PPP - Paul Lewing: A Master of Glazes

March 1, 2001
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Paul and "Florence," an 8' x 4' porcelain tile mural commissioned for the Sorrento Hotel Seattle.


For some people, pottery is an art. For others, it’s a business. For Paul Lewing, a renowned artist/potter in Seattle, Wash., pottery is both his form of self-expression and his daily bread. For the past 28 years, Paul has made a living creating functional masterpieces. With clay as his canvas and nature as his inspiration, he has created hundreds of functional and decorative pottery pieces.

But Paul’s tile murals are what have made him famous—detailed replicas of the snow-capped Washington mountains, lifelike underwater seascapes, and custom representations of numerous places and objects adorn the walls of countless homes and businesses. He is renowned for his understanding of glazes and glazing techniques. But for Paul, his art is something that just comes naturally. “I always wanted to be an artist,” Paul said. “I started painting with oils at the age of eight, and studied painting in college. But I also wanted to make a living making art. With clay I can do both.”

"Dinner," a china-painted mural.

A Passion For Clay

Paul discovered his passion for clay at the University of Montana in Missoula, where he studied under Rudy Autio, one of America’s best-known clay artists and muralists, and earned both a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts degree. Back then, functional pots were his specialty. “Like a lot of other potters, I got really seduced by throwing, and I liked the idea that normal people could afford what I made,” Paul said.

Paul spent a few summers in Seattle, where he had a great deal of success selling his pottery at Pike Place Market. After graduate school, he decided to move there with his new wife, Ruth. At first, Ruth sold Paul’s pottery off day tables at the public market, but his business soon expanded to galleries, street fairs and the wholesale market.

What people liked best about Paul’s pottery was his decorating style. An artist at heart, he couldn’t be content with simplicity—instead, each piece of pottery became a detailed work of art. “I got into this really painterly style of decorating pottery, including glazed landscapes, and I did a lot of Sumi painting (an Oriental painting technique using special brushes) on my pots. Everything was highly decorated,” Paul said.

It wasn’t long before his artwork began to outgrow his pottery. “The biggest pots I could make just weren’t big enough,” Paul said. “I wanted to go back to the kind of scale I had when I was painting.” So Paul turned to tile.

At first he did everything—from choosing the clays to forming and firing the tiles to the final decorative process. But glazing and painting were his passion. He began experimenting with glazes, inventing his own recipes and playing with the effects that could be achieved on the tiles. His background in watercolor techniques also enabled him to adapt china paints to the glazed tile surface. Eventually, he gave up the clay side of the business. “I make my own tiles now if I want some shape other than square—for instance, some of my trivets have a porcelain border, and I extrude those. But most of my work is done on commercially glazed tiles, like the tiles you might buy from any home improvement store,” Paul said.

While Paul uses china paint on many of his tiles, glazes are where his real interest lies. “When I design glazed landscapes, each color is a different glaze, and I’ve invented most of the recipes myself,” Paul said. The demand for his work is proof of his success. Paul sells a wholesale a line of trivets and coasters, and is also commissioned to paint about 40-50 murals per year.

“I get a lot of my inspiration from the Seattle area. I’m an avid backpacker, so I do a lot of nature scenes, and that’s what I tend to show pictures of. But I’ll paint anything. You want a portrait of your pets, your house or your three classic Mustang cars, or your airplane, or a lighthouse, or cartoons or lettering—I can do that. Match your wallpaper? Sure. Match your dinnerware? You bet. Whatever you want.” And for that, the market loves him.

"Rainforest," a china-painted mural.

From High Fire to Mid-Range

Like an increasing number of potters, Paul recently switched from high-temperature reduction gas firing to mid-range oxidation electric firing—both to save money in energy costs and to achieve different visual effects.

“What I found was that in reduction, especially in high-fire reduction, texture is easy but color is hard. And in mid-range oxidation the opposite is true—color is easy but texture is hard. It was a real treat to get all these bright new colors, but it was challenging to make the surfaces interesting and get some texture in them so that they didn’t all look like enamel paint,” Paul said.

Paul began using granular material and less refined material in his glazes to achieve the texture he was after. He also layers some of his glazes, and uses very dissimilar glazes next to each other so that they will melt into each other and create a unique surface.

For Paul, the real benefit to firing at mid-range oxidation is the ability to exactly reproduce both color and texture between loads. “If I’m doing a mural that’s larger than I can fit in one kiln load, the tiles in the next load are going to look exactly like the tiles in this load—and that’s not always true in a reduction atmosphere,” he said.

