Soft Story Telling

Functional ceramics provide a unique opportunity for collectors to interact with fine art on an intimate level. These pieces are often designed to be held in the hands or placed against the lips. They become part of our daily lives and are integrated into our routines. When I’m creating a piece, I want it to become a favorite mug to drink coffee out of every morning or the bowl that makes eating ice cream at midnight a private celebration. I add illustrations to the surfaces of my work to intensify the connection between maker and user and to further elevate the experience of using the piece. My illustrations are designed to convey a mood or idea by setting a scene or telling a story.

Creating an Image Library

My process starts by creating a library of themed images that I can use to convey a narrative. Having several images of slightly different sizes and shapes allows me more compositional options when I go to apply them. I struggle with drawing directly on my pieces, so I work out my drawings on paper and then make transfer templates with transparent vellum (1). The image is drawn in dark lines onto the vellum with very soft graphite. This way I can see the image through the vellum when I place it against the piece image side down.

1 Use your image library to determine image placement.

2 Transfer pencil drawings to the bone-dry clay surface by tracing with a stylus tool.

Knowing what kind of story I want to tell and what type of images I’m going to use helps direct the making of the form. Using fine porcelain, I focus on creating forms that are friendly to use and sturdy, yet elegant. Smooth surfaces, gentle curves, and soft angles allow images to flow over the surface. Incorporating complimentary embellishments, like a lotus leaf for a thumb stop on a mug with a koi pond-themed illustration, can help to connect the image to the form.

Transferred and Painted Illustration

Once the piece is thrown or built and any additions such as handles are attached, allow it to dry slowly and completely. The illustration process is hard on the forms and they will crack if you embellish them before they are no longer cool to the touch, indicating that they are bone dry. It’s also easier to keep yourself from marring the surface of the porcelain when handling the piece if it’s bone dry.

Place the vellum template against the form, image side down, and determine the layout of the illustration. Once you’ve decided where they will go, tack the templates in place with blue painter’s tape (2), then trace over the image from the back side with a stylus tool, leaving a pencil-line image of the drawing on the surface. The graphite can be removed easily with a damp sponge if an unwanted mark is made and burns off completely in the kiln, making this an easy way to get a clean transfer of a drawing onto the surface.

3 Apply underglazes to bone-dry porcelain following the lines in the transfer drawings.

4 Dilute the underglazes with water and apply them in layers of varied thickness.

I use Amaco Velvet underglazes to paint my illustrations. I have done a lot of testing diluting them like watercolors, and applying them in thin wash layers to create more dynamic images and color transitions (3, 4). I also use the Amaco Semi-Moist underglazes to broaden my color palette. These materials respond differently with different clay bodies, glazes, and firing environments, so it’s important to do a lot of testing with your materials to determine how to create the effects you desire (5). For example, I found that the pink shades from the bottle burn out in my firing conditions, but I’ve successfully mixed several shades of pink that survive the firing using the various red and white Velvet underglazes. When painting the images, I try to avoid crossing over my pencil lines. I don’t want to obscure the lines that are guiding my painting and I find that I get better adhesion of the underglaze if the pencil lines are left unpainted.

5 Start with an opaque base layer, then apply layers of diluted washes over top.

6 Paint wax resist over and around the images creating 1/8–1/4-inch-wide halos.

Using the Negative Space

Another way image and form can be integrated is through the treatment of the negative space around the image. Adding a textural element like water etching connects the two visually and thematically. Once the underglaze is dry, I cover the images with a thin layer of wax resist, creating a ⅛–¼-inch-wide halo around the drawings (6). Then, I paint a wax-resist pattern in the negative space. In the case of the koi pond pieces, a pattern that mimics the concentric rings of rippling water works well. The wax needs to dry for several hours, ideally overnight, before any more work can be done. Once the wax is dry, use a damp sponge to remove clay from the unwaxed surface (7). This is done slowly and incrementally to prevent over wetting the form or removing too much material and leaving the walls too thin. Once the desired surface is created, apply another thin layer of wax to protect the surface from absorbing any underglaze during the next step, inlaying (8).

7 Gently erode the exposed clay with a wet sponge leaving a textured surface.

8 Apply another layer of wax to protect the surface from absorbing any underglaze.

9 Thin crisp lines are carved through the wax layer with a machinist’s scribe.

10 Apply a wash of diluted black underglaze over the lines carved through the wax.

To get crisp lines in my illustrations, I inlay black underglaze for any detail or outlining. This is done by carving away the wax where the pencil lines remain (9), brushing on a wash of water-thinned underglaze (10),  then wiping it away to leave underglaze behind in the carved the lines (11). Different line quality can be created by using different tools and applying different amounts of pressure. I’ve experimented with many different mark-making tools such as scalpels and burred sgraffito tools. I most often use a machinist’s scribe to make very fine, crisp lines (see 9). Some tools impart directionality in the marks they make, and it’s important to test the effects of various tools to determine how to achieve the line quality you want. Leaving the pencil lines free of underglaze (other than the black for outlines), using sharp tools with minimal kerf, and gradually removing small amounts of material rather than taking big bites are all helpful in decreasing chipping and creating clean lines.

11 Once applied, wipe off the excess black underglaze wash leaving behind the inlaid drawing.

Finishing Touches

After the inlay is complete, the piece is ready to bisque fire. Once it has been fired, wash it well and apply latex resist over the illustrations, maintaining the halo that was created previously with the wax resist. When the pot is dry and the latex is set, apply a liner glaze and then the background glaze.

I like to use a transparent glaze that pools around the water-etched textures for the background. If the clear glaze I want to use over the illustrations doesn’t interact well with the background glaze or I want to create a very crisp transition, I wipe the latex area clean of glaze with a damp sponge and then wax the junction between the latex resist and the glaze before peeling off the latex. Once the wax has dried for several hours or overnight, I can brush a thin layer of clear glaze over the illustrated area and not worry about it mixing with the background glaze layer. Then it’s time to fire up the kiln.

Emily Price is a full-time clinical pharmacist working in pediatric critical care. She makes ceramics as a way of searching for grounding and balance. You can find her on Instagram @fivebyefive.

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