Layer by Layer: Building Narrative Pottery Surfaces

Explore the possibilities of decorating ceramics with techniques used at the forming stage through final glazing and even post-firing methods. Interested in trying out terra sigillata techniques? You’ll find recipes and techniques here. Have you always wanted to try your hand at raku firing? You can learn more about it here. Wondering what is possible with commercial glazes? Look no farther! We’ve gathered myriad articles on myriad ceramic decorating techniques here in one place. The possibilities of what can be done with clay, ceramic tools, materials and a little imagination are virtually endless, and you’ll find even more inspiration in the Ceramic Arts Daily Bookstore.
My work in clay is intimately connected to the exploration of layers. The physical layers built up through ceramic processes allude to the more abstract layers of issues currently occupying my pots: questions about food production, energy use and transportation. While investigating these intertwined themes drives my current studio practice, the foundation was laid over twenty years ago during my childhood in Alaska. There I witnessed first-hand the devastation wrought by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Decades later, the subconscious remnants of this experience came to the surface while reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by food activist Michael Pollan.

Through Pollan’s writing I first came to see the intimate relationship between our food system and oil – a story so compelling that I’ve worked to translate his words into pots with meaningful imagery, to bring challenging ideas off the page and place them firmly in reality as physical functional objects at the table. While I’ve expanded beyond the bounds of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I continue to draw on many of the core concepts contained in Pollan’s book as I create my ceramic forms and surfaces today.

The following leads you through my current process of hand building and decorating a platter. Hopefully this tutorial will encourage you to bring these surface approaches off the page yourself and explore the many possibilities at your own studio table.Making Stencils

Before I make a platter, I come up with a design and stencil for the imagery. Stencils can be as simple or as complex as you like, but I find the detail that’s achievable an exciting aspect of the process. You can work from any drawing or photograph, but high contrast images are the most straightforward to cut. Once you select an image, make a photocopy (don’t ruin your original!), and use a permanent marker to clearly delineate the areas you will include. All sections you intend to retain in the final stencil must be connected to the whole or they will drop out of the image.

I cut stencils out of thin plastic tablecloth, which makes them reusable. Since these cutouts often take more than four hours to create, I cut through as many layers as possible at one time to create multiple stencils. If you leave the tablecloth folded out of the package, you’ll cut through six layers of plastic, and end up with six identical stencils.

After choosing your imagery and determining the areas to be cut away, tape the photocopy to the still-folded plastic (figure 1). Using a fresh X-Acto blade and working on a self-healing mat, begin by cutting the interior sections of your stencil. Starting with interior cuts provides the most structure possible during cutting. Compress delicate areas to prevent the layers of plastic below from shifting out of place (figure 2). Try to begin each cut from one end of a line, cut to the midpoint, then cut from the other end to meet in the middle. This method helps avoid inadvertently slicing beyond joints. Have tweezers on hand to remove small areas as you cut, so you can see your progress. Once all interior segments are removed (figure 3), carefully cut along the exterior image border to release it from the surrounding plastic. If you’re careful, you can use the negative image as a stencil as well. For this particular project, I cut four stencils: one crop duster from a full-size copy of my original, one stencil of the dust using a second photocopy of the original, one stencil from a 75% photocopy of my drawing, and one from a 50% copy (plus a few canaries to add into the dust). Once all stencils are cut, you’re ready to build a form for surface application.

Building a Platter

Platters are an ideal base layer for surface decoration. To form a platter, drape a ½-inch thick slab over a bisque mold (figure 4) and attach the foot immediately after draping. Once dried to firm leather hard, flip the platter and attach a coil rim (figure 5). Let the rim and platter set up together under plastic overnight. The following day, mask out the rim and foot with latex to protect from slip while decorating (figure 6). I use Laguna’s Goodrich Latex because it is water based (no stinky ammonia, and it can be thinned with water). Applying latex allows freedom of gesture with slip decoration and gives a clean, crisp line when removed. Let the platter with latex set up under plastic another 24 hours prior to decorating. This extra time under plastic makes for easier latex removal following surface work.

