Glynnis Lessing

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Mata Ortiz Workshop

I have been a huge fan of the Mata Ortiz pottery ever since I learned of it through a children’s book quite a few years ago.  It’s mentioned in my earlier post about Mata Ortiz  where I write a bit more about the story of this small town in Mexico; I received some pots for my birthday one year I enthusiastically wrote a post  about it.

So, when an opportunity to attend a workshop taught by Eli Navarette was offered at the Northern Clay Center, I was thrilled to attend.

finished pots

Some finished pieces by Eli Navarette

Eli was a really nice guy, open, knowledgeable and helpful. He taught the class in Spanish with a translator. My Spanish was good enough to understand him, ask questions and help translate occasionally.

He started out with a plaster “puki” which is a bowl-like mold that really helps hold the pot’s bottom shape. He made a large, fat “tortilla” out of his own clay, which  he brought from the Mata Ortiz area.

While he did that, he passed around the clay which was very different in feeling from the clays I am used to working with here. It was very plastic and yet, somehow drier and also very strong. He said he mixed 3 types of clay together- his own recipe- one for weight, one for strength and one for plasticity. It was a very effective clay for the kind of handbuilding he was doing. He explained how he and other potters get all the clay from that area and how they prepare it. Basically , they dig it up, mix it with water in a 5 gallon bucket and let the heavy particles and stones and other things fall to the bottom. The excess water rises to the top which they pour off and take out the middle part to use.

They also get all their colorants from that area.  More on that later.

After he had pinched the fat pancake up into quite a large part of the pot – and it was not thick! -he added a coil.

1 Eli adds a coil to his pinch pot

I was amazed because I though he would have to let that bottom part set up for a quite a while until it could support the weight and the action of adding another coil.

2 coil smoothed

But I was wrong, the clay, under the skilled hands of Eli, had no problem supporting the next coil.  After adding that coil he smoothed the inside with a blue rubber rib3 scraping the inside and scraped the exterior with a piece of hacksaw.

4 scraping the outside

thencut the rim off to be even again for the next coil.

5 coil added, top trimmed

Then another coil7 completing coil


and voila!  a really sizeable pot all in a very short time.8 finished form drying

While he was working he chatted about how he came to be a potter.

His grandparents were living and working in Mata Ortiz but he was living in Chihuahua (the city) he can remember since he was about 7 years old seeing them working with clay  but it wasn’t until a visit there when he was 22 and had already trained as an electrician that he decided he could  and wanted to make pottery. It took him about 3 years to learn how to do it and now he lives with his wife (also a potter) and 2 children in Casas Grandes about 15 minutes from Mata Ortiz- if you take the new road. Both his brothers are potters, the youngest having started doing it first. He said there are now 3 generations of potters, 600 in all! They’ve been making the pottery there for 50 years. And there are young kids already learning about and working in pottery -that would be the 4th generation.


Next up was decorating the pots. He told us he sands the bone-dry pots with 3 grades of sandpaper, ending with the finest grade. I asked him about what precautions he takes to avoid breathing in the dust, a health hazard, and he said he works outside and/or wears a mask.

He then takes manganese mixed with clay- so, technically a slip, not an oxide- and applies it to the entire surface using a scrap of velvet. He said if you don’t mix the manganese with clay it doesn’t “stick” to the surface. Then after that had dried- a matter of a minute or so, he applied a solution to help with the burnishing.

His recipe  for this burnishing solution was very interesting. He puts  5% finely ground Graphite and 5% baby oil into kerosene (90%) and applies that with his hand over the black manganese slip. There was some discussion about using just baby oil or baby oil and graphite and also soap- both of those work but leave considerably more streaks.

Then he  takes an agate, highly polished –sometimes they sand them- but this looked like it was out of a rock tumbler and he said they used that too and begain to burnish.

9 burnishing w:stone

Immediately the surface was a brilliantly shiny black.10 burnished surfaceHe said he puts 3 layers on burnishing each layer and by the 3rd coat is wearing cotton gloves so as not to put any oils from his hands onto the surface. You can see how reflective it is in the  photos. You can also see that there are some streaks- that is why he does 3 layers.

Next he revealed (from under a cloth) a piece he was working on.13 pot in progress He apologized that the black surface was only 2 coats and began to paint some lines with a brush that looked like just a few hairs but quite long. 14 long brush in action he painted on very fine lines. Here are his brushes!12 his tool set

He brought small amounts of his colors with him; white, orange and red in addition to the black.  These are also slips because they are colored clays.

Despite being so shiny, the surface is still absorbent. After he has put on the lines he goes back in with a much shorter brush and fills in  15 filler brushWe all gathered around him to watch him paint, it was mesmerizing.

He told us it takes 3 days to make, dry and sand a pot, 3 days of polishing and at least 3 days to decorate the surface. I think the polishing days are not 8 hours of continuous polishing (though I could be wrong) but that each coat is applied, polished and left to dry. He was very clear about the surface decoration, 1 full day to paint on the lines- with just a few breaks for eating, stretching, etc. another day to fill in all the spaces and a 3rd day for corrections- that is where he takes a rounded tipped  stick and gently rubs off lines that are mistakes.

