Test Tiles with Attitude!

Test tiles are valuable things, (if you can slow down and make yourself do all the tedious work of making the tiles). They can take a lot of time – firing them and then carefully executing tests of finishes on them while also taking good notes before firing again. I dread this type of work. It takes time away the making fun stuff in clay. But, after too many failed finishes on beautiful pieces this year I decided, out of sheer exasperation, to dedicate the month of September to exhaustively testing everything that was boggling my process. This meant making lots of test tiles especially for sculpture finishes and building simple pieces with structural issues that get into trouble during firings when the clay gets soft and warps or slumps. I could hear my dad’s voice telling me to make a game out of it. That was his way of getting me to tackle all kinds of drudgery chores was to create a challenge or competition of sorts.

I set out to make 100 tiny sculptures in one week.

The challenge was:

1. Allow no more than 3 minutes per piece

2. Make a figure with some animation, textured front and smooth back for notes.

Built into this was the challenge to do not think about the figure being formed. Do not plan a figure. Just meet the minimum requirements and move on. What surprised me was that it was fun to watch wildly diverse characters appear one after another. I removed myself from my usual work space and into a lounge chair out in the sun and just relaxed and played with little balls of clay.

Some characters were people, then a monster would pop up, then an animal, and on they came. It was entertaining. Lots of silliness in the lot, but they were just test tiles. The unexpected beauty of working like this was that I soon learned that I could work much faster than I had previous believed possible. I was working fast and loose and figuring out a wider range of marks capable of being made with the same tools than before. I was pushing myself while just relaxing and having fun. What a treat!

In the photos (below) you can get a sense of the process. The figures all had a smooth and textured area on the front. I could then turn to exploring a new and wider range of oxide and patina wash recipes and glaze combinations as finishes for skin, and cloths and more. I am no fan of complex cataloging systems – I’m too impatient for that. I just made space to write the notes on the back. I never gave myself time to become attached to any of these little characters, because i needed to experiment on them. Whether the tested finishes came out well or not taught me useful information either way.

One of the big bonuses to this undertaking was the immense pleasure there was to just play with the clay. I gave myself quotas and stuff to help keep up the pace and meet my goals, but still the whole challenge to not overthink or preplan a piece produced the craziest surprises. A few of these test pieces may be prototypes for new work later. Learning to work productively and not get emotionally involved is relaxing. Granted, not everyone has the luxury to devote all their shop time to this for a week or so, but it can also be done as a warm up for the day. Make a quick figure every day as a 5 minute warm up. In a month you could have 20-30 or more. They add up fast. They are good company too!!

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