A Japanese decorative sake bottle is an easy and beautiful ceramics project for beginners.
For this project you will need:
Ceramic clay, a rolling pin, a Japanese picture, access to a photocopier, clay carving tools, clay slip, glaze and access to a clay firing kiln.
Start with choosing the image you want to emboss. Japanese art is full of amazing line drawings. Search your library or the Internet for “ukio-e” pints and drawings. Ukio-e means “the floating world” and is a reference to both the artistic style and of the philosophical underpinnings of the time. The artist used in the example bottle is called Sharaku, and was famous for his striking portraits of Kabuki actors.
Once you have chosen your image, you must crop and enlarge it. Don’t feel like you have to use an entire picture. Select the area you want to place on your bottle, or isolate the figures from the background. You will need a square picture to create a thin bottle like the one shown. A wider picture will result in either a fully wrapped image, or a wider bottle. Enlarge your picture using a photocopy machine or your home computer. The final copy to be used as a template should be about 10″ by 10″.
Make the clay slip before you begin by mixing dried powdered clay with water. Throw small chunks of wet clay in as well. Your slip should be the consistency of pudding. Begin your process with the clay. If you have never worker ceramics before, you should practice kneading your clay. Place both hands firmly on either side of a large raw clay ball placed on a canvas topped table. Push your body weight down and forward onto the clay. The clay will elongate forward. Roll the clay back in on itself tightly and repeat the process.
Take a large ball of your clay and roll it out on the table with the rolling pin. Flatten the clay to an area large enough to cut your 10″ by 10″ picture from, and 1/4 of an inch thick. Cut the square for your main section and lay your photocopied picture down on top of it. Using a ball point pen, trace over the lines of the picture. Press firmly, but do not puncture the paper. This will emboss your drawing onto the clay.
Remove the paper and using the picture and retrace your lines with a pointed clay tool. Don’t use anything to sharp, or you will tear ragged edges into your lines. A metal or wooden pick tool should be used. A dried ball point pen will also work. Carve wider grooves where the drawing calls for wider, darker lines. Try to match the original dynamic of the lines.
You will need a back piece for your bottle. You can either use a blank square or repeat the previous process with the same picture or a different picture, to create a two sided bottle. For a blank bottle back, simply knead, roll, and cut another 10″ by 10″ square of the same thickness.
Now it’s time to attach the two sides to form a bottle. Stand one side up and slowly bend the flat shape into its cylindrical form. Watch for any cracks that might form, and push the clay in on itself slightly as you bend. Lay the first side down and repeat the process with the other half. Score the four edges to be joined using a carving tool and ample crosshatched strokes.
Cover the four edges with slip, and press the two halves together firmly. Use a flat rib tool to scrape the outside and inside joints clean and to help bond the surfaces. Bend and adjust the clay tube until it is a perfect cylinder.
Knead and roll another area of clay 1/4 of an inch thick and large enough to cut the bottom and top out of. Set the cylinder on the flattened clay and draw around the bottom edge to create a bottom template. Repeat and make a circle for the top. Cut the two circles cleanly from the clay. You will still need a neck for your bottle. Cut a hole in the top circle about 2″ wide. Cut a small rectangle from the remaining flattened clay to be rolled into the neck.
Score the bottom and top edges of the large clay cylinder, as well as the rings on the top and bottom circles where the cylinder will sit. Apply ample slip to all areas and press the pieces together. Use a flat rib tool to scrape the surfaces of the joints clean. You now have a bottle with a flat top and no neck. If you want a rounded top, reach your fingers into the opening at the top and gently bend and adjust the shape.
Score, slip and attach the neck of the bottle. Roll out a thin length of clay and cut it to wrap it around the top of the neck. Score, slip and attach the ring. Make any finishing touches to your bottle. Make sure there are no cracks in the clay slabs or in the joints. Allow the bottle to dry completely. It cannot have any water left in it when it is fired.
Bisque fire the bottle according to the specifications of the type of clay used. You can find access to a kiln at many ceramics stores. Once the bottle has been initially fired, paint it with kiln fire glazes. You can use your original picture for a reference, or you can exaggerate and go wild. Once painted, the bottle must be fired again at a temperature that will depend on the glazes used. Ask the people at the ceramics store if you’re not sure.
You now have a Japanese ukio-e sake bottle. Enjoy it, display it, or give it as a gift.