Teabowls: Form and Surface

I first learned about yunomis from a postcard I picked up for the ClayAkar “Yunomi Invitational.” I placed that card on my studio wall at The University of Mississippi where I attended graduate school, and I spent several years playing with a variety of yunomi forms until I found one that held my attention permanently. The slightest change in curve, more flare on the rim, and a tighter foot can all change the form dramatically and alter the area for surface activation. My yunomi engages and challenges me to investigate new solutions to unite the form and surface.

Form

A yunomi is a Japanese teabowl that is taller than it is wide. The volume of the vessel is important and is determined by the type of tea (if you are following the ritual tea ceremony rules). I create full-bellied vessels that have a large space for containment, which gives me a large surface for decoration. In my making, I find the most visually interesting forms are more voluptuous and have a small footprint with a generous lift off the table.

I begin my making cycle with a planning session. This includes listing out forms that I make with each cycle, forms to make for upcoming shows, and a few explorations of new forms, rooted in play. With each cycle, I make at least five cups. Cups are a direct way into people’s lives and the gateway to pottery collecting. A cup is the object we all use daily and it also is the most intimate form because it directly touches your lips. That connection to the daily user drives me to create a variety of drinking vessels.

1 After throwing and trimming the cup, coat the interior with white slip, then pour out the excess.

2 After dipping the exterior in slip, immediately wipe your fingers through while it's still wet to create gestural marks.

Evolution of Surface

I have a BFA in painting and in ceramics. Both are vital to my development as a ceramic maker and continue to influence the direction of my work. In undergraduate school, my underpaintings were done in burnt umber and burnt sienna on top of a stark white canvas. With pots, I do this in reverse. I use a dark claybody, and when I throw, I remove the throwing lines from the exterior surface with a rib, smoothing the surface for decorating. After trimming the cups, I dip them in white slip (1) and immediately wipe my fingers through the wet surface (2). I then shake the cup so that the slip runs across the finger marks (3) and doesn’t accumulate in any one area. This puts my maker’s mark back into the surface. I fill my shelves with trimmed pots, and apply slip to the entire group at once. This sets me up to add the painterly surface.

3 While the cup is upside down, shake it so that the slip runs across the finger marks. Turn it right side up and shake again.

4 Mix small batches of underglaze colors in plastic paint trays. Mix only enough to last through decorating each piece.

My surfaces have always been bright and full of color. When I began teaching high school four years ago, my studio practice changed. My available studio time shifted and condensed, which has made me a dramatically more efficient maker and has directly influenced my aesthetic. When I teach painting to my high-school students, we use watercolors. I enjoy the immediacy of watercolor and how it forces students to pay attention to what they’re doing so as to not saturate the paper. While they paint, I paint, doing quick color studies at my desk. These color studies hang above my work table for inspiration. The more I decorate pots while looking at the watercolors, the more relaxed and free the marks on the pots become. Working intuitively across the surface, I use small batches of underglaze colors, often mixing them right on my work table (4). This provides spontaneity in my color options and lets each piece be individualized. When I finish each run of pots, I wash out the palettes so that no two are exactly the same.

5 Layer the underglaze in washes, much like using watercolors on paper. Allow the underglaze to run and drip.

6 I work on several pieces at once, moving from light washes to opaque layers, and responding to the drips and runs.

I decorate several yunomis at a time, and layer the underglazes in washes in the same way that I use watercolors on paper, letting them run and allowing the drips to become part of the surface. I base the compositions on the drip patterns of the slip and the form, responding and reacting to the marks as they happen, working from a light wash to an opaque finish (5, 6).

After I apply all the color, I turn the pot around in my hand to find the focal point, and apply a cloud shape in that area. This was initially just another mark on the pots, but it has expanded into something that I put onto most of them to signify the front.

7 After the underglaze dries to the touch, I add detail with sgraffito decoration, drawing through the colors to reveal the clay.

8 Articulate the edges of an underglaze shape or focal point using sgraffito lines formed by a needle tool.

After adding color to the pots at the greenware stage, I draw through the slip to reveal the raw clay (7–9). Sgraffito lines are applied to the focal point first, and then I work my way into the background from there, making each mark afterwards lighter to give the surface a foreground, middle ground, and background to provide a depth of expansion in the surface. I also use a fabric tracing wheel to create dotted line patterns (10). Adding sgraffito lines allows me to define areas with more detail, and highlight the focal point as well as lines that need more attention. After the pieces dry, I bisque fire them prior to glazing.

9 Use a small paintbrush to carefully clear away the clay burrs created when drawing the sgraffito decoration.

10 Use a fabric tracing wheel to create dotted lines to accentuate the slip brush marks or create a new pattern.

I only use two glazes, a cone 6 clear and a chun celadon, I brush a lithium wash over the dry glaze to allow the underglaze to move some in the firing. This layering of slips, underglaze, sgraffito, and the final coat of glaze gives the pots a vibrancy and depth I was not certain I could achieve in an electric kiln.

The finished piece, after bisque firing to set the underglaze, adding glaze and a lithium wash, then firing to cone 6.

When pieces come out of the kiln, I love to see the change in the surface from the greenware stage. While most of the underglaze holds strong through the firing, I’m still surprised by the subtle change in the colors and opacity from the lithium wash. Each glaze firing re-energizes me to get started making all over again. I give myself a few days to digest the information from the previous firing. I hope people who use the pots discover and enjoy the subtleties of the surface and form as they use it over time.

Sara Truman is a ceramic artist and educator living in Gainesville, Florida, where she teaches ceramics at Gainesville High School. Along with her wife, Naomi Mostkoff, she also runs Studio TM Ceramics (www.studiotmceramics.com). She earned a BFA from Western Kentucky University in ceramics and painting, attended the University of Florida in Gainesville as a post-baccalaureate student, and received her MFA from the University of Mississippi.

Comments
  • Reader L.

    This is wonderful! I love your cups, ideas, and thinking. Thanks for sharing. I am excited to do something like this and share it with my community.

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