Monday, 17 December 2012

Jomon-inspired heads

Recently, I was looking at images of some Japanese figurines and fragments from the middle Jomon period, and I think it must have inspired me to make these little heads. I modelled them very quickly and instinctively, using scraps of clay mixed with sand, grog and gravel. They were bisque-fired to around 1000 degrees centigrade and then smoke-fired, using newspaper and tin foil as a temporary saggar ( this technique learned from Russel Fouts' article : "Oh Yes You Can! Smoke firing in an Electric Kiln" )

The head shown above is hollow and about three inches tall pure chance, a chunk of clay fell off inside, so it happens to be a rattle as well!

This piece is only two inches tall and solid.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Firing with banana skins

A few weeks ago I was reading about Deidre Hawthorne and how she fires some of her pots in saggars using banana skins. As I already use saggars, I was intrigued to try it for myself.

This sake cup was fired to 1300 degrees centigrade in a small saggar with a little wood and the dried skins of two bananas. The result was a rather uniform light grey colour with a metallic sheen..not terribly interesting. On Monday, I refired it in my mini wood kiln to earthenware temperature and this has re-oxidised the surface inside and out, bringing the colours to life. Now the unglazed clay body has turned a deep reddish brown in places, which was more like the colours which Deirdre Hawthorne had said she was achieving with banana skins. The inside is coated with a shino glaze which has turned a beautiful orange colour...dry near the rim but with more of a satin sheen at the bottom.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Mini wood-fire kiln a sucess..maybe

I just finished a ten-hour firing of version two of my mini wood-fire kiln. Amazingly, I managed to get it to 1300 degrees C according to the pyrometer, but unfortunately the cones (7, 9 and 10) placed on the kiln shelf didn't go down. So, either I have a very inaccurate thermocouple, or some extreme hot and cold spots, which I think is more likely. I'm hoping that at least some of the pots on the ground level, next to the firebox, will have fully matured glazes. We shall see... it was an enjoyable experience anyway, and I was fully expecting to have to modify the design based on the results.


It seems my pyrometer was telling me porky pies, and nowhere in the kiln was the real temperature much above earthenware. :(  I suspect the pyro. may have been directly in the path of the hottest flames from the firebox and this gave a completely false reading.

The glaze had begun to melt on a few pots containing soda ash, hence a lower melting point, but on the whole, very disappointing results. The kiln was certainly burning wood efficiently and drawing plenty of flame through the ware chamber..problem seems to be that most of the heat went straight up and out of the chimney! While I was firing I had alot of problems getting the temperature to rise above 1050 degrees C so I thought the exit flue from the firebox might be too small, getting choked with embers. I'm now wondering if it was actually too large for the size of kiln..and that the chimney may have been too wide, pulling too much cold air through the kiln. The outside temperature was about minus 1 centigrade which probably didn't help!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Ian Gregory, Sculptor and Potter

One of the ceramic artists I most admire and respect is Ian Gregory, who has been making pottery and sculpture since the 1960s. Over the years, Ian has produced many different types of work, including salt-glazed stoneware and raku pottery, life-sized statues of the human figure, animal and bird sculptures, as well as large-scale, mixed media installations. More recently, he has embarked on a series of sculptures in bronze. 

Early on in his ceramic career, Ian produced beautifully detailed models of furniture, such as dressing tables and chests of drawers, in salt-glazed stoneware. Here is a photo of one of those pieces; a lidded box, which I'm honoured to have in my collection:

Today, he is perhaps best known for his impressionistic sculptures of dogs, which have a very special charm and appeal. Alongside the Martin Brothers potters, it was my discovery of Ian Gregory's wonderful salt-glazed sculptures in books and on the internet which first inspired me to try my hand at working with clay. His approach to ceramics is similar to the Martin Brothers in as far as no two pieces he produces are ever alike. Each creation is crafted with the same level of loving care and attention; the product of enormous skill, dexterity, passion, and a very vivid imagination.

On a personal level,  I have learnt a huge amount, both from his writings and entertaining talks and demonstrations at ceramics events around the country. His willingness to experiment with unconventional methods and push the boundaries of what is possible in ceramic technology is truly inspiring. Ian always encourages other artists to learn through practice and to never accept received wisdom untested. How many ceramicists in the 20th Century would have even considered the possibility of firing a gas kiln to stoneware temperatures in less than fifteen minutes? Or manufacturing a portable kiln from slabs of kiln fibre attached to wire mesh? Or mixing paper pulp with clay slip to create a revolutionary new ceramic material? Ian Gregory was one of the first potters to invent paperclay, and discover its remarkable properties. Many of his sculptures are made from this material, which has incredible green strength, solves the problems of cracking from uneven drying, and even allows raw-clay and bisque-fired components to be joined together.

