Some reflections on learning how to fire pottery.
When I first started using reduction firing in 1993 I picked some exciting sounding glaze recipes from a book called The Ceramic Review Book of Clay Bodies and Glaze Recipes which had tempting descriptions and lists of exotic sounding ingredients. I had access to a gas fired kiln at Keith Ashley’s studio on the Archway Road in north London and no experience of reduction firing. The first kiln load was a complete disaster. The reduction had been too strong and the extra fluxing power of the reducing atmosphere caught me out, so that everything was over cooked with glazes running down into the middle of bowls and a purplish grey colour predominated.
I was a bit shocked as the pots were nothing like the images in my head that the descriptions in the book had prompted, but it did not make me want to stop experimenting. With Keith’s encouragement I tried again and gradually over months and years learned how to do it, reducing enough to make red from copper and not so much as to turn chrome green glaze dark by over doing it.
The lesson was that starting with a recipe book was not the best way to learn. You have to do your own experiments and look hard into the glazes on your test tiles to find little things you might be able to use. The ways that the glazes combine was also strange to me. I was learning the difference between stoneware firing and earthenware decorated with slips, the difference between glazes and paints. It took me a while to see how I could work with what I was getting.
One of the things I love about glazes which is hard to get with paint and hard to imagine if you have only ever painted with paint, is the depth and richness of the colour. And then the varied qualities of the surfaces – from matt, through eggshell to melting butter, and on top of that the range of opaque to transparent.
The thing I find most difficult while I’m decorating is trying to think how the glazes will look after the firing is done. The colours are not there yet and the glazes will move over the surface slightly as they melt – an effect to be exploited.
More thoughts to follow in future posts, including some of the secrets to successfully firing red glaze, how to sell pottery and “Why don’t you make art?”.