January 20, 2016

Adventures with Clay: A Steep Learning Curve

Egyptian Curves, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 1/4 x 7 1/2 in.

I have learned so incredibly much since I last posted about my first attempts with clay reliefs about six weeks ago. I've been working hard, I might even say obsessively, nose to grindstone, on my clay projects. It's been a long time since I've cursed as much while making art; it's so easy to make mistakes: drop a tool and make a hole, cut off an important bit of form, ruin a perfectly good line, etc. If it wasn't for the helpful advice of my sculptor friends––Sam Thurston and Harry Roseman––and the knowledge and generosity of my ceramicist friend, Deborah Jurist, who has fired this work for me, I would still be messing about with air dried clay. And if it wasn't for the brilliant exhibition of Middle Kingdom Egyptian art at the Met, I wouldn't have begun working with clay in the first place. 

I'm beginning this post with my most recent piece, and the one I think is most successful so far. I puttered with abstract imagery, as in Reliefs 8 and 9 below, but it wasn't until I copied details from Egyptian relief carvings that I began to get an idea of where I was going. First of all, I found out that carving the clay would work better for me that what I had been doing: layering thin slabs. 

Egyptian Curves detail

 Looking carefully at the detail of an Egyptian headdress, I tried to copy the subtle plane changes, and the sensitive curves and lines. Doing this gave me a three dimensional vocabulary, something this two dimensional artist sorely needed.

Egyptian Offerings, 1st version

Then there was the issue of color. I didn't want to leave the pieces white, as beautiful as that is; I love color too much. I wanted to use paint, so as not to have to fire the work again, and also to have more control. There was a problem with the porosity of the clay: at its full firing temperature, it was too vitrified to accept egg tempera; the paint didn't stick. Deborah tried placing the pieces in a cooler part of the kiln, so they would be a bit under-fired, therefore more porous, and that helped a lot. Then there was my decision on how to use the paint: transparently or more opaquely. Decisions, decisions, lots and lots of figuring things out. My first attempt on Egyptian Offerings was using transparent paint; I put a second layer and didn't like that at all: too much showing of every little imperfection on the surface; that's all you noticed, instead of the form.

Egyptian Offerings, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 10 x 8 1/16 in.

So I took a deep breath and went back at it with thicker paint, using several layers, as I do with my paintings on parchment....and....it made me happy. I made the surrounding "frame" a slightly different color than the image panel, as I did with Egyptian Curves. That was another set of decisions: whether to have the frame at all, whether to make it the very same color as the image. For me, the image panel looked kind of naked without a surround, and right now I like the slight color variation, though I might not do that all the time. 

Egyptian Offerings detail

One of the great pleasures for me in doing these reliefs is playing with line and edge, and paying attention to the way one form meets another. There are infinite variations in these aspects of three dimensional drawing.

Relief 8, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 3/8 x 7 1/2 in.

Relief 9, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 1/4 x 8 1/2 in.

The two pieces above were made using slabs, which I found hard to keep smooth and flat. I originally thought I'd make only abstract images, like these two, but since doing the Egyptian pieces I realize I can also use imagery from my machinery files. Relief 8 was done with transparent paint, and 9 with thicker paint. I used a wider framing panel in Relief 9 wanting to see if it was more effective, but I don't think it is, so I'm sticking with a frame that's a bit more than an inch wide. Although sometimes I've felt like a dumbbell while working with clay, it is deeply satisfying, and I look forward to seeing where it will take me.


  1. I was most moved by the early iterations...perhaps because the passion and inquisitiveness is most evident there. Mastery, perhaps, is interesting when it is all we have. What if all we had were the great artists' iterations?

  2. Very nice work, last one reminds me of Robert Mangold.

    1. Thanks. I'm very familiar with Mangold's work; it's been one of my inspirations over the years.

  3. Egyptian Curves is fresh and beautiful.
    They're all nice.
    I wonder what scrubbing a dry porous porcelain with wood-ashes would do?
    You are so blessed with time, energy, imagination! Keep going.

    1. Thank you, JBS.
      Why would I want to rub gray ashes onto that beautiful white surface? Color yes, gloom no.

    2. To see what-would-happen!
      Grey is a color.
      Gray is gloomy, yes, but grey is fresh!
      Then beeswax, to bring out the glow.
      Whatever...just keep going.