So each pot is a considerable investment of time.


Then we made our own brushes! He had just a little hair for us to use16 brush parts but we were very lucky in that one of our participants was willing and generously allowed some of her beautiful straight hair  to be snipped off and distributed.17 hair donor

Here is how you can make your own brush (and I’m sorry I didn’t take more photos- I was making brushes!)  take a stick, like a small dowel or a fat skewer and sharpen it to a point. Cut a straight groove running out to the point to lay the hair in. The hair –which should be about 2” long at least can be dipped in water as often as you need to make it stick together! Lay it in the groove, overlapping the stick about an inch and wrap sewing thread tightly around it, binding the hair to the stick. Leave out a bit of thread sticking out to tie a knot when you are done. When you get to the tip, do one loop just around the hair to keep it together and then wind back down around the stick, now laying the thread right next to itself, covering the stick end completely. When you get back to where you started and left that thread sticking out, tie a knot. You can use nail polish or epoxy to seal the thread and hold it in place. We used roughly about a yard of thread.

We all made at least one brush and used them on tiles to practice some of the techniques he showed us. I will add a photo of my tile when I get it back.

Lastly we talked about firing and how he fires and how the Mata Ortiz potters used to fire.

In the early days, they would be out in the street and set their pot on an already fired cylinder then cover the pot with something like a large ceramic flower pot or a metal garbage can or something that just fit over the pot to protect it from the fuel. Then they would stack wood all around it, completely surrounding the makeshift saggar and on top of it and light it up. They managed to generate enough heat this way to get the pot hot enough to undergo what is called Crystal Inversion which is when the  clay permanently changes and is unaffected by immersion in water any longer. Before crystal inversion, a pot can be recycled and turned back into a lump of clay just by getting it wet.

I confess it was not clear to me whether Eli currently uses gas to fire his pots or an electric kiln. What was abundantly clear was how amazing his clay was in that it could be heated up quite rapidly and cooled incredibly fast. He had a pot (which I now own!) made by his wife (who was ill that day and could not teach with him)  that we popped into an already warm kiln. The kiln was taken up to 750 degrees centigrade (that’s Cone 012-  1382 Farenheit), left at that temp for about 15 minutes and then cooled within an hour and a half to where we could handle it!18 firing fastWe took it out of the kiln when it was at about 450 and stuck it in front of a fan!  The pot was fired in about 3 hours!  Nothing exploded or cracked or showed any signs of stress at all! Interestingly, the colors were dull when we pulled out the hot pot19 dull colorsbut they brightened as the pot cooled.


I think what I love about the Mata Ortiz potters – besides their spectacularly beautiful pottery is that they are working much as their ancestors did. They use simple methods that they discovered themselves. They are always trying new things and sharing knowledge. They work completely locally, using the materials at hand and in doing this, they have dramatically raised the standard of living in their area!





Posted 6 years, 5 months ago at 10:07 am.



This is just a quick tutorial on how to make a “Faux Bois”  (fake wood) texture on a slab.

It is my impression that Faux Bois is all the rage and if Martha Stewart has Faux Bois wrapping paper, clearly, to be able to make a dish or box using it, it’s a GOOD THING™

It is also a good thing to do all the steps and do them in the right order.

Start with a slab that is about 1 inch thick.1 slab

Paint some slip on there or even underglaze in a fairly thick coat. I’m using chartreuse to make it particularly hard to see in my photos.

2- chartreuse slip painted on

Take sheets of newspaper to “dry” the slip. Just lay the newspaper on there and watch as the moisture begins to show through the paper.  When you pull up the first sheet, you may end up pulling off some of the slip-

4 some slip comes up

just set that piece aside and keep drying with successive pieces of newspaper until there is no moisture being absorbed by the paper.

3- drying the slip

Here, I’m rubbing the paper down to aid in the moisture absorption.

At this point, if you wish, you can try to re-apply the peeled up slip. If you can get it to stick down to your now dryish surface, you may have to dry off the new bits with one more sheet of newspaper.

You are wondering why we need to “dry” the slip?  We are going to stretch the slab under it. If the slip is wet, it will just stretch nicely with the slab and we won’t get any of the cool effects we’re trying for.

When your surface is not tacky or shiny, take a sharp tool like a needle tool and draw in the wood pattern. Basically you draw a few knotholes and then draw vertical lines that bend around them when they encounter the curve of the knothole.  Take a look at some wood grains or Faux Bois wrapping paper  for reference.

5 drawing the faux bois

Don’t go too deep! You only want to pierce that dried slip  layer. Also, draw it smaller and closer together because this pattern is going to

e  x  p  a  n  d  .

