Before finding pottery I studied textiles and embroidery in college. The love of ornamentation, decoration, and attention to detail that I learned from textiles continues to offer inspiration in my ceramics. Historical interior design and vintage costumes, along with my love of nature play a large part in my designs.
I handbuild with a mid-range porcelain clay body, which I roll into very thin slabs. My pieces are then formed and shaped using darting. I like to make the construction process visible and the joins make reference to a seam on a garment. The surface decoration is built up with layers of incising, stamping, and carving, then embellished with sprigs and slip trailing. Glazes are applied with a brush and blended. Catchment areas are made for more reactive runny glazes to pool and drip, creating an almost jewel-like quality. I fire my work in an electric kiln to cone 6, then 20-karat gold luster details are added and fired to cone 018.
I keep sketchbooks and have a large inspiration board in my studio where I collect things that I find interesting. I also find that Pinterest is a perfect way to keep a virtual sketchbook. I usually start by making paper patterns and then I work out the forms in clay.
I’m interested in making one-off pieces rather than repetitive forms so pieces develop and evolve. One piece naturally leads to another and, at this point, I like to go with the flow rather than sticking to a set plan. I find this is the most enjoyable aspect of making, when each idea can be explored and refined. The cups I make are the exception as I keep the same shape and work from the original pattern, although surface decorations are always different and each one is unique. I like the idea that people can collect them and that they will work as a series even if they were made years apart. These cups have been a really valuable part of my process and many of my ideas for larger pieces originate from cup forms.
Create several plaster tablets with Pottery Plaster #1. I make them in a batch of various sizes and keep them in sealed plastic bags to retain their moisture. I keep them like this for up to 6 months and when I want to carve one, I don’t have to break away from my porcelain work to cast plaster for a new tablet.
After placing a paper pattern on the moist plaster tablet, trace over the design in pencil, using enough pressure in order to mark the plaster below. Then remove the paper and go over the design using various tools, depending on the type of line you want to carve. A ball stylus embossing tool works well (1).
You need to keep the plaster scrapings away from your clay. Tip: Place the tablet on a towel while carving as it makes clean up much easier. Scrap clay can be used to roll over the finished carved slab to remove any plaster crumbs left behind from the carving. Let the tablet dry overnight.
Roll out a porcelain slab to about a ¼ inch thick. Leave it to rest on drywall board in order to remove some of the moisture. Stack and wrap the clay slabs in plastic until you need to use them; they can be kept like this for weeks if they’re well wrapped.
Once you’re ready to start building, prepare the slabs by rolling again, this time by hand (I like to use a white 1½-inch PVC pipe.) Roll the slab to about an 1⁄8 inch thick and compress it well using a rib. At this point, be careful how you handle the slab as it’s thin and you don’t want to tear or stretch it. I use a cardboard tube to pick up the slab and place it on the plaster tablet, which has been brushed with a dusting of corn starch to prevent sticking.
Next, pound the slab with a plastic bag filled with sand and covered with a soft flannel fabric to hold it together (2). Work over the slab, pounding it with enough pressure to transfer the carved image (3); you can always carefully lift one edge to see if you have the right amount of pressure to transfer the pattern. Care has to be taken when moving the slab as now it has become even thinner after being pounded.
For the cup there will be 4 pieces: body, bottom, foot, and handle. Start to work on the body of the cup first while keeping the other pieces wrapped in plastic until they’re needed. Use your finger to press and push the slab to form small indents (4). When I begin this process of adding texture to the cups, I’m always thinking about glazing, and how I can add pattern to make catchment areas for the glaze to pool. I’m such a magpie and collect all sorts of bits of plastic and found objects that could become tools for mark making; plastic hotel room-keys are perfect for cutting up to make pattern-making tools. I also use drinking straws and allen keys for making honeycomb
Forming the Body
Make the main join of the cup body an overlapped seam, which is scored and slipped in place. Then use you finger to press along the seam (6). I think there’s something very beautiful about leaving the finger indentations of the maker and the seams visible. Now score and slip the base of the cup in place. I use one of my handmade plastic tools to go over and compress the join to ensure it’s a strong bond (see 7). Now turn the cup over and add the foot (7). Once in place, use your finger on the inside of the foot to stretch the clay out and form a slight curve. Cut the foot with a craft knife to create a scalloped edge (8). Tip: Cut soft sponge circles to fit inside the cups. This offers additional support while working on the outside decoration and also keeps the cup in a nice round shape as it begins to dry.
