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"happy accident" vs precise calculation


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Hello,

Recently I fired small-scale figurative stoneware in a wood-fired kiln adding soda for flashing effects. I’ve been trying to find a surface treatment for some time and think it’s somewhere in wood firing. This was my first soda firing and I used too much which resulted in very little flashing but carbonization and a runny translucent green glaze. After looking at these for a couple weeks I’m much happier with what I got than the one “successful” piece with pronounced flashing. I’m fine with “happy accidents” but am unsure how it’s viewed in the ceramics world. I majored in printmaking at university and my printmaking professor said anyone can accidently create a “one off” print they’re happy with. It’s only credible if you reproduce it as the desired outcome. Prints were to only be made on 100% acid free, cotton rag paper. There were few other “commandments” I don’t recall now.

At this point I’m not sure if I have a question or just want opinions. My hope is to reproduce these effects (carbonization and runny soda) in the next firing, but is that seen as sloppy firing in the ceramics world? I hope to eventually show these pieces somewhere and my experience with the art world is some go to great lengths to be “exclusive” and others “inclusive”.

I’ve been trying to create my own studio and working in a bubble the last few years and I recently started using this platform for input. Any feedback is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely, Anthony

FIGURATIVE | Mysite (awaynestudio.com) 

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I don't think there's any rules.  You might wear out your kiln faster if you're gonna be dumping a bunch of soda into each firing, but it's not a sin.

As far as happy accidents go... From what I can tell, the entire point of wood firing is to have an entire kiln of happy accidents. If you don't want happy accidents, use an electric or gas kiln and things can be a whole lot more predictable.  

 

 

 

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Wood/salt/soda firings are only predictable to a degree. However, with experience and practice you can have a pretty good idea of how your pieces will look in terms of where the flashing is likely to occur and how thick the glaze will be. It's not as precise as applying a glaze in the traditional manner,  but as you gain experience with a kiln of that type, the number of successful pieces will increase. Every piece is unique. It's not considered sloppy by any means, it just takes more experience to get a large percentage of successful pieces.

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@liambesawRight, as far as the soda being harsh on the kiln it's something I decided to live with. So far it's just been my work and plan to fire 2-3 times a year max. I lined the interior with IFB so once they're too corroded I'll flip them or replace if need be. The coating on the soft brick seems to be holding up well but it's only been few firings. I like the randomness in a wood firing, be it traditional or a quick fire. I only asked the question because if "anything goes" how do you judge the quality of a firing? I guess if you like the effects of wood-firing that's all that matters. I thought maybe some results were harder to achieve...some easier. @neilestrickHope the outcome of the next firing is a little more predictable. I documented the last firing as best I could, so hopefully I can get similar results the next time. I'm sure it sounds odd to say I like the randomness of wood-firing but can you tell me how to control it?  I don't think that's what I'm after as much as what results, if any are more desirable?  is it just a bunch of "happy accidents"? Is it a personal aesthetic? ..... some rhetorical questions here...

I have "Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics" by Lancet and Kusakabe and a random collection of material I've collected online. Are there any recommendations for potters/ceramicist known for their wood-firing? I'm still trying to see the variety of what can be achieved with wood/salt/soda.

 

 

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23 minutes ago, awaynestudio said:

I'm sure it sounds odd to say I like the randomness of wood-firing but can you tell me how to control it?

It takes knowing your kiln. Some wood kiln designs give more ash, some less. Certain areas in the kiln will give more ash, other areas will be drier but give more flashing. There are usually hotter areas and cooler areas, too. You can also control the path of the flame via how the pots are loaded. Think of water flowing around rocks in a river. You actually need to pay attention to that in tunnel-type kilns to help force the flame down so it doesn't just run along the arch and out the flue. How you load each individual pot will also affect how it looks. Fire it upside down to get drips on the lip. Fire it on its side to get flashing and drips that go around the pot. The part facing the fire box will get more ash than the part facing the flue, the top gets more ash than the bottom. Use different size wads for variation in surface marks. Put a small pot in front of a large pot to create a flame shadow on the big pot. How much wood you burn will determine how much ash glaze you get. 

With salt and soda, it's a good idea to do draw tiles to check how much glaze is building up.

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31 minutes ago, awaynestudio said:

I'm sure it sounds odd to say I like the randomness of wood-firing but can you tell me how to control it?

