Thursday, November 21, 2013

Glazing, Glazing, Glazing

At a wood firing workshop in graduate school, I remember discussing the division of potters into two groups: makers and pyromaniacs. The theory is that some people make pottery so they can fire it (play with fire) and for other potters the focus is building the work and firing is something that has to happen later. I put myself firmly in the latter category. 

first three coats of green underglaze and first coat of yellow on sprigs

I love to build work. I pretty much hate the process of glazing. That doesn't mean I don't care about glazing. My work would be completely different if I wood fired it without glaze or just poured or sprayed on any old glaze. Color and its controlled application are both important in my work. I just wish I could wish or command the colors into place instead of having to go through the tedious process of actually applying them.

first coat quickly applied to surface of sprigs

Oddly, I don't ever wish for shortcuts in building the forms. When building I feel like the process is creative and interesting and fun. The clay moves and I react and adjust my plans for the form. Other artists in a wide range of media (Dale Chihuly, Jeff Koons and Judy Chicago) outsource the fabrication of their work or hire assistants to help execute their designs. I wouldn't want other people throwing or forming my work, but I can certainly imagine hiring an assistant to do my glazing.

second coat of underglaze carefully added to edges of sprigs

Part of the problem is that my underglazes require three full coats of color to become opaque after firing. One or two coats generally look opaque when first applied, but I know from experience that skimping on the third (or fourth for some colors) coat of underglaze will result in colors that look streaky or blotchy after the final glaze firing.

yuck, looks like I needed at least another coat of yellow

In order to help myself keep track of how many coats of underglaze have already been applied, I often draw a pencil line on top of the dry underglaze so I can keep track. If I don't do this, I lose track of which sprigs or which sections have already had three coats of underglaze applied, since the dry, unfired underglaze looks the same with two or three coats. The pencil line burns off during firing but is covered by the freshly applied underglaze. If I can't see the line, I must have already added the second or third coat.

pencil line marking first coat of light colored underglaze on sprigs

It is important to me to make my pieces vibrantly colorful and to highlight the surfaces of my pieces with contrasting colors. Unfortunately, this means that a given piece might have three base colors (with three coats of each color) which are fired once to make them stable, and then three top colors which are applied and then sponged off the surface to highlight depressions in the surface texture. (The fired base coat doesn't wash away when I sponge off the unfired top coat.) Each of these color applications needs to come right up to a boundary edge but not drip or glop past the edge.

this piece has three base colors (blue, yellow and red) and will have at least two more colors applied after firing to highlight the sprigged surfaces

Sometimes, to save time, I apply the color on the largest surface of the piece quickly and it spreads onto the sprig surfaces. When this happens, I usually use a sponge to wipe off the raised sprig surfaces before applying a different color onto the sprigs. It is important to wipe the messy bits of base color off the sprigs because six layers of underglaze can begin to obscure the textures of the sprigs. Also, if the sprig color isn't applied in three full coats, the base color might still be visible underneath the sprig color.

messy red underglaze on sprigs before wiping

Usually you can't see through three coats of underglaze before firing, but the underlying color can show up after glazing and firing. At that point it is too late to fix the initial application. I have learned this the hard way, too many times.

a simulation of what it might look like after firing if I don't wipe away the excess red underglaze on the sprigs before adding the next color

What this all means is that taking a whole month of my sabbatical to apply underglaze is both tedious and essential. I need to be careful and thorough. I need to to paint right up to the edges with small brushes and a steady hand. I need to carefully wipe away drips, overlaps and spills. And I need to keep track of how many coats I have already applied. Unfortunately, I don't actually enjoy it much. Does anyone want to take over?

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