Material developments: Porcelain

My relationship with materials is fundamental and profound; underpinning my approach is the challenge of rendering emotional expression through innate material qualities. My choice of materials is therefore pivotal and within the Material Matters project I have set myself the challenge (in addition to the development of asymmetrical forms and glaze work) to explore clay bodies other than the lovely Scarva Earthstone ES20 that I have used for many years. Each clay has a make-up, texture, voice and language all its own and these qualities and the way I handle the clay will form a unique expressive ground for the slips and glazes laid upon its surface.

Evolutionary changes to surface composition and treatment have influenced my desire to lighten the clay body and to chose to work with the ultimate light body, porcelain. I want to see how this body will affect glaze colour response, texture, opacity and light. The challenge of balancing the opacity of the multiple slips and glazes I currently use with the porcelain’s whiteness and translucency is of particular interest. Over time from the seed beginnings of this project to buying my first bags of porcelain my ideas developed. The initial idea of applying slips and glazes to the surface as I do with stoneware evolved into a desire to embed the slip and glaze materials within the porcelain body, have them emerge from within, become integrated before the firing process. Having bought a slab roller to assist with making the new forms and observing a fellow maker’s use of a printing press, it seemed a misuse of my slab roller may be a potential move towards getting the glaze materials into the body! The idea appealed as there was an element of working in partnership with the materials, allowing them their own voice by me setting up conditions for reactions to occur within but then relinquishing control and thus hopefully revealing elemental material qualities.

I decided a straightforward approach to the process: I rolled out a porcelain slab and whilst it was still wet brushed glazes on the surface, covered it with greaseproof paper so as not to dirty the roller, then put it through the slab roller on a thinner setting. Let it dry, broke it in half, fired one half in a bisque firing, then fired the other half and the bisque half up to top temperature (there was no difference in outcome so I’m now happy to embrace raw glazing!)

At each stage I found my interest grew as the materials revealed themselves but, as frequently happens with my ceramic practice, it wasn’t until the high firing that things got really exciting. The glazes had reacted with an element of certainty: magnesium carbonate had crawled and silicon carbide erupted into a cratered, volcanic surface. But there were significant differences to a brushed glaze application. Although textured, the surface seemed quieter as the glaze was indeed deeper into the clay body and the textures were therefore within the surface not upon it and separate. I was delighted that the glazes had not seeped through the back of the millimetre thin slabs of porcelain. I was happier still when wondering about translucency I held the slabs up to a lamp and watched the porcelain and embedded glazes come alive. The subtlest of marks formed from creases in the greaseproof paper became laser sharp channels of light and the cracks and edges became things of wonder in such a fine body. Shadows that were barely visible in daylight revealed themselves to be ghosts of glazes beneath the surface of the porcelain trapped like veins of geological strata, evidence of time and motion frozen. The porcelain’s capacity to transmit light and the spectacle of the play between opacity and translucency I found moving, exciting and dramatic! It feels that there is so much to explore with these materials and this approach. I anticipate a series of experiments, each one leading like a clue to the next. I can see why porcelain is so seductive.