Some examples by my friend Doug Jeppesen:

Fired on its side, with seashells on the wadding

Fired with other pots wadded on top of it

Juicy side facing firebox, flashing side facing flue

 

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My opinion (which you obtained for free and found on the internet!) is that the difference between a beginner and a master is how often you get those happy accidents, and whether they were encouraged deliberately or not. It mostly lies  in intent. But that doesn’t mean it’s like what your printmaking teacher told you. In ceramics, getting intentional results is more difficult, because everything about ceramics is difficult. We’ve got learning curves that are more like learning switchbacks. Because  it takes longer to develop ceramic material proficiency,  there can be more acceptance of fuzzy areas over a longer period of time. 

Also, the possibilities in clay are pretty vast. We find ourselves in the position of having to set parameters on our desired outcomes, or the blank page syndrome gets very, very real. There is not a single gold standard that we all work towards in ceramics: you have to make your own determinations. One potter’s devastating flaws are the same effect a sculptor may crave.

There will always be an element of the unexpected any time you get a kiln really hot and throw something dirty in. That’s half the fun! But like everything else in ceramics, learning all you can about how your materials and your tools behave and interact with each other will make the difference between “who knows?” and being able to make desired outcomes a strong statistical likelihood. Firing a soda/salt/wood  kiln is like painting with atmosphere. It’s adding another skill set to your repertoire, with all that entails.

Artists that work in atmosphere that I like, in no particular order. Some don’t have good online presences (there seems to be a disposition there) but google image searches will come up with good examples of their work.

Cathi Jefferson (Canada, soda/salt)

Gail Nichols (Australia, soda) **if you want the book on soda firing, she wrote it. It’s called Soda, Clay and Fire. 

Martin Tagseth (Canada, wood, some soda)

Robin DuPont (Canada, wood)

Bandana Pottery: Naomi Dalgleish and Michael Hunt (US, Wood)

Terry Hildebrandt (Canada, wood, soda and salt)

 

 

 

 

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On 5/19/2021 at 6:17 PM, awaynestudio said:

It’s only credible if you reproduce it as the desired outcome.

I think Callie covered much of the territory in dispute of this nonsensical assertion. Lemme guess---made by a semi-arrogant, fairly patronizing, guy who also told you you were being a dilatant.  (Opps-that wasn't about your experience, that was about mine!!) When I brought my painter/graphic designer self into the world of ceramics, I got squashed flat by the educational belief that there was only one correct scientific/technically sound way to produce "credible" ceramic work. I totally agree it is essential to learn and know and be able "to do it right". However, once a decent standard is attained, I felt free to fly, no matter what anyone thought about such deviant behavior. Choosing to go off script is not the same as knowing nothing and remaining ignorant while claiming to "do ceramics" or "play with clay" (hate that phrase!).  I invite you over to a new topic I just posted in Studio Operations and Making Work: "What Were You Thinking". I posted it hoping to jump start a thread about intention, expertise, what makes the cut in retail, what flaws should never be put out there, serendipity, happy accidents, aesthetics, rules & breaking them etc.  There's a thread in this same forum, "Question about alternative finishes for ceramics & acceptance by ceramic artists" that may be of interest.

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@neilestrick "It takes knowing your kiln" will be key for me. I understand without some heavy oversight there will be a huge learning curve. All the advice is greatly appreciated...the tiles and some draw rings that were mentioned by Callie earlier will be part of the firing routine. @PresI'll definitely check out Jack Troy, not familiar with his work. @Callie Beller Diesel "not a single gold standard"...yes, definitely this....I think this is what I'm struggling with while transitioning from printing to ceramics. I felt confidence and competent in the printing style I had worked on over the years. Being overwhelmed with what you can do in vapor firing, the endless variables of glaze, clay, slip, combinations left me questioning what I came up with from my first soda firing. After some consistency in the next firings I'm sure those questions will go away. It takes so much time to build up enough work to risk it on a learning curve. Awesome collection of artists you listed, I've come across a couple of them already and bookmarked the new ones. @LeeU"going off script" and a "decent standard" is what I need to assess right now. I've been firing in an electric kiln for a few years but just now really getting into wood firing. Even though my soda firing results weren't what I was going for I ended up being happy with them and hope to produce them again the next go 'round. 