"Fish Tub," a china-painted mural.

Glaze Calculation Software

For anyone who makes their own glazes, the chemistry and formulation of those glazes can be a fun challenge. But a lot of tedious calculations are also involved.

“The whole system of glaze analysis that Herman Seger invented in the 1830s, where you take the physical weight of raw materials in your recipe and convert it to an analysis of a molecule of the fired glaze that ends up on your pot—we were all taught that system in college or graduate school. But nobody ever used it because it was very tedious math. Consequently, a lot of people know what those numbers mean but aren’t familiar enough with them to interpret them because they don’t see every glaze in that form,” Paul said.

Today’s potters don’t even need to concern themselves with math. They have a range of tools at their fingertips that will handle all their glaze calculations—in addition to inventory tracking, glaze/body fit analyses, raw material cost breakdowns and a variety of other useful information.

Several different glaze calculation programs exist—including Hyperglaze, Matrix, GlazeChem and INSIGHT—and Paul is a big fan of most of them. “If I run a new glaze recipe through one of these programs and get an analysis, I can usually tell with about 90% certainty whether that glaze is going to melt or not melt into a usable surface. This saves me a lot of testing,” Paul said. “Additionally, if you get a glaze that doesn’t fit, the program will tell you what direction to go to fix it. That’s one of the things these programs do best. They’ll also generate a cost per kilo of raw clays if you tell them what your materials cost, and one of them (Hyperglaze) will even keep track of your inventory for you.”

According to Paul, the type of software you choose depends on your computer and what you’re hoping to accomplish. “I’ve got a 10-year-old MacIntosh, so I’m limited in terms of what I can use. But my favorite is INSIGHT because I like to manipulate my glazes—invent new recipes and fool around with current recipes—and this program allows me to see more than one recipe on the screen at a time. It’s also easier to manipulate the numbers on this program.” But, he adds, “if I really wanted to sort and file my glazes, or if I were trying to replace a 3 x 5 card file, some other program would probably work better.”

Paul suggests that any potter looking to use glaze calculation software take several different products for a trial run. “Almost all of them have some kind of trial version. Some of them you can download off the Internet and they’ll work for a month, some of them are shareware, and some of them offer a free disk with a demo copy. It’s always best to test the software before you buy it, if you can.”

The Disappearance of Gerstley Borate

While Paul doesn’t use that much Gerstley borate in his glaze formulations, he has experimented with a number of substitutes in an effort to help other potters looking for an alternative. So far, he hasn’t had much success. “There is not one material that works as well as Gerstely borate in all situations,” Paul said. “I’ve tried doing a molecular reformulation of glazes with calculation software, and I’ve tried straight-across substitutions, but nothing has worked consistently. Usually one glaze will look okay with a straight-across substitution of Laguna borate for Gerstely borate, while another one won’t. Another glaze might look okay if I make a molecular substitution of Boraq instead of Gerstley borate, then others won’t. And it’s the same situation with the other substitutes.

“Finding a solution really depends on how much Gerstely borate was in the glaze formulation and what else was in there with it. Gerstley borate was a very complex material, and also an incredibly variable material. Replacing it is going to require a lot of experimenting on the part of anyone making their own glazes,” he said.

Transferring Knowledge

Aside from his art, Paul’s other passion is teaching others about pottery and glazes. His goal is to teach a workshop in all 50 states—and he’s done 33 so far. His workshops explore ceramic glazes, their constituent materials and oxides, and their behavior during firing, as well as color response in glazes, surface characteristics, and the effect of reduction/oxidation of glazes. They also provide a forum for glaze calculation software demonstrations. Other workshops focus on tile making, painting and marketing.

For Paul, the workshops bring his pottery full-circle, enabling him to give back to others what he has learned over the years. “I love doing the workshops and laying out what I know in a systematic way, because I know what a huge help it would have been to me,” Paul said. “I enjoy seeing a face light up and knowing that some small fact has just saved that person months of research and testing.”

For More Information

For more information about Paul and his work, contact him at 4315 Burke Ave. N., Seattle, WA, 98103; (206) 547-6591; or e-mail pjlewing@worldnet.att.net.



Attend a Paul Lewing Workshop

The Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Wash., will host Paul Lewing April 21-22, 2001. For details, contact Erin Hayes in the art department at (509) 574-4844.

Paul will also be holding a tile making and glazing workshop, July 27-29, at Boulder Mountain Clayworks in Ketchum, Idaho. For more information, contact Susan Ward at (208) 726-4484.

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