As a high school ceramics teacher for more than 30 years, I found pottery decoration to be one of my favorite assignments, and one the students enjoyed as well. This simple project generates a lot of interest and creativity for beginning students, while teaching the technical aspects of decorating clay in the plastic and leather-hard states. Working on the small medallions was considerably less intimidating than a large project, and students later incorporated various decoration methods into their pottery.
Step 1: Students create at least six stamps out of clay and insulating fire brick scraps. After the clay stamps become bone dry, they are used for the impressing part of this project, then they’re bisque-fired to increase their life.
Step 2: Each student rolls out a 1/4-inch thick slab of clay with a slab roller or rolling pin, cuts out at least four circular medallions with a 3/4-inch-diameter cookie cutter and makes 1/4-inch holes about 1/4 inch from the top and bottom edge of each tile.
Step 3: Time to decorate. Most of the techniques used to decorate clay, whether it is soft and workable (plastic) or half dry or firm (leather hard), fit into one of the four categories listed below. I assigned students the task of decorating four medallions using at least one technique from each category. This gets them off to a good start.
Tip: Do the techniques that require soft, workable clay first.
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A Little Advice
The task of getting student work fired in a timely manner requires considerable effort and planning. Five classes, averaging 32 students each, produced a huge amount of work, and kiln capacity was often strained. Students were cautioned up front that the tiles were “practice” and not to be fired (except for some selected as display samples). Second, some of the medallions (especially those with textural surfaces) were bisque fired and saved for future use in glaze testing. I propped them on a reclined kiln post during firing, so we could see the fluidity of the glaze as well as how it looks on a textured surface. Most of the clay used for this project was then recycled.
Students were encouraged to pick up their display tiles at the end of the year. Some of the very best were taken, but most were left, and hundreds accumulated over the years. As you can see, I’m finally finding uses for some of them.
Secondary school art teachers in California use, in part, the California Visual and Performing Arts Framework as a guide for the development of programs. One of the cornerstones of the framework is the learning of our art and cultural heritage. The history of world ceramics is replete with magnificent examples of ceramic decoration, so the lesson on surface decoration was a great opportunity for including information about our past. A large collection of color slides I have accumulated over the years helped in my teaching, as did an extensive reference book library, and the work of Native Americans of this area in southern California photographed, with permission, at the San Diego Museum of Man.
Techniques to Teach
1.Use the stamps created in Step 1.
2. Roll on designs from textured cylinders.
3.Create designs and textures with tools.
4.Create textures from rough surfaces.
5.Use found objects from pockets and purses.
1.Try modeling the clay while it is plastic.
2.Attach ornaments to leather-hard clay with slip (sprigging).
Subtracting Clay (leather hard)
1.Incise a linear design by cutting into the clay.
2.Excise a design by cutting away the background.
3.Carve a bas-relief design.
4.Pierce the clay to create designs through the disc.
Engobes (colored slips) (leather hard)
1.Paint designs using brushes and sponges.
2.Trail slip a design using the slip trailer (ear syringes work well).
3.Scratch through a slip coat to the base clay (sgraffito).
4.Add slip to incised or stamped areas (mishima).
5.Use wax resist to create designs with hot wax or wax emulsion to repel engobes.
Leon Roloff taught ceramics for 35 years, 32 of them for the Grossmont Union High School District. Retired since 1993, he now enjoys working in his studio and shows regularly with the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego. Send comments to Leon at firstname.lastname@example.org.