6 wood pattern

Next, begin to throw out a slab. This is a little tricky as you shouldn’t hold the slab on top and you can’t flip it over, you have to throw it with the slip side facing up the whole time.- my action shot of this did not turn out.

As it stretches, the faux bois pattern will become spread out and more proportionate.7 all stretched out

I’ve found that if it has really sharp edges, once it is all the way thrown out, you can go over it gently with a rolling pin but I would avoid that if you can.

Then you can let it harden to leather hard and build something with it like a box, or you can drop it into a mold and make a dish.8 dropped in a mold

Obviously you are going to need a transparent type glaze on it like clear or a celadone or even a shino depending on how dark your slip or underglaze is.

Have fun!


Posted 7 years ago at 11:10 am.


Brush Making Tutorial

It is really wonderful to be part of a strong pottery community here.

Everyone is so supportive of each other and I like being with all of them; so when I noticed that our farm cats here were leaving squirrel tails lying around their feeding area (yes, our cats are better at actually catching squirrels than our enthusiastic but clueless dog), I asked Barbara Zaveruha if she would teach a brush-making workshop. My favorite liner brush is starting to wear out and I suspect it is made of squirrel hair or something similar.

Brushes Barbara has made.

My local women potter friends were invited and we convened in my studio one morning bearing various roadside finds and fur bits

to be converted into brushes for slip and wax.

I have a list of what you will need at the bottom of this post.

Step one is laying out the hair/fur.  Set out a straight-edge of some sort and line your hairs up against it in a pretty thin layer.

Then begin at the end and pretend that the hairs are like a mat and roll them up.  The first hairs in line will end up at the center of your brush.  Those will be the tip.

Once you get a good shape, hold your bundle firmly and have someone (another good reason to make this a communal activity) wrap and then tie some dental floss around it where you want your brush to end. This may be the middle of the bundle or closer to one end. Don’t worry how long the excess is, it will be trimmed later. Try to wrap a bit of a band.


What we discovered: coarse hairs should not be tied super-tight. Finer hairs like fox and squirrel hairs can be tied tightly, this does not deform the tip of the brush- but deer hair is much coarser and -my suspicions confirmed from some cursory research on the web– hollow. Which means the tighter we tied the wrap around it, the more it compressed and splayed outward giving us these frustrating multiple-tips results.  

It suddenly came to me that we should try to tie it looser and Barbara assured us that later gluing would keep the hairs in place. A gently tightened but not tightly pulled wrapping yielded the first decent deer hair tip.

Notes on what hair to use from where: Barbara was using deer tail. Colleen had some deer fur also; possibly from the belly or hindquarters? Not sure.**

I took the longest hair I could find on our  poor fox carcass and it was in the area behind the head, between the shoulders. This will work too, even if your only hair source is your (living) dog – apparently the Japanese prefer Akita hair for their best brushes so go ahead and call Fido over.

The fur/hair should have some kink or wave to it to hold the slip/wax/underglaze.

I don’t think curly coated dog’s hair will work nor the super-straight hair of say, a lab  or pit bull (not long enough anyhow). I used the tip of a squirrel tail first and then the side hairs of the tail too- it all seemed to make a nice liner tip.  Also, the finer hairs are probably best for smaller brushes and those larger thicker hairs better for big brushes.

Eventually we ran out of time, went in to eat soup and home-made bread (made by my talented husband) and scheduled a second workshop to finish the brushes.  We all went off to boil our brush tips so they would be dry enough to clip and glue. This is a VERY IMPORTANT STEP because you don’t want your brush to reek after it has sat in water or worse, rot.



We reconvened on a snowy morning with boiled tips in hand and proceeded to finish the brushes.

The boiling loosened the wrappings a bit so I ended up re-wrapping  all the the ends and what I found worked best was about a ½ inch of wrapping to make the base of the brush a solid cylinder.

Barbara showed me a terrific type of knot. Before you start wrapping, you run a loop up that lays along the area you are going to wrap and just past it. Then you proceed to wrap over the loop. When you get to the end of where you are wrapping, poke the string (or floss in our case) through the loop  leaving a bit of looseness and pull on the other end of the loop- the end that is sticking out of the bottom of the wrapping where you started-pulling on it will pull the loop and other end of string under the wrapping; pull until it is about halfway down the wrapping and then cut off both ends.

Next we trimmed non-tip end of the fur to a very blunt end  and then dabbed that end straight down onto a blob of glue and worked the glue up into the hairs. Sometimes we needed a second blob depending on how absorbent the hairs were. To compress the sides in- prevent flaring, we wrapped the end in tape but I did not tape 2 of the ends and that seemed to work too. You will have to judge which ends need the tape. 

I had scrounged some bamboo pieces from our shed- formerly used to hold up plants. You can buy bamboo in varying thicknesses at garden supply stores . The narrow (usually green) I will use for my tiny liner tips and my two Fox brushes will go in thicker shafts.

Next you will have to drill out the right diameter in the bamboo. Look at the diameter of the bottom end of your brush tip and judge what thickness bit you need for your drill. It’s better to err on the side of too-small. As Barbara said, “you can always make it bigger.”

