December 3, 2015

Adventures with Clay: Fun! Amid the Disasters

One, clay (Activa Plus) with egg tempera paint; 7 1/2 x 6 in.

It's happened to me again: another case of restless art syndrome. I have again been inspired to try something new after seeing a show that I loved, in this instance the exhibit "Ancient Egypt Transformed: the Middle Kingdom" at the Met, which I wrote about here. I began to paint on parchment because of seeing "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" at the Morgan Library in early 2010. Seeing Tantric drawings at the Drawing Center in NYC inspired me to move my textiles from the floor to the wall. Relief sculpture has long interested me, and the stunning work in the current Egyptian show got my head buzzing and my hands wanting to make some low reliefs. I am solely a two-dimensional artist, knowing nothing about working in three dimensions, so I thought I'd try playing with some air dried clay. I tried many different clays, each with their problems for me. The clay above, Activa Plus, seemed the hardest of the air dried clays, but just porous enough to be able to paint, and I do want color in the work. One thing I want to point out is that none of these pieces are "finished"; they are all experiments, playing around, figuring things out. I don't know if anything I do in future will rise above the amateurish, but I enjoy sharing my process.

Two, clay (Amaco air dry); 7 3/4 x 6 1/2 in.

I began by thinking I would use similar imagery to my paintings on parchment, abstracted details of agricultural implements, but then found that I preferred the path of abstraction, closer to the ideas I used for my textile work. At first I've been drawn to rounded forms, probably because of thinking of the figurative aspects of Egyptian reliefs.

Two, painted with egg tempera

This clay was very nice to work with, but dried much too soft and brittle. My little piece is like a broken Egyptian panel, though not thousands of years old. It was very porous, so the paint sank right into it. The other air dried clays I tried were the Crayola product (didn't like working with it); Creative Paperclay, which was fibrous and impossible to cut or model smoothly, as was the Polyform Model Air, though both were a beautiful white. I have another Amaco product on order, an air-hardened clay, which should be tougher than the soft stuff above.

Three, Sculpey; 4 3/4 x 5 in.

And I tried a polymer clay, which was lovely to model with, but I dislike its plastic surface. One of the things I like about this process is the softly irregular surface of clay; it has a lot of character. All these pieces, except the one above, were done from sketches. This one was improvisational; I cut circles using a set of different size cookie cutters.

Four, Sculpey; 7 3/8 x 6 in.

This is the only straight-line geometric composition of this group. I did 3 or 4 others that landed in the trash. I'm not happy with the balance of elements, but thought I'd include it anyway.

Five, porcelain clay; 7 1/4 x 5 1/2 in.

Finally some real clay that has to be fired, delicious to work with. I am very lucky to have a local friend with a ceramics business who's given me a lot of help and advice, and clay and an offer to fire the work I do: thanks so very much, Deborah Jurist of Mountaine Meadows Pottery. I am such a beginner that I had to look up "air bubbles in clay" because I was getting them: I didn't realize I had to either knead or wedge the clay. I do realize that I have to learn to take better photos of these reliefs, maybe using artificial light. I use natural light to shoot all my other work.

Five detail

What I loved most about working on these pieces was line: outline, the line around forms, that could be hard or soft, rounded or crisp, blended or sharp. In Egyptian and Persian reliefs the outlines are sensitive and fluid. In Persian and Indian manuscript paintings the flat forms have an allusive roundness because of elegant lines. I like the challenge of using layers not more than 1/8" thick to describe three dimensional volumes, hoping that line does a lot of the work.

Five with frame; 9 1/2 x 8 in.

My idea with these pieces is to have the image panel sitting within a frame. Being that I still can't control the attachment of parts in terms of dryness and flatness, the frame part of this piece bowed, then cracked when I tried to flatten it. Oh well. I hope I eventually figure it out. Meanwhile, I'll have the image panel fired, hope it doesn't break apart in the kiln, and if it stays whole, I'll try painting it. And hope I can do better next time. I'll be taking a hand building clay class in January, and that should help a lot with my technique issues. But, even with all these problems, I am having a great time with this new medium. 

Ben Nicholson, White Relief, 1934; oil paint on mahogany, 29 x 39 x 1 1/4 in.

This relief by Ben Nicholson is another inspiration for me, a beautifully simple arrangement of geometric shapes that feel so perfectly in balance. I would be very happy if I could do anything approaching this quality of rightness.


  1. There she goes.
    Gateway-clay leads to the hard stuff.

    1. I'm afraid the alert is already too late. I picked up 25 lbs of porcelain clay this morning.