Please feel free to critique the work at the link below. (if that's something that's done here) Not sure how things work. If I want feedback should I post images somewhere else on this site?

FIGURATIVE | Mysite (awaynestudio.com)

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5 hours ago, awaynestudio said:

After some consistency in the next firings I'm sure those questions will go away. I

Ummmmmm.  
 

 

 

I’m very, very sorry. They won’t.
 

This whole *gestures wildly at all the clay things* will only continue to raise more questions than it ever answers. 
 

If I can recommend anything, embrace curiosity and wonder in this process for their own sakes. There is much joy to be found in it. Do not be precious about your work, or at least do so as little as possible. There lies madness. 

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@Callie Beller DieselMaybe I misspoke when I said "questions will go away"....I don't want to or expect to know exactly the outcome of every firing. That's the one specific reason I chose atmospheric firing as a surface treatment for the work I like to make. But if I'm not able to have a certain degree of control over the outcome, well....maybe I should choose another route. 

I've used the same 2 clays that I make myself over the past few years in an attempt to limit variables. I think once I understand those a little better I can open up and start experimenting with slips and the like. Yes, preciousness in the art world is a curse. I've always told my students it creates inhibition and stifles their creativity. I'm chock full of madness already, so no harm there :)

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@awaynestudio

It’s  sometimes hard to describe. It’s not that things stay random, and that your results are up to the kiln gods. They don’t, and it isn’t.  And most skilled atmospheric artists cringe or bristle (rightly) at the idea of it all being a complete mystery. It isn’t that, either.
Mastery just doesn’t look the same in atmospheric firings  as it does in more precise fields, like printmaking or glass. With those kilns, it’s more that you learn how to heavily narrow down the range of possible outcomes. But there are always a lot of variables and factors that can contribute to those outcomes, and not everything can be duplicated exactly each time you fire.. 

 

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On 5/20/2021 at 9:53 PM, Callie Beller Diesel said:

the difference between a beginner and a master is how often you get those happy accidents, and whether they were encouraged deliberately or not. It mostly lies  in intent.

so very well put!

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On 5/22/2021 at 5:38 PM, awaynestudio said:

I've used the same 2 clays that I make myself over the past few years in an attempt to limit variables.

Clay bodies and slips are EVERYTHING in wood/salt/soda firings. All the wood firers I know test clay bodies the way most potters test glazes.

On 5/20/2021 at 11:53 PM, Callie Beller Diesel said:

It mostly lies  in intent.

I talk about this with my students a lot. Beginners have a difficult time telling the difference between an intentionally loosely thrown pot and a poorly thrown pot. As their skills increase they can tell the difference, and recognize the intent behind the technique. It's like the 'My 8 year old kid could paint that' argument. No, they could not. 

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Not to "beat a dead horse" but consensus is the success of the outcome is dependent on the intent. Which I agree with and was why I came here to work through this discussion. Not to say that occasionally something unplanned pops up.... it should be appreciated for what it is, but was unexpected.

For me personally, I don't have a lot of experience with wood/salt/soda firings and will be the first to say I admire the knowledge that comes with the years of the back breaking work that goes into the process (specifically anything wood related). The outcome of my first soda wood firing was not my intention but I ended up with effects  I like and plan to reproduce next firing. Maybe when I fire again and the results are as I intended I'll allow those pieces out of the first firing a little more legitimacy. 

My experience in this area is very narrow but I've found a formula that works for me. Maybe in a dozen years or so I can start testing new clays :) . I hate to make this discussion about me, me, me, but I was trying work this out in my head. Any one else have any similar experiences?

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On 5/24/2021 at 9:30 AM, awaynestudio said:

My experience in this area is very narrow but I've found a formula that works for me. Maybe in a dozen years or so I can start testing new clays :) . I hate to make this discussion about me, me, me, but I was trying work this out in my head. Any one else have any similar experiences?

If youve found a clay body that will work well with your firing atmosphere youre half way there. I might add also that the type of wood and the amount of bark on that wood has a SIGNIFICANT difference in the outcome of the flashing and overall deposition of ash on your pieces. Heck even the shape of your work will determine the amount of ash deposition.  The wood I use comes from one specific sawmill.  20 yrs ago he got a debarker.  Immediately i saw way less ash deposition and more body flashing.  I liked the outcome and found my glazes were alot cleaner ànd brighter yet the clay body showed more of the toasty marshmellow effect.