Where I chose to cut the bamboo shafts had to do with the “joint”. I wanted to have a good ¾ of an inch above the bamboo “joint” which provides a “floor” for the glue and brush tip to rest on.

The inside of the bamboo is soft and the joint floor is harder so your drill should sort of stop at the floor and if you don’t push really hard, you won’t go through it.

Barbara is holding the bamboo just below the “joint”.

Next try out your brush tip in the hole before you put glue in there! You may want to drill it out larger.  Note: if your wrapping is nice and flat and not lumpy, you should be able to fit it inside the opening in the bamboo shaft. That’s why, when you are wrapping it, you want it to be tight and flat and very cylinder-like.
Note how different the end looks from when we first tied the bundles.

Once you can just squeeze the tip in, with possible help from the fettling knife to tuck a few stray hairs in remove it  and put a decent sized drop of glue in there.  

Re-insert your brush tip. Let dry and VOILA! You have a nice brush!



What you will need to make brushes:

  • Fur with some waviness or kink to it but not curly hair. Squirrel, raccoon, deer or canine fur (fox, dog) is ideal.
  • A straight edge of some sort.
  • Dental floss or waxed string
  • Water resistant glue- we used Duco, 5-minute epoxy would work too.
  • Hair clippers are very helpful
  • Fine saw
  • Bamboo (from the garden store)
  • A vice is very helpful
  • Drill and variety of sized bits
  • Paper plate for the glue (our glue started to dissolve a styrofoam tray I had)
  • Fine scissors
  • Tweezers can be helpful
  • Fettling knife
  • Needle tool
  • Toothpicks for the glue
  • Tape

** The best information I found on hair were fly-tying sites and blogs!  I wish we’d read this excerpt before we started!:

“For example, the body of a deer has hollow hair, the tail is solid hair. The body hair of a calf is solid. Tails of all animals, like squirrel, woodchuck, calf, are typically solid.       Solid hair typically is used for wings and tails. It stays compact and does not flare and is relatively hard to stabilize on the hook because it is slippery.      Hollow hair is typically body hair and is used for wings or for spinning where you want it to flare. It is used for tails as well, but there you want to control the flare by thread technique. If you look at the typical hollow hair, i.e.  deer, elk, caribou, antelope, it looks like a carrot, thick tapering to thin, with the thick part being hollow and the thinner part getting less hollow until it is actually solid at the tip. It is actually honeycomb hollow if you look at it under a microscope.”






Posted 7 years, 3 months ago at 9:31 am.


MAJOLICA – a very brief introduction

I recently taught a workshop as a brief introduction to Majolica.

I used the word “creamy” very frequently. It really is the best word to describe the basic white glaze that defines the category and gives Majolica its distinctive look.

First of all let me say that most of what I know I learned from Kelly Kessler and I still find her work inspiring, thought provoking and beautiful.

I brought out some pieces by her,

two small boxes I’d bought in Italy, sitting next to an Angler Fish mug by Karin Kraemer

and a couple of old pieces of mine.

I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I really spent some time making Majolica work but the date on the bottom of the bowl was 1994!

Basically, Majolica was Europe’s response to Chinese Porcelain.

People were crazy for all that pristine white-ware coming out of China. This was eventually answered with a thick white glaze (made with tin)and colorful pigments that sink into its surface. This first began to happen during the renaissance in Italy so Italy is most famous for it’s Majolica but Spain, England and Mexico all have similar ceramic traditions.

Majolica, as it is practiced most commonly now is on terra cotta low fire clay which is dipped in or sprayed with a base coat of a  creamy majolica glaze.

At Lill, we use a nice recipe from Linda Arbuckle ( )and commercial pigments from Amaco™

After that dries, you can then apply your pattern or images. Some people draw very lightly on the surface with pencil- I’ve been known to use a highlighter even  but for these I just had some sketches and applied it freehand. Good brushes are key. You need something that you can load up but will make a fine line. I like long thin brushes.

For the “sea weed” on the underside of my octopus bowl, I scratched through  to thewhite but not down to the clay body.

after firing

Karin Kraemer uses this technique to good effect on her Angler fish mug. Also on her mug, you won’t see any of the white undercoat except for the belly of her fish. She painted the entire rest of the mug with a tomato red.

I also did a bit of scratching (sgraffito) on the octopus

Here  it is fired. The main thing to know about majolica is that it’s not very forgiving of mistakes when one is painting on the colorful pigments.

You can see it is a lot more transparent- more than I wanted actually. Every brush mark shows so you really have to be careful how you apply the pigments- you can not just make an outline and daub it on to fill it in- it’s best to have some direction and grace in your application. Here is the underside:

This was fired at around cone 04.  That is low fire and so the clay body won’t be as dense and therefore as strong as a cone 6 or 10 pot- but these pieces do hold up! Another student brought in commercially made terra cotta pieces: flower pots! and decorated those.

