The collective details of a space can create lasting impressions that evoke memories from a specific time or place in someone’s life. The inventiveness of integrating form and surface in my work is often inspired by the visual elements from my recollection of physical environments. Texture, color, and pattern are the main components I hone in on when designing an object. Pieces begin on the wheel as it allows for consistency and repetition, and I later alter the form by pinching to add distinctive character to each object.
Creating and Dissecting a Form
There are two proportional aspects to consider when making a tumbler—the size and shape. A tumbler is commonly identified as a taller drinking vessel without a handle or a stem, and usually has a tapered or convex base. These definitive traits provide a basic outline for the form.
I use Earthen Red clay from Highwater Clays in Asheville, North Carolina. It is a rich, red-brown clay without grog that works wonderfully for handbuilding and wheel throwing. I use approximately 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of clay per tumbler.
My tumbler form is 4½ inches tall and 3¼ inches in diameter. After a slightly tapered tumbler shape is created on the wheel, trim an undercut below the lower portion of the belly to create a dramatic visual lift. Right above the angled base, on the lower-middle portion of the vessel, trim away some clay to create a subtle ledge. These sections will become a canvas for visual and textural elements in the decorative process.
Pinching, Pushing, Pressing
After trimming the soft leather-hard tumbler, alter the top portion of the vessel by pinching the form to create small divots (1). I like to start right above the ledge trimmed into the body of the cup, about a third of the way up from the base, spiraling upward to the lip (2).
A stylized flower is a signature shape I use along with several other secondary shapes to create patterns. A metal, flower-shaped cookie cutter allows consistency when laying out the design. When applying patterns, I work in vertical rows, starting near the lip of the tumbler and lightly pressing the cutter into the clay (3). Make sure to rock the tool back and forth once it touches so the entire outline transfers to the surface of the clay. Working intuitively, measuring by sight, mark additional rows on the pinched section. Gauging the desired spacing in the pattern will depend on how close the next vertical row is placed to the first row.
Once the pattern is mapped, begin to raise the flower shapes, adding more dimension to the form. Using an index finger, push out from inside of the cup behind the center of each flower, while using a thumb to brace the outside of the form and pinch around the flower (4). After the edges are raised, continue using your thumb to press down and smooth in a circular motion to compress and round out the shape around your index finger.
Next, add a white slip to act as a middle-ground layer between the rich, red-brown clay and the colorful underglazes. The underglaze layers beautifully on top of the white slip, and the stark white enhances the vibrancy of the colors. By carving through the white slip, the dark clay appears and creates a bold outline around the shapes.
Using a soft-bristled, fanned brush, apply two layers of Poor Man’s Porcelain Slip (see recipe) at a syrup-like consistency to the exterior of the tumbler form. I apply the slip upward, toward the lip of the form (5) to keep it from getting too thick around the rim or running into the vessel. Make sure to let the slip set until the surface loses its sheen before applying additional layers to avoid streaking with the brush.
Once the slip is dry enough, I use a small, metal rib to clean up the form (6). After removing any unwanted slip, use a red Mudtools rib to compress the bare clay areas. This helps rid the surface of any imperfections or tool marks and burnish the clay for a smoother finish (7).
Now, lay out the details of the pattern. Line the flower-shaped cutter up with each raised area and press lightly into the slipped surface (8). After the flower outlines are marked, incorporate smaller pattern shapes into the design. I have accrued a small inventory of shapes I use to create patterns on clay. I feel that they have a playful femininity, and serve to complement the larger flower motifs. Depending on the design, use a smaller stamping tool or draw the shapes by hand using a double-ball stylus (9). Lightly pressing with the stylus, carve the outlines of each shape. Creating the outlines helps you to see the composition as a whole, and the stylus lines form a small moat that helps to contain the underglaze once it’s applied. Use a dry, fluffy brush to remove any burrs that result from carving.
Adding and Mixing Color
My favorite part in the making process is mixing and adding colors to the surface. The ambiance of each vessel is created by a careful, sometimes unlikely, selection of colors and the way that they are integrated with the design. My color palette consists of a wide variety of Amaco Velvet underglazes that I mix to create a versatile hues and subtle gradient effects.
To mix a gradient palette, start with three analogous colors. For example, if you want to have a pattern fade from a darker orange to a deep yellow, you would use red, orange, and yellow. Using a sectioned paint palette, begin by pouring the middle color (orange) first between two empty spaces. Add a little bit of that color into the two empty spaces on right and left sides. In one of those spaces, add the darker color (red), then add the lighter color (yellow) in the other (10). Having a little bit of the darker and lighter color mixed with the main color creates a slight difference on either end. Once the colors are mixed, the subtlety of the gradient can be adjusted by adding more of the lighter or darker of the two colors.
Apply two coats of underglaze to each area for opacity, allowing time to dry between each layer (11). I use several brush sizes for different areas on the object. Smaller, round-tip brushes work well for the shapes, while a larger flat brush works well for the solid bands on the lower portion (12).
Once the exterior is painted, carved, and cleaned up, apply an interior color using a soft-bristled fan brush. The soft fan brush’s flexibility provides great coverage for the pocketed areas on the inside of the cup. Wait to do this step last because it can rehydrate the clay and make the form slightly pliant, making it difficult to carve on the exterior.
Refining the Form
When the underglaze has set, but before the clay dries too much, use the ball stylus tool to revisit the painted shapes. Using the sgraffito method again, trace the lines through to the dark clay (13). Use a dry soft brush to sweep off the clay burrs.
Next, use a small metal rib to remove some of the underglaze to emphasize the stark transitions on the form. This is achieved by placing the piece upside down on a banding wheel and holding the metal rib at an angle with light pressure applied while spinning the cup (14). This reveals the clay body, creates a bold line, and accentuates the colors (15). Slowly dry and bisque fire the tumbler.
If there are any burrs from carving that exist after the bisque firing, lightly sand the area before applying glaze. I apply wax resist to the solid-colored bands on the tumbler. Once the wax dries, dip the entire vessel into a clear glaze. After the glaze has dried, wipe it off of the waxed areas. This specific clay body and glaze combination is fired at a mid-range temperature of 2124°F (1162°C) (cone 4). The glaze fills in the shallow sgraffito lines and helps to smooth out any of the rough areas.
Sanding the unglazed areas after the glaze firing creates a super smooth finish and eliminates that rough, chalky feel from the underglaze on the ceramic. Using four different grits (180, 220, 320, 400) of wet-dry sandpaper, start by saturating a palm-sized piece of the lowest and roughest grit (180) and sanding the unglazed areas. Using a finer-grit sandpaper will allow you to sand the surface without scratching it. For the final touch, I use a diamond sanding pad on the foot of the tumbler.
Sara Ballek currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She is a resident artist at Odyssey ClayWorks, where she focuses on making pots full time and teaching classes. You can find her most current work and studio happenings on Instagram @saraballek_ceramics or visit saraballek.com.