Shortly after graduating from college, I came up with a line of pottery using thrown and altered forms, a black wash, and green and yellow glazes. Nine years later, after staying home to raise two kids, and still making the same pots with the same green and yellow glazes, I needed a change. Maybe new glazes? No. New shapes, with the same glazes? No. It wasn’t enjoyable to continue on the same path, but it was so difficult and time consuming to try to come up with a new line of work with a new look. With two young children to care for, attending workshops or classes was not possible. YouTube and Pinterest were my main resources for inspiration. Months of watching videos and saving pins to idea boards gave me ideas to test in the studio.
I ultimately combined techniques inspired by three artists. Ceramic Arts Network (https://ceramicartsnetwork.org) posted a video of Lisa Naples using thick, colored slips that created a beautiful texture. Another video showed Jason Bige Burnett working with an expansive palette, which was so appealing after having worked with just two colors for so long. Also, Zygote Blum posted a clip of himself cutting out paper stencils that created a pattern with a crisp outline. Moving forward with this new direction, I now see so many possibilities of color, decoration, and form.
Creating the Shape
All my pots are made using Little Loafers from Highwater Clays. It’s a smooth, white, mid-range stoneware that I fire to cone 6 in an electric kiln. I throw and alter most of my work, keeping in mind that it’s easier to decorate a flat surface than a rounded one, which is why I tend to square off bowls and platters. Once the form is leather hard, it’s time to add the surface decoration.
Making the Colored Slip
As I collect my scraps of clay from the table and the wheel, they are tossed into a bucket to be reclaimed and eventually mixed to the consistency of yogurt, put through a 60-mesh sieve, and used as slip.
Colors are achieved using Mason stains and oxides. To keep it simple, the slip is measured wet by the cup, and the colorants by the teaspoon. The stronger colors require using only 1 teaspoon of colorant per cup of slip, and the lighter colors could require using up to 5 teaspoons per cup. Most of the slips use only one Mason stain (1), but when searching for a certain color, combining two or three stains can create the desired look. Restaurant-grade containers work great to keep the slip from drying out and allow me to mix about 4 cups of each color at a time (2).
Applying the Background Color
To apply the background color, cut out strips of newspaper to create a border. I work on two tables simultaneously: a plastic worktable has the slips laid out, and a wooden table holds a self-healing cutting mat and a stack of newspaper. First, cut out straight and slightly curved strips of newsprint and place them on the plastic table. Spray them with water until they are fully saturated. Wet paper sticks to the leather-hard clay. The moment the paper dries out, it will fall off, so I keep a spray bottle nearby to lightly spritz once I see the paper drying.
On a round piece, like this pitcher, a slightly curved strip is needed to maintain a relatively straight border along the rim as well as the bottom (3). Once the paper border is applied, using a hard-bristled chip brush, paint on the slip, being careful not to pull the paper up while crisscrossing the brushstrokes (4). Each time a layer of slip is painted on, the whole piece becomes softer, so set it aside to allow it to return to leather hard. Once the slip is dry to the touch, remove the paper border using the tip of an X-Acto blade (5).
Since using this technique, I have found that various newspapers behave differently in the process. My local daily newspaper tends to fall apart when wet and comes off in pieces and layers when removed. However, the weekly paper is a lot more durable, so I make sure to pick up a supply of them the day before the box is refilled.
Next Layer: Pattern
Each stencil is cut by hand (6). Since the paper pieces are not reused, I stick to shapes that are simple and quick to cut out, but create a large repeating pattern when placed together across the piece. Over time, I have also come up with new patterns using the negative-space cut outs that were previously discarded.
When choosing the pattern for a piece, I tend to cover ⅔ of the surface with a more intricate pattern that takes longer to cut and apply, and the other ⅓ with a simpler one, like stripes or squares. After the paper pattern is laid down (7), a border is used to create a clean edge between the sections (see 8). If the background is a lighter color, a darker color is used for the pattern, and a darker background gets a lighter-colored pattern (8). I use yellow and orange sparingly to add pops of color.
Apply the paper pattern pieces as you did the border pieces, and paint over with slip. Once the pattern is dry to the touch, the paper pieces are removed with the tip of an X-Acto blade (9). The piece is then set aside until it returns to leather hard. To finish the surface decoration, I use a sharp X-Acto blade to loosely trace the outline of the pattern and background color (10). The piece is then dried and bisque fired to cone 04.
Highlighting the Texture
After the piece has been bisque-fired, a thin black wash is painted on the piece, wherever there is color (11). The wash is equal parts by weight: OM 4 ball clay, Ferro frit 3110, and Mason stain 6600. This recipe can be used with any colorant. I thin it to the consistency of water. With a damp sponge, wipe off the wash to reveal the brushstrokes in the slip as well as the thin outline from the X-Acto knife (12). This process adds a lot of moisture to the piece, making it too saturated to apply the glaze. I wait until the next day so that the pot can absorb enough water from the glaze for an appropriate application. All of my pots are dipped in a clear glaze and fired to cone 6.
All photos: Destinee Blau.
Kristin Schoonover graduated from Alfred University in 2001. Shortly after, she moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to open her pottery business. She works out of Clayspace Co-op Studio in Asheville’s River District.