Decorating Basics for Potters

Woman decorating pottery
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When we think of finished pots, we tend to think first of pots covered in richly colored, shiny glazes. But is that the only possibility? Let's take a look at the different ways pottery can be decorated.

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    Glazes are the most often used form of pottery decoration. They come in a huge variety, including nearly every color imaginable and many types of textures. Glazing can transform a simple pot into something really special and the techniques you can use are endless. On a practical level glazes are used to make a pot vitreous and both food and liquid safe. When a piece has been bisque fired and then put through a separate glaze firing, it makes the pot much more durable. Raw glazed work tends to flake off more easily and you won't get this problem with a separate glaze firing.

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    Overglazes and Underglazes

    Glazes can be laid on top of each other to create even more effects. This is called overglazing. Some "overglazes" are simply other glazes that are applied on top of another unfired glaze that will mature at the same temperature. True overglazes may also be applied after the base glaze has already been fired. These overglazes will require the ware to go through a third firing, at a lower temperature than the base glaze.

    Underglazes are not glazes themselves but are colorants applied to unfired bisqueware (greenware) before an overglaze is applied (usually the overglaze is transparent to really let the colors of the underglaze shine through). Underglazes provide the flexibility for a huge range of creativity. Firstly, there's the range of colors you can use, as you can mix the underglazes to get your perfect shade. With underglazes, you have the opportunity to paint your own detailed designs and patterns. You can even use the underglazes like watercolors, as when you're painting straight onto a rough clay surface, there's less chance of the glazes slipping.

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    Slips and Engobes

    Slips and engobes are essentially the same thing. The difference in term is basically a difference in regional language preference. “Slip” is more common in Europe, and “engobe” is more common in North America. Both words refer to a liquid slurry consisting of clay or clay mixed with coloring agents. Slips and engobes are used to decorate wet greenware, adding color, texture, or two-dimensional design. The advantages of using an engobe are that you can use them for raw (or single) firing, meaning you can apply them to work when it is still slightly damp or even leather hard. Unlike, glassy glazes, engobes usually produce a matt surface rather than a glossy shine. The exception to engobes being matt in texture is terra sigillata, which can be buffed to have a higher shine to it.

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    Clay is a master chameleon. With skill, clay can successfully visually mimic all sorts of substances, from metal to old shoes.

    Clay is impressionable. Textures can readily be added to wet pots through impressing a variety of tools and objects into the surface.

    Clay is also carve-able. Marks and designs can be incised into leather-hard greenware. By doing so at the leather-hard stage of drying, the cuts retain their crispness. Leather-hard greenware also allows for more ease when incising more intricate patterns.

    Marbling with two different types of clay—say, a white clay body and a terracotta (or alternatively a colored clay)—is a wonderful way to create different effects on your pottery. One of the best ways to do it is to roll out the two different colors of clay into sheets, then stack them on top of each other. Then start gently rolling the whole block. The colors will mix together and make the most beautiful marbled patterns and from there you can hand build or use a mold to create your desired shape.