My sculptural work almost always utilizes homemade sprigs and stamps for surface decoration, but it occurred to me last week that I've never actually written a full explanation of how these tools are made. I refer to them in passing and I have made a video demonstrating the technique but never a full explanation here on the blog.
|a piece with layered sprigs (yellow and green) and stamped texture (red)|
A stamped effect can be achieved with most anything one can find, including sticks, pen caps, toys, toothpicks and any number of clay tools. I have boxes of such materials around the studio and am constantly collecting interesting bits of detritus to use in my studio from around the house, in the yard or while out on a walk with my family.
|stamped impressions from a mechanical pencil and a Handi-Snacks stick|
Stamps can also be made out of clay. Just like any bit of material can be impressed into the wet clay to create a texture, any bit of material can be impressed into wet clay that is then fired and used as a stamp itself. Fired clay, which is technically called ceramic once it has undergone a chemical change inside the kiln, is stronger than unfired clay and can be pressed into wet or leather-hard clay over and over gain without cracking or deteriorating.
|impressing a ceramic stamp into leather-hard clay|
A ceramic stamp fired to a relatively low temperature is also porous, meaning that it absorbs some of the water from the wet clay into which it is impressed. The wet clay shrinks enough to pull away from the ceramic stamp easily. A plastic stamp might stick to the wet clay, causing an imperfect transfer of the stamp's texture.
|this stamp was made from repeatedly pressing the end of a pen or similar tool into pinched wet clay|
Sprigs are basically small molds that can be used to shape wet clay into desired textures. I use sprigs to quickly (ok, relatively quickly, I can spend hours adding sprigs to one piece) recreate complex textures that I then layer or arrange onto my sculptural surfaces. Sometimes I fill a surface with sprigs, sometimes I alternate sprigs and impressed (stamped) textures, and sometimes I juxtapose sprigs or stamped textures with smooth surfaces or non-ceramic additions.
|long sprigs made from pea pods|
Clay sprigs work well for the same reasons that clay stamps work well. The wet clay retains the details of what was used to make it. I often make my sprigs by pressing clay onto organic materials including oranges and strawberries which would not hold up well over long use.
|sprig made from the end of a strawberry|
The fired ceramic sprigs are strong and porous, allowing them to be used over and over again without breaking. Sometimes if I use a sprig mold for too long, I need to let it dry because it has become saturated with moisture and wet clay starts to stick to the wet ceramic.
|pressing wet clay into a sprig mold|
Using the sprigs is very simple. I simply press wet clay into the mold. If I were to leave the clay alone, the sprig would absorb the moisture, causing the clay to shrink and pop out of the mold. I usually score the back of the clay while it is in the mold and either pry out the wet clay or press the clay and sprig mold onto whatever I want to decorate.
|using a scoring tool to remove the wet clay sprig from the ceramic sprig mold|
The wet clay pressed into the mold retains much of the texture and shape of the sprig mold in reverse.
|wet clay sprigs can be added onto wet or leather-hard clay|
|the completed form with sprigged decoration|
Making a Sprig
Making a sprig mold is as simple as using it. This is probably why I have overflowing drawers full of sprigs all around my studio. I often choose to make sprigs from whatever natural and manufactured materials I come across, figuring it is easy to make them now and decide later, after they are fired, whether they will be useful.
|wet clay ball|
|pinching a wet clay "bowl"|
I then carefully press the ball or bowl of clay onto whatever I wish to use to make the sprig. After the sprig has been fired, it will be used to create a smaller, monochromatic version of whatever it was that formed the mold.
|preparing to push the wet clay bowl onto a pinecone|
|pressing the wet clay onto the pinecone|
|peeling the clay sprig from the pinecone|
|completed sprig (before firing)|
After shaping, the sprigs dry pretty quickly. I usually fire them to cone 08 or 06 (though sometimes I fire them in an 04 glaze firing if that's what is in the kiln). I have made sprigs as big as 3 inches wide and as small as the end of a Sharpie pen. I rarely wash the sprigs, but they can be scrubbed clean if clay starts to stick inside them.
|sprigs and the original materials used to create them|