Following our glazes glossary, we thought we’d take a look at a few of the myriad types of ceramic decoration out there.
It can be difficult for the untrained eye to work out how the many different marks and motifs on a pot have been achieved, to spot particular techniques and to remember the names and processes behind them.
Here’s a quick rundown of our 10 most common forms of pot decoration to get you started.
Jim Malone applies red iron oxide to a bottle with a calligraphy brush
Brushes have been used internationally for centuries to decorate pots, bridging the divide between the disciplines of fine art, craft ceramics and traditional calligraphy. By dipping a brush into slip – a liquid mixture of clay and water – containing a pigment, such as the rust-red of iron oxide, colour can be applied to the surface of the pot to contrast with the raw clay or an underglaze.
Depending on the breadth of the brush-head and length of the hairs, fine, delicate lines or broad, flowing strokes can be made, offering potters a wide variety of achievable effects. When done well, brushwork can lend a pot a real sense of movement and life; rushes and wheat sheaves make for favourite motifs, their long, curved stalks and ears allowing for quick and expressive gestures.
iron and cobalt brush strokes on a Jim Malone yunomi and bottle (left, centre); brushwork tea bowl by Mike Dodd (right)
Clive Bowen combing a cream slipware square dish
Combing is a technique that involves making parallel lines on the surface of a pot, either by dragging a tool through the clay itself or by wiping wet slip clear to reveal the clay surface beneath. All manner of implements have been used by potters in the past to comb: whittled bone and horn; forks; even birds’ feathers, perhaps the first decorative slipware tool, which offer a softer and more natural appearance to the hardness and clarity of a metallic prong.
though not strictly a ‘comb’, Lee Kang-hyo uses dried straw brushes to scrape slip away from the surface of his punch’ong moon jars
Combing is particularly associated with traditional Staffordshire slipware pottery, where combs were used alongside a whole host of tools to create geometric patterns and stylized designs from the 17th century through to Britain’s industrialisation. Today, Clive Bowen carries on that tradition, investing it with great freedom and modernity through the rhythms of his combed and swiped slip lines.
combing marks on a Clive Bowen crimped dish and bowl (left, centre); combing lines on a yunomi by Phil Rogers (right)
finger swiped orange slip on a Lisa Hammond Mizusashi
3. Finger Swiping
Similar to combing but far looser in appearance, potters often use their own hands to drag through wet slip as a form of decoration. As well as drawing through the slip, making a design of the revealed surface, fingertips and thumbs can also be used to apply slip to a pot, as with Jean-Nicolas Gérard’s magnificent slipware platters and their joyful finger dots.
Pots with finger swipe marks can be particularly beautiful to own for their inherent connection to the maker: you can run your fingertips over and through the same marks made by the potter, getting a feel for the movement they used in their decoration and making your connection with that pot feel acutely intimate and personal.
finger swipes on Tenmoku and Nuka bottles by Phil Rogers (left, centre); Lisa Hammond finger swiped chawan (right)
Lisa Hammond faceting a tall jar on the wheel
Faceting is the process of cutting away strips of a pot’s surface with knives, razors or coiled wire tools and can be carried out either when the clay has dried leather-hard or when it is still wet on the wheel. Though a faceted pot can be more utilitarian, the angled edges making it easier to grip a cup or bowl in the hand, the method also provides a pot with a more visually interesting surface, especially if glaze gathers or pulls away from the edges of a cut and produces variations of colour on the pot.
Mike Dodd facets the side of a small, leather-hard bottle with a planing knife
Cutting off the outer layers of a thrown pot also reveals a kind of ‘grain’ to the clay, removing the wet slurry that can gather on the exterior to uncover a more textured surface beneath.
Another form of faceting called ‘fluting’ makes use of long, generally narrower cuts made with a curved blade or wire. Unlike the flat outer planes of faceting, fluted cuts are usually concave and ‘recessed’ into the pot, using natural shadows and glaze pooling to create contrasts on a pot surface.
faceted yunomi by Phil Rogers (left); facted bottle and bowl by Mike Dodd (right)
some of Lee kang-hyo’s Hakeme (or ‘Gye Yal’) brushes
Though hakeme is a technique that has been practised in Japanese ceramics for centuries, the method was first invented by traditional Korean potters for whom it was known as gye yal. White slip is carefully applied to the surface of a pot with a dry straw brush, the potter often taking care to keep the gestures of his brushstrokes visible in the slip surface by allowing the clay beneath to peek through gaps between the marks made by the straw bristles.
