Bringing a Piece to Life

Nothing goes together quite like red earthenware clay and underglazes. The richness of the color of the clay paired with the infinite colors of underglaze are the basis for beautiful pieces with endless possibilities. The color contrast with the clay body and layering of the underglazes brings dimension to the piece. The addition of slip-trailed underglaze to create raised areas brings the piece to life. My aesthetic is inspired by nature. I like to paint mostly flowers, but I like to add unexpected whimsy; caterpillars, ladybugs, bees, and dotted bird handles. Each piece has a storybook feel to it, a tale of garden life that I hope brings happiness and smiles.

Making the Form

I no longer throw on the wheel; these days I prefer to handbuild and to use GR Pottery Forms. They are made of wood and come in many shapes and sizes. There is no need to use any powders or sprays as the clay will separate from the forms easily if at the right stiffness. For this platter, I am using the large oval GR Pottery Form and will handbuild bird-shaped handles for either end.

First, roll out a slab to inch thick. You certainly can go a bit thinner, but I like the weight that this measurement gives to the piece. Smooth the clay with a soft red Mudtools rib, flip the slab over, and smooth the other side. At this point, let the clay firm up a bit. A good gauge that it is stiff enough is that when you touch it, your fingers will not leave an indent, yet it’s still soft enough to be pliable.

1 Cut out a platter shape using a wooden form and a needle tool.

2 On foam, center the form over the slab and press down several times.

Next, place the wooden form on the slab, with the widest part facing down, and use a needle tool to cut out the shape, then remove the excess surrounding clay (1). Transfer the clay shape to a thick piece of upholstery foam and place the form on top with the shaped side to the clay. Press down on the form so the clay conforms to it (2). I like to do a few presses, ensuring all sides have been shaped. With the clay on the form, take it off the foam and use a sponge and the soft red rib to compress the clay against the form. Remember, clay has memory, so you will want to do this several times to make sure your plate will have little to no warping.

Leave the clay on the form for about a half hour to let it set up a bit, then transfer it to a dry board and release it from the form.

Form Handles

In making the bird handles, roll two identical balls of clay in the palms of your hands. It’s a good idea to weigh these to make sure you make the birds similar in size. Each ball is then shaped into an oval and pinched on both sides, elongating one side more than the other (3). The longer side will be the head; once this is long enough, curve the clay with your thumb and index finger. Lift the opposite side up a bit to form the tail. Once you have formed the bird, press it down on a board to flatten the bottom so he sits. Making birds takes a bit of practice, and don’t be afraid to experiment with all kinds of handles.

Attach the birds to the either end of the form when the clay on both is at the same level of dryness. Using a needle tool, make a semi-deep cut into the bottom of the bird and score inside that cut. On the form, score where you will be attaching, apply water and slip to both areas. This will ensure a strong attachment. Now fit the bird onto the ends, pressing gently. You want the bird to fit around the edges of the piece, not sit on top of it (4). Clean off any excess slip that seeps out with a sponge or brush.

Once everything is bone dry, clean up the piece with a bit of sanding. After sanding, use a damp cloth to wipe the piece to get rid of any dust.

3 Form birds by making an oval and pinching one side longer for the neck.

4 Cut into the bottom of the bird with a needle tool, and attach it as a handle.

5 Apply 3–4 coats of underglaze. Paint a contrasting color in a lattice pattern.

6 Paint 3 coats of underglaze on the birds, and 1 coat of black dots on its body.

Dimension with Underglaze Layering

To give the piece dimension, start with a strong opaque base coat and layer up from there. I brush on three to four coats of Spectrum Chamois underglaze as my base, depending upon the thickness of the underglaze. Let the piece dry between each coat. This color looks white, but has a tint of greenish gray, so that when I use a bright white on top of it, the white will show clearly and give more dimension. This can be done with all colors, similar or contrasting, but the trick is using just one coat for the next step. I then make a lattice pattern with one coat of Amaco White underglaze (5). You will not see a big difference in color at this stage, but once the piece is bisque fired, the color will pop.

Next is painting the bird handles. This requires three coats of underglaze. I use Spectrum Lime Green for the body, and then paint the head with Amaco Jet Black. One coat of black dots added down the body will be the background for the raised areas to come (6).

Once the underglaze is dry, it’s time to draw out your pattern. I use a pencil to sketch, which will burn out during the bisque firing. I like using pencil as opposed to other mediums. If I make a mistake or want to change the pattern, I can just use my finger to erase the pencil lines. Don’t worry about any smudging, it will burn out (7).

