Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Developing a New Deluxe Sunflower Design

Deluxe Sunflower Test
 Basketweave Tip 48
One of my greatest challenges as an artist is keeping my work fresh, especially in terms of developing new product lines or new designs within existing product lines. I had started (unsuspectingly) developing the concept for my Deluxe Sunflower Series over 15 years ago but it was only in the past few years ago that I finally pulled them together into a coherent series of their own with consistent design and glaze parameters, finally putting together a collection of 15 different designs. These were pieces characterized by applied centers, either in the form of clay cut-outs, extruded clay or slip applied using a typical pastry bag and decorating tips.

Deluxe Sunflower Test
Chrysanthemum Tip 352
For 2015, I set myself the challenge of coming up with a new Deluxe Sunflower design and decided to focus on experimenting on some of the cake decorating tips I hadn't used. I had used a typical "Star" tip (including numbers 30, 31 and 32) for my very first experiment with this process, creating my "Cake" design for the series. (See post dated March 22, 2012.) I found I can use the same tip regardless of the sunflower's size (ranging from "Mini" to "Ginormous") by managing how much slip I squeeze out of the bag for each "star". Subsequently, I started working with "Round" tips (including numbers 5, 10 and 12) to create my "Bubbles" design. (See post dated April 28, 2011.) For these, I did find that working with smaller to larger tips for smaller to larger sunflowers was helpful. Finally, I created my "Ribbon" design using a "Basketweave" tip (number 48) for most of the design, finishing off the center using a Star tip. (See post dated September 4, 2012.)
Deluxe Sunflower Test
Ripple Tip 70

I had become fairly adept with the process (getting the slip consistency right, especially in terms of eliminating lumps; figuring out how to manage the bag - how full, tightening it as I went, etc.) but wanted to come up with some new ideas. I sorted through the box of tips I had collected and experimented a bit but felt I need more options - I wanted to have six new designs to compare and contrast. I researched decorating tips on-line and, finally, took myself off to the nearest Jo-Ann Fabric Shop to peruse their selection. I found a few additional tips based on my research, enough to develop six different designs.

Deluxe Sunflower Test
Rose Tip 104
In the interest of being as "scientific" as I could, I decided I would do all of the samples in the same size - Tiny - so they would be large enough to give a really good idea of how the finished texture would look for larger-sized sunflowers without investing an excessive amount of time, energy and materials in something that might not really turn out particularly well and I could make a one-to one comparison. I also used the same glaze for the petals on all of the samples - Amaco's Potter's Choice Frosted Melon - to "even the playing field". (The centers of all the Deluxe Sunflowers are done using the same glaze, Amaco's Potter's Choice Temmoku.) Firing them together - both bisque and glaze firings - would further ensure the pieces would be as consistent in every way other than the center motifs.
Deluxe Sunflower Test
Rosette Tip 107

All of the sunflowers were fabricated in the same way: A slab of clay is "humped" over the center mold, cut so it has about a half inch of "selvage" and the entire top surface scored; then I apply two rows of petals - one larger than the other, the larger first and the smaller on top, around the perimeter of the sunflower. After slipping the center, I filed in the decorative design using thick slip and a pastry bag with the appropriate tip.
Deluxe Sunflower Test
Ruffle Tip 67

I completed the six sunflowers, as seen here. (I've included both the names I used to distinguish the designs from one another as well as the numbers used for each tip by the manufacturer in each caption.)

"Chrysanthemum" was - by far - the most tedious design, as each petal was very small, requiring much more repetition. I used the same tip for "Basket" as I had used for "Ribbon" but wasn't particularly happy with its relative sloppiness - which made it more difficult to decipher visually. "Ruffle" and "Ripple" seemed pretty similar to me and neither was particularly interesting. I didn't feel "Rosette" adequately filled the center space - but I might return to it to see if I can do better in the future. I personally felt "Rose" was the most successful of the bunch. Once they were finished, I did an informal survey of folks in my circle, seeing what they felt worked best of the designs without conveying my assessments. Most folks agreed with me that the "Rose" design would be the best addition to the series.

