Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Masterwork

The term "Masterwork" gets discussed on occasion among my friends and co-artists.  I find the idea of such a thing fairly subjective within the ceramic field.  Things that look super difficult (or really fancy) within the clay arts, aren't always the case depending on what technique is used.  Something that non-potters are impressed over is not the same thing a fellow potter would swoon over.

Within my experience, whenever I have explained to someone how easy something is, there is a disbelieving attitude.  I'm not trying to diminish someone else's work, but to explain that there is a lot of smoke and mirrors within the clay arts.

What do I mean?  Can you use a pencil and then erase it later with no harm to the piece?  Can you use tracing paper and set down decoration? Are you doing a lot of the same images or decorative elements with little variation? Are the materials you are using > 90% non-reactive and 9 times out of 10, come out close to perfect?  If the answer is yes to these, then you are probably not doing something that needs someone to be a master in order to accomplish.

At least for me, I find the decorating aspect of clay work not as difficult as the fabricating of the piece. I do, however, respect those that spend many hours decorating one object.  But I have an even larger respect for these people that are using their own formulated glazes, underglazes and slips.  Clay chemistry is more difficult than buying and using pre-made and pre-tested glazes. Most of the issues are tested and solved when using the wide variety of glazes.

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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Cheese Molds pre-1600

Cheese is an ancient food.  There have been a few new finds that date this food stuff to neolithic times. A shard that was part of a cheese mold was carbon dated in order to figure out how old it was.  I find the interesting part, as always, are the archaeologists trying to figure out how it was used (and if it was a shard, what the whole piece might of looked like when complete).

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With many ceramic objects from ancient times (and before) that figuring out how something was used is pretty tricky. It's all guesses unless there is some sort of detailed writings during the time period it was made.  Usually every day use of some objects just weren't discussed.  We only use modern interpretation of what we know of the uses of the object and any other documentation we may have from previous sources. Analyzing the object for any residue, such as various food compounds, help with identifying what the object was on contact with.  That helps in the identification process.

Ancient cheese molds are actually a fairly interesting object.  Faisselle (Cheese strainer) is another name for a bowl with holes to allow whey to drain from the curd. They come in different shapes and sizes. The word comes from the Latin fiscellae. These strainers were originally made from bisqued clay, stoneware or porcelain, and later in wood, iron, aluminium, and plastic.



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Two more related words:  FAISSELLIER : instrument used for pressing curds in Neufchatel cheese.
FAISCINE : (related to Faisselle, Latin origin) meaning a whey mold, used in the region around Tours.

These molds (moulds) could have had some sort of weight added to them. Adding weight would make them presses, but as there hasn't been any pieces found that would fit within the mold as a press, it's difficult to rule that use in or out. Perhaps they stacked on top of one another, however usually if there is a stacking pot, the foot and lip are adjusted in the creation so that they "lock" in place making them more stable.  I haven't seen the underside of any of these pieces, so it's though to say if that was done.  From what I can see the lip is flat and the walls are straight.  So, while they could stack, boy they would be easy to knock over.

Since none of the potters are alive that made these pieces, its really tough to say why they did what they did.  Pottery even in ancient times was fairly advanced. Ceramics haven't changed a whole lot since the wheel was created (save a number of firing and some other techniques which came from leaps of technology in various areas of mining and production).

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Netherlands, 1600-1700

These are the main shapes that were locked into "cheese molds" but other items can be used for the same thing.  Late period, in Brittan, there were colanders that looked very close to an illumination which shows cheesemakers.  The archeologists aren't always right.  Anything with holes can be used as a mold and if you can fit in weights, a press.

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Friday, April 05, 2013

Better than me


I am a competitive person.  I can’t help it.  It’s how I was raised.  The problem with me is that I’m not very good at a lot of things, only a handful.  Any physical tasks, you should pick me last.  I’m good with that.  I do have my quirky specialties.  Those are what get me pretty annoyed that someone else might know more about it or might be just better than me.  It happens.  I am first to admit that I am not the best potter in the world.  I can always find someone else that is better than me.  Which gets me mad, not at them, but at myself.  I figure that the amount of time I put into something, it should equal “better than” on anything.  But time doesn’t mean anything in any given field I’ve noticed. It’s talent.

