My world has always been surrounded by pottery. My mother was an artist, craftsperson, and collector of pottery. She encouraged our family to touch and use the pieces she collected. She influenced me visually and artistically by teaching me to use patterns and grids in needlepoint, quilting, crocheting, and knitting. When I took ceramics in high school, I immediately responded to clay, finding comfort working in three dimensions.
Grid and Tools
Forming pots on the wheel is where I begin. I use approximately 8¼ pounds of Laguna Clay’s cone-6 porcelain to throw a vase form that is 14 inches tall. After minimal trimming, mark the vase into a grid pattern, dividing the pot horizontally and vertically into thirds or fourths, with midpoints in between (1).
Tip: Use inexpensive watercolors to make the grid marks, which easily sponge away or burn out in the bisque firing.
After years of utilizing various objects to alter surfaces, I designed the tools I now use every day (2). Most of my tools are made from ¼-inch-thick wood. I mount the ones I use most into an adapted paint scraper and fit a tennis ball over the handle to give my hand ergonomic leverage while making repetitive marks in the clay (see 4).
Puzzle shapes have inspired many of my tool designs. I make larger and smaller versions to fit different sizes of vessels. My two favorite tools are the paisley and the fingertip shapes.
Other tools I use include a banding wheel, small craft sponge, clay shapers, a sharp knife, a flexible rib, and 5-inch upholstery foam for hands-free cushioning of the pot. Safety Tip: Put a shower cap on the underside of the foam to keep clay dust from flaking onto your worktable or clothes.
Pushing the Clay
Before beginning, wipe down the surface of your form with a damp sponge to ensure even moisture throughout. This helps prevent surface cracks. When the form is at a soft leather-hard stage (sturdy but malleable), you can begin altering the surface.
Place the vessel on the foam support. Keeping a finger on the inside against the mark being made, first anchor the tool at about a 30° angle and then coax or wiggle it along the surface, rotating the tool along its 90° edge as you press it into the surface of the pot (see 3). Push slightly outward with your inside hand against the tool that is pushing the clay from the outside. This creates an additional visual experience on the inside of the pot.
Use the pushing tools with confidence. A good, sure mark makes the design more interesting, creating rhythmic embankments. The result is textural variation and movement on the surface that will react differently to the glazing and firing.
Design and Development
The watercolor grid provides a target for the designs. I don’t draw the patterns ahead of time but allow the contours of my tools to define the patterns and fill in the grid. Their curves help me draw the design. Gothic architecture mixed with the fluidity of Art Nouveau are strong influences for my patterns. Textiles and fashion inspire movement in the textures on my forms. I strive for a rich visual experience for each piece, but it is also important that my pieces are enjoyable to touch.
After establishing the initial part of the design within each third of the grid, use the large paisley-shaped tool to make converging diagonals (3). Next, tie these together by pushing the clay to create a horizontal mark along the piece. Flip the tool to get the convex end in position to finish the drape marks all around the vase (4). Reinforce the designs by making duplicate shadow marks, which add extra movement (5). The drape marks join at the base of the oval and gather the slightly uneven point of the oval. What I love about my texture pushing process is the ability to manipulate and squish the marks together. The supple, soft rhythms of the clay reflect the sensual aspects of fabric and the pulling and stretching of flexible materials.
After completing the patterns in the central body of the vase, decorate the base of the piece (6). Finish the base by drawing the marks together with the fingertip tool (7). Finishing the base before moving upward accomplishes a couple of things. First, it avoids creating any weakness in the rim as it rests on your forearm while you rotate the vase from the inside. Secondly, I believe that decorating the base completes the design, and adds a lovely surprise for the user.
Throughout the process of pushing the clay, continuously go over the marks with a damp sponge to clean any loose bits of clay and soften any sharp texture marks. Use the clay shaping tool to reinforce weak spots and small fissures (8).
Once the base and main body are complete, begin creating designs for the upper portion of the vase (9). Consider each design element and develop it, taking into account how negative spaces join the positive elements (10). Strive for a balance of texture and negative space with integrated patterns.
Resolving the Rim
Having created these lush designs throughout the vase, it’s time to resolve the rim, making it as confident as the rest of the vessel. This area is inevitably thinner so you need to be a little less aggressive with pushing the clay. Make sure the neck is well hydrated as it typically dries out while you’re texturing the body. Continue the design up to the rim (11).
After hydrating the rim, using a knife, make a straight, horizontal cut on the rim at each of the watercolor marks dividing the surface into thirds (12). Use the small flexible rib to gently coax and create a ruffle at the cut rim. Use your thumb and forefinger to define the ruffle at the midpoints between cuts (13). After undulating the rim, utilize smaller tools to resolve the design on the upper edge of the vase (14).
Drying and Glazing
Wrap the neck with a strip of cut plastic to keep it from drying too quickly. I typically leave the vase covered with two layers of cotton sheeting for a day. When the pot is a sturdy, dusty leather hard (the point just past leather hard before it becomes too fragile), sponge the surface one final time and allow the pot to dry on an open-rack shelf under cotton sheeting. Remove the sheet when the dryness of the base has caught up to that of the neck (15).
After bisque firing, I rinse and glaze the interior of the vase for soda firing to cone 7. I leave the exterior raw or only glaze certain highlights. Because I am using a mid-range porcelain clay, I often get translucency where the texture has thinned the walls of the clay.
My methods have evolved over many years of experimenting. I hope my process descriptions inspire others to invent their own styles and approaches to clay, just as my mother inspired me long ago.
Photo of Ivory Nouveau vase: Eddie Ing. All process photos: Michael Rust.
Lora Rust is a ceramic artist and instructor at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Rust earned a BA in French from Newcomb College of Tulane University, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Rust holds frequent workshops nationwide, where she teaches wheel-throwing techniques and her signature style of pushing clay. To purchase her Tool Kit, see more of her work, and find dates for upcoming workshops, visit www.lorarust.com or follow her on Facebook and Instagram @lorarust.