Inspiration for this project comes from the silhouette outlines used to record the features of people in times before photography was invented. The principle is easily adapted to outlines of birds and animals
You will need:
Paper to draw out the shape on and use as a template for the design (A4 min size)
Clay – earthenware or stoneware in colour of choice
Rolling pin, roller guides (5mm max), plastic sheet
A fine/thin-bladed cutting tool
Glaze of choice – to fit clay type
OR – Velvet underglaze (Amaco)
Begin by drawing some simple outlines of birds on the sheet of card.
Draw a few shapes but don’t make them too complicated – stylise them a little so that they are obviously birds but without the fine details. Giving yourself a choice of several will allow you to fit them to different shaped frames and help decide which you like best.
Working on the cutting mat, carefully cut out the bird shapes using a sharp craft knife.
Fold a sheet of paper in half – it should be large enough when folded to accommodate half the shape of the hanging you want to make – in this example it’s a heart, but it could be a circle, oval, square, etc. The choice is yours.
Draw one half of the shape up to the fold line, then carefully cut it out.
Open out the template and draw a line 20mm in from the edge, to form a frame or border.
Test your bird shapes inside the frame to determine which you prefer and whether or not you can fit two into the inner space.
The tail feathers of the birds must be positioned to slightly overlap the frame.
Once you’ve decided on a bird shape, position it in the frame in a similar position to the one shown. With the tail overlapping the frame, as previously stated.
Turn the bird template over and draw around it in the same way on the opposite side of the frame.
This second bird can be positioned exactly opposite, above or below the level of the first one.
Once both birds are in position, begin to draw in branches around both of them. You can include leaf shapes if you want to or make them simple, bare, winter branches.
Extend the branches above and around the birds. The aim is to create a grid that will hold everything together when the spaces between the branches are cut out. Think carefully about where the branches attach to the frame and don’t forget to add legs to the birds.
You can make more templates in the same way but using different shapes and proportions using varying bird outlines as appropriate.
Prepare a block of clay – it must accommodate the size of your template, so estimate accordingly.
Working on a sheet of plastic, reduce the bulk of the clay by beating it with the side of your rolling pin. Work in measured, even strokes from one side of the clay to the other, to avoid making deep grooves in the surface.
Roll out the clay between the roller guides, making sure it will adequately accommodate the template.
You will find that periodically turning the slab will make rolling much easier and give you more control to achieve the approximate shape that you require.
Once the slab is rolled out evenly, smooth over the surface with a rib to compact the clay.
Lift the slab on the plastic sheet and turn it over onto an absorbent board.
Peel the sheet off the back of the slab, then smooth over the surface again with a rib.
Place your chosen template on the surface of the slab, making sure it’s flat, with no creases.
Carefully cut the shape out.
Very carefully draw over the entire design (including the line of the frame) to impress the outline into the clay underneath.
When you’ve finished transferring the outline of the design to the clay, peel off the template slowly to make sure you have included all the lines. If you find you’ve missed one or two, lay the template back down and draw in the missing lines.
As you lift the template when you’ve finished, you should be able to see the lines of the design clearly outlined in the clay.
Work over the impressed lines with a suitable pointed tool to define them more clearly. A pencil will do the job, but you can use a pin or dedicated wooden tool.
Briefly return to the paper template and fold it back in half. Decide on a position for the hanging holes and punch through both layers of paper to ensure they are equally spaced from the centre.
Lay the template over the surface of the slab once more and mark the position of the hanging holes with the end of a paintbrush or other suitable tool.
Punch out the holes using a thin plastic tube with a wooden skewer inside it. Use the skewer to push the clay out once the holes have been made.
Begin to cut the clay out between the branches and around the birds. Use a sharp, narrow-bladed knife or dedicated cutting device for this job. Precision is required!
Lift each section out of the frame carefully after cutting – try to avoid distorting the branches as you do this.
Continue to cut out the spaces in this way until all the sections have been removed.
After cutting out each section, neaten up by working around the cut edges with the tool to round and soften them off a little.
To finish up, work around the cut edges with a barely damp sponge.
The silhouette shape is now complete. Make more shapes of your choosing in the same way.
Once finished, allow the shapes to dry out thoroughly on a flat surface, periodically turning them over to keep them flat.
Bisque fire the shapes once dry.
Once bisque fired, carefully smooth away any sharp edges where the clay has been cut out, using fine sandpaper.
WEAR A DUST MASK to do this and sand the back of the hanging as well as the front.
Brush up the dust carefully and dispose of it sensibly, then wipe over the hangings with a damp cloth to remove any remaining traces.
Two silhouette shapes, sanded and ready to glaze.
Decorating the surface:
Silhouettes were traditionally black to make them stand out sharply, but this isn’t a strict rule so you can decorate your hanging in another colour if you choose. However, black finishes have been selected to decorate the examples shown here: one in glaze, the other with underglaze.
If using a slop glaze, you can simply dip your hanging in the glaze then clean off the surplus from the back with a rib before wiping it completely clean with a damp sponge or cloth.
If using a brush-on glaze, paint it on the surface in as many coats as recommended by the manufacturer, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next.
Scrape away any glaze that has found its way on to the underside of the hanging, using a suitable metal rib or kidney.
Wipe away any final traces of glaze from the underside using a damp cloth.
Botz Black Glimmer low-firing glaze has been used to decorate this particular example. This is a glaze which contains a sparkle and to show this off to best effect you must wipe over the surface with a damp cloth once the glaze has dried after application.
A simple alternative to glaze is Amaco Velvet underglaze. This will give you a matt-to-semi-sheen finish depending on the temperature you fire it to. The higher the firing, the shinier the underglaze becomes, because it contains some frit. For this reason, these underglazes have the added advantage of not needing glaze to seal the surface; they are complete in themselves, although covering in glaze is still an option if you want.
Apply three coats of underglaze, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next.
Clean off any dribbles of underglaze from the back of the hanging when finished, using a damp cloth. Be warned, because frit is present in the underglaze, it will stick to the kiln shelf when fired if not cleaned off thoroughly!
Two finished hangings, decorated and ready for firing.
The glimmer in the Botz glaze can be seen more clearly after firing.
Thread a ribbon or decorative string through the hanging holes to complete the silhouette, and then it’s ready to hang on the wall.
The underglazed hanging has fired to a much flatter black, more like a true silhouette, but both work well in their own way.
This project first featured in issue 36
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