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You bring up something I didn't consider earlier but probably should. The wood I use is scrap from an Amish furniture shop and sawmill nearby. The wood is free of bark but not of one particular type. It's mostly red oak but I've seen birch and ash mixed in the bunch. Definitely a factor to keep in mind for future firings.

 

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Good to know...mine is a cross-draft kiln, so ideally soft wood would be better as for length of flame. Seems all the firing scraps I can get a hold of are hardwood though.

I've read that hardwoods produce more heat though, right? Trying to find a positive in my wood situation lol.

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7 hours ago, awaynestudio said:

I've read that hardwoods produce more heat though, right?

Soft woods produce higher temperatures for shorter periods of time. Hard woods produce lower temperatures for longer periods of time. Not sure which one calculates out to “more heat.” 

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Hardwoods contain more btu's per pound but release it slower than softwoods. More heat depends not on the fuel but on the amount of oxygen introduced into the equation. You can "cool" a wood kiln by introducing too much fuel in relation to oxygen imput.  My kiln is also a cross draft meaning the flame path doesnt have to make a 90degree turn left or right to the exit flue. From the mouth of the fireboxes thru the chamber and out the top of the chimney is a total of 45 feet. I have flame coming out 6ft above the chimney when introducing new wood but as it burns it shortens and becomes an "efficient "flame releasing its heat in the chamber where it belongs. This is with softwoods. since I dont fire with hardwoods i dont know how to correlate this to a hardwood firing.

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You can fire a wood kiln with just about any wood. We actually fired with cottonwood in grad school- low heat output, tons of ash, and made beautiful pots if you used a high iron clay body. Different woods will certainly affect the look of the firing, and you'll have to make adjustments based on how well the wood burns and released heat, but it's all good. IMO free or cheap wood is best, regardless of the species. Flame length can easily be adjusted via primary air and damper settings, type of wood isn't really an issue for that.

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Nice catch @GEP, I was thinking btu's per pound when I wrote that. Time didn't even factor into my mind.  @Russ Yes I've learned over my first few firings a better control of my damper. Originally I was trying to reduce the oxygen too much and created a slower temperature climb. I've got a better handle on temperature but I need to learn when is best to fire in reduction or not and I'm sure that will depend on clays, glazes, and desired effect...not much to sort out there :) I've yet to have flame through the top of my chimney, so as a direct result I don't have flashing on pieces closest to the flue. This is fine by me because I would eventually like to be able to achieve a variety of effects in one firing. This is a quick-fire wood kiln, so I know I'll never achieve traditional quality wood firing but I'll take what I can get. I only have around 22 ft from mouth of firebox to the top of chimney. I may not be able to technically refer to mine as a cross-draft because of a step up about 2ft into the chamber (built into a hillside). @neilestrickFor me personally I've found the shape of the wood to be important. I worked through some cut down lengths that varied 4 to 6 inches wide that would cause the temperature to fluctuate too much when stoked. The last firing was mostly 2x3 inch pieces cut to length. I seemed to have much better control of temperature with these. I use 2 thermocouples and cones through a peep hole and temperature varies quite a bit....and again, for now I don't mind as long as I learn to load accordingly or maybe alter the interior in the future.

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3 hours ago, awaynestudio said:

For me personally I've found the shape of the wood to be important. I worked through some cut down lengths that varied 4 to 6 inches wide that would cause the temperature to fluctuate too much when stoked. The last firing was mostly 2x3 inch pieces cut to length. I seemed to have much better control of temperature with these. I use 2 thermocouples and cones through a peep hole and temperature varies quite a bit....and again, for now I don't mind as long as I learn to load accordingly or maybe alter the interior in the future.

Fluctuation is normal with a wood kiln. Up and down, up and down, up and down, every time you stoke. To climb, you stoke at the top of a rise. To hold temp, you stoke at the bottom. Smaller wood burns faster and releases heat faster. Big wood burns longer and gives a slower release of heat. The problem that can occur with burning lots of small stuff is that you create a lot of coals very quickly, and and can overload your coal bed. Bigger logs give the coal bed a chance to burn down so you don't clog up the air flow. Sometimes you need big soakers, sometimes you need fast heat. Smaller pieces mean stoking more often, which gets tiring over a long firing. It's all a balancing act, and as you fire more you learn what your kiln can handle.

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