It’s been a little while since I’ve found time for this website. But we’ve been working overtime since our trip to France this past Spring. A former apprentice of ours operates his pottery studio in Bretagne, l’atelier Terre précieuse, and we enjoyed a trip that allowed exchange workshops with Olivier Ruaud and Alice Urien Ruaud.
Alice and Olivier enjoy producing the variety of their work using Raku firing techniques–in truth a process that we have given up.
However, after putting in more than 20 years with this technique, we had a lot to share, from using Ferric Chloride to spraying pots with alcohol to bring out the copper highlights, through to using horse-hair and feathers on hot pots.
Olivier and Alice have a beautiful studio in what might arguably be one of the most beautiful provinces in France. Their specialty is “naked raku” which relies on a white slip that cracks and allows amazing images of smoked lines on their work. In addition, they use colorful commercial glazes in concert with this naked process.
We truly enjoyed learning some of Alice’s throwing techniques, and since coming home, we’ve enjoyed creating some items that have derived from her process. It’s truly wonderful to know that we can share our skills while continuing to develop our own.
Mocha Diffusion is a very special technique: a process that is almost magical to watch because of the very rapid way that landscapes are formed in front of your eyes.
Whenever visitors come to the studio here at JoVic Pottery, and we have the time to engage with them and show them a few things, a mocha demonstration is often at the top of the list.
Achieving success with the process on pottery often proves very difficult. Everything has to be just right for things to work. The pots need to be almost bone dry. At that stage they will rapidly absorb the slip applied. This slip is quite alkaline. The introduction of an acid can be shown by the addition of colorants to a tea made with boiled pipe tobacco.
If the pots are too dry, the slip just forms ugly blotches and runs. If the pots are too wet, the slip stay wet too long and the “trees” grow well beyond our desired needs right over the edges of the rims. It’s a Goldilocks process, so if the pots are just right, we can quickly make landscape strokes and add a little extra tea in those spots where we’d like a tree to “grow.” We really have a very short window in which to do this decoration and pure concentration is required, as well as a planned approach.
But for our visitors, we have a delightful solution consisting of a piece of plastic that we dip into the slip bucket. The slip stays wet, of course, but almost always works to demonstrate the technique. We watch the trees grow and continue this growth demonstrating not only the wonder of dendrite at work, but also explaining how continued moisture is undesirable on our actual work.
Vic Duffhues has been using this technique for many decades. Yet even with all that experience, he’s not always guaranteed the results he’d like. Now he chooses to exercise this form of decoration only in the early spring, when drying conditions are most easily controlled. The result is that we never have enough mocha pieces and there is always a demand by collectors.
They truly are gorgeous mugs and tumblers and we joke that these are the fastest growing trees in British Columbia.
This last kiln load had us both smiling with glee. There are some gorgeous functional pieces, like the wine bricks and the tall stemmed goblets with crawl glaze decoration that take function to art and are absolutely perfect for entertaining special guests.
Crystalline layered glazes with final ash glaze layers (Mt. St. Helen’s Ash actually), and fabulous tenmoku liner glazes on the interior which make the wine bricks not only functional, but allow them to become decorative vases or utensil holders.
And how delightful are large ginger jars with beautiful lids?
Should you want to use this beautiful jar as a vase, you might enjoy setting the lovely lid slightly to the front and side to give it an extra wow appearance.
Also fresh from the kiln are two lovely lidded pots, again glazed with Mt. St. Helen’s ash layered over crystalline glazes. The similarity of these pieces comes from the skill of glaze applications–but slight tweaking of the process ensures that though the pots are alike, they remain unique.
Note the wonderful slip application–a treatment put onto the pots when they’re just slightly stiffened. Combing through the slip adds texture to the shoulders of the pots and also aids the “breaking” of glazes showing up color beneath the layers.
