Techniques for Carving Clay Patterns on a Plate

Andinkra Series plate, 23 in. (58 cm) in diameter, stoneware, 2009. Photo: Brantley Carrol.

There are a multitude of decorative effects you can create when carving clay, from the slip inlay technique to low relief carving. When David MacDonald began studying African art, he was fascinated by the way pattern was applied to every conceivable object available (non-living and living alike!). He fell in love with this concept and carving clay patterns in his work became his passion.

In this post, an excerpt from an article by Andrew Buck in the Ceramics Monthly archive, we learn how David lays out his geometric patterns, inscribes them, and carves them to beautiful effect. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

Once David MacDonald has developed his idea and has the design worked out in advance, it is time to realize the finished surface of the vessel, in this case a plate. He uses two main technical processes: inscribing the pattern then carving the pattern.

Before beginning the decorative process, he turns the leather-hard plate over and creates two holes in the outer foot ring so that it may be hung on the wall. Turning the plate back over to begin the design, he establishes a circular border with inscribed lines. This demarcates the central and perimeter areas of the plate where the patterns will appear. Then, using simple but precise geometry, he divides the plate in half, measuring equal distances in opposite directions. Using a similar method, the plate is then divided into quarters (1), followed by eighths, and finally sixteenths (2) using marks and inscribed lines.

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Once the plate’s surface has been divided into subsections, MacDonald carves the circular border between the central and perimeter areas of the plate. He recommends selecting a tool that best achieves the result you desire for carving leather-hard clay. MacDonald uses a strip of ebony wood, which he fashioned specifically for this carving technique (3, 4).

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He then uses a flexible straight edge to inscribe the dominant motif with greater detail in the central area of the plate. Following that step, he typically inscribes the pattern on the perimeter sections of the plate using the divider and a flexible straight edge (5). Then, going back to the center of the plate, he carves the pattern of the main motif one line at a time (6, 7).

After the central area is complete, he proceeds to carve the pattern in each section of the perimeter area on the plate, again one line at a time. Water is applied as a lubricant to facilitate the carving (8, 9).

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The plate is sprayed periodically with water to keep the surface from drying out too much. Once the carving is finished, the plate is allowed to dry completely and the carved areas are cleaned up (10). As a final step, MacDonald scrubs the surface with fine steel wool to get rid of ragged, rough edges, leaving the carved plate ready for glazing.

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