For me, I think my painting skills are just ok. Sometimes things I do are really awesome, but others, it’s sort of mediocre.  I’m purposely coming up with projects that I can practice and improve my work.  When I was in college, Decoration was far more important than the creation of the piece.  I did some time consuming projects, both in glazing and in the altering of the clay surface.  Over the years my throwing became more of the focus and became stronger (with practice).   One of the things I’ve done was forcing myself to throw things in one piece whenever I can, instead of two.  I’ve figured out some really crazy shapes over the years that in period molds were used because of gravity problems.  Clay and the wheel rely heavily on centrifical forces as well as plasticity of the clay, which is a real challenge to figure out. I’m far from perfect at it, but I am so far ahead of where I was when I started.

I used to be a musician for about half of my life.  I played numerous instruments and was a voice major at Cal State Northridge.  I was ok at the singing part.  I naturally sing slightly flat.  Bothersome.  But I had a very smart teacher that told me, “Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent.”  The idea is that if you practice the wrong thing, not matter how LONG you have been doing it, it’s still wrong AND it’s hard to break bad habits.

I’m not sure if it is just a ceramic thing, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met over the years that have immediately told me how long they have been doing pottery.  I guess they are doing that in order to justify an opinion. I’m not sure in other cases why.  To me, anyone can have an opinion about my work or anyone’s work (doesn’t matter if they’ve done it or not), but it’s my job to consider whether the comment is valid or not. I’ve been cooking all my life, that doesn’t make me a chef. I’ve learned that just because someone had done pottery for over 25 years, they may not know about period pottery.  Time doesn’t equal perfect, being good at it or knowing more than everyone. 

Talent makes you good.  Studying and learning make you better. Time does give them the opportunity to study and hopefully perfect in whatever their focus is.  In Ceramics, there are myriads of aspects.  I don’t think one person can be a master of all ceramics.  Ceramics has many layers, from the construction of the piece, to the decoration… both of those sound simple, but construction of a piece is not just throwing.  You have many options (throwing, hand building, molded…) and then you have decoration (surface decoration on the clay surface before it is fired to bisque, then you have many ways to color and alter the object after bisque).  Most clay artists seem to gravitate towards one aspect or type of ware and stay there for several years perfecting it… then move along.  However, there are numerous potters that are known for their luster glazes (Beatrice Wood), for their Salt Firing, for their maiolica, for their altered works, their sculptures, their large forms… anything and everything you can imagine, someone does it REALLY well.  Narrowing the field in order to really master it.

I’m confident that I will continue to try new things, try to perfect older techniques and be the best that I can.  I just have to remind myself that other people can do the same thing I am doing… and not feel pressured into competition with them.  The only person I should worry about is myself.  That’s a hard lesson for me. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

It's more difficult than it looks: Cracking & Explosions

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Next in my series of posts on "It's more difficult than it looks" comes something very natural to most clay -- cracking.

There are a few things that most people may not know about clay.  First is that "clay has memory"... meaning that the clay platelets that make up clay needs to be completely mixed evenly or else any settled clay may form cracks.  These cracks can form in the drying or more annoyingly in the firing stages.  Unevenness can happen if a piece is bumped, banged or pressed between the forming of the piece, all the way up until it is bisque fired.  Some clays are more forgiving, allowing slight mistakes in how it was handled, but others less plastic like porcelain, crack.

Cracks come in all shapes and sizes.  As with the example I found online, this one looks to be due to possible different thicknesses of the piece (uneven) and possibly a compression of clay wasn't done as well as it should have been.  These types of cracks aren't the type you can usually salvage.  If it cracked as it was drying, you can at least melt the piece down and reuse the clay.  If it's fired, if you have the right equipment, you can grind up the bisqued item into grog which can be used in clay to make the clay more workable.  Most people, however, just throw out those broken pieces.

I bring up explosions.  It's exactly what you'd think it is by the name.  Pots will explode in the kiln with much vigor. When air and moisture is trapped in the clay as it is fired in a kiln, the fast evaporation shocks the piece and will cause said explosion.  Explosions can be small or large enough that the shattered pieces can fly into other pieces, breaking them.  Pieces need to be bone dry before they are fired as well as a slow, even kiln firing.  Too fast of a ramp up can cause shock to the pieces.

So, sometimes someone else can damage your piece without them meaning to.  This just adds to the sometimes unpredictable nature of ceramics.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Techniques for recreating Maiolica (Tin Glazed Ware)


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I was asked recently how I do my maiolica. I need to preface as I've been doing maiolica on and off since I started playing in clay, but with all this time, I am by all means no expert.
Maiolica is the Italian name for tin glazed pottery. It was supposedly named after the island of Mallorca, which is where much of these pots originally were traded. The idea of tin glazing when it was being developed around 9th century was to replicate porcelain, especially the very popular Chinese blue-on-white ware. Porcelain is not an easily found clay throughout Europe and the middle east pre-1600.  

