Surface Decoration

As soon as I became competent enough with throwing, I became entranced by the idea of surface decoration. Several years later and I realize how the sky is the limit with options.

In the before times, I had the opportunity to work as an assistant teacher at the Kawartha Potters’ Guild to Darlene Malcolm-Moran (who was also, previously, one of my teachers). Darlene is an exceptional teacher and I have become a better potter just listening to her talk to our students and helping our students achieve their goals. Darlene’s view is that you should be considering what surface decoration technique you wish to use on your piece, the moment you throw that clay down onto the wheel. Like many of our students, I’m not that thorough yet, in my planning, but I do see myself gravitating in that direction. The deal is, there are so many different decoration styles to choose from and try out.

Today’s post is intended to give a brief introduction to some of the decoration techniques I like to use. I may go into more detail on some of these in future (and if there are any you’d like to see me discuss, please let me know).


Carved detail of leaves and flowers on a mug in green on white clay
Detail of reverse sgraffito on a mug
Small plate carved with trailing vines and leaves, glazed in off white
Vines carved into red clay. Glaze sinks into and breaks over carved edges
Sgraffito detail photo of mug
Showing detail of sgraffito decoration on a slipped mug while very wet.

Sgraffito has easily become my most favourite method of decorating. It is very zen and soothing and I can often just start with some basic lines on a piece and start carving. It is the act of cutting out or away lines, or areas, to create an effect.

Mishima or Bunchung

Korean style vase decorated with incised slip techniques in red, black and white and glazed in a green celadon glaze - Bates
Lines in white, red and black under green celedon glaze are incised and coloured in.
Xmas decoration - closed form in white clay with blue incised lines and cut work
The blue lines are done with the Korean Bunchung technique
Celedon vase decorated with incised cranes and grasses, filled with white and black slips
The cranes and grasses on this vase are made using the Bunchung technique (Korean mishima)

Above: two outer pieces I made in Korea in 2018 while working with Korean master potters in Icheon. The middle piece is a holiday ornament decorated with the blue lines and then the cut work is done afterwards. Bunchung is the Korean word for mishima but does mean more than that. I will get into the details in a further post. Generally this technique produces very clean lines by carving the design, painting in the slip or underglaze and removing the colour from everywhere but the incised lines.

5 Slip Carving

Shallow bowl - outside sgraffito through 5 different colours of slip with black on top
There are 5 different colours of slip painted on the outside. What colours show up depend on how deeply one carves.
Handeless cup painted with 5 different colours of slips and carved through
This cup was made and prepared ahead of time by Master Kim for us to practice.
Vase painted in 5 layers of coloured slip and carved through
This vase was made by me in Korea and the slips painted on there and carved through.

The piece on the left was made for a workshop on slip work with Chris Snedden at the London Potters Guild in 2017. The other two pieces were from my time in Korea. There was a significant difference in how well the carving worked out on the middle piece vs the two on either side. The one on the right had very thin layers of colour, making it very difficult to control (and we had very limited time to finish our pieces in). 5 slip carving (or any number of levels) is really particularly effective for those who do slip casting as the layers can be made quite thick. I have learned, through some trial and error that the best method of doing this kind of decoration is thorough preparation (and notes, so you remember what colour you put in which order) and time. Rushing this just leads to failure.

Slip Trailing

Detail of painted and slip trailed large platter in blues, greens, gold and red
Detail of one of the platters I made showing slip trailing on top of underglaze decoration
Dinner plate slip trailed on green underglaze on rim overglazed in honey
Slip trailing on coloured rim
Shot glass or egg cup in red clay, slip trailed vines in white glazed in an amber gold
Slip trailing can be a small accent on it’s own or in concert with another decorative technique

My first love was slip trailing. It is the technique of applying wet liquid slip in lines from some sort of an applicator. Aside from ensuring your slip is at exactly the right consistency, the trickiest part is not touching the clay with the tip of the applicator.

I have long been an admirer of Hannah McAndrew from Scotland who really is the modern queen of slip trailing. Like many other techniques, there is lots about this one that requires time and practice to get better at. I still dabble at this, but currently more as accent work with my sgraffito than as a decoration on it’s own.


Syrian 13th c replica plate - painted in blue and black under a clear glaze featuring a dog in silhouette.
Reproduction of a Syrian 13th c find. Painted with cobalt slip and black underglaze,
Beige decorated plate with painted bullrushes
Painted center
Large platter painted in blue and black with touches of red in Andalusian tile style
All over painted design. Painted work of this style was typical in Andalusia between the 12th-14th c.

Painting can be very measured, like the large platter on the right, or more loose like the bullrushes in the centre plate. Good brushes are a must. You can paint with slip, underglaze, glaze as well as other more modern inventions that behave more like paint. When you paint is dependent on which medium you wish to paint with and sometimes the effect you a looking to generate.

These are only some of the many different ways clay can be decorated. Should you have questions about any of the above, or any other techniques you have seen, please feel free to ask. I’m happy to try to answer. Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe.