Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Tricky blighters, your pears.  I really love a pear that is just right but find it so, so difficult to buy pears so that that is what I get.  I know they're not going to be exactly ripe when I buy them, but how can you tell which ones are good at that stage?  And how do you know how long they'll take to ripen?  And even, how can you tell from the outside whether the pear is ripe?  Most pears I buy end up getting poached because they just aren't nice to eat raw.  They are either too hard or have gone woolly, and there's little nastier in the fruit world than a woolly pear.  I bought a bag of Conference pears last week.  There they sit, looking promising.  The first one I tried had the audacity to be too hard at one end and verging on the woolly at the other!

Then, there's their shape.  Pear-shaped.  Apparently the typical Englishwoman's figure, starting with narrow shoulders and bulging outwards towards the hips.  It's not supposed to be a Good Thing.  I'm not sure I am pear-shaped, though.  Overweight, certainly, but I think more of a Bramley apple than a pear.

And finally, things go pear-shaped.  This one I like.  I've used the expression many times to describe 2010 as a whole.  And at last I have an illustration to demonstrate it.  You see above, ladies and gentlemen (and my other friends who don't qualify for the aforementioned titles) a large cardboard box full of A4 papers that is filing waiting to be done.  I've just had to go through it to find all of a certain type of document and when I got to the bottom I found that in fact it contains papers for the last twelve months.  In other words, I haven't done any filing since last year started to go pear-shaped towards the end of March.

If you read yesterday's blog you will remember my claiming to be organised and good at admin.  I don't recant.  It's still true.  It's just that filing my own paperwork was one of the things that just went out the window last year.  Not literally, of course.  That would have been a disaster.  No, papers just piled up and piled up until they needed this massive box.

"But it's a quarter of the way through 2011!" I hear you cry.  Yes it is.  And yes, I do seem to be getting my life back on track.  However, this means that I am doing all the things I should normally be doing.  It doesn't mean I can miraculously catch up with all the things that didn't get done last year.

It takes quite a lot to surprise me, but actually I was surprised to discover twelve months' worth of paperwork in this box.  It's just not me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Work cycles

We're all different.  Thank goodness.  The world would be very dull if we weren't.  For every human characteristic there seems to be a continuum and where you are on it can have wide-reaching effects.  Artists and other creative people have a reputation for not being good at admin and it's often said that I am unusual in not only being very good at it but actually enjoying it.  It's true.  I've always enjoyed being organised. 
It's just as well.  Balancing all the different components of my working life needs careful planning and an eye for far-reaching implications when surprises turn up.  Some of that is because I do different things within my working life - pottery, textiles, cards, working within organisations, to name but four.  The rest is to do with the constraints of making pottery generally and, I have to admit, some created by the particular work that I choose to do.

Working in two clays in a smallish workshop with one wheel means that I can't just swap between clays on a daily or even weekly basis.  There's a day's organisation in cleaning all the tools, the work area, etc between using one clay and another and it's not a job I enjoy.

Another factor is what happens in the kiln.  Within the glazes that I use, different glazes require slightly different firing temperatures and since my kiln fires unevenly (as most seem to, to some extent or other) I achieve this with mixed firings.  Also, in the grand scheme of things it's not big - about 10.5 cu ft - but you can get a lot of pots in there and I can't imagine ever needing to fire a whole kiln full of one type of pot.  As an example, if I fired nothing but mugs, I'd probably be looking at more than 90 mugs (although I would have a shelf left over that wouldn't be high enough for any more mugs but would take cereal bowls.)  I never need 90 mugs at once.  I always need 45 mugs, 20 cereal bowls, a dozen dinner plates, a few salt pigs and some fruit bowls.  And in case you're wondering, no, I wouldn't get all of those in one firing either!

So, firings are necessarily very mixed.  I do also fire to two slightly different temperatures, so that's another element of variety added to the mix.  It will now be clear why I need to have lots of all sizes of pots in both clays to start firing.

So, at last, I come to the point of the title, work cycles.  My pottery work cycle is that I spend a couple of months or more at a time making pots in one clay.  During this time I may have enough of the other pots to fire but often not.  Then eventually I have made all the white clay pots I'm going to, as you see in the picture above, and I can start on the other colour of clay.  That's where I am now.  This morning I began throwing pots in the brown clay.  It feels really good to be at that moving forward sort of stage, especially as the weather has been so springlike and there is a general feeling of regeneration.  I've been busy with a few other things for about 10 days so it's also good to get back into the pottery in general.

What next?  Well, next there need to be enough pots in brown clay ready to fire so that I can actually start on some firings.  After that ...  well, that's for another day, I think.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I spent last weekend running a silk painting workshop at Nature In Art.  It's a wonderful place in a beautiful location.  No doubt some reading this blog would consider Stroud rural but we live on the edge of the town, at a crossroads, and consider ourselves to be pretty urban.  The minute you get out of the car at Nature In Art, though, you know you are in the country.

As I've mentioned here before, I've been Artist In Residence there a few times, I've run a silk-painting workshop there before and have done the Christmas Craft Fair a couple of times too.  It's a place I feel really at home in as most of my textiles work is inspired by natural themes.

I've only been doing workshops for a few years.  All the time I was teaching youngsters I didn't really want to add any more teaching to my working life but soon after I stopped, was persuaded to try a workshop and found I really love doing them.  I've always enjoyed teaching people things but I suppose in the latter years of my teaching work it was usually more a case of teaching the young people, and the things were not necessarily the things I felt most passionate about.  This way, though, I get to work with other people, which is lovely, and I get to be enthusiastic about textiles and colour and other things that inspire me, which is the icing on the cake.

This particular course had a relatively low number of students and I wasn't sure what to expect of that.  As it turned out, it was a really enjoyable weekend and we all seemed to get on very well.  Obviously my role is to advise and support individual projects as well as teach the skills needed but it's always good when the students end up supporting each other.  This was one such group.

Because we were a small group we could also all join in one conversation so at coffee and lunch breaks we got onto other subjects and got to know each other further that way.

Everyone expressed satisfaction with the workshop (phew! :) ) and I think most of them are interested enough to do some more silk painting in future.  That's one of the best bits for me.  Above all, I do want people to enjoy what they're doing.  Silk painting is a really absorbing activity.  By the time we got to the afternoons, nobody wanted to take a break in the cafe and seeing everyone so inspired was really satisfying.

Some people use patterns I take along, or use designs from books and others develop a more freestyle approach.  Nearly always, as in this last workshop, people play with colour, which is of course what I really love, and silk painting is an ideal medium for exploring it.  Sometimes it's a case of experimenting with blending colours, sometimes trying out unfamiliar colours but nearly always the way colour has been used turns out to be the key to the pieces produced. 

Because there were only four of them, in no particular order, the pictures here show the work produced by my weekend students, with thanks for being such an enjoyable group to work with.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Well, that's it, really.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Work in progress - 2

As promised, a progress report about the lizard vase.  You may be able to see here that it is now a fairly uniform white in colour.  That's the first way to tell that it is dry but you also have to feel the pot.  If it's in a reasonably warm room it should feel the same temperature as the room.  If it's still damp, it will feel slightly cooler.  Finally, if I'm not sure, I press the pot to my cheek as there is a better sensitivity to damp on the skin there.  In this case, though, I know the pot is dry and in any case it's now sitting waiting for the next stage.

So, the lizard has survived the drying out stage.  This is actually the least precarious.  They nearly always do survive drying out.  The next thing will be to decide on the colouring I'm going for.

This is not an easy choice.  I don't have many glazes and on this clay there are really three colour choices - a greyish white, such as you see on chicken pots, a creamy colour which is on the cream lustre pots and the colour I have called "heather" because it reminds me of the heather moors in Yorkshire in all its varieties.  

What makes things more complicated is the choice of oxides, colouring glazes and lustres that will go on the lizard itself.  With experience, one quickly learns some good and bad combinations of these but there is plenty of unpredictability in these things and I have to allow for that in what I plan to do.  I think it depends how I'm feeling generally what level of risk I enjoy.  Sometimes I want to play safe with a combination that almost always works and sometimes I'm in the mood to just go for something a little unexpected.

The jury is still very much out about how to glaze and decorate the lizard vase.  I may be moving towards a decision but I'm certainly not going to announce it here until its done.

I may have mentioned before that for most pots I do only one firing.  This is known as "once-firing" (subtle, eh? ;) ) or "raw glazing" because the pots are raw when glazed.  To extend the cooking metaphor, the majority of UK potters probably don't do raw glazing and therefore their pots are cooked once before glazing.  This is known as "biscuit firing" and the resultant pots as "biscuit ware".  Completely unfired pots are "green ware."

So you take a bone dry pot and ruthlesslessly swill a whole lot of wet glaze around its insides before dunking it into more glaze and then placing it back up the right way on a board.  Glazes are made of powdered minerals suspended in water.  Raw glazes have a high proportion of clay in them to make them "fit" the pot and a consistency between single and double cream is what I go for.  Still plenty of water around, though, which will of course soak immediately into the bone dry clay.  If the thickness of the clay is uneven, the soaking of the liquid won't be even either and, particularly where the clay changes thickness, the pull of soaked clay against unsoaked clay can cause fractures.

Are you ahead of me?  Yes indeed, lizards and their tails do present sudden changes of thickness of clay on a pot.  And that, Best Beloved, is why so many lizard pots end up as casualties, either at the glazing stage or the firing stage, where there is a similar problem with water content and thicknesses.  And why I'm not going to tell you how I decide to glaze and decorate the lizard vase until I know it has at least survived the glazing stage.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is it spring yet?

About a week ago M announced that we had just three or four days' worth of logs left this winter, so we've been doing without the fire mostly.  We've had one of our three or four.  I've had to put the heating higher again most evenings as it's been chilly, to say the least.  It's not bad, though.  I think we began lighting the fire on 14th October and went right through every evening unless we were out until the end of February. 

Today, though, it really looked like spring out there.  I went with M and Charlie on their walk, which doubles as a wooding session. 

Note the nonchalant regal hands-behind-the-back pose as he balances the branch over his shoulder. 

This winter the wooding M has done is spectacular and next year we'll certainly have enough to have fires for six months if we need them.  We now have a small wood stack where last year was the whole stack ....

... and a large wood stack.  You have to be impressed with the length of some of these.  Mind you, the 7m one wasn't brought back over the shoulder ;)