Magic is desire made real.”

I recently finished reading The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, and when I read this quote about magic, I couldn't help but feel that being a ceramic artist might be one of the closest ways to experience true magic.

It starts with the desire to bring an idea to life, and through trial and experimentation, you end up transforming something as humble and fragile as raw clay into something that is truly special and beautiful.

I was inspired by this quote to share a little glimpse into the making of my newest series of mini ceramic art tiles inspired by common garden birds.

 garden bird sketches


Sketching the Tile Designs

I decided to sketch a few favourite birds that are commonly found foraging in our garden – a finch, a wren, a nuthatch and a chickadee. After the sketches were completed, it was time to transfer them to the clay.


Carving handmade clay tiles


Making the Tiles

I begin by rolling out porcelain clay by hand and cutting out the initial square shapes. Next, I transfer my sketch and begin to carve over the lines. This technique is inspired by the Japanese process called "mishima". 

I use a variety of tools to carve the sketch but I usually start with this very small, extremely slim knife as I love the quality of the fine lines that it creates.


Adding clay slip to handmade tiles


Adding Texture and Depth

Next, liquid clay called "slip" is trailed across the surface. This adds another dimension to the drawing and a subtle texture after the tiles are fired. At this stage, the drawings begin to evoke those mysterious forests full of twining branches and soft light. 

If the tiles are for a commission, or unique installation, at this point I would begin to add colour and underglaze paint. However, for these tiles, I want to be able to easily recreate them for sale in my online shop so I will create a plaster mold.


Plaster mold of handmade tile designs


Creating a Tile Mold from Plaster

Here is a glimpse of the plaster mold that I created after the tile designs had slightly dried. You can see some plaster shavings covering the surface as I work to refine the sides of the mold. I also have to cleanup any areas of the design that might "trap" clay when I press fresh clay inside.

Below is a little closeup to show just how well the plaster captures the details of my original sketch and carving.


Closeup of handmade tile mold

Next Steps

After the plaster mold dries completely, clay can be pressed into each square to create a tile that matches my original designs. 

From there, I can paint and glaze the tiles so that someday they can be part of someone's home. A special touch of artwork that makes them feel a little bit happier whenever they see it. For me, that is magic.

If I like these designs enough, I might also expand them into bigger tiles... and so the process begins again.

Blog Update: This collection has launched! View the completed tiles in my online shop (limited supply available).

Handmade Ceramic Bird Tiles with Hand-painted Designs

August 27, 2021 — Ashley Keller