An Unexpected Canvas

Handbuilt ceramic objects are an exciting and often unexpected canvas for drawings. Imagery on functional ceramics can have a life that imagery on paper lacks. The narrative can exist in the home, under someone’s meal, in a playful, surprising, and sometimes subversive way. I’ve always loved to draw, and when I started taking ceramics classes, I knew that the pots I was making could be an appealing new canvas.

I keep sketchbooks so that I can draw wherever I am. I draw everywhere—at restaurants, on the train, waiting in line at the DMV. Because drawing is an everyday part of my life, my work is inspired by day-to-day events. When it’s time to scratch a drawing into a slip-coated plate, I page through my sketchbook and find imagery that I think will translate well to the circular canvas in front of me.

Beginning the Plate

I handbuild all of my work with a low-fire, red-earthenware clay body and make plates using hump molds. To make a plate, roll out a slab as evenly as you can. I don’t fuss too much or try to make it perfect—imperfections in handbuilding draw me even more to the piece. The slab should be thick enough not to warp, but not so thick to be heavy and unusable. Aim for something between ⅛–¼ inch thick. Use a rubber rib to smooth out the slab and compress the clay without thinning it. Place a hump mold on a banding wheel and ensure that it’s centered on the wheel by using a pencil or finger to check if the overhang of the mold on the wheel head is level while you spin it. Drape the slab, smooth side down, carefully onto the hump mold and then smooth out the other side with a rubber rib to remove any texture and to ensure that the slab is making contact on all parts of the mold.

1 With your mold centered on a banding wheel, hold your knife steady to mark and cut an even circle.

2 After removing excess clay, use your finger to smooth out what will be the bottom of the rim of your plate.

Using an X-Acto or fettling knife, carefully spin the mold while holding the blade steady, tracing a line (1). Tracing the line before cutting is important! No matter how steady I think I’m holding my arm, inexorably, the lines never meet up on the first try. Once you know that the traced line connects, follow along it once more, pressing harder with the blade to trim off the excess clay. Smooth the rim with your finger or a rib (2).

Make a Foot Ring

Use the excess clay you’ve trimmed off the plate for the foot ring. Wedge it together and roll it into a thick, even coil, about the diameter of a quarter. Drop the coil gently onto your work surface to flatten out one side, turn the coil slightly and do this again, then repeat once more so that the cross-section of the coil is an elongated triangle. This means the coil has a broad side to attach to the plate itself and tapers to a point. Score the broad side of the coil.

Holding your serrated rib steady while spinning the banding wheel, score the plate where the coil will be attached. If you attach the foot ring too close to the edge of the plate, it will have a clunky and awkward form, and sometimes the center will slump and touch the surface that the piece is sitting on. If you attach it too close to the center, the plate will be unstable and the rim of the plate can warp or slump. For a plate that is 10 inches in diameter, 2½–3 inches from the edge of the plate is a good place to put the foot ring.

3 Score the foot ring and attach it to the plate, pressing firmly to ensure a good connection between the two.

4 Cut the ends of the foot ring at an angle to increase the surface area. Score and add slip to the attachment areas.

5 Using a serrated rib, move clay from the foot ring onto the body, making a seamless connection. Smooth away the marks.

6 Trim and level the foot ring by holding the X-Acto knife steady and turning the banding wheel. Refine the rim edge.

Cut the end of the foot ring crosswise at an angle. Take the angled end of the foot ring and place it on the plate, slowly pushing down as you coil it around the scored circle (3). When the end of the coil meets the angled beginning, mimic the same angle and cut the coil so that the joint where the two ends meet has plenty of surface area (4). Score both ends of the coil, apply slip, and attach them, pressing them firmly to one another and also to the body of the plate. Next, use a serrated rib to blend the coil into the plate, which creates a seamless-connection between the coil and the plate and also ensures that the foot ring is well attached (5). Use a rubber rib to smooth out the texture left from the serrated rib. Trim the foot ring by holding your hand steady and moving the banding wheel (6). Next, use the end of a brush to poke a hole in the foot ring. This allows the user to string a cord through the hole and hang the plate on the wall.

After the plate has had some time to set up, remove it from the mold. The amount of time is dependent on the weather and humidity in the studio, the dampness of the mold, and also some indescribable clay magic. You will know the plate is ready when it feels stiff and pulls off the mold easily. If you remove it too soon, it will warp. If you wait too long, it will be too dry to decorate. Plates usually sit on molds for 2–3 hours in my studio before removal. Clean up the rim of the plate using a serrated rib, a sponge, and your finger.

Once it has set up to leather hard, apply two coats of white slip (7) and wait for it to dry to leather hard again.

7 Apply 2–3 thin coats of slip with a soft brush to build up the surface. Allow the slip to dry between coats.

8 Red watercolor burns out in the firing, so use it to sketch a drawing. Pick an image that works well for your plate and draw it over the slip.

9 Using a sharp knife, trace the watercolor sketch through the white slip, revealing the red clay underneath.

10 Flip your plate over onto foam, and paint white slip silhouettes in a pattern.

Adding the Imagery

Flip through your sketchbook or leaf through inspiration books and find an image that you want to draw. Think about how the image will translate to a circular canvas and how it will take up space. I often pick an image that will be a narrative vignette in the center, and then I choose a pattern for the rim that relates to the narrative. The pattern can take up space in an interesting way and can be repeated on the reverse of the plate.

Red watercolor allows you to sketch out the composition on the plate, but burns out in the firing (8). Following your watercolor sketch, use an X-Acto knife with a fresh blade to scratch thin lines through the white slip to reveal the red clay underneath (9). Tip: The clay needs to be leather hard for this step to work well. If it’s too soft, the blade will dig too deeply into the clay. If the plate is too firm, the X-Acto knife will pull up grog and the lines will be jagged and sloppy. Carving clay that is too dry also creates dust. Be careful not to brush away any bits that are pulled up by this process. Brushing them away creates dust and they can leave red streaks on your drawing. The bits can be fired with the plate and sanded off later.

11 Scratch out small drawings related to the front images through the white slip silhouettes.

12 Sand your bisque-fired plate to remove any sharp bits from the sgraffito process.

13 Dilute underglazes for a watercolor effect, and mix colors to get new shades.

14 Apply 1–2 coats of clear glaze. Allow the glaze to dry between coats.

Once you have scratched out the drawing, flip the plate onto foam and decorate the back. Apply slip in a silhouette of the image you wish to draw (10), then scratch images into the white slip (11). This creates a contrast of slipped images on the red clay background, which juxtaposes the white surface of the front nicely. Allow the plate to dry slowly then bisque fire it.

After the bisque firing, sand the lines while submerging the plate under water with wet/dry sandpaper to knock off any sharp bits (12). Once the plate has fully dried, color your lines and shapes in with underglaze (13). I like to mix my colors on a palette to get the perfect shades. I use a bit of water to dilute the underglaze. This creates a soft, watercolor effect. After your imagery is colored in, apply a clear glaze with a broad, soft brush and fire to temperature (I fire to cone 04)(14).

She Worked Really Hard, 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, handbuilt earthenware using molds, underglaze, clear glaze, fired to cone 04, 2018.

I Love the Grocery Store, 9 in. (23 cm) in diameter, handbuilt earthenware using molds, underglaze, clear glaze, fired to cone 04, 2018.

Molly Anne Bishop is a ceramic artist and illustrator living in Chicago, Illinois. She has a BFA in craft and material studies from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is inspired by finding joy in the mundanity of everyday life, being in nature, and eavesdropping. You can find her on Instagram @mollyannebishop and her website


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