (2). Each tool creates a unique set of marks. Some of our favorites are ground and filed needle tools. We also use scratchboard styluses with replaceable nibs and a selection of tools that were originally used for printmaking. Look for tools that you can sharpen using files or sharpening stones. To create a clean line in the leather-hard clay, a sharp tool is a necessity.
We don’t employ any transfer methods, allowing the imagery to grow organically. Using an altered needle tool, the image begins with blocking in bold silhouetted shapes (3). Try drawing slowly, deliberately, and with intent. The carving develops by creating an alternating balance between black and white areas (4). Utilize large shapes for visual resting places in the composition as they can aid in highlighting pockets of details flowing around the form. Design elements like the neck and foot ring are used as rest areas for the viewer’s eye, but serve a function as well. These areas allow for handling while in process without leaving fingerprints within the carved lines. Foam blocks and banding wheels are used to hold and cradle pots and minimize handling. While carving, take breaks often to evaluate progress and clean up shavings in the work area with a damp sponge to minimize dust. Consider any mistakes made during carving as detours, not accidents. Reevaluate the image and proceed by responding with another mark.
Once the piece is carved and bone dry, use a stiff-bristled brush to clean the surface (5). Starting at the top, work your way down with a crisscross patterned brush stroke. This cleans up and softens any dangling burrs around the carved lines. After the piece has been cleaned, remove debris from the bottom with a sanding block. This bone-dry stage is when clay is the most fragile, so handle the piece with care.
After bisque firing, wash the entire surface with clean water. Coat the interior of the bottle with a liner glaze, but leave the exterior raw (6). For functional surfaces, test gloss or semi-matte clear glazes to find an option that fits your clay body without obstructing the carving.
Chatham Monk and Justin Rice received BFAs in drawing from the Cleveland Institute of Art, in Cleveland, Ohio. They are co-owners of Oxide Pottery, a studio and storefront in Lynchburg, Virginia, where they live with their two sons. To learn more, visit www.oxidepottery.com or Instagram @oxidepottery.