I have been attracted to many types of ceramics during my education as a potter. Often times it’s difficult to separate technical or aesthetic fascinations from qualities that are central to how I feel about clay. I set out to find a way of working that blends all of the things I love about pottery and won’t leave me longing for avenues of exploration even if I were to make the same type of work for the rest of my life.
Looking back through years of work and sketchbooks to find the common threads, I saw inspirations spanning the energetically patterned work of the Mediterranean, the fluid glaze and intense color of the Tang Dynasty, the grace and pure forms of the Song Dynasty, the whimsy of Medieval slipware, and the spontaneous mark making of Korean hakeme. As I investigated the roots of these disparate influences I found they all seemed to meet around the 9th century along the Silk Road that connected China and the East to the Mediterranean Sea and the West. This ancient melting pot had a blended aesthetic that affected all of the cultures on its route and many that came after. Having found a root, I was then free to explore these influences with new processes, patterns, and meanings every day in the studio.
The potter’s wheel is the primary tool in my work. During the mid 90s I worked as a production potter making several hundred pots a day. The skills developed by this repetition and focus on technique paid great dividends.
Clay absorbs less water when less time is spent centering and pulling up the cylinder, which makes the pot stronger during shaping. After centering the clay, open it with your left hand and lean your upper body back while pulling the floor of the pot toward your right hand. The left hand will then be wrapped around a low doughnut of clay. This can be pulled up using a claw pull. Begin squeezing between the base of the thumb on the outside of the pot and the first two fingers on the inside (figure 1). While beginning to squeeze with the left hand, wrap a damp sponge over the top of the doughnut with the right hand, compressing the rim and leaning slightly inward to remove any off-centered feeling in the clay. Wait for the clay to center then begin squeezing and leaning in harder, all while continuing to set the rim with the sponge. Pull the doughnut into a tapered cone shape that can then be pulled taller with any method.
To make a bellied-out vase with a narrow foot and neck, pull the walls upward, keeping the clay that supports the belly and the spot where the neck meets the shoulder slightly thicker by releasing a little pressure during the pull. The water is removed from the interior floor and a wooden rib shapes the underside of the belly before the neck can be closed (figure 2).
Collaring in the neck of a pot can be tricky business. The more friction applied to the top of the pot, the more likely it is to buckle and twist at the bottom. Use a sponge to get water on the neck while being careful to keep it from running down and weakening the bottom of the pot. Reduce contact friction with the pot by using thumbs and fingertips to make several passes bringing in the neck (figure 3). As it constricts, the clay in the neck begins to thicken and wrinkle, so every few passes do a pull with fingers or a throwing stick to strengthen the wall then re-compress the clay with a rib (figure 4). All of this activity exaggerates any off-centeredness in the pot. If it’s slight, leave it alone and hide it under a newly compressed rim, otherwise, slowly introduce a needle tool to the side of the neck and cut off the wobble. Finish shaping the pot with a flexible, rounded, rubber rib (figure 5).
Paddling the Form
I was first introduced to paddling by watching Yixing teapot makers. The skill they exhibited in shaping their thin, slab-built forms with paddles was inspirational, but it wasn’t until years later when I wanted to alter thrown bottles to make fish shapes that I began to use the technique in my own work.
Once the bottle form has set up to leather hard it’s ready to be shaped. The pot will stick to the paddle if it’s too wet and crack if it’s too dry. Wooden paddles should be sanded smooth, making sure to round any edges or corners that might dig into the pot. Begin in a position where you can see the profile you’re trying to alter and experiment with holding the piece in the hand or setting it on a banding wheel. Hit the pot with the paddle, moving in a circular motion instead of straight into the pot. The smack, stick, and stretch of this action happens in a fraction of a second, so imagine the paddle is a brush used to push the clay toward the desired shape (figure 6). Sometimes, the pot gets soft again as it’s worked, requiring it to firm up again before continuing. It’s best to finish shaping on the first side before trying to match the form on the other side (figure 7). Working in one place on the pot and rotating the paddle in the same direction will cause an edge to form, so move the paddle around the work area until it’s time to set an edge. There’s a dynamic relationship between the starting form and the finished piece, which doesn’t always go as planned. If the pot is too fat, interesting and even awkward folds can form on the bottom or sides, but instead of throwing pieces that look like mistakes away, it’s better to finish the process and see what happens. I always tell my students to fix their problems on the next piece—in ceramics we learn in a series.