Lee Kang-hyo applies white slip to the inside of a bowl with his straw brush
The popularity of hakeme amongst the Japanese tea masters who brought wares back from Korea no doubt came from its unaffected simplicity and the innate feeling of movement in its surfaces, and it is no wonder the technique is now used throughout the potting world. The effect is particularly pleasing on rounded forms such as the interior of a bowl or the outside of a yunomi, where the strokes of the brush tips compliment the curve of the pot.
faceted yunomi by Phil Rogers (left); facted bottle and bowl by Mike Dodd (right)
some of Anne Mette Hjortshøj’s handmade clay stamps
Also termed ‘stamping’ or ‘embossing’, impressing is simply the use of an object or tool pushed into the surface of a pot to leave a relief design in the clay. Usually performed when the clay has dried to leather-hard, impressing is perhaps one of the most common forms of decoration in studio pottery today: any potter who signs their work will usually do so with a miniature stamp of their initials or the signature motif of the pottery, often to be found embossed on the foot or under the bottom of a pot.
Anne Mette Hjortshøj applies one of her stamps to the side of an oval dish
Part of the allure of decorating by impression is the enormous variety of objects at their disposal from which designs can be created: as well as specific ceramics tools, potters can mould and fire their own clay stamps for future use on pots, or use found objects such as string, rope, leaves, feathers, and shells to shape the pot surfaces and create more detailed patterns for glaze pools to highlight.
stamped oval dish by Anne Mette Hjortshøj (left); Mike Dodd yunomi (centre); leaf-impressed bowl by Nic Collins (right)
Phil Rogers paddling a still wet cup on the wheel
A form of ‘impressing’, paddling involves the use of wooden boards or paddles with inscribed patterns to decorate a raw clay surface. The pot is held steady by one hand as the other firmly slaps the surface with the paddle, leaving behind a geometric design.
Alongside the obvious benefit that a paddle can treat far larger surfaces more uniformly than smaller, individual stamps, paddling also makes great use of glaze that gathers within the relief areas of the design. Where the glaze pools a darker, glass-like surface forms on the edges of the pattern, creating a beautiful contrast across the pot.
beaten chawan by Lisa Hammond (left); paddled bottle by Mike Dodd (centre); paddled yunomi by Phil Rogers (right)
the vigorous sgraffito marks of a Jean-Nicolas Gérard dish
Sgraffito is the act of cutting and carving a pot surface, often through multiple layers of slip, to leave behind an incised image or design on the pot. Unlike slip combing, where the slip surface is usually wiped away while still quite wet, with sgraffito the decoration often takes place when the slip has begun to stiffen, or has even dried completely.
Jean-Nicolas inscribes his sgraffito marks on a large jar with the tip of a spoon
Though sgraffito marks have traditionally been used to create recurring motifs, such as swimming fish and prawns, on domestic ware pots, many potters have adopted the technique to give it a more modern touch: French slipware potter Jean-Nicolas Gérard’s sgraffito cuts are made rapidly and spontaneously with the tip of a rusted teaspoon, resulting in line decoration that is dynamic and full of vigorous energy.
lidded jar with sgraffito prawn by Clive Bowen (left); sgraffito marked dishes by Jean-Nicolas Gérard (centre, right)
Clive Bowen slip-trailing onto a large dish with a metal can dispenser
Similar to brushwork, slip-trailing is the application of slip to a pot surface to make a pattern or image. Unlike brushwork where the slip is painted on, slip-trailing incorporates dispensers to ‘dribble’ slip onto the clay. Traditionally, metal cans or boxes were used with drilled holes or spouts to pour the slip onto the pot; today, everyday objects such as washing-up liquid bottles or specially designed trailing bulbs can be used to squeeze out the slip with different speeds and force.
While potters have continued to reproduce many of the traditional slip-trailed designs on their domestic ware, the flexibility of the technique additionally allows today’s makers great freedom to produce a variety of spattering, spraying and dribbling effects that make for more animated, abstract designs.
three modern slip-trailed pieces by Clive Bowen
the Anglo-Oriental wax resist design of a Mike Dodd bottle
10. Wax Resist
A time-old technique, wax resist decoration relies on wax’s insolubility and its capacity to repel water-based slips and glazes. A motif is created on the pot surface using wax before the pot is brushed with or submerged in its slip or glaze. The glaze mixture then clings to and dries on the unwaxed areas of the pot but runs off the waxed design, leaving the clay beneath clear. Alternatives to wax, such as peelable layers of latex, have also seen use in more recent years to similar effect.
wax resist yunomi and footed bowl by Mike Dodd
The flexibility of wax resist comes from the ability to apply multiple layers of wax with each application of glaze or slip to create complex decorative designs; but often the most successful motifs rely on a single wax application, trusting in the strength and simplicity of the design’s gestures to lend expression to the finished pot.
wax resist tea bowl and handled bottle by Mike Dodd (left, centre); wax resist Kaki yunomi by Shinsaku Hamada (right)