And the last vase here is a delight to hold and would be wonderful displayed with or without flowers. It, too, shows the benefit of slip-combed decoration which adds depth and texture. Engobes and crystalline glazes, sprayed over a period of several days to allow sufficient drying between applications adds so much visually and texturally. Come visit our studio in Ladysmith, BC on Vancouver Island to enjoy not only looking at, but touching and collecting work that brings art to function and function to art.
The making of quality stoneware pottery, whether functional or decorative, is far from a rapid process. Aside from clay preparation, pots made require careful drying before they can even be put through their first bisque fire. But just the making is a time consuming thing, especially for large vases that are thrown in two stages.
Getting the neck onto the base requires careful joining; after all, if the pot is not put together correctly, the neck would come free of the vase. Careful smoothing and finishing is needed.
Then there’s a process that allows us to get some color onto the pieces before a first firing–of course not until the pieces are bone dry. We often spray the work with engobes, or brush on slip.
Once the pottery is again bone dry, we’re able to place the work into the kiln for a first firing. We bring them up slowly and cool slowly as well to avoid any potential cracking or warping through this cycle.
The cooled pots then need waxing before we can glaze. If we didn’t wax the bottoms the pottery would end up stuck to the kiln shelves.
Once the waxing is finished, we can get on with the work of glazing. This is frequently a slow process because we tend to use multiple glazes and each coat must be completely dry before we add a next layer. Bisqued pottery is still somewhat porous, and the water base of the glazes is absorbed into the work, requiring careful and total drying between each step.
Some of our pottery is actually put through a few low temperature firings. This ensures that the first layers of glaze are fired on, allowing us to handle the pottery without smudging or accidentally removing some of the glazes. Though the glazes in this case have not reached a mature melt, they are stable enough to handle.
Fired on glazes really help with some of our more complicated glaze applications. Crawl glazes, for instance, cannot be applied to glazes unless they have already been fired on at a lower temperature. By their very nature, as reticulating glazes, they would pull up any immature glazes they were placed on and instead of an attractive crawl, exposing lovely sub-surface colors or glazes, they’d end up exposing some terrible peeling effect that exposed clay.
Each kiln load has us looking forward to seeing whether what we envision at the start of making our work actually lives up to our hopes.
With the glazes applied, the final drying begins.
Once we’re sure the pots are dry, we can carefully load the kiln. Great care must be taken with vertical vases that have crawl glazes applied near the base.
A slight bump and the glaze will fall off the pot, potentially leaving bare spots where they might not be desired, and also fusing to expensive kiln shelves or other kiln furniture.
Some of the final results pleased Jo Duffhues immensely–not so Vic. He’ll likely take the vases he’s not thrilled with and apply additional glazes for yet another re-fire.
I have to remind him that some of our customers love the pieces that he is not excited about at all. The trouble is that when we work we have an idea of the outcome we’re seeking, and if things don’t turn out that way, we tend to think it’s a failure. It’s very hard to get past that kind of negative response. But since I love these pieces, I think they’re a great success.
Yes, these are the vases that Vic is seen making in the images above. Now it’s just a question of who wins the argument–will they be fired once again?
One of the things we love about being artists as well as artisans and also potters (and yes, the distinction is deliberate) is the fact that we are able to continue to experiment with a vision to always improving all our work. Our studio is not limited to work that creates art for art’s sake. We also create functional stoneware, and by its nature, this means a certain amount of production, in other words, repetition. Without the added joy of striving to make this work fresh by developing new glazes and styles, we’d soon reach a level of boredom and mediocrity that would make our work become a form of drudgery.
Years of experience and practice naturally also changes the work. Our own growth, starting in 1979, stems from the knowledge gleaned from many years of such practice and experience. However, our work is also a reflection of our interests, and is additionally influenced by the nature around us here on beautiful Vancouver Island. Testing glazes, developing new approaches, searching for ways to bring our vision to life helps us to bring a reality to our vision.