Listening to Ian speak candidly about his many experiments and some of the frustrations involved in reaching creative goals, helped me to accept regular failures as part and parcel of the learning process. Clay, kiln and glaze disasters are simply treated as a necessary part of discovering which processes work and which don't. Also, it's only by taking risks that useful discoveries (such as Ian's application of household emulsion paint as a perfectly acceptable slip!) can be made purely through serendipity. As someone once said: "failure is the doorstep to success". He also made me realise that success does not necessarily come from sticking to the same creative formula or defined genre, that it's okay to strike out in completely new directions and see where they take you. After all, being an artist should ultimately be about embracing creative freedom..the idea that "with clay, there are no rules" !

Here are a few photographs I took back in May 2006, when Ian demonstrated his sculpting techniques at the "Where I Fell In Love" Gallery in Shipston-on-Stour: 

The images show the early stages of a dog sculpture in paperclay, using an armature made by pushing metal braising rods into blocks of polystyrene foam. This is another of Ian's inventive solutions, which allows the supporting framework to be finely adjusted and the pose of the sculpture to be altered at will. Ian works quickly and instinctively..pushing, pinching and modelling the clay, as well as using carving implements to sculpt the desired form. On that day in Shipston-on-Stour, it was quite miraculous to watch how, in a matter of minutes, (with no model or photograph to work from) the dog took on a convincing form with a life of its own. Ian does not aim to create a sculpture which is anatomically correct in every way. Rather, he seeks to capture the essence of a dog; the expression of its soul, its behavioural quirks, the way it sits, lies and moves through the world. In the same sculpture he will often capture a dog's potential for menace as well as its softness and vulnerability.

For me, Ian Gregory's works have a timeless quality, partly because they deal with eternal emotions and concerns. There is something deeply compassionate and spiritual contained within his sculptures, human or animal, and at their core they often seem to speak of the fragility of our existence and the flawed nature of our psyches. The speed and fluidity with which Ian creates his work are not to its detriment..on the contrary, his gestural techniques facilitate the expression of deep-seated, unconscious streams of thought, and aspects of the human condition which remain beyond words. The result is sculpture which can be both charming and highly disturbing..light-hearted and whimsical, yet at the same time, heavy with latent meanings.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Second firing at Manor Stokes. 29/30 September 2012.

We fired the smokeless kiln at Manor Stokes in Sheffield again at the weekend and got some great results. Many thanks again to Sarah Villeneau and Penny Withers for all their hard work in orchestrating the event and helping to fire the kiln.

As it was quite a small group taking part this time, there was plenty of space in the kiln, and I was able to put a good number of pots in my preferred position..on the ground level near to the exit flues from the firebox. In this spot they get well and truly blasted by ash and flame, and coated with embers from side stoking. Here are a handful of pots I am delighted with, I'll post more photos once I've had a proper session with the camera later today.

Jar/vase, approx 4 inches tall

Bottle vase, approx 5 inches tall

Sake cup, approx 2 inches tall

Carved rock vase, approx 4 inches tall

Sake cup, approx 2.5 inches tall

Jar/vase, approx. 4 inches tall

Sake cup, approx 3 inches tall

Sake cup (b)

Sake cup, approx 3 inches tall
Volcano vase, 6 inches tall

The light coloured jar was pushed right into the firebox mouth, so it ended up practically buried in white-hot embers which have dried and bleached the shino glaze. The kiln was fired to around cone 10 but it was likely hotter than that at the the past, this lower section has gone as high as 1350 degrees C.
The firing finished around 11pm on Sunday and I went over on the Wednesday to collect the work..early that evening I tried to collect some ash from the firebox and found that the embers were still glowing red hot!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Playing with textures

Just lately I've been exploring new textures, using a variety of tools to carve and scrape the clay into shape. I'm looking for stone-like surfaces which I can fire in a wood kiln without a glaze, but it hasn't proved easy to achieve textures which look natural and authentic, as well as being pleasing to the eye. There is, I think, a fine balance to be achieved between texture and seems that the more dramatic and "loose" the texture, the harder it is to keep control of the form.

Here are a few examples of pieces I've produced over the last week or so. Just greenware at the moment, but hopefully I will be able to fire them at the end of this month.

The sake cups in the third and fourth photos down were very experimental. Made from very coarse clay with extra sand and grog added, they were formed by placing a soft ball of clay over the end of a wooden rolling pin. The clay was then carved just using the side of an index finger. I like this kind of random surface but the overall shape is less appealing..and it's impossible to remove the piece and adjust the form without destroying the rough texture.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Testing, testing.

Just a quick post to show some of what came out of yesterday's firing. I fired a few test pieces with the fen slip as a glaze and took them to cone nine. The result was a rather horrible dull, blacky brown, but in oxidation I wasn't really expecting much from it. More exciting was this white ash glaze I mixed up last week..I placed this over a normal off-white stoneware (left) and over a 50/50 mix of the fen clay and raku.

Sample on left has black and iron underglaze decoration

Above sample on right, close up

The glaze on the right has turned a kind of granite-like pink-grey and the black underglaze a dark bluey green..quite remarkable! There are also yellow-brown spots coming through from the clay body...I like this finish very much.

