The Layered Surface

In search of new adventure, I came from Scotland to Canada in 2004. I had already been a practicing ceramic artist in the UK for six years. My intention was to re-establish myself as a sculptural vessel maker and teacher in Ontario.

Seeking a clay body with properties to best communicate my new ideas, I found myself testing every kind of clay from my local supplier. Before long, I had a studio full of reclaim. As a result, I began experimenting with additions to the clay body itself, including fiber, grains, and paper pulp. For the first few years, my experimentation meant a huge amount of trial and error, failures and success. My rite of passage also led to a significant new direction and opened up a new chapter in my ceramics career.

A recurring theme throughout my clay work is examining the relationship between the natural landscape and ancient man-made structures; structures abandoned in the past and transformed though time by the elements and generations of human contact and interaction. I’ve become fascinated with the historical narrative of graffiti encapsulated within and on the monuments of these sites, each layer a part of a continuous journey.

1 Brushes and their marks: A) silicone brush; B) handmade bamboo brush; C) fly swot brush; D) hardware store paint brush.

2 A grass fly swot cut down into a smaller usable size and bound into a brush.

Similarly, clay has a memory; marks are never lost. Such metaphorical potency of clay can be powerfully suggestive, just like graffiti; a perfect medium to create a diary of events. By combining my experience and ceramics knowledge with play and experimentation, I developed a multilayered method to achieve depth of surface, building up layer upon layer of clay, slips, engobes, underglazes, and glaze. Working this way creates a history in itself. It’s where drawing, painting, and ceramics begin to cohere.

I’m a handbuilder by nature, preferring to build vessels with slabs, coils, and pinching. I do also enjoy the immediacy of wheel work, particularly when I’m looking for a simple elegant form to use as a canvas on which to paint clay and build up its surface.

Surface Marks and Brushes

My four favorite surface-making brushes (1) are:

A. Blue silicone pastry brush. It creates succulent-lined surface marks with thicker slips.

B. Handmade bamboo brush from a local brush maker that delivers tighter, fluent, but roughly bristled textures.

C. A grass fly swot found in a thrift shop, cut down into a small manageable brush size and bound (see 2). Each end offers different and exciting marks, from soft fluid sweeps to harsher deeper scores.

D. Inexpensive hardware store paint brushes to create multiple textures, perfect for dry brushing.

3 Carve and trim the base of the form with a Sur form rasp.

4 Apply white slip onto the thrown vessel with a silicon pastry brush.


I make my own slips. My instant white slip comes from dry reclaim of either a mid-range porcelain body or a white, mid-range stoneware. To make a batch, fill a bucket with bone-dry clay and add enough water to cover the top of the clay. Leave the clay submerged overnight to slake down into a slurry, then skim off the excess water and mix to a smooth, creamy consistency with a hand blender.

All my colored slips are made from commercial stains and added by eye; however, as a general rule, begin with weighed dry clay (75–80%); then add stain, approximately (15–20%), depending on test results and required color strength.

I use a variety of slip consistencies in order to vary the effects. With my range of brushes, I can achieve multiple combinations of surfaces, fluid strokes, drips, and textures. No two strokes are the same and there’s always an element of surprise to how pieces fire.

5 Continue to apply white slip, but switch to a bamboo brush for a different texture.

6 Brush Spectrum red and Amaco orange underglazes over the textured surface.

Applying Layers Upon Layers

I work in multiples. I throw a group of vessels on the wheel with a dark colored, mid-range stoneware clay body. Once firm enough to be handled, I trim and shape the bases with a rasp (3), preferring the motion and texture I achieve from this as opposed to trimming on a wheel. I then scrape and clean up the rest of the vessel with the rasp and smooth metal kidney until I’m happy with its overall form. Next, I use a hardware store paintbrush to apply a base coat of white slip to the piece.

When adding texture, I vary between the pastry brush (4) and the bamboo brush (5), sometimes with a slightly thicker slip, using intuitively fluid strokes based on the shape of the form. Allow this layer to dry to the touch before a second coat is applied. Often this process is repeated several times until I feel it visually works.

Tip: Timing is very important. Time must be given to the piece as each layer of painted slip settles onto the surface. Working too quickly can cause too much moisture to be absorbed, making it too wet to work with; applying layers too slowly can cause damaging cracks in the vessel, causing it to dry unevenly.

7 Next, apply turquoise blue (Spectrum stain) slip over the underglazed surface.

8 Brush a darker peacock blue Mason stain slip over the turquoise to add deeper tones.

Once the initial surface texture is complete, I add colored slips and underglazes in layers (6); I apply yellow slip followed by yellow, orange, and red underglaze. I often blend the colors, but also section out areas with just one of each color. Once dried, I apply turquoise blue slip onto the vessel (7), sectioning out areas that visually work. I paint intuitively, working around each vessel with color and enhancing the brushed surface texture. A second tone of darker blue is introduced to add more depth (8, 9).

9 Continue to add broad strokes of the darker blue slip to add texture and depth.

10 Dry brush technique: remove excess slip from the brush onto newsprint.

Dry Brushing

I use a dry-brush technique throughout the build up of my surfaces because this painting technique enhances texture well. I dip the brush into the slip and take the excess slip away by painting onto paper (10) before brushing on the vessel. The paper absorbs moisture quickly and the brush begins to dry, leaving a very small amount of slip remaining on the brush itself.

I often brush against the grain of the surface below. The resulting brush strokes have a scratchy characteristic, leaving the evident bristle marks, which highlight and enhance the textures beneath (11). When I’m satisfied with the overall look of the vessel, my last brush strokes are done in selected areas where I feel a focal point is needed (12). Sometimes the last strokes have drips, as I enjoy the fluidity.

11 Apply dry brush layers with a minimal amount of slip on the brush.

12 Add white slip details and flashes of white to highlight focal points.

13 Sand after bisque firing to remove rough areas and reveal multiple colors.

14 Apply black stain, then sponge off in areas to enhance depth and texture.

Firing and Glazing

I bisque fire the fully dry piece to 1800°F (982°C), then sand back rough areas, often working into the slips and underglazes to reveal the layers of colored slips below. This offers a distressed look and enhances brush marks below the surface (13).

The entire vessel is painted with a wash of watered-down black Spectrum stain, making sure it seeps into the surface textures, cracks, and crevices. Once dry, I sponge off the stain, carefully allowing some to remain in the recesses (14). This method highlights the intricate dry brush marks and cracks. The vessel is left to dry overnight before a gloss black cone 6 glaze is applied to the interior.

A Place Where the Wind Blows, from the Landscape series, to 7½ in. (19 cm) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6 in an electric kiln.

My approach to decorating the surface is spontaneous. I work with each piece as an individual form and canvas exploring opposites like rough and smooth, harmony and tension. I begin with an idea of what I would like to achieve, but leave the possibilities open. I apply layers freely and rhythmically, allowing each vessel to express its own story and character. The end result is a rich and rewarding combination of color, texture, depth of surface, tactility, and visual pleasure.

Lesley McInally graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, Scotland, with an honors degree in ceramics and printmaking. Her studio practice is currently in Ontario, Canada where she also teaches handbuilding, paper clay, and surface exploration workshops. For more information visit


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