Vic has become more and more keenly interested in pushing limits when it comes to glazing, and these days he loves spraying layer after layer of glaze on some of his pots. Unlike other potters who traditionally limit techniques that might use ash or crawl glazes to decorative pottery, Vic enjoys seeking ways to incorporate these techniques into production and functional ware. His goal is to make each piece, whether it be a mug, a goblet, a bowl, an urn, a teapot, or those incredibly unique one-of-a-kind decorative items into art. Functional stoneware pottery is the bread and butter income for our studio, while the decorative work is the dessert. But since every single piece created is made by hand, it needs to fulfill us at a creative level too.
I found myself thinking about the development of our glaze technology over the years. Initially my own experiments involved learning about each of the ingredients by firing them separately onto small bowls. This let me see what worked as a flux and what worked to stiffen and so on. The next step involved combining these elements to understand what happened in synergy. My original glaze tests were all done by trial and error. I learned heaps, but the results weren’t often exciting or of use. Even the glaze chemistry courses didn’t add much to my working results. In time we learned about glaze unity and began to understand much more about the interaction between elements at different temperatures and using varying approaches to bringing our kilns to our desired temperature, or holding the work to soak at a specific temperature, or cooling the work in specific cycles. Of course many of those things weren’t really possible either before the onset of computer controlled kilns which we can set up to suit ourselves.
Picasso, one of the most prolific artists of all time, started out by following the rules before intentionally breaking them and developing his unique style. Likewise, authors like James Joyce, intentionally breaking all the norms of English, stands out for us as a literary giant. Sometimes people who read such works are confused, as are those people who just don’t get cubism, or abstract art. I would say that the artist who not only understands and can follow the rules of art is also the artist who can choose to break those rules. Isn’t that actually the mark of true art–a way to move forward and find a new expression for your work?
The joy of creating is fraught with failure–at least in terms of work that we can sell and earn from. But there is no failure at all when the work teaches us so much, and when it both teaches and delights us, it keeps us interested. We continue to strive for ways to break the rules and find new expression.
Aside from mixing, pugging, wedging, throwing, trimming, handling and drying pots before they ever go through that first bisque firing, we frequently add yet one more technique: we add layers of sprayed on engobe to the bone dry work. Here are just a few pictures of Vic Duffhues doing just that.
In some cases, the pots are sprayed with what we might call the main engobe, and in case you’re wondering what that is, I’ll explain. There are multiple techniques used to add color and depth to pottery. Slip, possibly most commonly used, is a wetter version of the clay itself, sometimes with an oxide added for color. It is generally applied to pottery that is considered leather-hard, well before a pot is dry enough to be fired. Engobes generally have a much lower clay content, and they can be applied to a wider range of pottery in various stages. Like slips, they can have colorants added, including commercial stains or oxides.
We like spraying layers of color onto our work and usually do this when the pots are bone dry. We generally use an engobe for the first application, allowing it to dry before adding another different engobe, or sometimes a smoother and finer Terra Sigillata. There are many recipes for engobes, slips and terra sigillata available and each will work differently depending upon time of application, clay body, firing temperatures and so forth. As with all underglaze applications, potters have to experiment and fine-tune before coming up with a version that works best for them.
When these pots are once again bone dry, they are fired in the kilns to somewhere in the neighborhood of about 1000 ° C or approximate 1950°F, all depending on how hard or soft we want the pots to be before we apply final glazes. If you’re curious about firing temperatures, you can consult this chart from Bellevue College.
Many of our pots actually go through three firings before we reach that final finish we’re seeking. During our second firing, which we also do at a lower bisque temperature, we can fire on glazes so that they will be stiff enough to allow handling, but soft enough to allow for further glazing. We do this to add depth and richness and texture, a step that ensures that glazes will marry in the final firing. One of our final glazes is actually frequently called lizard skin or alligator glaze. It has to be applied to a pre-fired underglaze because it is actually a reticulated glaze, meaning that it shrinks more than the glaze surface underneath. The shrinkage during drying and firing leaves the surface beneath this glaze visible. This technique would once have been considered a glaze flaw and named a crawl glaze, but it has become rather popular in the last 15 or so years being deliberately applied to decorative pottery. Our studio is unique in the way the technique is applied to functional stoneware pottery.