Layering the Surface

Plastic stencils adhere best to leather-hard clay—keep forms well wrapped prior to decorating. Once you have determined placement for the first layer of stencils (three crop dusters in this case), tack them down with a small brush dipped in clean water (figure 7). The beauty of using this thin plastic is the ability to see water spread under the stencil, which helps ensure edges seal to the clay. Use as little water as possible—just enough to make the clay surface tacky. If you use too much water, the stencil will “float” on the clay, rather than stick.

Following the lines of your cutout, gently work the stencil into the clay. If you’re decorating a curved form (concave in particular) your cutout may need to fold to accommodate the shape. Encourage folds that disrupt the image as little as possible and take extra care to ensure edges firmly adhere. Once the first layer of stencils is set and no wet areas remain on the clay, brush slip over the surface (figure 8). Apply slip with care so that if brush strokes show, they appear intentional and fit with the movement of the piece.

After the slip sets to leather hard, use a very soft pencil to sketch out areas of sgraffito. If you’re unhappy with your drawing, a light spritz of water will erase pencil lines. I use a Kemper K23 tool for most sgraffito decoration (figure 9), but sometimes utilize an X-Acto knife or pin tool for variation of line quality.

With sgraffito complete (minus the corn tassels), use latex to mask out corn that will fall within the dust stencil (figure 10). This results in corn imagery that appears in the foreground and visually pops off the platter surface. Once the latex has set (10–20 minutes in this case), apply the dust stencil. Use extra care when adhering this stencil to avoid marring the slip below. With the dust stencil in place, apply slip or underglaze into the stencil area (figure 11). After the underglaze loses any sheen, add canary stencils using the above method of stencil application, filling them in with additional underglaze. Once set, gently remove each canary stencil with tweezers (figure 12).

When the surface is back to leather hard, carefully remove the latex masking the corn (figure 13) along with all layers of stencils (figure 14). Note that if you remove stencils too early, the slip may run underneath. In contrast, if you wait too long, the edges may be ragged. Try to find a window where slip is firmly set, but not yet dry. (If slip has dried too far, mist with water to soften before removing stencils.) If you find spots where slip has bled under your cutouts, use a sgraffito tool to scrape the clay body clean. Alternatively, use a small brush with water to “erase” any areas of unwanted slip. Once all stencils are removed, add final sgraffito details or any other cutouts to the surface (figure 15).

I single fire my work to cone 04, so prior to removing latex from the rim I coat the surface with glaze (figure 16). To apply glaze at the leather-hard stage, ensure that your glaze recipe has a healthy portion of clay so it shrinks along with your piece. If you have minimal clay in your glaze, spray on glaze at bone dry to single fire. With the glaze firm, remove latex from the foot and rim and let the platter dry slowly. If you’re working with earthenware, at the bone dry stage apply terra sigillata to any areas of exposed clay—this seals the surface and adds a lovely satin sheen.

Cleaning and Storing Stencils

To clean stencils after use, place on a smooth surface (a piece of Plexiglas works well) and spray liberally with water. As you spray the stencil, it relaxes and becomes easy to manipulate. Gently blot clean with a sponge. Once dry, the stencil will stick to the Plexiglas until next needed. Note that the more complicated your stencil, the more likely it is to twist up following use. To help with de-tangling, choose a plastic tablecloth that has a pattern on only one side. That way, you can easily identify which side is up and which is down as you clean and reshape your cutouts.

Working with stencils provides the freedom to explore possibilities of repeating imagery in different combinations and on different forms. While there is an initial investment in creating a new cutout, once cut, there are many decorative possibilities. With the flexibility of this process to work at any firing temperature and to range from simple shapes to intricate designs, I find this surface method a valuable and inspiring studio tool.

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