In chess there’s a saying ‘a bad plan is better than no plan at all’. This is true of pottery too. On working days I don’t expect to sit down at the wheel and expect to produce satisfactory work without some kind of an idea of what I’m aiming at. Even a vague thought like ‘I’m going to throw some bowls’ isn’t enough – I need to have drawings and a visual idea of what I’m trying to produce. This is particularly true when working on surface treatment – patterns, decoration and so on. Work that has been done with an attitude of nonchalance is rarely successful and I would urge anyone who makes pots, or is thinking about it, to make drawings of what they are attempting.
Even if you don’t think you’re much good with a pencil, it doesn’t matter. No one will see your efforts unless you choose to show them. The point is that any plans or sketches you make are for your reference only. Having a visual cue sharpens the imagination, making it easier to realise what you intend, but these should be working drawings in the strictest sense – a means to an end, not works of art in themselves.
Working to a plan when glazing and decorating is particularly important. Picking up a loaded brush ready to paint a pot but having no idea of the design you intend to put on it is usually a waste of time; by having a design already on paper you at least save that precious commodity. I would encourage anyone, whether you make pots or not, to sketch. Even if you dismiss your efforts as meaningless on unworthy at the time, in months or years in the future you might think differently and the doodles you did can provide you with a wealth of ideas. Motifs derived from sketches of plants, trees, leaves, foliage, bricks, stonework, clouds, water, rocks and animals are limited only by one’s imagination.
As a potter and painter you can’t help but evaluate the work of other artists. It’s second nature that when you see a pot, sculpture or painting, particularly by someone you admire, the mind begins to scrutinise the way in which the article has been made or decorated. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Mentally running through the process of how you would have made it, how you could incorporate such a technique into your own work, and just appreciating the beauty of the thing is always beneficial. What I am trying not to do is automatically dismiss work that I think is poor or don’t like. There should be some reason for my opinion and getting to the bottom of that – in the same way as evaluating stuff that I do like – is as much a part of improving my work as assimilating influences of artists I admire.
I was shopping yesterday and saw some drinking mugs which I quite liked. They were unusual in that they were a little different from the kind of stuff you see in there – Mister Men mugs and floral stuff in pastel glazes. These had been half-dipped with a reactive glaze, something like a chun, on the outside, the lower half covered with a darker matt glaze. The inside was completely covered with the reactive glaze. They were nicely done but I felt the attractive chun effect would be lost when tea or coffee was poured into them. How would I have done them differently? Would I have used the same colours? What glazes would I have used on the inside instead? My partner, Amanda, also pointed out also that the handles were too big for a woman’s fingers. They were too masculine and needed something a little less chunky and more elegant. However, I wasn’t too bothered about criticising and dismissing a factory made pot; no art had gone into the making of this machine-made item and I wasn’t hurting anyone’s feelings by condemning it.
In the run-up to the opening of the studio I’ve been immersing myself in the work of potters that I particularly admire: Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Jim Malone, Sandy Brown et al. Trying to distill what it is I like about all of these artists is difficult. Why do I like these and not others? With most of the aforementioned potters it is their simplicity that attracts and their own embracing of imperfections. The Japanese call this wabi-sabi, which comes from the Bhuddist principle of aesthetics, an appreciation of austerity, modesty, economy and one might even say roughness. The rustic simplicity, freshness and quietness of such work is, for me, something to be aspired to. The anomalies and individualities that occur in the throwing and glazing processes are part and parcel of the beauty and serenity of pottery. One might say even a spirituality; there is definitely something transcendent about the act of throwing a pot that one might describe as approaching that state of mind. This is not to say that wabi-sabi is about being happy with whatever comes off the wheel. I’m not suggesting we accept work that is fundamentally flawed, but in striving towards perfection we should accept the individualties of our creations. This attitude is one of the principles underlying the Japanese concept of mingei or folk art.
Shoji Hamada was famously quoted as saying that ‘making pottery should not be like climbing a mountain, it should be more like walking down a hill in a pleasant breeze’. Anyone who has lost themselves in the act of throwing will know what I mean. The stillness and contemplation of the creation of pottery is much like the enjoyment Hamada alludes to.
In the last few days I’ve been out and about making notes on the landscape and textures I find interesting. I don’t have to go far; in this part of the world there’s always something that catches the eye, a dry stone wall, old brickwork, a shady corner of woodland, the gnarled bark of a tree. Inspiration for pottery designs.
I’ve also been in the studio working on some more finished pieces from sketches I did last year on holiday in Exmoor and North Wales. Drawing is fuel for creative ideas when it comes to pottery. Designs are easier to come up with when you have a bank of material to work from. Besides, it’s a habit that’s difficult to get out of once you start. For me it’s something of a necessity. The pieces below were worked in various grades of pencil, charcoal pencil and pastel pencil. Details from them may find their way onto pots eventually. Maybe not.