Use a craft knife to incise a design into the leather-hard clay (9). You need to have a light touch as the clay is very thin and you don’t want to cut too deep. I like to cut the design freehand; it just feels like a lovely organic way to work and allows the design to flow around the cup.
Remove the sponge support from inside the cup, then work the inside edge with a finger; you want the rim to have a slight curve outward as this fits the lips well when drinking. After the handle has been pulled and shaped, score, slip, then attach it.
Adding Springs and Embellishments
I have made many molds for sprigs, some are made from plaster (see 12), others from clay, but my favorite is a silicon mold-making product as it’s flexible and quick to use. I use a company in Cincinnati, Ohio, that specializes in mold-making supplies; www.makeyourownmolds.com. Their silicone-plastique is so easy to use and makes great detailed, flexible, and durable molds. Slip and score each embellishment in place as it’s added; be mindful about keeping the handle functional, so try to place the sprigs around the top of the handle and at the base.
With the sponge support back in the cup, add slip-trailed lines and dots to the cup (10), again thinking about how the glaze will flow and collect in these areas and around the sprigged embellishments. Add additional sprigged elements to complete the design (11, 12).
Drying Porcelain Tips
I find that when working with porcelain and having lots of joins and attachments, slow drying is essential. I have a large plastic cake tub that I use as the initial cover. This allows the slip to dry without anything touching the surface. After a couple of days I move to a wrapping of plastic. I will leave the cups to dry like this for at least a couple of weeks, eventually just having a loose covering of plastic before removing it all together and allowing the cups to fully dry. I check for cracks during the drying process. If hairline cracks do appear, I dampen the area then fill in the cracks with slip and rewrap the piece to dry slowly again. I think patience in the drying stage is essential to getting good results; in my experience porcelain doesn’t like to be rushed.
Little teaspoons are a joy to make and are the perfect accompaniment to the cups. Work on a bat or board; as these are so delicate, it’s best if they are picked up as little as possible during the making process. The spoons start with a thin coil—I use a hand-held extruder but a hand-rolled coil would work just as well. Scoring and slipping each joint, start to form a twig or coral shape (see 13). Add texture to the twig using a toothbrush (13). For the coral, use a ball stylus embossing tool and homemade stamps. I find it helpful to have actual twigs and coral on hand to reference when I’m working on my pieces, as direct observation helps me to get the right feel. Make the bowls of the spoons from molds (14). My twig spoon has a textured bowl, formed in a silicone mold I made from a plastic Christmas tree decoration that I thought had a seed-pod feel about it and works well with the twig handle. Carefully turn the handle over to work on the texture on the back. The clay is leather hard at this stage and so although really fragile, it holds its shape. The bowl of the coral spoon is shell shaped and for that I use a handmade bisque-fired clay mold (14). I apply a dusting of corn starch on all my molds to help prevent the clay from sticking. Add more embellishments to the top of the spoon (15). Don’t worry too much about the back of the spoon at this stage as it can be cleaned up later. Finally, add slip dots; these will become gold dots in the final luster firing.
Firing and Glazing
When bisque firing, I choose to a slow preheat in the kiln because my work is made up of many different thicknesses of clay. This preheat lasts 12 hours, then I bisque fire the work to cone 07.
I work with multiple glazes, both commercial and homemade and use the glazes in a painterly way, applying the glaze with a brush and building up layers of color, so the glazes will interact (16). I have some glazes that are very stable and will stay exactly where I put them and others that are more fluid and will move and flow into the little catchment areas. A double coat of Amaco High Fire series–Zinc Free Clear (HF-9) glaze is painted on the interior of the cup and a single coat is painted over the whole cup (17). Wipe the foot clean with a damp sponge.
The spoons are glazed in the same way and I use handmade small bisque clay blocks to stilt them (18), making sure I wipe away the tiny area of glaze that will come in to contact with the stilt. I find having a smaller kiln shelf is really helpful. I position the spoons in the correct place then gently load the whole shelf into the kiln. I fire the pieces to cone 6 in an electric kiln.
After the glaze firing, paint on gold luster, in dots and dabs. I think less is more in the case of gold, using it to add tiny dew drops and accents. The pieces are then fired again to cone 018.
Finished cups are sanded smooth on the base and the spoons are sanded where the stilts have been removed.
Claire Prenton is a British-born potter who moved to the US in 2004. While living in Seattle, she became an assistant at Kirkland Arts Center and studied with Carol Gouthro. In 2012, Prenton set up her own home studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was selected as one of Ceramics Monthly’s 2016 Emerging Artists. Her work is available through the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus, Ohio, www.sherriegallerie.com.