Installation view: JAN NAPOLITAN: JOY 40 Years in the Ceramics Studio


Surface Treatments by Jan Napolitan

Forming clay on a potter’s wheel is fascinating, but this is only the beginning of a long process.  The piece generally needs to be refined, and then the fun begins.  What to do with the surface?  Hopefully, the artist has a vision as the piece is being formed or the form itself speaks to them.  Handles? Carving?  Added clay?  Added colors? Or nothing, and just left to dry as-is before the first firing (bisque).  Then more decisions are needed.  What kind of firing?  High fire?  Raku, sodium, saggar, low fire as alternatives?These pieces, chosen for my retrospective at  Palos Verdes Art Center last December, reveal  the  range  of  outcomes  learned  from  twenty  years of ceramic classes, forty years in my own studio, and sixteen years of teaching.

GLAZE – With the more classical forms, I used a plain black glaze to make the silhouette most important visually. This was applied after the bisque firing and then fired in a high fire kiln to 2330 degrees.
SLIP – Other pieces need surface texture to catch the eye.  Slip is liquid clay usually applied with a brush and left to dry.  Too much wet slip may cause the clay to slump.  Generally, a different color clay is used to make the slip, as glazes can look different on different clay bodies, and this makes a nice contrast.

CARVING – This is a wonderful treatment to use on a plain clay body or on a slipped surface before the bisque firing.  Sculpture tools are used to drag through or scrape off clay.  With slip, the surface can become any color if different colors of slips are used, and contrast with the color of the clay.  Some glazes are magical as they run into the carving, giving depth to the color, or they can break over carved edges and show more of the clay body.

SAGGAR AND ALTERNATIVE FIRING – I have fired in a fire pit on the beach, in a raku kiln, and in a saggar in my own kiln.  A saggar is an enclosed box that pieces are fired in, generally in a kiln.  The results are not known until the pot cools and can be taken out of the container.  You may be thrilled, you may want to cry, but you have something unique that cannot be duplicated.  Placed in the saggar can be various materials – sawdust, salt, copper carbonate, seaweed, dried plants, whatever, packed around, under and on the bisque piece.  I was thrilled with the  piece I am sharing with you.
– Jan Napolitan