Colour Studies

Colour Studies - Part 1

This post is an introduction to the formal concerns of painting with slips on pots. By 'painting,' I mean the sort I learnt at art school in the early 1980s which evolved mainly from post Renaissance, Western European art. This starts the discussion of how that is done using ceramic materials.

The featured image is: Bright Summer Rain, 2017

60h x 23w cm, Private Collection.

How it Begins

Bright Summer Rain has just found a new home. It was always a favourite. It's Oxford Street, London, in one of those torrential Summer showers that seem to appear out of nowhere, causing momentary chaos before the sun returns to restore order.

The Brush Takes Over

I was short of time so, to speed things up, I started making smaller pots - 60cm high instead of 80cm or more - and dispensed with the sgraffito, using only the brush. It was a game changer. I had to rely on colour to define the different elements of the composition - the people and buildings in this case - rather than the drawn, 'sgraffito' line, scratched into the 'leather hard,' unfired clay, as I had always done before. The result was a crowded London landscape which was also, a study in reds, light, shade and surfaces.

Some Context

It was a time of change and development anyway - I had just moved into a new studio and had to prepare for a show more quickly than I might have wished. My mother had died in October 2016 and I had to move studios a month later. Though hectic and a little unforgiving, it was also a welcome new start.

New Clay and a change of scale.

I introduced the black clay and the monochrome works at this time too, along with the new, more direct approach to painting with the coloured slips and working to a smaller scale.

tall vase decorated with people and umbrellas
Tall ceramic vase decorated with pictures of people and umbrellas

It was certainly freeing in some ways but also imposed new demands. I had to start mixing the colours with more care and significantly extend my tonal range. I also paid close attention to the colour of the clay - in effect the clay colour is the colour of the canvas on which you paint.

Clay as Canvas

Both Goya and Constable, two of my favourite painters, painted on red or brown canvas. I chose a red clay when I started working on my own because the sgraffito line shows up well through the slip as well as being low firing, so more sympathetic to colour which often burns away at higher firing temperatures. The insistence of the red in the terracotta clay line was starting to annoy me though. That, too, needed to change. I tried out working with the black clay alone, then tried mixing the red and black clays to produce a rich, dark brown.

The size of pots

Making smaller pots has been a release because I can make more of them and try things out. They are much less forgiving in terms of form and composition though. The surface of small pot is always about to turn - the curve is sharper than on a big pot where it is stretched out over a bigger expanse of surface. On a large pot there is the option of painting a scene from a narrative that is, potentially, complete in itself like one part of a triptych, on the smaller pot, it will always be leading into the next part of the image that wraps the pot as a whole. The difference really became apparent when I started building pots at 40cm high. I will write about that in another post.

Constant change

I frequently review my palette and approach to painting the pots now. In many ways it is an ongoing process. In my most recent work, the clay colour has started to assert itself, not just as the sgraffito line but as the equivalent of a large, sweeping brush stroke. That will also be part of a later post. This is just the start.