With Majolica the possibilities are nearly endless and it’s particularly great if you like bright colors.

But, as you can see in this Roberta Massuch piece, it can also be used to get a kind of pen and ink effect and it also doesn’t have to cover the entire piece. She’s used it selectively and contrasted it with texture on other parts of her pot.

This is terry’s test- she’s wanted to see how it works in dots!

I also copied one of my own pieces -what I call my “willow pattern”. Here it is before and after:

So there you have it, the very briefest of introductions to Majolica. What I like about it are the bright colors and the endless possibilities of surface decoration coupled with the near instant gratification of low-fire. This is not something that needs to be coddled along- you pop it in an electric kiln and voila!  Something lovely, useful and sturdy.

If you want to look at more contemporary majolica work I suggest you poke around Arbuckle’s site and also that of  Karen Kraemer or just google Majolica! I know there are countless more talented Majolica artists and you are welcome to put them in comments.

Posted 9 years, 1 month ago at 6:53 pm.

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Slip ‘n’ Surfaces Week 4

It’s been a great class with really wonderful students. I’m always so thrilled to see what they are working on each week. Since this was the last week, I reall packed in the demonstrations.


I started off by throwing a bowl with about 3 pounds of clay. People wanted a refresher in how to throw a larger bowl. This was a good item to demonstrate banding with slip  while it was still on the wheel. One of the most common and annoying problems with banding is that the slip doesn’t just glide on there in a steady stream leaving a perfect highway of color on your pot. Especially if you are applying it to a leather surface, the clay can suck up the moisture from a thicker slip and give you a very uneven, often kind-of pitted surface.  If you are applying to leather hard it helps to spritz it with a bit of water ; wait a few seconds for the water to sink in a little, otherwise you lay your slip down onto a thin layer of water and it can drip and not stick well.

If you are applying to a freshly thrown pots (which is ideal for bonding for porcelain slip bonding to stoneware) you still have to dip the brush more frequently than you’d think. Just keep the wheel going steadily and hold your hand steady too. You can always clean up the edges with a metal rib or stick tool. Here I used my rib to put a little wavy edge on my band.

Leaf Stencils

Next I threw a low terra cotta bowl so we could do some stencils using leaves. I also showed how you can take something like a fork and with an even motion while the wheel is going slowly, make another kind of border around the rim- this time on the inside. 

I had  some problem getting the leaves to really lay flat but Kristina solved that problem by using some newsprint to really presss her leaves down flat.

Here is the plate after she pulled the leaves off

Beautiful. She will go back in when the slip is leather hard and clean up any places the slip snuck under the leaves.

Jennifer put some on the outside of her mugs which also turned out great. It’s important to think about how the leaves will fill the space. I think all these examples (except mine) are excellent.


Another thing you can do with two or more colors of slip is to marbelize- like the fancy paper you often see. I think for this you need a fairly flat, contained surface. I had a small stoneware plate  which I poured some blue slip into and then dotted and trailed green on top of that in a fairly random pattern. then I dragged a very pointy brush (you could use a feather or pointy stick too) through the dots.  I was inspired by plant forms.

When I trim the plate, I’ll go in and clean up the edge of the inside too.

The one thing to be careful of when marbelizing is that it adds a LOT of moisture to your pot. Make sure your form is supported or dry enough to absorb that moisture and keep its shape.


Then I did my surprise demo. This was “etched” clay. Really, I would only recommend this technique for porcelain as you will soon see why. I threw a tumbler and set it to dry. When it was hard leather dry, I painted a pattern on it in wax. After the wax was completely dry (and you can do this technique with varnish was well)  I began wiping at the surface with a wet sponge. The wax protects the surface beneath it but the surrounding surface is removed. If this was stoneware, it would just be horribly gritty.

After a few wipes, I decided to scratch into my wax a little to get a more detailed resist area. 

This will look great with a breaking glaze like Shino, Celadon or even Josh Green.

Kelly took this idea and ran with it – here is her process: and she got the brilliant idea of inlaying black slip into the wiped away areas. She painted it on and the wax resisted it over the raised areas. She sponged away all non-adhering slip and here is the resultDoesn’t that look cool?

Another variation on this idea is to paint your entire surface with slip, then a pattern over it in wax and then when you wipe away, you leave the color where the wax protects it and the color is removed everywhere else. Kristina suggested this and I can’t wait to try it!

Posted 9 years, 9 months ago at 5:31 am.

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Slip ‘N’ Surfaces, Week 2- Stencils & More

Slip ‘N’ Surfaces, Week 2

It was a very quiet class this week with just 3 of us but we had a pretty fun time with stencilling.

I did my popular “Birch Platter” demonstration.

I have posted this before but in case you haven’t seen it and don’t want to endlessly scroll backwards through this blog, I will post a quickie verion and also a photo of the ugliest “birch platter” I have ever seen.

The birch platter has the virtue of of having three layers of color with only two layers of slip.

