Alchemy is the power or process of transforming something common into something special. This magic of alchemy that occurs within ceramics has been a continual source of interest and delight. Fascinated with the versatility and longevity of this medium, working with clay connects me directly to the foundation of the earth and ancestral craft. A decade ago, I started designing and producing a body of work using ceramic materials and techniques to create within a traditional painter’s landscape. Combining relief with other historical techniques, tile painting offered a unique method of storytelling with the added interest of texture and dimensionality. A life-long student of symbolism, my inspirations arise from contemplating life’s mysteries and the guidance and/or entertainment found in dreams. The experience of making things, decorating, and telling stories, either abstractly or symbolically, ignites my innate desire to share. Wanting to contribute these perceptions, delights, or lessons learned supplies the impulse and energy to begin. My objective is to communicate through design, color, shape, and deliberation. Inscribing uplifting intentions into the back of soft clay tiles further embeds these feelings through the written word. It is an exacting step that puts focus and intent into the piece. These inscribed phrases include the following: “Tempered by fire, written in stone.”
Patterns and Pieces
I start with an idea for a multiple-tile composition sketched out on paper, which is then scanned into the computer, imported into Adobe Illustrator, and enlarged to the intended size plus 10% for clay-body shrinkage. The pattern is then printed out in sections on 8½×14-inch paper, and taped together creating the full-size, 24-inch-round pattern.
After making refinements on the rough printout, copy the pattern onto white butcher paper using a window as a light box (1). Next, decide which parts of the image to group and which will be left as single pieces. Number the pattern accordingly. An identical copy is then made using clear plastic. Tip: I use inexpensive shower liners for the plastic patterns. Both the paper and plastic patterns are used throughout the process and need corresponding numbers.
The plastic becomes the working pattern and the paper pattern is used for layout and reassembly. After taping the paper pattern onto a flat surface, put an additional piece of clear plastic on top and secure. This keeps the paper from warping while also preserving the original and slowing down the drying process to allow for extended work time.
After deciding which parts of the image to bring forward as higher relief and which to recess, roll out slabs from ⅛–⅜ inch thick. I use Laguna’s cone-5 Dover clay for its ability to handle multiple firings as well as for the ease of attaching multiple elements and carving relief. In this piece, I wanted Betsy to appear in a field of flowers, so I chose to bring the front flowers forward, building a higher relief overlapping her arm and dress.
When the slabs have slightly set but are still pliable, transfer the pattern with a pencil (2). Using an X-Acto knife, cut out the pieces and place them on top of the plastic-covered paper pattern. It is important that the slabs are not too wet; if they are, the knife will stick to the edges of the clay and the plastic pattern will stick to the surface.
Next, for the small background pieces, roll out 1/16-inch slabs and press or roll a piece of woven fabric onto the surface to enhance their texture, then cut and dry them on boards. Keep in mind that the total amount of clay should be kept to a minimum to reduce the weight of the finished painting.
Shaping the Relief
With pieces cut out in varying degrees of thickness, begin by defining the sculpting areas with a small carving tool (3). Use your fingers to press the clay from behind, creating higher relief without adding extra clay (4). With the clay stiff enough to handle, begin adding clay bits and coils for dimension and definition. It is not necessary to be too concerned about making this part perfect: simply score, slip, and add as desired, carving back the parts that are meant to recede (5). If a pattern has many interlocking pieces, it is especially important that the pieces are cut and fit together in the wetter stages and dried together as well (6). The final shaping is done with carving tools, starting when the clay is in that sweet spot between moist and leather hard (7). At this stage, adding on is still easily done if you need more or have subtracted too much. For delicate refinement of faces, use a cuticle stick to push in the corners of the eyes and shape the nose and mouth (8). With everything carved and sanded, reassemble the work again and dry it in place on the plastic, covered with another piece of plastic and a towel (9). Note: Small background pieces do not need to be dried together with the relief.
When dried, bisque fired, and reassembled, adjust and trim any pieces that are not fitting together quite right with 120-grit sandpaper to ensure they will fit back together after glazing. Apply a gray wash (8 tablespoons Mason stain + 13 tablespoons Gerstley borate) to the areas in relief, then wipe the stain back, leaving definition in the recesses (10). The wash recipe can be used with any color Mason stain.
I use a combination of underglaze for the figures and flowers and cone-5 glaze for the background pieces filling in the sky and ground. Fire the relief pieces to cone 03 for denser vitrification of the clay body. This higher temperature tends to make underglazes darker, so add a second coat of underglaze and refire to cone 06 to brighten the color (11). With one more reassembly, make final adjustments to the color, apply one coat of satin clear glaze, and fire to cone 06. I used cone 5 glazes for the small background pieces and fired them separately.
Note: My desire to paint with glazes has led to a collection of over 250+ glazes from cone 06–5. It is not necessary to use different temperatures, or have that amount of glaze on hand to make a successful tile painting! One may use glaze, underglaze, or washes in any temperature range with great results.
Setting and Framing
Cut a lay-up board to exact size and cover it with a layer of release paper (I use freezer paper) and a layer of woven fiberglass mesh placed on top. (Mesh and glue can be purchased online from Mosaic Art Supply.) Use scraps of plastic to make templates for the bottom background shapes, traced onto glazed slabs, and cut out with a tile saw. Next, attach all background pieces to the mesh using mosaic glue (12). Leave the relief pieces loose so they can be further adjusted when setting.
Frames are considered and designed as part of the piece. After discussing with my woodworker the size, shape, and wood options for the frame, a mounting board was made from ½-inch plywood with 1×2-inch select-pine supports attached to the back. A French cleat was cut into the top of the board for easy, stable hanging. When the outer frame is complete, protect it with paper and paint the center where tiles will be set with paint primer. This is an important step as the acrylic tile adhesive used for setting the ceramic does not adhere well to raw wood and can separate over time. Spread a thin coat of tile adhesive on the dry, primed area (13) and attach the small background pieces by pushing the meshed tiles into the adhesive. When attaching the relief pieces, add extra adhesive to the back of the tiles (referred to as back buttering) for a strong, uniform bond (14). Adjust sculpted pieces by raising or pushing in the back of the tiles
You can raise or lower the sculpted pieces by the amount of adhesive applied (15). Remove any extra adhesive remaining on the surface of the tiles with a wet sponge. Leave the tile painting to dry overnight and apply the grout the following day.
Final Tips and Thoughts
Each tile painting is unique and approached in different ways. What remains consistent throughout are the patterning, sculpting, and hanging techniques. Designs with defined pieces must be fired to the same temperature to fit back together. Only when using small background pieces can different firing temperatures (cone 06–5) be used and the pieces later combined. For variety in color and shape, 15% more small background pieces are made than are needed.
Remembering Betsy has underglazes on the relief pieces, providing the option of adjusting the color with acrylic paint after the last firing is complete. When planning to apply paint (after firing), on the final firing, apply one coat of 06 Duncan satin clear glaze to the underglazed relief pieces and fire to temperature. Most of the glaze will absorb into the underglaze, creating a semi-sealed matte surface that is still capable of accepting paint. Acrylics can also be used to change the grout color.
All photos (process and finished pieces): Randy Mayfield.
Karen Bouse is a life-long student of craft. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and appreciates any feedback and comments.