Who doesn’t love thick, sloppy slip covering a pot? Slip consistency will determine the opacity and texture on the final piece. For brushing, thin the slip just to the point that it starts to drip off the brush. Use a soft, wide bamboo hake brush for scooping out the slip and smearing it on the pot (figure 8). Cover as much of the surface as possible before it starts to dry, rolling the brush to get the slip off quickly. Then spin the pot on the wheel while adding extra slip to even out the coating. Next, use a cheap, plastic-bristle brush to leave a pronounced brush stroke texture that occasionally scrapes down to the clay underneath (figure 9). Leave some of the pot unslipped to reveal part of the process and let the clay body show through for contrast.
Drawing with Stamps
Around 2004 I began working with wood blocks to press shapes into my pots. Shortly after, I came across a book with several pages of Persian clay stamps while researching Islamic patterns. I realized that I could draw designs with impressed pattern if I only had enough stamps.
I began carving leather-hard clay (think Parmesan cheese consistency) with an X-Acto knife and mini loop tools into a library of stamps (figure 10). To make a stamp set for my thistle pattern, (based on the Iznik poppy), I carved a flower head, a straight stem, a slightly curved stem, and a hard curved stem into different faces of a clay block, plus large and small leaves facing left and right. Once dry, these were bisque fired. I also use the sanded edge of a wooden rib for continuous straight lines and wheel-thrown clay rollers for continuous curves (figure 11).
When planning my surface designs, I play back and forth between the wide-open, all-over-the-pot style of the Bronze age Minoans and the carve-up-the-form-into-picture-planes tendencies of the Renaissance Italians, using a contemporary lens that is bent on disrupting that classical visual hierarchy. At least that’s the kind of thinking going on in the background when my intuition takes over and does the hard work of actually deciding where things go.
When the slip layer is dry enough not to stick to the stamps, start rolling on borders with a tool made from a notched piece of wood and a wheel-thrown clay disc held in place by a brad nail (figure 12). This homemade clay roller matches the impression and edge quality of the clay stamps. Be happy with where the rolled lines end up because there is no eraser. Next, start pressing in your design with your stamp set (figure 13). On a closed form the stamping can’t be supported by a hand on the inside, so take care to roll the stamps on from edge to edge or in a circular motion to get a good image without denting the pot too badly. Sometimes it doesn’t work and much of the detail of a larger stamp will be lost in the middle. Selecting smaller stamps for closed forms can resolve that problem. I add branches, leaves, and flowers with the goal of a balanced and dynamic composition (figure 14), then fill the little empty spaces with triangles made by pressing the corner of a wood block into the clay (figure 15). The triangles make a deep mark and turn out as dark points that act as a unifying element in the piece. Finally I press in a circular-shaped stamp in the areas surrounding the design—the geometric pattern balances out the organic images (figure 16).
After the pot is decorated, roll the bottom edge, then smooth it with your thumb. Allow the piece to dry, then bisque fire it.
Brushable Colors and Glazing
I want the user of my pottery to feel the dents caused by the stamping process on the inside of a mug, see the motion of the slip in the marks made by the brush, and have no doubt when they pick up one of my pieces that the glaze is a coating of melted glass. I have always been drawn to the excessive flux of the Tang Dynasty tri-color glaze. When I was first trying to achieve these colors on my own work it took me a while to realize I was attempting to create lead-glaze effects without using lead. Omitting the lead can cause blisters in what is essentially an over-fired glaze. Along with the brightest copper blue you also get a soft glaze due to the low alumina and high soda required.
Additionally, all that soda is soluble even in the fritted form, causing a short lifespan for the glaze in the bucket before it starts to fire strangely. These glaze issues have actually led me to the process I now use to apply color to my pots, in the end adding to the quality of my current work.
Start by brushing or sponging one of the Brushable Color Mixes into the impressions left by the stamps (figure 17), then wipe off the excess with a sponge (figure 18). Tip: Squeeze it into a tub of water set aside just for that color so it can be reused in the next batch of color mix. Finish with a clean-water wipe down to remove as much color from the pot as possible without wiping too much out of the texture.
Let the piece dry before dipping or pouring on a clear or transparent glaze on the inside and outside of the pot. Before the first coat dries, brush on another coat to even out the glaze (figure 19).
After these base coats dry, brush on the Brushable Color Mixes as if you were decorating majolica ware, but keep in mind how much the glaze will flow (figure 20). NC-14 Clear glaze begins to melt before cone 08, matures by cone 04, and can be fired to cone 1 for a tighter low-fire body. This glaze likes to run so make sure you protect your kiln shelves with kiln wash or fire each piece on its own tile.
Paul Linhares received his MFA from West Virginia University. He has been an adjunct ceramics professor since 2001 at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, visiting faculty at North Central State College, Mansfield, both in Ohio, and at the Chautauqua Institution School of Art in western New York. To find out more, visit http://paullinhares.com.