I visit ceramicist Rachel Cox in her studio in South West London and talk to her about her inspiration and process. She shows me the step by step methods used in creating her range of Tinto Ceramics. A surprising number of stages go into creating this collection and I’ve gained a new respect for these simple and elegant pieces and Rachel’s craft skills.
Rachel’s ceramics start with a coloured slip, which is a liquid clay mixture of porcelain, pigment and water.
What inspired you to become a ceramicist?
As part of my BA degree in the Applied Arts I undertook the Erasmus exchange programme at the University of Pecs in Hungary, where I studied ceramics solely for six months. During this period I was given a lot of free time to really explore the material and its potentials, I was researching surface pattern and texture at the time and thoroughly enjoyed developing my ideas through the medium of clay. When I returned to my degree in the UK there was no going back, that was thirteen years ago now. Clay is such a malleable and changeable material it can portray almost infinite qualities. It is also an incredibly challenging material to use, which will not allow you to force your will upon it, you must rather understand its chemistry and behaviour in order to control it. For this reason it is a fascinating material to work with and requires a life long commitment in order to fully gain its command.
To form the initial shape of the piece a plaster mould is used.
The mould can be separated into two pieces. The coloured slip is poured into the bottom part of mould and allowed to sit for a short time. The slip that is touching the plaster walls of the mould starts to dry and forms a skin on the inside. The excess slip is poured away, leaving a thin coating of coloured slip on the inside of the mould. Just like making a chocolate easter egg! The rough edges are then trimmed down and neatened off.
Tell us a little about the process of creating your ceramic objects?
My designs always start as initial sketches on paper and later move into design software where they can be visualised three dimensionally. There are seven items in my collection, which I have developed over four years; I often design pieces together such as the carafe and cup set. When the designs are complete I make paper models in order to explore their scale and proportions physically. Most changes are made in the paper model stage as at this point I am interacting with the design and considering its functional and ergonomic qualities. This initial stage involves going back and forth between sketches on paper, computer designs and models. Later I will turn the final design out of plaster using chisels and specialised tools on a lathe, from this plaster 3D model I will make a two part plaster mould. The pastel colours are poured as liquid clay inside the plaster mould and are integral to the finished piece. Colour is also initially explored in my sketchbook through watercolour paints and is later developed in multiple series of ceramic colour tests, which involves mixing a spectrum of pigments in different percentages. The exterior surface of my pieces are very smooth and tactile, which involves multiple stages of sanding and finishing and are finally glazed on the inside with a shiny transparent glaze.
The top part of the mould is then stacked and fastened with a band. This builds up the mould allowing the next layer of the plain porcelain slip to be added on top of the coloured one. As in the coloured slip process, the slip is poured in and allowed to sit for a time, it is then poured out of the mould. This leaves you with a complete, perfectly white porcelain layer, covering the coloured part on the inside.
The pieces are then neatened up and any spilled slip is trimmed off leaving a neater edge.
Whats your favourite part of the process?
The favourite part of my process is right at the beginning during the initial conceptual design and colour development phase, this process can take months and is a creative and exciting period.
Once out of the mould they are left to dry completely. Stacked on their rims to hold their shape. If handles are needed they are added once they are dry.
Handles are also made in a mould. They are applied to the mugs by first trimming the excess clay, then placing the handle against the mug and marking where it sits. These marks are then scratched to rough up the surface. Then like glue a mixture of water and slip is applied to the handle and mug. The handle is then pressed against the mug until it holds.
The colour and form of your ceramics are very distinct, what were the inspirations for these?
The collection began while I was living in Barcelona and the shapes are influenced by the dining ware that I used on a daily basis such el vaso and la jarra on which I based the design of my contemporary cup and carafe set. The six complementary pastel shades of the collection emerged from colour surveys of my surrounding environment during that period and resulted in hundreds of ceramic colour tests being carried out to conclude the final six in the collection.
When the pieces are dry they can be hand finished. Out of the mould the rims and edges can be a little sharp and wouldn’t be pleasant to drink from. They are tidied up in a process called fettling. A wet sponge is used to work the rim into a more pleasing shape. This method of hand finishing ensures more control over the object. To make sure the piece is level it is rubbed rim side down, over a very even surface, covered in a damp cloth. Like sanding, this ensures the rim is level on all sides. A final finishing with a very fine sponge to make sure its even and to smooth out any join that might have appeared from the mould and any joins with the handle.
How did the ‘Tinto’ collection get its name?
The name Tinto is a Spanish word, which originates from the Latin ‘tinctus’, meaning dyed, stained or tinted.
The next stage for the pieces are to be bisque fired. This is its first time in the kiln and its a process that hardens the clay so that it can be worked further. It also allows it to be glazed ready for its final firing. After they have been bisque fired they are all sanded down with different grades of sandpaper becoming finer and finer. This gives the pieces their characteristic finish and texture.
Your mugs and cups sit very well in the hand. Does the way people interact with your pieces influence the design?
The design process heavily involves the functional considerations of the piece, such as how the piece feels to hold, its weight and material surface, how it sits in the hand and feels on the lips etc. The forms are designed with a consideration for balance and harmony, using glazed and unglazed ceramic surfaces I aim to produce items that are tactile and engage the user.
The final stage is to add a transparent glaze to the inside. Then they have their final firing in the kiln and the finished result is revealed. This picture shows you a mug before the fettling stage on the left and one finished from the kiln on the right . As the moisture is driving out through the firings the piece shrinks to give you the final sized object.
Your mugs are great for the perfect cuppa! Whats your favourite brew?
It has to be a strong Earl Grey with a dash of milk.