12 January 2015

RUSKIN AND THE CULT OF ROUGHNESS IN STUDIO POTTERY

John Ruskin. Workmen must be free to produce imperfect art.
Studio pottery was created partly by narratives that set out its history, listed its key figures and promoted its values. Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery, was its leading narrator, but his admirers played an important part. Muriel Rose’s book Artist Potters in England (1954) was a short text but was highly influential, not least in its omissions. In fact, she omitted nearly every artist potter in England. She highlighted Leach, Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Nora Braden, Katherine Pleydell Bouverie, William Staite Murray, Sam Haile, Henry Hammond, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and her book created the canon of studio pottery. But she omitted all the figurative ceramists (like Charles and Nell Vyse, Stella Crofts and Gwendoline Parnell) and all those who excelled at decoration (like Bernard Moore, Alfred Powell and Louise Powell). The history of art pottery until about 1930 was, in fact, mainly the history of figurative and decorated pottery, and it was only from the 1930s that the stoneware of Leach and Staite Murray, based on form and the texture of high temperature feldspathic glazes, began to define British art pottery. In constructing her narrative, Rose chose only those who were seen to prefigure her chosen subject and simply disregarded everyone else. Although she wrote when decorated tin-glazed studio pottery was at its most popular, she ignored that as well, making no mention of those who did it best: William Newland, Margaret Hine, Nicholas Vergette and James Tower – those who created what Dora Billington called “The New Look in British Pottery”.

Wilfrid Norton, a forgotten ceramist.
As a result of this narrative, some accomplished ceramists have been forgotten in the world of studio pottery, for example Wilfrid Norton (1880-1973), who made figurative pieces imbued with the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. He exhibited widely, was rated by Leach, headed the pottery department at Camberwell School of art and his work sells steadily at auction; but I have not seen him mentioned in any narrative of 20th century art pottery.

By these omissions certain values were asserted. Pottery should be designed and made by the same person, or by a few people. It should be made in a workshop with little power-driven machinery. It should be formed on the potter’s wheel, preferably from clay dug and prepared hand. The studio of an educated, middle class potter should be run with an eye on the unsophisticated maker of flowerpots and his counterpart in Japan. Art pottery should comprise useful vessels, usually round and usually brown or grey. (Their usefulness was not finely calibrated and there were anachronisms like cider jars and oddities like wine goblets.) It should be rough and quickly made, often with a gritty base that would sit well on scrubbed pine but not on polished mahogany. The values were those of high minded simple living. The physical difficulties of this way of making were thought to make better potters as well as better pots.

A jug from the Leach Pottery: not on the polished table, please.
Oliver Watson described this sort of pottery as “the ethical pot”. Watson, who was head of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1979 to 2005, was one of the first to write objectively about studio pottery and to distance himself from its dogmas. His account of studio pottery, based on the V&A’s collection, is the most lucid and perceptive introduction to the subject. More recently, Jeffrey Jones, at the University of Cardiff, has written a longer text, which locates studio pottery in its artistic and intellectual context, referring to its dialogue with modernism. These critical narratives of studio pottery emerged as its practices became more varied and dextrous.

J.M.Keynes said that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” In this context we can say that practical craftsmen were slaves of John Ruskin. He propounded the virtues of roughness in "The Nature of Gothic". His ideas migrated to Japan and returned to England with Leach and Shoji Hamada in the 1920s. By the 1960s, every un-intellectual hippy potter embraced them without knowing it.

"The Nature of Gothic" was a chapter in The Stones of Venice in which Ruskin asserted that all Gothic architecture had more or less of savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity and redundancy. It was from Ruskin’s doctrine of savageness that came the aesthetic of roughness in pottery and its association with social criticism.

