After 24 years of teaching, I’m increasingly motivated to share what I know and emphasize that teaching IS learning. I encourage and expect peer teaching in my high-school studio classroom and love to watch students experience the joy and value of passing on what they know. The practice of giving back creates an expanding spiral of appreciation, understanding, and innovation that grows larger with each collective contribution. I love clay people! Ceramic artists celebrate sharing every little detail of their process; the secrets, the discoveries, and the wisdom that has come from both success and failure. I am where I am today because of our culture of generosity. I will never take this for granted.
I grew up enjoying outdoor adventures and a lifestyle of camping and traveling. Summers on the move kept me curious about my natural surroundings. My husband and I settled in rural Ohio, outside Columbus, about 27 years ago in pursuit of a deeper connection to the land. Country living keeps me constantly outside, which fuels and inspires my ceramic work in so many ways.
Folk, Indigenous, and Outsider Art
I’m drawn to work that often gets classified in categories such as folk, indigenous, and outsider art. My initial visual fascination is followed up by seeking out the cultural and historical settings in which works have been crafted. I’m moved by the authentic vitality of individual voices within diverse cultures and subcultures. Sensitive and sometimes raw approaches to conveying and questioning old-timey wisdom alongside current observations encourage me to more confidently share peculiarities of my own visions. When I look at contemporary art, craft, architecture, design, and illustration, or to established masters for inspiration, I tend to gravitate toward those who embody sincerity and eccentricity; revealing uniqueness and at the same time suggesting harmony and interconnection.
Seek Inspiration From Your Surroundings
For this series of lidded jar forms, I referenced three little objects I found over the years at second-hand shops. These forms inspired me to pursue a bulbous shape that reminds me of a water droplet.
Create Your Form
Throw a pot that is about a ¼ inch thick (1). Narrow the shoulder/rim area to mimic the water droplet shape. Throw an accompanying conical lid that continues the visual contour of the tapering form (2). When making a lidded form, consider throwing a knob thick enough to carve a hole through (3). I often remove clay from the base with a trimming tool right after it’s thrown (4).
Layout your Design
If you habitually work from a sketch, challenge yourself to use guide lines as a structure to create a three-dimensional sketch directly on your pot. First, break up your space by segmenting the bottom of your pot equally in quarters (eighths) or thirds (sixths). Continue these guide lines up the sides to the rim of the pot. From above, check your lines at the rim to make sure each section is pretty close to even. I’m continually amazed how this separation of space allows complex designs to bloom out and around a form. Next, use a sharp pencil to lightly lay out your design (5).
Define your Edges
Drag your pencil or sgraffito tool at a shallow angle for clean, deep, clarifying lines. Provide counter pressure on the inside of your pot with your hand to gauge the force of your pencil, gain awareness of wall thickness, and keep track of the moisture content of your clay. Repairs are simple. If you carve too deep, score, brush on slip, and add clay of a similar moisture content to fill the area.
Carving a Leather-Hard Pot
Use your pencil to lop off any 90° corners beside your lines. Try a variety of shallow, intermediate, and deep angles (6). When separating an object from the background, create a gentle slope up and away from the deepest defining line. Many small changes in the angle of your carving strokes create lovely curves and a sense of depth and volume. Try tucking rounded shapes into one another to generate undulating curves and a sense of depth and volume (7). Construct stair steps that create progressions, tiers, or levels. Overlap abrupt angles to produce surfaces that mimic structures such as shingles and fish scales.
Clean Up and Rehydrate a Leather-Hard Pot
Let clay crumbs dry a bit before sweeping them away with a dry brush. If you try to remove them when they’re still moist, they will clog your carved lines and make you crazy! After you clean up, pour water into and out of your leather-hard pot (8) and pat or spray the surface with water. Remember to repeat this step as necessary while you are carving and wrap work in plastic to encourage moisture back into the clay.