I make a drop platter of stoneware (with iron) and immediately cover it with white slip so that the surfaces have plenty of time to bond. When that slip is not sticky to the touch, I tear newspaper into narrowish strips.  You want to tear the strips, not cut them- they stick down better.These I spritz down with water and also the surface of the tray so that the newspaper adheres.

Next, paint another darker color over it- blue for example. Remember to paint in the same direction that the strips run or you will peel up the strips with your brush.

After the (blue) slip is no longer runny, you can pull up the strips.

Now you have a cool striped plate. You could stop there but I like to go in and make birch markings.

Here is a photo of real trees just to remind everyone.

I had a lot of fun this time because I decided the “devil’s hoofprints” (as one student told me) look like eyes and I put lots of faces in my trees for people to find.

My students seemed to really like this stencil idea and each went with it in their own direction and did a great job:

Jennifer went vertical- on mugs:

Richard did a bowl- and stenciled over slipped circles:

Kelly went non-representational with this pattern:

I also tried another thing- something I haven’t done before.

Because I suck at slip-trailing, I thought if I did it onto a plaster mold  I might have more control- so I drizzled and painted on a vine. and then laid a slab over it and pressed it down with a brayer. when I pulled it off, the vine was inlaid into the clay but the leaves decided to stay on the plaster mold.

and here is the dish:

I would not call it a success but I think that anything that was a bit raised- that had any thickness to it, successfully inlaid. Possibly next time, I would spritz it before laying the slab on to facilitate bonding.

Lastly, I promised you a photo of the ugliest birch platter ever. A friend has this- I think it looks like a tree that  maybe could be related to a birch caught smallpox or maybe  just the victim of a tree surgery gone horribly awry.

So I hope to see you all next week!

Posted 9 years, 9 months ago at 5:39 pm.


Week 1 of Slip ‘n’ Surfaces

I am teaching a 4 week class this June called Slip ‘n’ Surfaces.

I have a lovely group of students and I’m really excited about teaching surface decorating techniques.

This first class we started out discussing slips. What is slip exactly?

The slip at Lill and in many places is simply liquid porcelain with pigment in it. Here we use Mason stains which are very dependable. The key to using slip well is to understand its properties. Because it is clay, it will not run or flux as glaze does and so you get great sharp details and precision but it does shrink as it dries. So you must apply it in time for it to bond to the surface of your clay and for them to shrink together.  You have a a much bigger window of opportunity when applying slip to porcelain than to stoneware because porcelain and stoneware have different rates of shrinkage.

I gave a demo of my favorite texture and color technique- what I call the Eric Jensen technique- I’ve posted about it before so I will be very brief in this description:

Start with a thick pad of clay- at least an inch thick, spread slip on it and then “dry out” the slip with sheets of newspaper.

Once the slip is “dry” (you can touch it without it sticking to your hand- it’s a kind of a leather feel to it) then you can add a second slip or stamp it or even draw in it. If you add more slip, you must dry it out again and then you can begin to throw the slab out.You can put two colors down with out drying in between but they lose their definition and blend as above.

The key to this stage is that you must keep the slip side up while you are throwing the slab. Because you’ve dried the slip, it will break up instead of stretching with the clay  and you get a great texture. If you’ve incised lines in it, the surface tends to break along those lines.the line around the perimeter of this slab was made with a spiky wheel normally used for patterns in sewing.

Then I took that piece and put it in a mold or “drop mold” so named because to settle the clay into it, you drop it once or more.

This is a different slab and you can see it tore where the clay was uneven or had air bubbles.

To adapt to the shape of the slab, I took some extra clay and built up part of the mold. Next week I’ll put little legs on this tray.

Next I demonstrated painting and sponging on slip by doing some of these summer trees. A sponge with a rough surface is excellent to get the slip applied so it emulates the transparency and distribution of leaves.

I then go in and clean up the trees with a stick and loop tools as I have more control with those than the brush or sponge.

This is almost the finished product.

Lastly, I did a brief demonstration of what I do the most, cover the surface with black slip, draw an image with a nice wooden stylus you can see some of my sticks in the upper left(you can see some of my sticks in the upper left)

and then carve away negative spaces with a fine loop tool.(and here you can see some of my fine loop tools)

Today I went back to my leather hard pieces and used a sure form to finish the edges. This is a tool often used for plaster and can be found in most hardware stores.It’s a very handy tool!

Posted 9 years, 10 months ago at 6:23 pm.


Various Projects

Apologies as I’ve neglected my blog for some time now.

I thought I would just post some pictures of the various things I’ve been up to.

I am currently very busy teaching but also trying to prepare for as many as FOUR art fairs!

That is my first and most exciting news: I’ve been accepted into the  following fairs:

The 57th Street Art Fair June  5 & 6

Krasl on the Bluff in St. Joseph Michigan July 10 & 11

The Kohler in Sheboygan Wisconsin July 17 & 18 and

The Powderhorn Park Art Fair in Minneapolis August 7 & 8  !

