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Brushwork on Ceramics: A Multitude of Decorative Possibilities for Pottery


One of the great things about pottery as a creative endeavor is that it satisfies the desire to build an object for use with one’s hands. But in addition to the satisfaction that comes from crafting a useful form, potters also get to decorate their work using skills borrowed from other media like painting or drawing. This is why the brush has always been an important part of the ceramic tool kit.


In today’s post, Robin Hopper talks about the importance of a good brush and demonstrates one type of maiolica-style on-glaze decoration that can be created on pottery using different colored glazes, a brush and a slip trailer. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Good Brushes Come in All Shapes and Sizes

The enormous variety of commercially available brushes is bewildering, and you really need to try many of them out with ink or water to get a feeling for their potential and how they feel in the hand. The type of brushes you need depends on the work you plan to do with them. For broad expanses, house-painting brushes from 2 inches and larger do a great job. For calligraphy (from the Greek words “kalos” and “graphein,” meaning “beautiful writing”), specialized animal hair or hair from a particular part of the animal most commonly is used. Perhaps some of the most exciting and vital calligraphic marks on American ceramics of the 20th century were made by Paul Soldner, who used the severed tail of a roadkill raccoon!


Ultimately it isn’t the type of brush you have, but how you use it that matters. It would be impossible to write in a single chapter a total view of all the variations and qualities that brushes embody, as it would about any single group of tools in the ceramist’s tool kit. The photograph at left shows a few common brush variations and the type of marks they make. Every brush has three essential methods of use: the tip, or point; the side, or drag; and the full-bodied stroke.


In bristle brushes, there is little absorbency in the coarse hair that takes up a charge of ink or color, so the marks from these brushes usually will be short, staccato or stippled. In long, fine-hair brushes, the mark may be long and sinuous from a single charge of ink or paint. A charge is the amount of ink, paint, pigment or glaze that may be held by the brush as a sort of reservoir that is released gradually as the tip, side or full brush moves across the paper or ceramic surface.


This post was excerpted from Robin Hopper’s Making Marks: Discovering the Ceramic Surface, which is available in the Ceramic Arts Daily Bookstore.



Many brushes now are made using synthetic materials, like nylon. Though not as good in use as many varieties of natural hair brushes made from sable, elk, goat, dog, deer, camel and even horse hair, synthetic hair brushes usually are a perfectly serviceable and less-expensive alternative. Synthetic brushes also are slightly more resistant to the abrasive qualities that are a natural part of all ceramic pigments, surfaces and glazes. Unfortunately, brushes do wear out over time, usually at the most inopportune time. If you have a favorite brush, especially of a particular make and number (usually branded into the shaft), keep careful note of the information. It might be a good idea to always keep a second one in stock in case of loss or damage. Favorite brushes tend to become like extensions of your hand. If the company that makes them suddenly ceases production, it can be a major trauma. A few years ago, a brush I had used for years suddenly died of old age and overuse. It was a fude, wonderful for big, floppy marks. The center fell out without warning. The company that made it had sold out to another company and discontinued the line. After diligent research and testing many look-alikes, I finally found that the new company had a small stock of these brushes left, so I bought the whole lot to keep me covered for the rest of my life as a good insurance policy. A good brush can be that important!



Maiolica-Style Onglaze Painting and Glaze Trailing


The base glaze coat with the first brush mark of a different glaze.

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Iron brush decoration.
Continuing the iron brush decoration.
Trailing white glaze over.
More glaze trailing. The fired and completed teapot is shown at the top of the page.