7 Draw out a decorative pattern with pencil over the underglaze.

8 Outline the painted petals with pencil so you have a guide when painting lines.

Now it’s time for more layering. For the flowers, paint two layers of underglaze. This gives a more opaque look, while still having a bit of watercolor effect. I start with Spectrum Light Yellow for the inside of the flower, and then use Spectrum Baby Pink for the flower petals. You will lose each petal’s separation once dry, so go back over this with pencil (8). This really helps with outlining the petals. Painting the lines inside the petals and outlining them is next. Using the thinnest brush you have, paint multiple lines inside each petal. For this, I use Amaco Radiant Red. Remember to brace your hand on the side of the piece while doing this as it allows for control over the brush strokes. Once the lines are done, outline each petal and paint the tops a bit thicker (9). Next, use Amaco Jet Black to make black dots inside the flower, which will act as a backdrop for the raised dots and give that area depth (10).

The stems, leaves, caterpillars, and bees are next. For the stems, I use Amaco Dark Green, and for the leaves, I add Amaco Chartreuse to the inside. I also paint one coat of chartreuse on the caterpillars as a guide for when I put on the raised area (11). Tip: If you are painting your leaves two different colors, always do the lighter color first, as dark underglazes can cover light underglazes, but light underglazes don’t always show properly over dark ones.

The bees start with one coat of Amaco Jet Black, then I use a mix of the black and white for the wings and paint those on. Tip: You don’t need to mix the black and white thoroughly because you want to see the differences in the wings. Paint one coat of this mix, and then add a black thin line to the bottoms of the wings to give them more dimension and the look of flight. Next, paint another coat of black over the body, which makes the bees more opaque and also hides any areas where you may have gone over painting on the wings. Add on thin lines for the stingers and the head, and they are ready for their raised areas. I also add one coat of white dots to the whole piece to give another layer of dimension (12).

9 Paint thin lines, then outline each petal and fill in the top of each.

10 Add black dots inside the flower. These will act as the base for the raised areas.

11 Paint the stems and leaves of the flowers next, applying the lighter color first.

12 Add random white dots to give added dimension to the overall decoration.

Giving Life to the Piece

The final step is adding the raised areas to parts of the piece that give it further dimension and bring the piece to life. This is done with slip-based colors (engobes), put in a soft applicator bottle with a metal tip to give more control and a thinner line. For the insides of the flowers, I dot them in yellow, squeezing with more or less pressure so each dot is not the exact same size (13). This will give more character and whimsy. When dotting over the black, do not cover the whole black area. Leave a little showing to add more dimension.

Add striping on the bees using three raised lines of the yellow engobe. The caterpillars have alternating stripes of yellow and turquoise (14). Again, brace your hand somewhere along the piece to give yourself more control of the bottle. Finally, dot the bird handles over the black dots, leaving a bit showing on all sides, and also apply where the chartreuse and black meet. I always apply yellow pearl necklaces in this area. Two dots for the eyes complete the birds.

13 Squeeze yellow engobe over the dots leaving some black area showing.

14 Stripe the caterpillars in yellow and turquoise engobe.

15 After bisque firing, brush three coats of a clear transparent glaze over the surface.

Finishing

I bisque fire to cone 04, then apply three coats of Amaco LG-10 Clear Transparent glaze, letting the piece dry between each coat (15). I apply this to all areas including the sections of the back of the piece that will not be touching the kiln shelf. This glazed area on the back is small, as there is no foot on this piece. A good gauge for knowing if the glaze is thick enough is that the surface should look as if it’s coated with Pepto Bismol, just showing the imagery very faintly in the background. You don’t want to apply too much, as this can cause bubbling of the glaze.

Next, glaze fire to cone 04. If I am making a piece that requires liquid retention, like my planters or bud vases, I fire to cone 02 to ensure that the piece will not sweat with liquid in it, but this is not required for my trays as they will still be vitrified.

The most important thing I have learned more than all else, is to have fun with your pieces and create from the heart. I hope you have learned something new and make it your own.

Donna Gardner Striar first touched clay almost seven years ago as a student at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Starting on the wheel, she quickly learned her passion lay in handbuilding and painting her pieces, being mentored by Palm Beach ceramic artist Linda Rossbach. Donna has spent the last year volunteering at the Armory and now sells her work at shows, on Instagram @sanibelceramics, and on Etsy as Sanibel Ceramics.

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