Also I am lucky enough to be working again with the 6th graders at Murphy School to finish our Mosaic Time Line. This year we are doing: Feudal Japan, the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration.and  for the Age of Exploration a globe with a ship sailing on it.

Whenever I get any chunk of time, I am making work for the fairs.  I am excited about the images I’ve recently carved on some  salad plates and casseroles.(I’m so mad I cropped off the bottom of the plate when I was shooting!)

Here’s another plate- this shape was inspired by a great plate I bought from Bob Briscoe

and casseroles!

side view :

and I want to do more of these!  Perspective

from aboveLastly,  I am currently in a faculty show at Lill Street. It opened May 1.

This is one of my Kelp Vases and it was Soda Fired which was just the right treatment for that surface.

Stop by and see it in person as well as all the other amazing work by my colleagues at Lill!

Posted 9 years, 11 months ago at 6:44 pm.



I’m so excited about these new carvings that I am posting pictures of green, freshly carved pots.

I was recently in Santa Barbara, visiting a family member and once again, I saw a lot of kelp washed up.washed up kelp "rope"

Last time I saw it in the water while looking down from the pier. floating kelp It is most likely giant kelp which grows several inches per day!

This time I was struck by the almost formal arrangements that lay in the sand.

formal kelp arrangement

They reminded me of bookplate designs in old books.

When I got home, I looked at photos online taken by people who were swimming amongst the kelp forests.

The difference between beach-bound kelp and underwater kelp is that the blades (or leaves) are floating every which way. Additionally, the blades are often ripped away by the time the kelp has washed up leaving only the rubbery stem and bladders.

In the (extremely copyrighted) underwater photos, you can also see the overlapping as the leaves are actually slightly transparent and although I couldn’t replicate that translucent quality, still, I was really happy with the result.

open vase with kelp decoopen vase versoYou’ll also note that I’ve taken pains to make my carving marks as watery and curvy and flowing as the vase kelp

I tried to capture that feeling of motion; the swaying back and forth with the currents and surf.


I think what makes this pleasing to me and also creates good visual tension, movement and balance is the contrast between these wildly unpredictable twisting and flowing forms  and the dependable regularity of the spacing between each bladder where it comes out from the stem- each one continuing on into a blade. I know there is some correct botanical  term for this…

2nd vase detail

Okay, so I looked up Kelp on Wikepedia I found this:

In most kelp, the thallus (or body) consists of flat or leaf-like structures known as blades. Blades originate from elongated stem-like structures, the stipes. [that’s the word I was looking for!] ……. Gas-filled bladders (pneumatocysts) form at the base of blades of American species….and keep the kelp blades close to the surface, holding up the blades by the gas they contain.

and most interesting to me and other potters :

Through the 19th century, the word “kelp” was closely associated with seaweeds that could be burned to obtain soda ash (primarily sodium carbonate)….The word “kelp” was also used directly to refer to these processed ashes.

and what do you know?  The slip that into which I carved the images of Kelp on contains Soda Ash!!

So I can’t wait until these are fired stay tuned!

Posted 10 years, 1 month ago at 8:19 pm.


Winter 2010 Sgraffito Workshop

We had another successful Sgraffito workshop Saturday.

I thought I’d post again, not only for the attendees but also because we covered a couple of new things.

The workshop explored the various ways you can add surface decoration to your pots. We explored ways of making lines in negative and positive ways to make images or patterns;  the ideal times to apply slip to your pots, address the differences between the  clays and also slip vs. underglazes which can also be used in sgraffito; the best glazes here at Lill and various ways to apply them.

Slip application – It is important to remember that slip is clay therefore it shrinks as it dries-if the surface to which you are applying it, is already bone dry and done shrinking, it will flake off as it shrinks; apply it to leather hard clay or wetter!

The slip at Lill is made of Grolleg Porcelain which shrinks at a slightly different rate than the stoneware. Sometimes, if it’s not properly bonded, the slip can flake off as late as days after it comes out of the glaze kiln.

To make sure it bonds well when applying it to stoneware, apply it as soon as you are able. This can mean painting it on while your pot is still on the wheel or in the mold.

I threw this bowl and immediately applied the slip- then dried the surface so the slip would expand along the lines I incised. Then I pressed outwards under the slip. (photos)

The important thing to remember in this case is that if you are really slathering on the slip- the moisture from it is partially absorbed by the clay beneath it and in certain cases, it can cause your pot to collapse- but that is usually on unsupported surfaces where gravity causes the moisture to go down into the clay.

Most often I am applying slip to freshly made trays in their slump or drop molds and because those are supported (by the mold), that is an ideal time to apply the slip.painted stoneware in slump molds

If you are painting several layers of slip- like, for example, white and then blue -let them dry to matte in between applications.

