Pretty Plaid Plates

These plates have developed over time from my love of both plaid and process. I see the pattern of plaid as a division of space investigated through line and color. I am particularly interested in the process that creates the lines, as plaid is traditionally two-dimensional but in these plates the lines have depth, a subtle suggestion of physical dimension.

The pattern is constructed using fine lines that have been depressed into the clay, shifting its surface, creating a linear space that allows for glaze to flow, pooling and accentuating the lines. I am interested in the layering of lines that happens on the surface of the plates; some are physical, three-dimensional lines, others are created with color, but they all read as lines working together to create a sense of depth.

Drawing the Plaid Pattern

I love making these drawings for a number of reasons: they can be made at home, and having studio-related work that can be done at home is important to me because it’s an efficient use of my time and gives a little relief from long nights in the studio. I am also interested in the history of plaid, and making these drawings allows me time and space to research and contemplate that history.

One of my favorite plaids is Burberry; it’s classic and timeless. Although it’s not something I would choose for my work, I love the brand’s colors, which balance the contrast of red, white, and black with the subtlety of tan.

I draw inspiration from other plaids as well: tartans have a sense of identity, the plaids of the 1960s had such bold color choices, and gingham can quickly remind me of my roots in New England. I look at the spacing of lines and the density of colors and then consider how to apply that to the functional space of a plate.

1 Draw a plaid pattern using a T-square, pencil, and paper.

2 Place a canvas bat onto your wheel head using well-mixed slip to secure it.

3 Center a flat, wide disk of clay then pull the edge of the wall up slightly.

 

To create the plaid used on my plates, I make an original drawing with paper, pencil, and a ruler. (These could be made with a computer, but I like the act of putting pencil to paper.) I use newsprint or regular copy paper and map out the spacing of the plaid along the bottom of the paper; I make the full lines across the paper using a T-square. After all lines are drawn in one direction, I rotate the paper 90°, mark the spacing and draw the intersecting lines (figure 1).

I then make copies of the drawings on 17×11-inch paper, which allows for an 11-inch plate diameter. For anything larger I make an individual drawing on newsprint. Each drawing or photocopy can only be used once, because the paper breaks down during the transfer process. The copies allow me to repeat a drawing and consider different spaces within any given drawing multiple times.

The Canvas Bat

The plaid plates start with one of the greatest pottery tricks I know. Cutting plates off the bat or wheel is difficult. I hated making plates before learning this because the loss rate was too high. Then I learned the wonders of the canvas bat.

A piece of canvas cut to a circumference roughly that of your bat or smaller is attached to the bat using a small amount of well-mixed slip (figure 2). The plate is then thrown on the canvas. When the plate is finished, I cut between the canvas and the bat (see figure 8). There is less tension as you cut through, and as soon as the plate is firm enough, I flip it over and remove the canvas (see figure 9).

4 Place the paper template over the plate, and use a pointed tool to incise the lines into the clay.

5 Rotate the plate 90° to create the perpendicular lines, then check the pattern before you remove the template.

6 Remove the template once you are happy with the pattern. Notice that the rim undulates due to the incised lines.

 

Throwing

To make the plate, I like the clay to be a little softer than usual. The initial throwing of the plate is extremely straightforward: it’s a just a flat, centered piece of clay (figure 3). The only thing I’m attentive to is the edge of the plate; I pull the wall slightly, defining the lip so it can undulate as I work on the surface of the plate.

Transferring the Pattern

I use the initial plaid drawing as an intermediary between the knife and clay; this creates lines that have a softness that incised lines do not. The back of the paper is sprayed with a mist of water. This has two purposes: first, it loosens the tension of the dry paper, and second, it seals the paper to the surface of the clay, when placed wet-side down with the pattern facing up. I use a Kemper C-090-117 carving tool to make the lines; it has a point and a blade that is sharp but not too sharp. I apply the knife directly to the surface of the paper and apply enough pressure to score the paper and indent the surface of the clay but not so much that it cuts through the paper (figure 4). It’s important to pay attention to how you move to make the line. I hold the knife in my hand and pull my whole arm, making one fluid motion. I make all the lines in one direction and then rotate the plate to make the intersecting lines (figures 5–6). As I start each line, I make sure to apply pressure at the edge, allowing it to shift and create movement along the rim.

7 Cut under the outer edge of the plate using a rib and lift it up to create a rim.

8 When the plate reaches soft leather hard, pull a wire tool under the canvas.

9 Flip the plate onto a ware board or bat and remove the canvas.

10 When the bottom is a soft to medium leather hard, trim the foot ring.

 

Throwing Again

At this point the plate is still just a flat surface. It goes back on the wheel, and I cut under the edge of the plate with a rib and lift the rim. This defines the rim, giving it dimension to function as a container (figure 7).  When the plate has firmed up enough, I cut it off of the bat (figure 8), then flip the plate and remove the canvas (figure 9). When the clay is still soft but will not clog up my trimming tools, I trim a foot ring, starting by defining the outside and inside edges of the ring, then trimming from the center to the inside edge (figure 10).

Glazing

I start by assessing the plate and make decisions about dissecting the space with color. I mark the lines with a pencil denoting the color each line will be. I then apply the glaze with a slip trailer that has a fine needle tip. Using the slip trailer, I glaze along the predetermined line, allowing the glaze to overflow (figure 11). I find that because the line is recessed, I can’t get the glaze to fill perfectly, so I intentionally apply too much. This allows me to go back and use an X-Acto knife to clean up the glaze that spills past the line so that the glaze edge perfectly corresponds to the incised line on the plate. The glaze line may bleed later, but I find that it does so in ways that relate to the surface of the plate rather than a random glaze line.

11 After the bisque firing, apply glazes using a slip trailer with a fine needle tip. Fill the incised lines.

12 Go back and clean up each line right after applying it using an X-Acto knife pressed into the incised line to remove the excess.

13 After slip trailing and cleaning up the edges of all of the lines, apply a wax resist over the glazed surfaces.

14 After the wax resist dries, apply a clear glaze to the remainder of the surface.

 

To do this, after glazing each line, I immediately cut into it using the X-Acto knife, placing it into the incised line and cutting down until the knife scrapes against the bisque fired clay and pulling it through using the recessed edge as a guide and built in straight edge (figure 12). I have found that cutting with the spillover glaze that will be removed oriented on the left of the cut line works best (this may differ for left-handed people). I cut each line immediately for two reasons: the glaze is still damp, so the excess tends to release from the surface easier, and working with wet glaze is healthier than scraping off dry glaze as no dust is created. I then rotate the plate so that the spillover edge is on the left and repeat the process. After all lines have been glazed, wax resist is applied to the glazed surfaces (figure 13). When all lines have been addressed, I glaze the plate in its entirety, by dipping it in clear glaze (figure 14).

Plaid dinner plate, wheel-thrown porcelain with incised pattern, glaze, 2014.

 

Kyla Toomey is an artist and instructor living in Boston, Massachusetts. To see more of her work, visit kylatoomey.com.

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