Piccolopasso wrote a book which described the period techniques of Italian maiolica in the 16th century. As with many glazes of the time, lead was a flux (helped the glazes melt at certain temperatures) and tin was used as a opacifier.

The idea of tin glazing is taking a bisqued clay surface (usually either gray or red earthenware was used) and covering it with a white base glaze. Colorants are used to decorate the white pot, then fired together. The white (blanco layer) and underglazes meld together to form a unified, smooth surface. There was also the technique of using a clear across the decorated piece.

Tin glazing is a very specific technique. In the middle east, there were techniques that they did in order to get a white base and decorate, however most of that didn't use tin glazing. Much of that was either using Fritware (which is a porcelain like clay body, only closer to feldspar, thus it's name) or a white slip as the base (slip is a watered down clay to a milkshake consistency).

There are numerous books and videos on this very popular technique.  Modernly, there are numerous ways to achieve the tin glazed look. The first, and most obvious is use a tin glaze and then use stains for the colors. There are many recipes online for good "maiolica" glazes as well as how to use the stains/colorants. 

Here is a link to Linda Arbuckle's Maiolica base glaze which fires at cone 04. 
 http://ceramicartsdaily.org/ceramic-glaze-recipes/low-fire-glaze-recipes/linda-arbuckles-majolica-glaze-recipe-cone-04-oxidation/

And another with colorant information: http://ceramicsweb.org/articles/arbucklemajolica.html
If you can't mix your own glazes, there are numerous glaze companies that make "maiolica" specific glazes and underglazes/colorant/paints that are compatible. Duncan makes a white base glaze that works fine. They have a few available. Contact Duncan for over glaze compatibility. Their EZ line (ez stroke) works well for the colored sections and it does work with the Arbuckle base.  Duncan IN1653 Downright White is a reasonable base.

Colorobbia  (and Italian glaze company) has a Maiolica White and an entire line of compatible underglazes (Bellissino line).  Aamaco has an entire line specifically for tin glazing (check out their majolica gloss glazes... They have Decorating Color sets that all work together).

My experience has mostly been with my own mixed maiolica base glaze which is similar to the Arbuckle base. I've used Duncan bases in the past as well, either a white base like the Downright White and EZ paints or I used the Duncan concepts (Artic white 101 as base and the rest of that line to decorate, then a clear across everything to seal. All Duncan.

The underglaze route with the clear is something I've seen the majority of historical potters do. They are very reliable and I've used them for over 15 years doing many different techniques. There are many ways and resources for this technique. It's always best to do test tiles and experiment first with any new glaze to make sure you understand how they work before you commit it to a full piece.

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Friday, February 08, 2013

Botijo

From Wikipedia:

A botijo or búcaro in Spanish, a càntir, pitxell or poal in Catalan, is a traditional Spanish porous clay container designed to contain water. The botijo has the property that once filled and placed in the sun, it cools the water that it contains, acting as an evaporative cooler.

The botijo has a wide belly and one or more mouths where it is filled and one or more outputs called pitón o pitorro to drink from. The botijo is a typical element of Spanish culture and may vary in shape, color and material.

The operating principle of the botijo is as follows: the stored water is filtered through the pores of the clay and in contact with the outside dry environment (characteristic of Mediterranean climate), it evaporates, producing a cooling (2.219 kilojoules per gram of evaporated water). The key for cooling it, is by the evaporation of bleed water, as the water evaporates, it extracts thermal energy from the water stored inside the jug (and from the environment itself too).

BotijoforJuanna_zpsba7667a0 photo BotijoforJuanna_zpsba7667a0.jpg

Made by Alex de Vos

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Teruel Botijo

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Scratchy? Stoneware for the privy

This is a great example of archeologists and how they guess at what and how ceramic objects are used. I am not convinced that this is what the use is. I'm pretty sure they can run tests to see if there is any material left in the unglazed ceramics that could confirm.

Why I don't believe it's use...There would be thousands if not more of these things found if they were used for what they are saying.

Depending on the shape (I can't tell by these horrible photos) I could see a skin scraper (exfoliation). Those were used in bath houses in the middle east and could see the Romans stealing that idea to make their own of sorts.

This is always the challenge for a historical potter just figuring out what to trust. I have numerous books printed many years ago that have wrong information (newer books have proven opposite info) and vice-versa. Over the years you just have to go with those ideas that make the most amount of sense to you and hope for the best.

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