A couple recently visited with a sad tale of woe, a very special jug that had been sent over from the UK had arrived in pieces. They made emergency repairs to the unfortunate thing so that it could at least be used, but it was never really the same! The jug in question was unwrapped and placed on my table. Shaped in the form of a fish, the jug was designed to entertain as well as to pour! To demonstrate this, water was fetched, and the jug filled. Whilst being emptied, a pocket of trapped air in the tail of the fish made a satisfying glug-glug sound, and when brought back upright, the remaining water in the jug glug-glugged again merrily as it trapped and compressed more air. What fun! I was asked if it would be possible for me to make something similar to replace it.
I realised straight away that a form like this would have its own challenges, but I said I would give it a try and see how I got on.
There seemed to me to be two alternative approaches that I could take. The first was to make most of the jug on the wheel, the second was to build it entirely by hand by pinching and coiling clay.
I ended up trying both methods. The wheel method was definitely faster, but I got a better result by hand building.
Throwing a fish on the wheel!
I first centred some clay on the wheel, and opened it out to form a doughnut shape with a hollow centre. I pulled the clay up into a tall tapering shape that was open at the bottom and closed at the top. It looked a bit like a straight cow's horn at this stage. Carefully, with the wheel stopped, I progressively eased the top over until I could join the tip of it to the side of the cylinder, forming a loop. I smeared the clay at the joint to make the beginnings of a tail. The following day, when the clay had stiffened a little, I was able to add a slab of clay to the piece to form a base. After that I could turn everything over and build the head out of the wide end and add detail to the tail in the thin part that joined back to the side of the cylinder. Once all that was complete I added the detail to the head and textured the body to form the scales. I used a little wooden tool for this and did the scales one by one, I think that if I was to make many of these fish I would make a set of clay stamps or rollers that added the scale textures when pushed into the clay. This would make the job much faster, but would take some time initially to prepare.
The thrown fish was more or less OK, but I was concerned that I had the clay just a little thick. In order to be able to loop the clay over, a reasonable thickness of clay had to be left in the initial cylinder to allow for the stretch of one side and the compression of the other. In addition I felt like the little fish was a bit short in stature!
A fish from Coils!
Building by coiling and pinching clay was slower, but gave me far more control. The much larger fish that I made feels light and well balanced.
I started by making the base, and then progressively worked upwards making the twin forms of the tail and the main body of the fish at the same time. Every so often I would use a small gas torch to firm up the clay lower down so that I could keep on building without the fish slumping, thickening, or collapsing. It took me all of an afternoon to build the basic structure this way, and a morning to do the decoration of it, but I am happy with the way it is looking so far. Currently the jug is in the kiln cooling after bisque firing, so I really hope that it has come through the firing intact. The fish will shrink in this firing and its later glaze firing, and should end up just a little bit bigger than the damaged jug.
The dilemma that I always encounter when doing any one-off commissioned work is that it seems almost impossible to make much of a financial return for the hours that have been swallowed up (and this is not intended as a criticism of my clients!). However, looking at it in another way, the return that I get on my investment of money spent on clay, glaze materials, and firing, is far more than if I had left the money in the bank! To charge at a rate that any other professional person would charge would make things completely unaffordable for the client, and I would probably get no commissions at all, which would be disastrous.
There always have been benefits of doing commissions that go beyond the financial ones, in my case, as a potter who has not served an apprenticeship with another potter or attended a course of study, such commissions stretch me and improve my skills. There is also a very real blessing of building relationships with others. Many of our very dear friends first came to us as clients.