It is difficult to stay indoors when the October sun is warm and bright, and the transitioning leaves paint the trees in rubies and golds, greens almost of spring and ruddy browns. The forest calls with its sweet scents, and my feet itch to walk amongst the scattering leaves that, liberated from their branches, flutter like petals. And I wander, gathering inspiration. But on the overcast days, when the chill showers dampen the grass and clouds obscure the brilliance of Autumn, my studio is my refuge, and I bring inside, from the rainy outdoors, the idealism of the fall.
Keeping with the Autumn theme, I decided to design leaf ornaments to celebrate the season. While there are a few different techniques that can be used to create these cute, little ornaments, they are simple to make and do not take a huge amount of time to complete. You can even use scraps of slabs from larger projects, since the ornaments are small. A great rainy day project.
Variation 1 (instead of cookie cutters):
Variation 2 (instead of cookie cutters):
Ah, the ubiquitous slab! If you have been reading my previous “Get Your Hands Dirty” posts, I am sure you are wondering: does everything begin with a slab? And the answer, of course, is yes, anything worth while begins with a slab (*wink, wink*). So, grab that rolling pin, and get rolling!
I roll the slab out to ¼” for these ornaments. I have tried a thinner thickness (1/8”), which works, as well, but I prefer a slightly sturdier ornament. I have also experimented with a slightly thicker slab (3/8”), but since these ornaments are on the small side (3” at their longest), the heftier slab was a bit too thick, in my opinion. Ultimately, the choice of thickness is up to you.
And, if you would like more information about rolling your slab, check out my post Back to the Basics: Slab Rolling.
Exploring a small craft show one day, I came across a vendor selling bunches of novelty cookie cutters, and I bought a few thinking they would come in handy at some point. Well, that day has come! I purchased a beech leaf, a maple leaf and an oak leaf cutter, all about 3” at their longest, and used them to cut the clay for the ornaments.
The cookie cutters leave marks around the edges, so I use a combination of a damp sponge and my fingers to erase the marks. I also like to round the edges of the leaves, giving them a more finished look. During this step, I make sure that the front and back of the leaf are free of blemishes as well.
Place the leaf cutout on the work surface, and etch veins into the front of the ornament. I use a ball tool for this step, but any other rounded or carving tool will also work. I draw the veins freehand, but you can always create a template and use it to trace the lines onto the clay before carving them.
So far, the leaf is still a tad boring – lying flat on the table, it has no motion or character. So, to pep it up a bit, I form the leaf into a concave shape using my thumbs and my palms for support. I then round the tips of the leaves, coaxing them in different directions. The goal is to add interest to the ornament so that it is not just a flat piece of clay. Work the leaf gently to avoid cracking the piece or distorting the thickness the clay.
And now for a little engineering. There are a couple ways to hang an ornament. For the snowflake ornaments I created last year, I used a straw to create a hole in the tip of the ornament, through which to thread the hanging ribbon. However, for my leaf ornaments, I decided to try a different technique: using high-temperature wire positioned in the back of the ornament as a hanger.
High-temperature wire is a steel wire that can withstand the high temperatures of a kiln firing. It can be bent and shaped, and used with the clay to create aspects of interest on a piece. And, it can also be used as a hanger for decorative pieces (tiles), beads, and in this case, ornaments. I pick my wire up at my ceramic supply store, under the Kemper brand. It comes in two standard thicknesses: 24 gauge (thin “stamen” wire), and 17 gauge (a thicker wire). Since the ornaments are small and lightweight, I use the 24 g stamen wire for the hangers.
Make sure there is enough of the wire left visible to string a ribbon through the hanger. Also, the angle of insertion is critical. Depending on the curvature of the leaf, sometime the tips of the wire can poke through the clay to the front of the ornament if the angle is too acute.
Allow the ornaments to dry thoroughly. I have found that porcelain clay tends to crack if it is dried too quickly, so I slow the drying down a bit. I wrap my ornaments in plastic grocery bags for the first week of drying, permitting the clay to harden only a little. I then loosen the bags as the drying progresses to allow for more moisture to escape.
After the ornaments are completely bone-dry, bisque to Cone 05 (firing preferences differ from artist to artist, but for mid-range temperature clay, a standard bisque firing is usually between Cone 06 and Cone 04).
♦ Glaze the ornaments.
The glazing will give the ornaments personality and variety. In the early days, I experimented with a lot of commercial glaze samples, and a large assortment of colors still remains on my shelves. I picked a bunch of these to mirror the myriad of hues found in nature, and started glazing!
I use brushes to apply the glaze to the front of the leaf ornament, leaving the back of the ornament unglazed so that it can be set upon the kiln shelf during firing. Most of the glazes, I have found, take three coats to form vibrant colors. It is also possible to coat the back of the ornament with a wax resist and dip the ornaments in the glaze instead of applying the glazes with brushes.
♦ Glaze fire the ornaments.
After the glazes have dried, fire the ornaments to the glaze and clay maturation temperature. I fire to Cone 6.
And we’re done!
One day as I was making my rounds around the various arts and crafts stores I periodically visit for miscellaneous supplies, I happened across a scrapbooking sale. I rifled through a bin of rubber ink stamps, and uncovered a set of leaf stamps. “Perfect for …. something…” I thought. And they did end up being perfect for this technique. The stamps are small, the largest about 2” high, but they make adorable little ornaments.
♦ With a clay knife or X-acto knife, cut out the impressed leaf.
An X-acto knife is easier to use if your leaf has a lot of small details around the border, but a larger clay knife will work just fine. When cutting out the leaf from the slab, I leave a small border (1/16” to 1/8”) around the leaf. The border allows for a finished edge around the leaf. When the border is cleaned with a damp sponge, the smoothing of the edges does not encroach into the pattern of the leaf. Also, it is easier to cut the leaf out since the border allows for a “blurring” of the edge details, and every little curve and tooth of the leaf need not be excised. My particular stamps are handy because the edge of the stamp itself, when pressed firmly into the clay, leaves a nice border that is easy to follow with the knife.
Leaf collecting! The perfect excuse to leave the confines of the studio and venture out into the wilds of suburbia! A wide variety of interesting leaves adorn my backyard, perfect for impressions – who knew? This technique, obviously, leads to the most realistic looking leaf ornaments, since actual leaves are impressed into the clay. However, since the veins on the leaves are so fine, the impressions are more subtle than the other two techniques, and some glazes (especially the more opaque ones) will obliterate the lovely lacey details. Also, for 5+ months of the year here on the East Coast, deciduous broad leaves are not available, though evergreens still abound.
Use a pony roller or a rolling pin to firmly impress the leaf into the clay. I use a ink brayer, since that is what I have on hand. The roller compresses the leaf into the slab and removes or flattens most wrinkles and bubbles, leaving a good impression.
♦ With a clay knife or X-acto knife, cut out the impressed leaf.
Similar to the first variation. Leave a small border around the leaf for ease and finishing.