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Beyond Wax Resist: Alternatives for Interesting Resist Decoration on Your Ceramic Art

“Beaten Bowl,” 19 in. in diameter, handbuilt earthenware with wax and soda resist, and terra sigillata, smoke fired in an electric kiln, 2005.

“Beaten Bowl,” 19 in. in diameter, handbuilt earthenware with wax and soda resist, and terra sigillata, smoke fired in an electric kiln, 2005.

We’ve all used our trusty old friend wax resist to keep glaze from going where we don’t want it to go, and it works like a charm. But what about using resists that aren’t quite as effective as wax resist in order to get interesting surface effects? What a great idea!


Belgian potter Russel Fouts has done a great deal of experimenting with various “permeable” resists and today, he shares some of the results of his experimentation. Russel uses these resists on his smoke-fired work, but they can also be used in combination with any other glaze or firing treatments with great results. So give them a try! –Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


This platter was decorated with tape and paper resist, and terra sigillata, then smoke fired in an electric kiln.

This platter was decorated with tape and paper resist, and terra sigillata, then smoke fired in an electric kiln.

I smoke fire in an electric kiln using newspaper in aluminum foil saggars. Since the combustible material is trapped inside the foil, there is almost no movement of the smoke so it is prevented from making patterns on the pots. To compensate for this, I rely on resists to create interesting surfaces. But the problem is that traditional resists – like wax or latex – prove unsatisfactory because they resist too well and don’t allow for “accidents” to happen. Traditional resists work by creating barriers that repel liquids like slips, glazes, washes and over/underglazes, but I’m also interested in controlling how much and where my work absorbs smoke.


Rethinking the concept of a resist and what makes it work, or not work, opens up a whole new world of possibilities for resist decoration. My efforts are now entirely directed toward the use of “permeable” resists. Resists that sort of resist and sort of don’t; that block while still allowing some interaction with the surface underneath. Once you understand how resists create barriers, you can broaden your resist decorating “palette” and use their special characteristics in your work.


Non-Traditional Resists
What materials repel water? Think about all the different materials that contain waxes, oils or greases, including the oil from your skin. Soften any of these resists by warming them a little and the quality of the line changes. Here are some hard and soft resist materials you can try.


An expanded version of this article is included in Surface Decoration: Finishing Techniques, available in the Ceramic Arts Daily Bookstore.

resists-2Hard Resists

• Lipstick – makes a nice greasy line
• Eyebrow pencil
• Wax crayon – scratchy, “crayon-y” line
• Butcher’s grease pencil or china marker
• Chunk of wax or a candle – produces a very similar line to the china marker, and you can adjust the width of the line by choosing bigger or smaller pieces
• Oil pastels – similar line to wax but fatter, and you can use it sideways.
• Bar of soap
• Leftover chocolate – (As a Belgian, this is a real sacrifice for me.) different kinds of chocolate make different kinds of lines; the harder, the more scratchy, the softer, the fatter the line


resists1Soft Resists

• Full strength white glue, wood glue or any acrylic glue – trail like slip or dilute for brushing
• Acrylic floor polish – as the ads state “waterproofs and resists black heel marks”
• Acrylic artist’s medium
• Liquid beeswax – nice to decorate with and works in a pinch for waxing bottoms or feet
• Paste wax or Vaseline – good for smudgy marks when applied with a cloth or fingers
• Left over oil-based creams on your dresser
• Any oils – they can be brushed, smudged or spattered


Paper Resists
While paper resists won’t work on bisque where I do most of my decoration, tape does and comes in many different forms and widths. Drafting and pin-striping tapes come in extremely fine widths and are very flexible. Stickers are also an option. If you want a shape or thickness in a tape or sticker that isn’t available, cut the exact shape you want out of paper, glue it to the pot with diluted white glue and smooth it down with a rubber or foam roller. Or stick the edges of your paper cutout down with a border of tape. You could also cut your design out of self-adhesive shelf paper or even masking tape.


Treat liquid or soft resist materials like any other decorating material. They are the same as oxides, colorants, terra sigillatas, slips or glazes, and you can use any means you think of to apply them to a surface. Feel free to dip, pour, spatter (one of my favorites), spray, splash, squirt or brush as inspiration directs you. Also, consider that “bad” tools can often leave the most interesting marks. Look for orphaned tools; balding brushes, spitting sprayers, decrepit sponges, ragged bits of cloth or loose bits of string. How about a mop? Not a mop brush but the hoary, old, string mop standing in the corner.


Most of the materials discussed are safe to use. All natural materials should burn out safely in your kiln although you need a good venting system if you’re firing indoors. Paper, tape and natural strings can either be left in place or removed as you wish. Left on, the ash residue can leave interesting traces. Plastics like acrylics and floor finishes require adequate ventilation. Trailed white glue and pin striping tape should be removed before firing.


I hope you’re getting the idea. The list can go on and on. Basically ANYTHING that makes a barrier against water or smoke works in some way and each one has its own special character. Think about trying these techniques at different stages of the pot’s or the decoration’s development. There are a lot of ideas here but I seriously doubt that I’ve exhausted all the possibilities.


If you have any other non-traditional resist ideas to share, post them as comments below.


Russel Fouts is a potter living in Brussels, Belgium. He specializes in a technique of smoke firing in his electric kiln and also makes functional majolica work. To see more of his work, visit www.mypots.com.