The term Gothic, said Ruskin, was first applied as a term of abuse to the architecture of northern Europe to denote its sternness and rudeness, but there was no shame in that. Let us watch the man of the North as he works, he says, as, “with rough strength and unhurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttresses and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild and wayward as the northern sea; creatures of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life; fierce as the winds that beat, and changeful as the clouds that shade them.” Ruskin’s persuasiveness comes from majestic rhetoric rather than from evidence.

The savagery of this work was not merely the expression of landscape and climate but also indicated religious principle. (For Ruskin, everything, including cut glass and iron railings, was a matter of principle.) In Gothic we find the Christian recognition of the value of every soul but also of its limitations in its Fallen state. In the execution of Gothic ornament the uneducated man, with all his shortcomings, has been allowed to do the best he can, without subjection to the direction of a higher intellect. As the expression of a free man, the work, for all its roughness and imperfection, has value. The contemporary mind, on the other hand, desires perfection and accuracy in work and is surrounded by highly finished artifacts. This high finish is the product of servile labour, for a workman can achieve it only if he is told exactly what to do. If he is given freedom he will err. The desire for a high degree of accuracy degrades the operative into a machine, and the systematic degradation of the worker in modern industry has generated destructive revolt and an outcry against wealth and nobility. The revolt is not the result of men’s being commanded by others but of their being turned into machines by the factory system with its division of labour and its demand for high finish.

The remedy is healthy and ennobling labour, which is done according to these principles:
  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.
All work, except the manufacture of necessities, should be inventive, even work done by rough and uneducated men. We cannot expect an exact finish from uneducated men except under instruction, and that makes them slaves.When they are doing exact work, they cannot be inventive and when they are inventive they cannot do exact work. Society should accept their invention even if it is imperfect, and that means forgoing refinement.

This is an odd idea for which Ruskin produces no evidence. Observation suggests that the capacity to produce exact work is unrelated to education or inventiveness. Uninventive people may be perfectly happy to produce refined work and may be proud of it. In fact, much exact and highly-finished work was done by independent artisans.

"The Nature of Gothic" became, in effect, the manifesto of the Arts and Crafts movement. Ruskin was no socialist, but his ideas about the moral significance of art, his condemnation of industrial civilisation and his ideas of how goods should be produced helped to shape the romantic socialism of William Morris, Walter Crane, C.R.Ashbee and W.R.Lethaby. But, as David Pye observed in The Nature and Art of Workmanship, he exempted the manufacture of necessities from his principles of ennobling labour. No social policy or political economy can be based on his ideas.

Ruskin by way of Japan: Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach, Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos, and Shoji Hamada.



















Ruskin was read by Bernard Leach and his Japanese friends, notably by Soetsu Yanagi, the main begetter of Mingei, the Japanese folk craft movement. Yanagi had become concerned about the effects of industrialisation on Japanese life and tradition. It is said that Leach introduced him to Morris, from whom he found his way to Ruskin, although Ruskin had been read in Japan since the 1880s. Yanagi insisted on the originality of his ideas and the purely Japanese character of Mingei but he took much from Morris, including the ideas of the art of the common people, the value of ordinary household objects and the unknown craftsman, wedding them to wabi-sabi, the Zen-derived aesthetic of modesty, naturalness, roughness, impermanence, sadness and imperfection.

Mingei celebrated the commonplace, practical crafts of the people. Yanagi's valorisation of the ordinary excluded expensive things or those made in very small numbers, which distinguished him from Ruskin, who wrote of cathedrals and gold, from Morris and Co., who made decorated furniture and tapestries for the rich, and even from the early studio potters, who exhibited in art galleries at high prices. Yanagi's ideas about the sources of artistic inspiration and beauty are also subtly different from those of Morris and Ruskin: Morris and Ruskin valued the craftsman's potential for conscious creativity, whose exercise gave him happiness in his work, while Yanagi spoke of divine power as the source of beauty; a recent critic, Idekawa Naoki, described Yanagi's idea of the craftsman as that of a human machine creating beauty unconsciously through labour-intensive, repetitive work.

