Thursday, August 5, 2010

Where Did That Idea Come From?

It's not easy to come up with original ideas in a medium as ancient and everyday as pottery. Most often, new ideas carry with them echoes of all the other pots we've seen and admired. It reminds me of the sci-fi writer who refused to read other writers' work in order to avoid being influenced by their ideas. I've found that potters are probably the only artists who generously share their techniques, ideas, glazes, and so on.

I learned to make carved luminaries very early in my pottery journey and for a long time I made open and closed carved forms to be used with candles. A few years ago, my mentor, Virginia potter and teacher Jane Cullum showed me how to adapt the luminaries to accommodate a snap-in socket. One of my first sales in Etsy was one of those lamps! Later, I was putting my grandson to bed one night and had just turned off the lights when I saw the glow-in-the-dark planets and moons and stars that his Dad had pasted on the ceiling of his room. That's where the idea of making a lamp with a moon and stars came from. But how about having it project on the ceiling?

I had been making lots of items using closed forms, including boxes, so it was easy to adapt a closed form into a starry nights lamp with a snap-in socket. I've now started making them with other designs as well. Here's one of my favorite lamp forms, which takes two snap-in sockets and light bulbs.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Making Lamps 2

Here's part 2 of "Making Starry Nights Lamps."

After you've made the round form, trimmed it, made the hole for the snap-in socket, and put feet on it, it's time to carve the design.

I use templates, stencils, hole punchers, and cookie cutters, but you can also use your own design or cut out a free-hand design. Two things are important at this stage: (1) how wet your pot is and (2) the type of design.

I talked yesterday about (1). This is really important. If you start carving when the clay is too wet you can expect 3 types of problems: clumping of the crumbs, a deformed pot and trouble removing the carved out pieces because the clay will tend to stick together even after you've cut it. Ideally, your clay should be a good leather hard.

I start by sketching the design onto the form. You could start carving from the beginning, but I like to sketch in the design first so that I can better visualize it finished. At this point I am taking care not to leave too little space between cut-outs because those narrow pieces of clay are the most likely to crack, deform or break off. Spirals and curlicues are particularly prone to these problems. However, it doesn't mean that I won't use such a design, just that I might not carve some sections all the way through. I also think about the size of the cut-outs and how it will look with a light bulb in it. I try to have a combination of large and small cut outs so that the light won't glare out of the lamp or the light bulb is too visible.

Once I'm happy with the design, I start carving with a scalpel, x-acto knife or other such sharp knife. I generally stick one finger through the socket hole and stab the scalpel down to my finger and use it as a guide while cutting. This minimizes cut "overruns" (but really hurts!). Pay attention to what the clay is doing, sometimes it's fine to slide the scalpel all the way around a design, other times it's best to move in an up-and-down motion all the way around the design. I find that this usually depends on how wet/dry the clay is and how intricate the design is. So, I'm likely to go carefully up and down around a spiral (because they break off so easily!), and just slide around the edges of a leaf.

Don't fuss with the crumbs and with refining the cut out areas. Once the piece is bone dry the crumbs can easily be removed by running a needle tool all around the cut-outs. Then shake the piece to get all the crumbs to fall out of the socket hole. I also sand the pieces when they are bone dry.

You can make these lamps as open cylinders as well and I'm experimenting now with covered oval, triangle, and square shapes... we'll see how those come out.

Have fun!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Making Lamps 1

The Starry Nights Lamps have been my best sellers. I recently sold my last 3 in one week and had to put aside other projects to make some more lamps. So I thought I'd show you how I make

I start out with about 1.5 lbs of clay and throw a closed form. Before taking it off the wheel, I use a metal rib to smooth the surface and an edger to remove some of the excess clay at the bottom. I run the wire under them but don't take them off the bat until they can be handled without distorting. At this point, it's a good idea to poke a small hole somewhere with a needle tool.

Once it is dry enough to trim, I refine the form and make a hole in the bottom for the snap-in socket. I have a small cookie cutter that is the right size and I've marked it "Lamp Socket" so I know which one to use every time. The hole is about an inch in diameter.

Unless you are going to trim and then move immediately to cutting out the design, it's best to trim the forms a bit wetter than usual. The reason is that it takes a while to cut out the design (the starry nights lamps take the best part of an hour) and the pot is drying as you're doing this (more or less rapidly depending on ambient humidity). You don't want the pot to be too wet when cutting because the clay crumbs will clump and also the form can collapse. But you don't want to do it too dry because you run the risk of cracking. So, ideally, you should be cutting the design at the pliable leather hard stage.

The next step is to add the feet. Feet are necessary because you need a space for the cord. The height of the feet is a matter of your own aesthetics. Sometimes I throw a ring and add it to the bottom, cutting out a notch for the cord. Other times I add small lumps.

Tomorrow: Cutting out the design!