Debra Fritts discusses her decorating techniques for her figurative ceramic sculptures, such as the one above. Roswell, Georgia, ceramic artist Debra Fritts presented her figurative ceramic sculpture techniques at the 2008 Potters Council workshop “Surface, Form and Substance,” which took place September 19-20 in Indianapolis, Indiana. At the workshop, Debra demonstrated her handbuilding technique, which combines modeling, pinching and coiling for small figurative ceramic sculptures. After small sculptures are constructed, surface decoration was discussed and attendees had the hands-on opportunity to experiment with slips, underglazes, impressions and mark-making to start a surface on wet clay. Today, Debra has offered a glimpse into the surface decoration techniques she went go over at the workshop. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

The Work

time and experience embraces me as a sculptor in clay, I feel free of
art trends and fashionable art. My expression is basic yet intrigues me
daily to continue this exploration of clay and the female figure.
Working intuitively from pounds of wet clay, ideas develop and stories
appear. These stories dwell on the mysteries and joys of life’s
necessities. The search continues until I reach the core: the spiritual
level of the sculpture. Then the work can speak. Sometimes combining
found objects with the sculpture enhance the visual composition and
gives a reference to the past. My new work-titled “I Thirst” has been
inspired by the severe drought in my state Georgia and my concern on
the effects of the lack of water.

The Process

ceramic sculpture is hand built, mainly using thick coils, and fired in
my kiln three to seven times depending on the color and surface I am
trying to achieve. I approach the color on the clay as a painter. My
palette is a combination of oxides, slips, underglazes and glazes. I
mix, I paint, I fire, and I never know exactly the end results.

the first photo, construction has been completed and the sculpture has
been setting up for a day; exposed to the air during the day, covered
loosely at night. Then, a heavy layer of slip is applied on the area
desired. I am sensitive to the beauty of the red clay and I don’t cover
the whole piece with slip. I give the slip a few hours to dry. Then I
start mixing ceramic underglazes to apply color on the slip. I have a
mixture of yellow, white, peach, brown and blue. Sometimes I mix on a
palette and sometimes I use the wet-on-wet technique (like in
watercolor painting ), mixing the wet underglazes directly on the
piece. This is usually one heavy layer.

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through the slip and the underglaze, as shown in the second photo,
usually starts a few hours after the underglaze has been applied. I use
a needle tool and mark through the slip and underglaze. The eye area is
important to etch since small lines are necessary. I have more control
with the needle tool and like seeing the red clay as my dark lines. To
me, this brings unity to the piece.

this point, I want to make all the lines I feel are important. A symbol
I use on some of my work is a circle around the eye. These types of
marks add interest to the piece, but should be quiet – not too

large piece in the kiln image below measures 64 inches tall x 24
inches wide and 20 inches deep. I am using a cone 6 red clay body that
is very coarse. This piece was first fired to cone 2. It shows the
piece with red iron oxide and Gerstley borate wash, slip and
underglazes after the second firing at cone 05. I do not feel the piece
is completed and will refire, adding more surface treatments, which can
include oxides, underglazes and glaze.

To see more images of Debra Fritts’ work, visit










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