Add Extra Dimension
Slip and score to attach small bits of clay to the high points of your design (9). Break free from the contour of your pot, enhance dimension, and add pizazz. The raised areas created by this technique are an especially satisfying addition to drinking vessels where fingers will irresistibly gravitate to these charming little bumps.
Activate your surface with textures (10). Notice that some textures are static or move around in all directions while others have a distinct grain or directional flow. Use that awareness to your advantage. Compliment your textures with the inclusion of some contrasting refined smooth areas (11). I also like to leave small areas rough and random to remind me of the fundamental nature of clay.
Painting Underglaze on Bisqueware
Avoid the risk of underglazing greenware that will become increasingly more fragile as it dries. Bisque fire the carved piece to cone 04 to limit the odds of breakage during the underglaze process.
Once the piece is bisque fired, rinse it off with water to remove dust, make sure you only handle it with clean, oil-free hands, and allow your pot to dry completely before underglazing. Choose and/or mix your color palette of underglazes. I love Amaco Velvet underglazes and use them exclusively.
Use a fan brush on the inside and small detail brushes everywhere else (12). Paint three coats of underglaze on the interior and up and over the rim, letting each coat dry between applications. Start painting the exterior by working in small sections of the background. Paint on three coats of underglaze in each section before moving to another area. As mistakes are inevitably made, lift off misplaced underglaze with a wet brush, dry-scrape it with a metal tool, and/or paint over it with the intended color.
Photograph and Fire
Document changes in color during the firing process by taking a few pictures of your unfired, underglazed piece (13). This knowledge will inform your development of a distinctive palette. Bisque fire your pot again to make the underglaze permanent.
Staining After the Second Bisque Firing
Over the entire outside surface, apply one goopy coat of underglaze with a fan brush, making certain that the color flows into all low spots (14). I like to use Jet Black or Royal Blue Amaco Velvet underglazes for staining. Sponge off the high areas, leaving the dark color in the crevices and textures of your carving (15). Re-apply and re-sponge areas where the carving is shallow and stain is removed a bit too easily. With some experience, you will learn what angles hold stain best and how deep you need to carve to make this a more streamlined process. Success also depends on the moisture content of your sponge and the direction and pressure of your sponging.
Re-bisque your pot a third time. You could choose to skip this firing, apply clear glaze, and proceed to the final firing. Because I fire frequently, it’s not difficult for me to take this extra precaution to set the underglaze so that it does not resist the glaze, giving me bit more flexibility with the final glaze application.
Alternatively, for a rustic look, I will often glaze the interior first, stain the exterior of the piece with copper carbonate (16), sponge off the high spots (17), and fire to cone 5, skipping the third bisque firing.
Glazing: Matte or Glossy Surface?
Amaco’s Velvet underglazes are fantastic on their own and create a lovely matte finish. The bisque stage gives some insight to their final color, but many underglazes deepen and often get a lovely sheen when fired to cone 5. When choosing a matte exterior, it’s still a good idea to glaze the interior using two thick or three thin coats of Amaco Zinc-free Clear applied with a fan brush. This step insures that the pot will be food safe.
For an all-over shine to the exterior, use Amaco Zinc-free Clear applied in two thick or three thin coats as evenly as possible inside and out. Be ready with a smaller brush to swipe up pools of glaze that form in low spots (18).
I stilt my pieces to avoid underglaze sticking to the kiln shelf. I cross my fingers, take a deep breath, and glaze fire to cone 5. So much time and effort goes into this little chunk of clay. The experience of practicing a new skill is well worth your effort. I wish you the very best and hope to see and hear what you have learned from the process.
Julie Woodrow has a BAE from The Ohio State University and a Masters degree from the Art Academy of Cincinnati. She has taught high-school art students in Worthington, Ohio, for 24 years and shows her work at Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus (www.sherriegallerie.com) and Lillstreet Gallery in Chicago (https://lillstreetgallery.com). To see more visit juliewoodrow.art.