Leach returned to England in 1920 wanting to unite the best of East and west. He acknowledged his debt to Ruskin: “I thought of Ruskin as my father,” he wrote. The ideas of Mingei were highlighted in the influential conference on the crafts at Dartington Hall in 1952 at which Leach, Yanagi and Hamada were key speakers. From Ruskin’s ideas on savagery, refracted by through the Arts and Crafts movement, Mingei and Bernard Leach's practice, came the cult of roughness in studio pottery.
Savage beauty: a Japanese tea bowl by Lisa Hammond
Among current work done under this rubric I would single out for special praise that of Lisa Hammond and Phil Rogers, which skilfully demonstrate wabi-sabi. But among lesser potters the cult of roughness can be used to justify incompetence and philistinism.

David Pye argues that neither refined work nor rough work – in his terminology, “regulated” and “free” – is better than the other. He warns against spurious craftsmanship, which, in recognising that mass production can more easily produce regulated products than hand-making, “will take to a sort of travesty of rough workmanship: rough for the sake of roughness instead of rough for the sake of speed.” Rough work is produced when it has to be done quickly, but the good workman is  always “trying to regulate the work in every way that care and dexterity will allow consistent with speed.” One might say that if the craftsman aims for perfection he can be sure that his work will be imperfect, but if he aims for imperfection it is likely to be bad.

Muriel Rose, Artist Potters in England
John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship
Emmanuel Cooper, Bernard Leach
Yuko Kikuchi, "A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory"

3 December 2014

VAT AND THE ARTIST


Some artist once said he preferred the company of businessmen because they liked to talk about art, whereas artists always talked about business. Not so in my experience. Artists are unbusinesslike, and many small gallery owners are artists at heart.

I'm in the unusual position of being VAT-registered (although my sales are below the compulsory VAT threshold) while most of my galleries are not. Some don't understand how they should charge me commission and charge it on the whole price paid by the customer, including VAT. But my price is the price net of VAT, which I simply collect on behalf of the tax man. If the gallery charges commission on the gross price, they are taking commission out of the VAT, which I have to replace when I pay HMRC.

Say I agree to pay a gallery 50% commission and it sells a piece of work for me at £100 +  £20 VAT. Commission should be £50, but some galleries charge me £60. As I have to pay the tax man £20, I have only £40 left instead of £50. I have agreed to pay 50% commission but I have been charged 60%.

VAT-registered galleries understand the system. If they're not VAT-registered they're often baffled. The situation is confused even more because galleries are sometimes unclear about the relationship between the artist, the gallery and the customer. When a gallery sells work for an artist, it is being sold by the artist to the customer, not by the gallery. The work remains the property of the artist until sold and the gallery is the artist's agent. The commission is an agency fee. This should be really be reflected in the paperwork: the customer should be invoiced by the artist in full and the gallery should invoice the artist for its fee. This hardly ever happens and in despair at explaining this, and for the sake of a quiet life, I just invoice the gallery for the money they are to remit to me after deducting commission.

So why bother with VAT at all? You may well ask. It's because when I built and equipped my studio, the VAT ran into thousands and registration allowed me to claim it back. Once registered you can't de-register without returning your refunds. So I continue trying to explain all this to my lovely gallery owners, who appreciate my ceramics and work so hard to bring them to the attention of the public.

(The picture is "The Tax Gatherers" by Marinus van Reymerswaele, in the National Gallery, London.)

27 November 2014

MEET ME AND SEE MY LATEST WORK



Here are a few pieces that came out of the kiln this morning.  They're going on sale this weekend at the Chilwickbury Christmas Market, St Albans, Hertfordshire. The market is put on by Christiane Kubrick at her house every year, and it's always a pleasure to have a stall there - actually, it was once a horse's stall - the market is in the Childwickbury stables, where very grand horses used to live a hundred years ago.