Here are a few of the pots:

Carved sake cup with ash glaze

Carved sake cup (no glaze but soaked in soda ash solution) with fen slip inside

Sake cup (no glaze) with fen slip inside

Sake cup detail

Sake cup. Ash glaze over iron decoration

Oribe cup, or yunomi
Oribe cup, or yunomi

I was getting tired of finding the odd burst bubble in the oribe glaze, so I added a tablespoon of frit to the mix, hoping to make it less viscous. It does seem to have helped with bubble and crater formation, but perhaps it also made this last yunomi's glaze crawl. It was on the top shelf whereas the non-crawled glaze was on the bottom where it may well be cooler. Also the carving pattern on the crawled pot is less vertical, so the glaze may have pooled more. (Actually, I think it's crawled in a way which adds interest, rather than making it really ugly as crawling sometimes does) So I'm not sure whether adding frit was a great idea or not..I think I need to find a new oribe glaze.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Throwing jars, lidded and unlidded

I joined facebook recently, and it's proving to be a wonderful place to find and view ceramics from all over the world. I'm currently throwing some small and medium sized jars which have been inspired by pottery from countries such as Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea. Here is an example of a small jar I threw the other day, which has been bisqued:

There is something about this form which really appeals to me..sturdy and vaguely anthropomorphic, it has what you might call "presence". I was already making bottle-vases with this kind of shape, but taller and narrower..this form is more relaxing to make..easier to get fingers inside to refine the outline. I'm thinking that some of these will make very nice tea caddies, perhaps with wooden lids. The larger ones will have ceramic lids, rather like Chinese and Japanese ginger jars.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Mini wood-fired kilns..a possibility?

Two questions I'm seeking answers to at the moment:

- is it feasible to build a mini wood-fired kiln?
- if so, what is the highest temperature it could be fired to?

I'm exploring the possibility of designing a very small kiln for use in a suburban environment, so ideally it has to produce no more smoke than a household barbecue. Last week I created a simple up-draft prototype using normal house bricks to build a firebox and a kiln chamber and chimney made from cylinders of kiln fibre. The chamber was large enough for around nine small-to-medium pots placed on two layers of shelving.

The kiln was stoked with charcoal and wood for around five and a half hours (that is to say, until I ran out of fuel!) and temperatures in the firebox were high enough to make the metal grill slump. The 5-inch high ember pile turned pale yellow and the flames a beautiful lavender-blue.

I was hoping to get to high earthenware temperature in the chamber, but we didn't get there...even cone 05 didn't go down, but the temperature was high enough to sinter the fen slip I'd applied as a glaze to the inside of a few of the pieces. By the end, the kiln fibre was glowing a bright orange and you could watch waves of flames surging up the walls of the was worth five hours' hard labour just to see that.

One thing I was pleased about was the low level of smoke produced..generally, the fuel burned very efficiently and smoke only became evident when a damper was placed over the top of the chimney. Once things got toasty in the chamber, seven inch flames would shoot from the chimney as wood was piled on..pretty impressive for a kiln less than five feet tall!

This design was just cobbled together using stuff I had lying time I plan to build one using H.T.I. bricks and a second layer of one-inch kiln fibre. I will also reduce the height of the kiln chamber and make the chimney taller...hopefully that will make much higher temperatures achievable.

I've yet to find much on the web about mini wood-fired kilns. If anyone has any ideas or links, I'd be glad to hear about them. I do remember a chap demonstrating a tiny, portable kiln at a ceramics fair back in 2007. It was fired with charcoal, and he reckoned it could reach stoneware temperature. The chamber was miniscule though, as were the pots he put in there.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Wood firing in Sheffield

The weekend before last I was in Sheffield, helping to fire a smokeless kiln with the Manor Stokes Wood Firing Group. A very enjoyable experience, which was mainly thanks to the hard work and excellent preparation by the group organisers...a big thank you to Penny and Sarah for making the whole thing possible.

This was the second time the kiln had been fired and apart from the temperature sticking a couple of times, it went very smoothly and all the cones were down after about thirteen hours. Pots on the bottom two layers of the kiln received plenty of ash and I'm guessing the temperature must have gone well over 1300 centigrade as a few of my pots started to bloat in places. I need to remember next time to put pots made of recycled clay higher up in the kiln where the heat isn't quite so intense.

Most of the glazes came out beautifully with very few faults, especially the tenmokku on porcelain which was fabulous. Some of the shinos also came out wonderfully well with rich oranges and reds and some nice ash deposits. Here are a few of my results, I will add some more later:

Bottle vase with fen slip, dug straight from the ground

The earthenware, fen slip almost came out like a tenmokku!

Bottle vase with ash glaze, approx 7 inches tall

White slip brushed on under the glaze has added variation in colour

Sake cup with shino glaze

Sake cup with shino glaze
Vase with shino glaze, approx. 7 inches tall

Tea caddy, glazed by fire and ash, approx 4 inches tall

Sake cup with flashing from flames. Shino on the inside

shino on this light body came out very orange indeed!

Shino beaker with under-glaze brushwork