Plain or Decorated?

plain and decorated pourers

plain and decorated pourers

When opening our twitter account last year, I gave very little thought to our bi-line, which reads,

“We are studio potters. Torn between love of purity and love of decoration. We’ve made quite a few mugs.”

I think I hit the nail on the head about being torn…

I love the purity of a single colour, the clean unfussiness giving full voice to the character of the glaze. Strong and resolved. The relationship between surface and form is easy; even with bright colours there’s harmony. There aren’t any awkward issues about matching / not going with / looking out of place. Plain glazed work almost seems to have the moral high ground; didn’t Michael Cardew say that a pot was 80% form and 20% decoration? The minimalism fits with a modern aesthetic, yet is classic – won’t ever look dated.

When visiting the V&A I’m always struck by the natural elegance of decoration on  pottery from Asia and the Middle East.

Iznik monochrome pottery dish Turkish C17th

Iznik monochrome pottery dish Turkish C17th

It can make me think there’s no point in even trying. And yet, I have a really strong desire to add decoration to our pots. I don’t think it’s just because I don’t make the pots and I want to leave my mark on them, but leather hard clay provides a fantastic ground for mark-making: brushing, sponging, carving and scratching all work beautifully. Although my strengths lie in surface treatment, I do enjoy working with the given form and pride myself on being able to avoid “wall papering”. And I think my decorative style has played a significant part in giving our work a strong, distinctive look.

However (this is the torn part) James and I have never found it easy to accommodate plain and decorated work side by side. We are most aware of the problem when selecting work for galleries and planning displays at craft fairs. We want to show the breadth of our range whilst also wanting coherence. The decorated work has a white ground (porcelain), which is unsympathetic to the plain colours. We separate them into two groups and each group is happier but the whole isn’t coherent. It’s a problem we’ve been aware of for years without feeling able to address… until now.

Over the last six months we’ve been wanting to move away from porcelain to something earthier and more characterful; a clay body that would lend itself to a more relaxed style of throwing for James and simpler decoration for me. So we’ve been trying out various stoneware clays and firing them in reduction. Below is a snap shot of the shelf in the workshop where we put the pots that we think are going in the right direction. And I can’t help thinking that the decorated pots are mingling happily with the plains.

new reduced stoneware range samples

new reduced stoneware range samples


4 thoughts on “Plain or Decorated?”

  1. Heather

    Beautiful pairings! I made a switch to some plain speckled stoneware pots with just a colour dip to accent my decorated porcelain a couple of years ago for the same reason. It has been a really lovely addition to my work and it was nice to use a clay with a more earthy character as well.

    By the way, I was looking for your work on Instagram (I’m hosting a Pots In Action week of Stripes next week) and was wondering if you have an account. Thanks!

    1. Tilla Waters Post Author

      Hi Heather, thanks for your comment and James and I enjoyed looking at the pots on your website. I’ve been meaning to open an Instagram account for ages so thanks for the nudge – I’m about to do it now!

  2. Juliet Macleod

    Love the new speckled stoneware pieces. I think we have the same problem re decoration… possibly why so many of my pots have decoration on the inside only.

    1. James Waters

      Thanks Juliet, we’re really enjoying using stoneware at the moment. How interesting that you feel similarly but I think your work looks coherent – due to your use of colour.

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