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My continued grapple with Terra Sigillata

So, my first attempt at using terra sig on my first decorated platter left me with two issues: the terra sig was shelling off around the edges of the rim and the colours were very harsh and graphic - not what I was looking for.

So, I borrowed Dave's diamond and polishing pads to remove any loose bits of terra sig and I rather liked the distressed result. It also removed any of the raised burrs left by the sgraffito lines made previously leaving a much more smooth and tactile surface.

Next I did decide to test the patience of our neighbours by experimenting with a bit of smoke firing in our back yard. I used an old paving slab, some old bricks, a compost sieve and an old slate tile. My fuel was a couple of sheets of newspaper and a handful of softwood shavings sold as guinea pig bedding.

improvised smoke firing construction in back yard

I worked astonishingly well and the smoke was only there for five minutes. In other words... it wasn't me, I know of nothing, what smoke?, I didn't see or smell anything...

It is astonishing how strong the carbonisation is even after just a little bit. After cooling down I washed the dish and scrubbed it gently. What was lovely was how the smoke bonds better with the while terra sig than the red. It gave a real lovely painterly quality to the decorations.

strong carbonisation with wire grid pattern

I did a second smoke firing the next day to increase the build up of carbon and gave it a real good scrubbing and polishing afterwards. I am really please with the result. The colours are toned down so that it looses the graphic harshness and it unifies the piece. The carbon sitting in the tiny dimples and uneven areas add a slight textured look which is reminiscent of the texture of the weave of the Kuba cloth, on which this plate is based on. This platter turned out to be really tactile and people seem to really appreciate this. The sheen is so good that I don't really needed to wax it afterwards but I did so to give it some sort of sealant.

final result front and back

My only concern when selling this is to point out to people that this is not really a utilitarian piece of ceramics. It would get easily damaged by metal implements and wouldn't really be safe for washing. I may have make a tag to supply this information to potential owners.

Based on this experience I then went on to make more similar dishes using the same terra siggilata and wax resist combination. Encouraged by my initial success I decided to be more ambitious with my decorating by adding more layers of differently coloured terra sig. At the same time I also wanted to use patterns other than just the Kuba textile one which would be a less obvious choice.

So, the next platter combines Kuba textiles with geometric Islamic designs. Because of the mathematical precision involved with creating Islamic patterns and the high level of technical sophistication when applying them to architectural detailing it is a less likely choice for this sort of terra sig decoration, especially involving these more earthy colours.

In total I used ....

First layer of wax resist
second layer of terra sig

Second layers of wax followed by terra sig
Third layer of wax and fourth of terra sig

Medium temperature fired

So, in total this plate took four layers of terra sig with three layers of wax resist.

Am I please with the result? Well, not really. The colours are just a bit too similar pinky/red. I preferred the strong red/white contrast of my first plate with less pink middle tones.

Also, I'm having problems of shelling off of the terra sig around the edges. This was probably because the edges were the smoothest after getting the most burnishing. There was probably not enough key to help the terra sig stick.

After sanding

Anyway, I decided to give this platter a similar treatment I gave to my first: distressing the surface by sanding it. This helped me to disguise the imperfections and turn them into a feature. Also, it gives the piece a worn and aged look. I like that.

Distressed edges hid shelling off

Again, I decided to smoke fire this platter. However, because of its size I couldn't do it as easily at home and it was also really windy. This so didn't help. Because of issues at uni I decided to spend the minimum of time fuming the place out and it is much less smoke-stained than I would wish for. I may come back to it and smoke fire it again.

Provisionally finished result

So, from this second attempt I went on to make two other platters. The next large square one involved three layers of wax resist and four different tones of terra sig. To avoid an overall pink look I added black to the last darkest layer. This was much more satisfactory:

Next platter with darker terra sig

Now, this platter I am rather please with. However, in the heat that we've currently been having it is really, really difficult to work with wax resist in this way. Not only has it got the tendency to stick to anything it touches and then peeling off the underlying terra sig layers, it also melts to ones hands and transfers resist fingerprints. A real pain!

Interestingly, I got a comment by somebody seeing this plate in the studio saying that it reminded him of patterns used by Liberty, London and arts & crafts patterns. I can really see how this could happen even though the patterns used are insured by Iznik and Pueblo pottery. Another sing of successful cultural cross-contamination!

Next I decided on doing a group of four little platters. I wanted to see how the patterns work when the both wrap around individual dishes by also jump from one to another. To enhance to overall pattern connectivity across all four I went for a large pattern. Then I also continued to play with scale by having a much smaller pattern in the background. This contrast is helped by my decision of having the background in a much darker palette. In total I used four layers of wax resist with five different terra sig shades; two of which had black mixed in to give it some colour variations.

These plates, due to their smaller scale got quite a heavy smoking which I like as the dark smoke seems to harmonise the overall patterns.

Finished four dishes grouped together

Only after taking this photo did I notice that the plate on the right hand front is not orientated the right way to align with the overall pattern. I like this imperfection and don't think many other people would have noticed.

Where do I go from here? There is plenty of scope playing around with this. I could change the overall colour palette by adding coloured stains instead of terra cotta. This can also easily be applied to other traditional ceramics such vases or bowls. However, because of the nature of these ceramics being unglazed, having been fired to a lowish temperature and having a layer of furniture wax I don't think they'd make good functional pieces. Maybe just some dried flowers for a vase then...

I would like to try this out on one of my figurative pieces. However, I can see some serious issues due to the tendency of the wax to stick and melt. Not sure how this would work for really big pieces. Something to ponder on and, maybe, for after my MA to pursue.

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