Underglaze can behave very much like slip- it doesn’t run and it can be applied to almost any wetness of clay from just thrown to bone dry surface. It will apply differently depending on the surface. Also bear in mind you are not really adding much thickness with underglaze. With slip, you are changing the quality of the surface and giving yourself almost a cushion of surface clay in which to work. The analogy in class was that ink is to paint as underglaze is the slip.

Carving & Scratching.  I find it best to carve when the pot is leather hard for several reasons:

  • so you don’t breathe in the dust.
  • The pot is not as brittle and less likely to develop fine cracks from being handled. Those cracks show up in the glaze firing.
  • I like the line quality better.

note* I use fine wire loop tools and wooden sticks. I prefer various sized wooden sticks to a needle tool because you get a lovely variable line quality and because it is easier to control the depth of the line. I have a photo up of my tool kit on my last Sgraffito workshop post.

Some types of Sgraffito carving:

  • simple line drawings (note, I “dented” the surface inside the drawing with the rounded end of a tool – I didn’t break through the slip but simply changed the texture.)

line drawing through "white" slip

  • Stencil with lines incised

birches with new "white" slip

  • negative /positive space- this is the type of sgraffito I do the most. I  draw an image and then remove the black slip around it with a fine wire loop tool.

black slip on porcelain octopus platter

  • Minimal sgraffito to clean up painted images

painted on leafy trees touched up with sgraffito

  • Inlaid slip-in this case I made the ultra fine lines with an odd toothed wheely-tool on a long rectangular porcelain tray.  ( PHOTO of actual work to come) I found out this tool is to make lattice work pastry! You can buy them online on cooking supply websites.

cool tool close upfinished inlay- (pattern from Nina's cool tool)You can incise a line drawing or pattern into the surface.  I painted over the entire surface in black- my students didn’t think that such fine lines would even get the slip in them- I let it dry to almost bone dry (but not quite! remember: the clay is more brittle and prone to break once it loses its flexibility!!) so that the slip was pretty stiff and wouldn’t smear at all and then scraped it off with a metal rib. You should make a conscious decision about the size of the line you are putting in when you inlay slip. A wider cut needs to be deeper also or you will end up scraping out the slip that is meant to be left behind.

There was considerable discussion about what glazes to use. It is a hard lesson to learn, when you’ve spent hours carving your pot, only to have it disappear beneath an innocent looking glaze job.

Choice of glaze as well as application are key.

It is important to understand that most of the glazes (at Lill) are at an ideal thickness to really give good coverage-which means way too thick for sgraffito!  I always rinse my pots in clean water just before dipping them. As the pot is already holding some moisture, this serves to lessen how much glaze they can absorb. Remember, the thinner the walls of your pot, the less moisture you need- it can’t hold much! The opposite undesired result is an application of glaze that is almost non-existent. It runs right off your pot.

I mostly use “breaking glazes” these are glazes that thin at edges or high points and pool in low points.

Here is my list for the Best Glazes for over Sgraffito at Lill:

1.Shaner’s Clear**  Again,  I lightly rinse my pots in water just before dipping to thin application of glaze. Shaner Clear is especially forgiving of extra drips etc. However; I do find the Clear gives bare Stoneware a dead gray look so I only use it over Porcelain. shaner clear- "Napoleon in the Woods"

2.Celadon – almost as clear with a green tinge – I use this for Stoneware as it brings out the iron in the clay nicely birches under celadon

3. either of the Shino’s- here we had a lengthy discussion about application. I often use Shino water (which is soda water) and if I apply the glaze, it must be thin! sometimes I wipe it off with my hand immediately after I dip it. this can give you a very uneven result. white slip and red iron (horns) under shinothere is quite a range of results that can be achieved with shino.

here it is over white and also colored slips-note the spots where the glaze is thicker- it is white.shino over bird tray

here, it is quite thin and so it is orange.egypt bowl;black on porc. under shino

Soda water– also known as “shino water” which is a good non-glaze sealant that also brings out the brown/iron in stoneware. (when I say “sealant”- unglazed porcelain can absorb dirt over time)white slip on stoneware under shino water

4. Josh Green – this is NOT a forgiving glaze every drip will show but again, you can get some great results from it and as with the others, thin is better.octopus -white slip on stoneware under josh green

5.Rutile Blue– I prefer this on stoneware actually.  white slip on stoneware under rutile blueAgain, you can see the area where it is thicker.

6. Shaner white** – this mutes your colors and lines but your work will show through! Don’t forget, I rinsed these thoroughly in water before dipping them.

black slip on porcelain under shaner whiteThis one below is a special case- I threw this vase in B-clay (a mix of stoneware and porcelain) and it turned grey under the clear so for this one I dipped it in Shaner White and rubbed it off all the carving so that the glaze was sort of inlaid. I really like the way it turned out but it was a lot of work and you have to have just the right touch.

blue under shino water

**It is important to remember!!, that the Shaner White or Clear absorb red iron! If you have red iron slip decorating your pot and you dip it in clear, much of your pattern will just disappear.

Posted 10 years, 2 months ago at 10:07 am.