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Susan Bach has spent her entire life immersed in art. As the daughter of wildlife artist Tom Beecham and the wife of landscape and mural artist Stephen Bach, she has become intimately familiar with the techniques required for paper and canvas illustration. But even in her own chosen field of clay, she has found that she cannot escape the basic structure of the “line.”
“I love line drawings—pen and ink, pencil—they just fascinate me. The line quality is so important to the art. It’s the beginning of everything,” she says.
By combining her background in drawing with commercial glazes, overglaze transfers and a love for the three-dimensional clay form, Bach has been able to carve out a successful niche for herself as a clay designer.
Developing the DesignBach hand builds each of her pieces from terra cotta, usually building seven or eight of the same pieces at a time, “although they do tend to get a bit smaller as I use up the larger pieces of clay,” Bach says. She then wraps each form in plastic—using plastic wrap or garbage bags for some pieces and dry cleaner bags for softer, more fragile clay—and sets them aside to dry to a leather-hard state. Drying generally takes anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks, depending on the piece and on the weather conditions near her Orlando, Fla., workshop.
“Terra cotta retains the perfect level of moisture if you keep it wrapped up—I’ve kept pieces a couple of months without a problem. But I actually have more trouble getting pieces to dry quickly enough, since the weather here is often very damp,” Bach says.
Once the forms are ready, her design work begins. For Bach, deciding how to design a particular piece is a visual, rather than intellectual, process. “I start by pulling things out of my files and bookshelves that just feel right that day. I’m not really thinking—it’s a matter of how I feel as I see an idea or image,” Bach explains. “It’s a very spontaneous process—I have to let the ideas work their way into a pattern. I’ll see a tulip and I’ll know that it will go with the bird or fish I’ve already chosen. At the same time, I’m also pulling ideas for background patterns—stripes, checks and even colors. As I select the various images, the design starts to gel.”
Bach then sketches her design onto translucent vellum paper. “I like the vellum because it erases easily and it’s also durable enough to transfer the design to the pottery—regular tracing paper would just curl up on damp clay,” she explains. “Additionally, although vellum paper is expensive, the patterns made from it can be reused.”
When the design is for a simple piece, such as a clock face or an image that repeats itself on all four sides of a vase, Bach only draws the design on the vellum once. However, many of her pieces are like landscapes wrapped around an object, with different scenes on all sides. For these designs, each scene has to be drawn as a separate “frame” that will be pieced together on the pottery.
Once her “pattern” is complete, Bach lays it on top of the clay and draws over the design with a pencil, which leaves a slight indentation in the clay. She then removes the vellum and uses her pencil to go back over the indentations, making a clear line that will also help hold the glaze in place. “I have to be careful not to go too deep—the clay has to be just the right dryness. If it’s too dry, it will chip, while if it’s too wet it will glob. It should make a beautiful, clean line with a tiny, infinitesimal edge when I draw through it,” Bach explains.
Although styluses and other commercially available tools can be used for this technique, Bach has found that a basic no. 2 graphite pencil works just as well—and it’s also less expensive and easier to keep track of. “I can make my lines any size I want by using either a sharp or dull pencil. You see all these little scribbles all over my tables and canvases because I’m always trying to round a pencil off or make it sharper. And I keep boxes of them on hand, so I never have to worry about losing my ‘tool,’” she says.
As she draws in the clay, Bach uses a large, 3 in. paintbrush to gently brush off any crumbs. “I never wipe the crumbs off with my hand—I use a paintbrush to avoid damaging the clay,” she explains. Once the design is finished, she dries and bisque fires the pieces to prepare them for the decorating stage.
Adding the LayersTo decorate her designs, Bach uses a combination of low-fire commercial glazes and overglaze transfers, often layering them to achieve the desired effect. She first began using commercial glazes soon after finishing college. “At the time I was doing Raku, and I hated the technical end of mixing and formulating the glazes—they made such a mess, and the chemicals were horrible to breathe,” Bach explains. “When a friend of mine told me that I could buy Duncan low-fire glazes that would work just as well, I started using them to Raku fire, and they were fabulous. Now, even though I no longer do Raku, I still prefer the commercial glazes. I can get any color I need, and it’s much easier than making my own.”
Bach applies the glazes to her designs with a brush, often layering colors to achieve the right look. After firing the glaze, she then layers water-release overglaze transfers of animals, plants, objects and even background patterns on the piece to add additional interest and dimension. “I first discovered overglaze transfers at a local art show a number of years ago, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. I bought a bunch of them and started cutting some of them up like quilt fabric for background patterns, while using others as individual design elements. The transfers allow me to achieve a richer surface without as much time and effort,” Bach says.
Although most of the overglaze transfers she uses are designed to be fired at cone 018, Bach does her final firing slightly higher, at cone 015. “I often look for old transfers when I go to the ceramic shows. I once found some cherries that were just the most gorgeous red, and of course you have to be careful of over-firing red. But the woman that I bought them from told me that they would fire beautifully at cone 015, and she was right. So now I fire all of my overglaze transfers to cone 015 on top of a fired glaze,” Bach explains.
Finding FulfillmentBach has used her unique drawing and layering technique to create clocks, vases and other decorative pieces that sell for under $200 to well over $1000. She also recently bid on a commissioned project that would involve creating handmade tile for an 111⁄2-ft-wide x 71⁄2-ft-tall fountain wall—a project that would be one of the largest she’s ever undertaken. But Bach looks forward to each new challenge with anticipation, eager to stretch her artistic abilities.
"I believe that talent is a gift from God, and that it is my responsibility to build the skills needed to glorify that gift. Sometimes the business end of it is tough, but I love what I do—creating artwork out of clay. I really can’t imagine doing anything else,” Bach says.
Editor's note:Both pieces shown in this article are part of a collection owned by Harvey Tyler, Jacksonville, Fla.
For more information about Susan Bach, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.mcraeartstudios.com.