Easy Ways to Use Transfers in Ceramics

A woman designing a stencil for her ceramics in a classroom.

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Transfers are a way of moving a design onto the surface of your ceramics, and there are so many ways in which you can do it. Image transfers have been popular with ceramicists for many years, with early techniques including sgraffito, which is essentially covering your ceramic work (once it’s dried to leather hard) with a colored slip and then scratching your design into the work with a sharp metal point or a wood carving tool to reveal the color underneath. However, there are many different (and in some cases more modern) ways to make images and patterns in your work from paper transfers to stencils.

What Are the Different Transfers You Can Get?

One of the easiest, cheapest, and most cost-effective ways of creating a transfer is to use newspaper. All you need to do is paint colored slips onto your newspaper. It sounds counterintuitive but you’ll need to paint on the foreground images first and then the background layer. You’ll then need to brush on your background slip. The reason you need this is that the background slip helps the transfer. Once your piece of ceramics has dried to leather hard, and your patterns are ready on the newspaper, you’re all set to flip the newspaper onto the ceramic ware.

Make sure you don’t leave the transfer onto the ceramics too long as the newspaper will absorb moisture from the slip quite quickly and you don’t want it to dry out. Once the transfer is set on the ceramics you can push it neatly on the clay with something such as a rib. Once it’s been completely smoothed onto the ceramics, you can very gently peel back the transfer revealing the image on the pot and it’ll then be ready for firing.

Another easy and creative way of transferring onto ceramics is by using stencils, and the most personal way to do this is by making your own. First, make the ceramic ware you’d like to transfer your design onto. It’s best for your first time to create something flat, such as a plate to transfer your work onto. It’s best to get a bit of practice in with flatter shapes until you build your way up to shapes such as plant pots. Then it’s time to create your own design on the paper. You can do anything from florals to stripes, making it as intricate or simple as you like. You’ll then need to very carefully cut out your design with a craft knife, thinking carefully about the positive and negative spaces. A good tip is once you have designed your work to take a photocopy of it and cut that out. Then if anything goes wrong with your cutting, you know you have your original to refer back to.

Once you’re all set up and cut out, you can lay out your stencil onto the clay, pressing it down carefully with a rib. Mix up whatever color slips you want, and then using a sponge or a brush, dab color onto the areas that are exposed. Leave the slips to dry for a little bit before carefully peeling off the stencil. It doesn’t just have to be shaped either; it's great to make typography and text stencils and put words or names onto your ceramics.

Does a Mono Print Work to Transfer Images Onto Clay?

In a word, yes. Monoprints can work beautifully on clay and create a really lovely effect. They’re also pretty easy to do, once you get the technique right. You’ll need a glass plate for the process and then you can mix up whatever color underglaze you want. Underglazes are great for mono printing as you can really blend any color you like and see exactly how it will turn out. Then you’ll need to pop a piece of potter’s tissue onto the glass. The result will be paper covered in colored underglaze, which has the negative of your design. Carefully pick up the paper and lay it onto the leather hard piece of clay you have made. If you don’t want to make your own design, there are plenty of great tissue designs you can buy.