This is not your average Christmas market. Christiane creates a wonderful atmosphere. There are original art, ceramics and gifts on show, sold direct by the artists, and there's plenty of hot, fresh and healthy food. The relaxed and easy going attitude creates the perfect environment in which you can approach the artists and talk to them about their work. So do come along and meet me on Saturday or Sunday.

Admission is free and there's plenty of free parking. No need to book, just turn up, park, begin browsing and enjoy the day.

Opening hours
Saturday 29th November 10am-5pm
Sunday 30th November 10am-5pm

19 November 2014

PS TO CERAMIC EDUCATION IN BRITAIN

In my last post I said that in the mid-seventies there were 37 full-time courses in ceramics in Britain. Like everyone else I wondered what the closure of courses would mean for studio pottery.  Assume the annual intake of each course was ten, and that half the graduates became professional potters (a very generous assumption) and that 10 per cent stopped making every year. Over thirty years that would produce about 1,700 potters. But in 2004, the Crafts Council estimated there were about 6,700 professional potters in Britain (Making It in the 21st Century). Most must have learned informally outside art schools. The quality of their work was variable; some were very good, many were mediocre and some were no good at all; but in terms of numbers, the training of potters clearly does not depend entirely on art schools.

31 October 2014

CERAMIC EDUCATION IN BRITAIN

I've written before about the closure of the Harrow ceramics course, the BA Ceramics at the University of Westminster. Matthew Partington, of the University of the West of England, described the closure of ceramics courses a few years ago in an interesting paper "Can British ceramics education survive?"  He says that in 1980 there were 17 degree courses in Great Britain; in 2010 there were four.  The decline is actually steeper:  In 1976 there were 37 full-time courses in ceramics (not all degree courses), although ceramics is still taught on some 3D courses.

There are several reasons for the decline.  (This, I should say, is my gloss on Partington's argument, not exactly what he writes.)

Fewer schools teach it, because of financial pressure, pressure on the timetable, concerns about health and safety and lack of skilled teachers.  It's not necessary to do a foundation course before a student goes on to an art degree, so students can start art at university without any experience or knowledge of ceramics.

There were too many ceramics courses and it was impossible to fill the places.  They're expensive, and if they're not filled, they have to close in the end. Financial stringency in universities has ensured that.  Ceramics tutors were getting old and they weren't being replaced.  One exception is Cardiff, where ceramics is still thriving.

Ceramics is unfashionable.  It's about materials and technique and not about ideas or self-expression. As art has become more cerebral, ceramics has lagged behind, though not on post-graduate courses. Ceramics expanded in a hands-on, intuitive way and there's little critical discourse in the ceramic community. (It's surprising how insatiable is the appetite of the older generation of pottery enthusiasts for throwing demonstrations.) There aren’t enough role models for young artists who want more than that. They would rather do fine art, animation or film.  Ceramics once chimed in with alternative ideas; now it's realised that it has a big environmental footprint, it's not green any more.

The cost of a degree means that students have to think about whether it will fit them for employment. Ceramics won’t, so it's now too expensive for everyone – for the university and for the student.

Partington points out that experimental ceramists depended on teaching for a living and weren’t under too much pressure to sell their work.  Course closure means they may no longer have an income. However, some experimental ceramists depend on grants and sponsorship.  Since they don't make commodities, there was never any market for their work.

Without teaching, many ceramists won't be able to make a proper living.  Although there was an over-supply of courses, there is also an over-supply of ceramists, who make more pottery than people want to buy. If some ceramists stop making, it may be better for those that continue.

But there may be a zero sum.  The unfashionability of ceramics may mean that the market for it also shrinks. Anyone who sells ceramics direct to the public knows that most of their customers are over fifty.  They grew up with Cranks, the Design Council and hippy crafts. Will the generation that grew up with instant messaging, neo-liberalism and Ikea replace them?

