- Ceramic Arts Daily - http://ceramicartsdaily.org -

Decoration as Structure: Integrating Ornamentation into Form


When I first saw Blair Clemo’s work, I figured the ornate surfaces were developed with sprigs that were attached after the pieces were thrown. In fact, the ornamental elements are a part of the structure of the pieces. In today’s post, Blair explains how he handbuilds with decorative sprigs and forming molds, and then finishes them off on the wheel.- Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Get Blair’s bronze glaze and clay body recipe in the newly revised 15 Tried and True Cone 6 Glaze Recipes: Recipes and Testing Procedures for our Favorite Mid-Range Pottery Glazes, which is free to subscribers of Ceramic Arts Daily!


Ps. Next week, Blair is coming to town to film a how-to video of this interesting process!



The building blocks of my work are two different types of press molds, first a decorative mold that yields an ornamental patty or coil of clay to build from and the other is a form mold, that can be pressed into to make the actual volume of the pots. This form mold is cast in a circular shape and, after clay is pressed into it, it is centered on the wheel and used to throw the upper portion of the jar.


Stay up with the latest information throughout the year with a subscription to Ceramics Monthly magazine. Gallery reviews, technical updates, tips, techniques, studio tours and more — it’s all there! For inspiration and information, Ceramics Monthly delivers.

Learn more and subscribe!




To make the decorative molds, clay or plasticine is hand formed flat on the table, typically out of small elements such as coils or cones arranged in whatever shape I need. Cottle boards are set up around the object and plaster is poured in a simple, one-part-mold fashion.


The form molds begin as objects thrown on the wheel, carved when leather hard, and typically cast in two-part molds. No pour spout is needed, as these molds are made for pressing, not slip casting.



click to enlarge

After pressing clay into the decorative molds, I then set them into the form mold, ornament side down. I can vary the clarity of the ornament with the pressure I use to push them into the mold—the harder I push the clay against the mold wall, the less ornament will remain. I try to be strategic in placing the ornamental parts, as the composition of the pot’s surface will depend on how the ornament is set in the mold.


Once the form mold is filled, creating a half sphere, I trim the edge flush with the mold. This will be the bottom of my jar. A coil is pressed into a longer decorative mold yielding an ornamental strip to build with. This is scored and slipped onto the press-molded base (6). This jar is made with two layers of ornamental strips, one on top of the other, making up the wall of the jar.


The last strip is scored and slipped in place at a 45° angle, slanting inward (7). This will give me a nice shoulder to throw a flange for the lid to rest on. The jar is allowed to set up to a soft leather hard, just firm enough to support the pressure of adding and throwing a coil to make the flange.


I center the jar (with the base still in the form mold) on the wheel and use a needle tool to cut the rim level. I score and slip a coil into place on the rim and throw a flange for the lid (8). This is one of the most dynamic parts of the finished jar; a strong horizontal line that conspicuously shows the different touch between the squishy, press-molded body and the precise thrown rim. I usually leave this rim unglazed as to increase focal attention.


I throw the lid immediately after the rim so that they will both shrink at the same rate. I have noticed that even though the rim is freshly thrown, the body of the jar has already begun to shrink. This can throw off the precision of the lid fit.


To compensate, I usually throw the lid slightly larger (1⁄8 of an inch or so) than the flange. When both the lid and the lip are leather hard, I trim the lid to fit the jar. Once the rim is leather hard, I remove the jar from the form mold and flip it over. Because the plaster form mold absorbs moisture, the bottom is usually a soft leather hard and ready for the thrown foot. I center the jar on the wheel upside down (resting on the rim), and mark with a needle tool where the foot-ring will go. This area is scored and slipped and a coil is added and thrown into a foot for the jar (9).


Finally, after trimming the leather-hard lid to fit the jar, I throw the knob. I use a profile tool made from a piece of sheet metal to give me a precise, decorative finial (10). Additional profile tools are also used to make decorative marks on the inside of the lid and the bottom of the jar (11).


I would like to end where I began, with insight provided by Trilling, “If our speeded-up society leaves no time for labor-intensive pursuits, it is only because it has trained us to demand quick results.” Using both hand-making and serial-production techniques (molds) connects me to the pre-Modern, rich with lavish and wholly unnecessary ornament, while still allowing for the real-world concerns for efficiency. With this system, I can enjoy the hand labor and skilled making that I value so strongly, while still employing techniques that quicken the pace of making, without sacrificing visual interest.


A. Blair Clemo is a potter, ceramics technician, and wheel-throwing instructor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. For more information, visit his website at www.ablairclemo.com.



Get Blair’s bronze glaze and clay body recipe in the newly revised 15 Tried and True Cone 6 Glaze Recipes: Recipes and Testing Procedures for our Favorite Mid-Range Pottery Glazeswhich is free to subscribers of Ceramic Arts Daily!