Now I had to decide which glaze to use for the petals for the "Rose" design. Although I will use any glaze with any sunflower design (Deluxe or Fancy), for the purposes of "spec" production, I have developed a "recipe" for each design which includes the center motif and the glaze for the petals. (As stated before, the same glaze is always used for the centers - a dark brown that, when fired correctly, highlights the texture while maintaining a relatively neutral foil for the different petal glazes.) I had done some tests with some Coyote glazes and decided that Leopard Shino would be a great addition to the Deluxe Sunflower series. (I also, being a cat person, liked the name!) So, now we have a new addition to the Deluxe Sunflower Series - Rose!

Ginormous Deluxe Sunflower "Rose" with our Spokesmodel and Sales Manager, Doni.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Good-bye, 2015; Hello, 2016!

I had a goal at one time, to post to my blog on a weekly basis. There have been times I've come close - I posted 51 times in 2012 - and even exceeded my goal (57 posts in 2011). I fell pretty far short in 2013 but 2014 and 2015 were not banner years - there were a lot of challenges (I could tell you all about the "Rolling Catastrophe" of 2014's last four months but I won't) and a lot of things fell by the wayside. But this is 2016. So, I'm going to set some modest goals (I'm not telling) and see if I can do a bit better this time around.

Management Team Updates

We had a lot of changes in the past two years - we added two cats in 2014 (Magnus, trapped in my garage in March, and Rufus, trapped on the front porch in
August) and lost one (Princess Nur, just before Christmas). We added another cat - Sekhmet Zephyr - in August of last year, bringing us back up to full Management Team strength after some time of management shortfalls. Most importantly in this context, Magnus took on the Feline Supervisor in Charge position vacated by Gus's passing in 2009. We have a policy of promoting from within the organization but no one wanted the job. It took us over five years to secure the perfect candidate - and we're so glad we waited for him to come along! There are still occasional differences of opinion within management's ranks but having a strong, steadfast individual at helm has had a tremendous impact.

New Platform/New Look

With changes to the e-mail platform I had been using for many years - especially in terms of limits on numbers of e-mails, etc., I decided to change over to MailChimp to communicate with our supporters. I rolled out the first newsletter - complete with Iconic Sunflower banner - earlier this month and have already scheduled the next newsletter for February 1. I will be (hopefully) sending these out on a monthly basis, not only highlighting Black Cat Pottery events but other programs that might be of interest, including film series, conferences and tours in the metro-Detroit area and beyond. If you'd like to receive our newsletter, please e-mail with your first and last names at Also, visit and "Like" our Facebook page (see the link to the left) for more up-to-the-minute developments.

Black Cat Pottery on the Road - and Beyond

Silver Maple Serving Suite
Our biggest challenge so far this year is the upcoming ACRE show in Philadelphia - Black Cat Pottery's first ever wholesale show. I've had the help of my amazing mentor Nora, as well as so many member of my family of choice - Theresa, Catherine, Don, Dylan, Glenda - I can't hope to name all of them here. (Suffice to say, this would not be happening without their varied assistance.) We'll be featuring selections of Black Cat Pottery's Applied Leaf Serving Pieces as well a sampling of Deluxe Sunflowers at this massive event.

Black Cat Pottery is currently available at a number of locations in Michigan - and beyond; check the listing to the left. Our newest retailer is Dove Tail Arts in Galesburg, IL. Bernie Hamilton has been a delight to work with and I'm looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship with this top-notch business. Look for availability updates in blog posts, on Facebook, in the newsletter -  and be sure to look at the list to the left to see who else has joined the family.

New Programs

Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) with
Bumble bee
I'm always looking for new program ideas, whether new speaking topics, new pottery workshop projects or new hands-on programs for our garden tours. I just rolled out my new talk on gardening for pollinators - "Pollinator Preservation Strategies for the Home Garden: Native Plants and their Unique Relationships with Beneficial Insects" - at the January meeting of the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association. I'll be rolling out a talk on Spring Wildflowers at the February meeting of the Meadowbrook Garden Club. If you'd like information regarding my programs, drop me an e-mail and I'll get that to you.

I also hold a number of pottery workshop in the studio, suitable for everyone from the novice to the experienced potter. I'm planning a Fancy Sunflower Workshop for March - stay tuned for dates. If you and a group of your friends are interested in a workshop, just drop me a line and I'll do my best to work with you to put together a program. I'm also thinking of doing some other workshops - a Mason Bee House and maybe a Bird and Bug Box program. Again, stay tuned to the blog, Facebook and our newsletter for more information

So, there's a lot going on - I hope to see you this year to share in the excitement!

All photos by Don Schulte except image of Magnus, Rufus and Dora.