26 October 2014

MALEVITCH: THE END AND THE BEGINNING OF PAINTING


Kazimir Malevitch's "Black Square" (1915) (above) was the end of representational painting. In 1916, the Dadaists' Zurich exhibition was the end of art.  After those momentous events, what art became was a family whose members bore some resemblance to one another, but in which distant relatives looked very different indeed.

And where did one go after the "Black Square"?  In the comprehensive Malevitch exhibition, which ends at Tate Modern today, Malevitch's career, before and after "Black Square", is traced and documented.  He put a great deal of energy into teaching in the 1920s, inspiring his students with his ideas about Suprematism, his art doctrine of which the black square became a symbol.  In the 1920s, as Stalin's power increased in Russia, avant garde art was marginalised and condemned.  Malevitch himself was imprisoned, accused of being a German spy.  Then, in the 1930s, he started to do representational painting again, including portraits of workers.  But this was not socialist realism.  There were elements of realism, Suprematism and Renaissance portraiture.  To some extent this development may have been part of the Return to Order which occurred in art throughout Europe after the First World War; in part it may have been the need of a painter to continue painting, and a feeling of the limits of pure, hard-edged abstraction.

One of Malevich's last paintings was a portrait of E.Yakolevna (below), into which a lifetime's experience is poured.  To me this was one of the most beautiful portraits in the exhibition, with traces of abstraction in the red, white and black stripes in the subject's collar.  In this period of his life, Malevitch signed his pictures with a black square.  At his funeral in 1935 the front of the hearse bore a black square and mourners carried banners with black squares. 


14 October 2014

TO ADD A FIXED PERCENTAGE BY DRY WEIGHT OF STAIN TO A GLAZE SLOP OF KNOWN RECIPE

PROBLEM
To determine the weight of dry matter in the glaze slop.

SOLUTION
By Brongniart's formula W = G(L-1000)/(G-1) calculate weight of dry matter in the glaze slop.

Where:
W = the dry weight of matter in the slop
L = the weight in grams of a litre of the slop
G = density of the dry matter relative to water (its relative density)

W is to be determined
L may be determined by measurement
G is unknown

Therefore G must be determined.

To determine G:

G = (Wd/Vd)/1

Where:
Wd = weight of dry matter
Vd =volume of dry matter

Weight  Wd of dry matter may be determined by measurement.

But volume  Vd of a given weight of dry matter is not known.

Therefore Vd must be determined.

Determine by displacement: take 1 litre water; add a given weight of dry matter and stir; measure displacement  Vd in litres.

Calculate Wd/Vd.

Calculate G.

Calculate W.

13 October 2014

LEARNING POTTERY: ART SCHOOLS vs APPRENTICESHIPS

As readers of this blog will have realised, I'm researching how pottery was taught in British art schools in the 20th century.  Here's a very, very brief overview.

Iznik, one of Lunn's teaching models, from Pottery, 1910
Practical pottery in Britain was first taught by Richard Lunn at the Royal College of Art (1901-15), then at Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts (1908-15). Alfred Powell introduced pottery painting at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1906. Lunn's and Powell's inspirations were Arts and Crafts pottery, Iznik and Italian maiolica. W.B Dalton, head of Camberwell College, was a grand feu, East-Asian stoneware inspired potter but he left teaching to Lunn. The grand feu ceramics of Dalton and Bernard Moore in Britain, Charles F Binns and Taxile Doat in the USA, and Ernest Chaplet, Auguste Delaherche and Alexandre Bigot in France - the progenitors of studio pottery - were of little interest to Lunn and Powell.

The USA was ahead of Britain. Binns taught grand feu ceramics at the New York State School of Clay-Working and Ceramics from 1900, and Doat introduced it to the Art Academy and Porcelain Works at St. Louis, in 1909. "Studio pottery" was an American term, first used in a review of Binns's The Potter's Craft in Keramic Studio in 1910. (If anyone can find an earlier use of the term, I would be grateful for the reference.)  Studio pottery was not taught in a British art school until William Staite Murray was appointed to the Royal College of Art in 1925.

