Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mini Sunflower (Original, Fancy, Deluxe): Comparing Clay Bodies

Original Sunflowers (Titanium)
(All images are:
Top Left - Laguna Brown;
Top Right - RO-23;
Botom - Laguna Speckle Buff)
Any artist worth her salt is always willing to try out new materials, with the realization that there may be something even better out there to take her work to the next level. A significant portion of the final product consists of a combination of the artist's talent, skill and experience; but having the right/best materials for the job can make the difference between a good piece and a great one.

Not surprisingly and, I would imagine, like most potters, I'm rather particular about my clay bodies, considering I really only use two of them, both manufactured by Rovin Ceramics based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For my Daisies, Calla Lilies, Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Poppies, Deluxe Toadstools and hand-painted tiles, I use RO-77, "Lite Stoneware," rated Cone 2 to Cone 10. I was first introduced to this white stoneware body when taking throwing classes at Pewabic Pottery. It is an excellent throwing body, lighter on the grog, which also works well for slab work and tiles. Furthermore, it holds the purity of the colors of the glazes I use for these pieces - Amaco's Celebration Series (and a couple glazes from their High Fire Sahara Series - Black and White), giving them a lot of punch; with a less-white clay body, these glazes look rather "muddy." I recognize the fact that any number of white stoneware bodies would do the job equally well.

Fancy Sunflowers (Indigo Float)
For the bulk of my work, including all of my Sunflowers (Original, Fancy and Deluxe), Wildflower and Michigan Tiles, organic leaf pieces (Leaves, Applied and Embossed Leaf Bowls, etc.), lace pieces (Bowls, Crosses, Stars of David, etc.) and other work utilizing the glaze recipes I inherited from my first pottery teacher, Gene Pluhar, or Amaco's Potter's Choice Series of glazes - often in combination with Mason Stains and various oxides, I use RO-23, or Peach Stoneware, rated Cone 6 to Cone 10. With more iron than a typical gray stoneware body, it retains its "warmth" even in an oxidation firing environment. (I wish I could fire reduction - the clay's minerals express themselves even more, resulting in even deeper, nuanced results.) I first used this clay when working with Gene; he had been using a gray stoneware body from another manufacturer but was having difficulties with the supplier. After spending some time trying out other bodies, he  settled on this one. I've been very happy with the results I've gotten with it with my glaze palette; when I've used Gene's glazes or the Amaco's Potter's Choice Glazes on a white clay body, they are not nearly as rich and almost look, comparatively, pretty anemic.

Nevertheless, I'm always willing to try new things. (After a while, sometimes....) My friend Marie Colbert Gougeon, of MCG Graphics, based out of Holt and Okemos, suggested that I try a couple of the Laguna clay bodies she used in her quite accomplished work, specifically their Brown and Speckle Buff stoneware bodies. I had been lamenting to Marie about how much I missed being able to fire work in a reduction environment, with its richer results, so she recommended the Brown body because she thought it might be sufficiently darker than the Peach stoneware body I had been using. (Rovin used to make a much darker stoneware body but, by the time I discovered it, had ceased to manufacture it as one of the critical ingredients had become unavailable or prohibitively expensive.) She thought the Speckled Buff stoneware body might fun to work with.

Deluxe Sunflowers
(Albany Slip Brown)
I decided the best way to test them out would be to do apples-to-apples, oranges-to-oranges and raspberries-to-raspberries comparisons, using all three clay bodies (the Rovin Peach stoneware and the Laguna Brown and Speckled Buff stoneware) to make identical small-scale pieces in the three "phases" I generally use. So, I made three Mini Original Sunflowers with a woven pandanus coaster design, three Mini Fancy Sunflowers with a mini-bubblewrap impression and three Mini Deluxe Sunflowers with the "Starry Night" center. I bisque fired all to Cone 06.

For the Mini Original Sunflowers, I stained the centers with Burnt Umber in a water-based solution, removing the excess with a damp sponge to bring up the texture. I stained the petals using Titanium Mason Stain, again, removing the excess with a damp sponge to further enhance the pieces' dimensionality. The centers of the Mini Fancy Sunflowers were all glazed with three coats of Amaco's Potter's Choice Temmoku; I dip-glazed the petals in Indigo Float from the same series. The Mini Deluxe Sunflowers were glazed in the same way as the Mini Fancy Sunflowers except that I used Albany Slip Brown for the petals. All were glaze-fired to Cone 6.

I found that the Laguna Brown, while somewhat darker than the Rovin Peach, was not sufficiently different to warrant changing my clay body or adding another to my repertoire. (Space is already tight - I can fit about 500 pounds of Peach stoneware and about 200 of the Lite.) My photographer friend Don and I concurred that the Speckle Buff pieces look kind of... gimmicky; the speckles are actually rather distracting, failing to enhance the designs in any appreciable manner. Although I won't be changing my clay selection, based on these experiments, I'm glad I had the chance to try out some new clay bodies. I think they manner in which I approached the situation was objective and the results were easy to evaluate.

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