Bernard Leach (8th from left) with apprentices and friends
Bernard Leach's view of craft training was similar to that of C.R.Ashbee, who advocated workshop training and wrote Should We Stop Teaching Art? (The answer was that art schools should be converted into subsidized craft workshops.) Leach said, "The greater part of art school training does more harm than good," and the studio pottery movement in Britain developed an anti-art bias. Leach's apprentice system, central to his craft philosophy, was, however, problematic. Most studios were too small to support unproductive staff: apprentices were never paid much and some actually had to pay for their training. The employment of schoolboys, which was tried for a while, did not work. The apprentice system was unsustainable and so there emerged a pattern of potters getting rudimentary skills in art schools and then going into workshops. By the 1970s, Britain had almost forty full-time art school courses in ceramics.

In the 1930s the Central School had flirted with industrial training, but the students did not want to go into industry, and certainly not to Stoke-on-Trent. The Second World War changed everything. The Central had been bombed and evacuated and in 1945 pottery had to be started from scratch. Dora Billington had taken over as chief instructor with Gilbert Harding-Green as her associate. They became the leading school for art-led ceramics. In 1947 the Central had a dynamic new principal, the painter William Johnstone, who introduced modernism into the fine arts, industrial design in place of crafts, and Basic Design (a Bauhaus-type training) for all disciplines. Out of deference to Billington, who would not countenance industrial design, the pottery course remained craft-based.


The "New Look" in British ceramics. Margaret Hine's and Nicolas Vergette's decoration of the Sarabia coffe bar, 1956

The post war optimism, Johnstone's reforming zeal, the introduction of modernism and Basic Design, and the need to rebuild the pottery department, all contributed to the ethos of Central ceramics. Picasso's ceramics, first shown in Britain in 1950, also exerted an influence. By 1951 - Festival of Britain year - Billington had put together the team that would define the "New Look" in ceramics at the Central: Harding Green as her loyal lieutenant, Richard Bateson, a country potter with an extraordinary command of throwing, and two young potters, William Newland and Kenneth Clark, who were outside the Leach orbit. Billington's approach to teaching was to get the student to discover what he or she wanted to do, give them the means to do it and then make them work very hard. She insisted on high standards, but she did not think there was only one standard.

2 October 2014

BANKSY'S RACIST PIGEONS REMOVED BY COUNCIL


Tendring district council removed this ironic Banksy graffiti from Clacton-on-Sea because of complaints over the racist slogans. That raises several questions:

Does the high regard in which Banksy is held encourage the defacement of buildings by thousands of talentless graffitists, and should he be treated simply as a vandal?  Or is creative vandalism a special case?

Is he now held in high regard because of the high money value of his works and is he part of the artistic establishment?

Is it right to respond in this way to sincerely expressed feeling of offence?  Does art justify offence? Is the outcry over the removal of this graffiti partly inspired by its money value?

Comments welcome, and more thoughts later.

PS. Banksy has created an entirely new quandary because his graffiti is worth more than the buildings it defaces.  We have never seen that before.  Contrast the vandalism of the Rothko painting in Tate Modern, which the vandals claimed was art: their graffiti was worthless, but the Rothko was valued in millions. If the vandalism is worth more than what's vandalised, preserve it.  If, not, punish the vandals.

I like Banksy, but let's get him into proportion: he's a witty political cartoonist.

23 September 2014

COBALT BLUE: LETTER TO AN ADMIRER



I got an e-mail in response to my post Not Quite Monochrome, asking me how to use cobalt oxide in the decoration of porcelain. As the question came from someone who declared me "the best ceramist in the world", I took some trouble over the reply. Here's an edited version of what I said.

"Cobalt blue is the most reliable and stable colouring oxide used by potters. I don’t know what it is that your potter friend has given you, but the best thing to start with is cobalt oxide, which is readily available although not cheap. Ceramic suppliers also sell blue stains, comprising cobalt oxide and other things, sometimes calcined for greater stability. Those stains have their uses, but I avoid them because I want to use washes of varying intensity, and for that the simple oxide is best. You can apply the colour as a watery wash, which gives just a hint of blue, to an intense line, which is almost black, and everything in between. Chinese brush decoration on ceramics (for example, the Qing Dynasty porcelain dish from the V&A illustrated below left) exploits this quality of cobalt oxide to great effect.

"The cobalt oxide we get today is very pure and very bright. That’s fine if you want a bright blue, but I don’t, so I tone it down. There are several ways of doing that: you can add red clay, or iron oxide, or copper oxide (which I do) or manganese dioxide. Manganese produces purplish brown, but mixed 50:50 with cobalt produces a warm black. (My piece at the head of this post uses a cobalt/copper blue and a manganese/cobalt black.) You can experiment with line blends of cobalt and another stain – say stain to cobalt in the ratios 1:9, 2:8, 3:7, 5:5, and see what is best for you.

"Cobalt is perfect on porcelain, and it doesn’t matter much whether you fire in an oxidising (clean) or reducing (smoky) atmosphere. Cobalt is stable at 1300 deg. C (cone 10), so you should have no problem at cone 5.

(I was asked what made the cobalt go fuzzy.) "If you are applying it as an underglaze stain direct on the bisque ware, and then glazing over with a clear glaze, the glaze may be disturbing your decoration, giving you a fuzzy effect. There are two ways of avoiding that. The first and simplest is to mix the oxide with a little gum Arabic dissolved in hot water. If that doesn’t work, fire the decorated bisque to about 600 deg. C before glazing.

"This is my method. I put about ½ a teaspoonful of the oxide on a shiny white tile, add a few drops of water and mix to a paste with a spatula. You can add a drop or two of gum Arabic at the same time. Then thin as required and use the tile as a palette. Some people mix in a bowl or jar, but that way you can’t vary the intensity of the wash or line so well. The addition of gum sets the oxide into a hard cake rather than a loose powder when left to dry, to be softened with water next time you use it.

"If you want the decoration to go fuzzy, you can apply it by brush as an underglaze and then rub over it with a finger. This method is even more effective if you apply the colour in-glaze, which is to say, glaze the bisque, let the glaze dry and then paint over it – which is like watercolour painting on absorbent paper. The stain will soak in and dry almost at once, then you can rub or distress it – you can even scratch through it with a pin or stick to make white lines against the blue. By the way, you can also exploit wax resist (wax emulsion, not candle wax) for a white line. By combining washes of varying intensity, rubbing with a finger, wax resist and scratching through to make a white line, you can get a wide range of decorative effects.

"Like most potters I have experience with only a small number of glazes – in fact I use only one glaze – though I believe that there will be little reaction between cobalt and any clear glaze. However, the temperature at which you fire may affect the result you get. If the glaze runs, it may carry the oxide with it. That is even more of a problem if you paint in-glaze than if you paint underglaze.

"My ceramics are earthenware, glaze fired to 1060 deg. C and I don’t know about porcelain, but there are many books with glaze recipes for you to look up. My glaze is

Lead bisilicate frit (permitted in the UK but not the USA): 56%
Cornish stone:   16%
Borax frit:   8%
China clay:   5%
Tin oxide:   7%
Zirconium silicate:  8%

"I add about 0.5% Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) to stop the glaze settling in the bucket.

"If you are sieving a glaze you must NOT sieve it dry, which is potentially hazardous to health through the inhalation of silica dust. You should use a good quality mask when mixing the dry ingredients (a builder’s paper mask is not good enough), and you should sieve wet. To get the glaze though a 120 mesh sieve you will have to add more water than you need, sieve, then allow to settle at least 24 hrs and then pour off excess water.

"I hope that helps, and good luck in your work!"