4.14 Contemporary ceramics

The purpose of this exercise was to create a range of illustrations for contemporary ceramics that draw on the visual history and symbolism of pottery in some way.

Key words from the brief:

  • You can start with any historical period, draw on any tradition of image-making within ceramics, or perhaps make reference to the symbolism and visual storytelling of the blue and white Willow pattern, but you need to bring this up to date through your own illustrations.
  • Mock up your work via Photoshop
  • Reflect on the experience of applying your illustrations to a surface other than paper
  • What did this opportunity offer you and how can you take what you’ve learned back into your paper-based work?


I wanted to find a tradition of image-making in ceramics that I could adapt for my own illustrative style and the subjects I’m interested in.

I really like the work of Mariko Paterson and how she incorporates strong links to past historical traditions and subverts these using modern subjects. This approach seemed to perfectly meet the objectives of this exercise.

Following her lead, I chose Chinese Qing Dynasty ceramics as my historical reference point.

Qing Dynasty vase
Fig 1 – An Imperial ‘famille rose’ ‘Eighteen Luohan’ vase (1736-1795)

In her SOFA lecture Historial Pots meets Contemporary Hysteria (2017) she lists out the different components of her work that draw inspiration from Qing Dynasty ceramics. These include:

  1. Shapes and forms
  2. Imagery and graphic layout
  3. Symbolism
  4. The brutal history of the period

She describes her overall approach as: “Subvert, subvert, subvert”.

Mariko Paterson - Pants
Fig 2 – Pants

Ideas generation

I took these four components as my starting point and began generating ideas by creating a mindmap of thoughts.

At the time of writing I’m in Covid 19 pandemic ‘lockdown’, unable to leave my house unless essential as the Coronavirus takes hold around the world. This all consuming topic was the subject I chose to work with.


The design came together in a quite a logical way based on the outputs from this mind mapping exercise.

As a footnote, I find adding visuals to mind maps really helps me to process ideas through.


Working in 3D

I vaguely knew that Photoshop had some 3D capability having not very successfully played with extruding 2D text to make a 3D object in the past. I had never tried applying a texture map to the surface of a model so needed to learn how to do this.

One of my very first ideas had been to redraw and combine some of my cafe sketches in the style of ancient greek ceramics. I got as far as sketching out an idea as a texture map test.

At that point I changed tack because although the Ancient Greek subjects that from the period I was interested in were mostly domestic narrative scenes (which worked with my illustrations), the limited use of colour was a big constraint.

So the test rendering below is a bit of a mash-up. The illustration was in the style of an Ancient Greek narrative design, and the colour is from a Qing Dynasty design.

Texture map test
A test render to see if I can texture map an illustration onto a 3D object and how that looks

The 3D vase model was a free download from the internet. I probably could have worked out how to create such a basic shape using Photoshop but this would have tied me up for another day and I didn’t think it was worth while.

What I learned from the experiment is that texture mapping is an art not a science. The way that an image  map is wrapped around a 3D shape is a bit unpredictable, and although Photoshop provides some tools for repositioning and resizing these don’t replace the need for a certain amount of experimentation and trial and error. It does mean that spot detail on specific parts of the model would be almost impossible to achieve so these needed to be avoided.

Visual design and composition

My 3D experimenting had established the shape of the vase and size, shape, and to some extent layout of the illustration.

Next I made decisions over the imagery and how this would map into my grid layout.

Given  that I was housebound, my visual research was all carried out over the internet. I used my sketchbook and research to firm up ideas.

Sketches working out the different components and trying out composition

By the end of this process I felt I had enough information to start creating the final artwork.


I started with the images that would cover the body of the vase. These were drawn in pen and ink, scanned and ‘placed’ in Illustrator to give a clean and consistent line and then coloured in Photoshop.

The visual style for the figure in the oval vignette was borrowed from Laura Oldfield Ford who uses drawn figures cut out and collaged onto black and white photocopied photographs to create her dystopian pictures of working class London.

I tested the illustrations at each point a new element was added.

Once all the illustrations were completed I spent time adjusting colour and fine tuning the design to work with the vase.

Texture map test09 not distorted
The final version of the texture map adjusted to work with a specific 3D view

Before rendering out the final versions of the model I played somewhat with the lighting and surface attributes; this needed another lesson in using 3D that I didn’t feel was justified at this point.

Covid19 vase 03
The final artwork rendered onto a 3D vase using basic lighting in Photoshop


Reflect on the experience of applying your illustrations to a surface other than paper

The main lesson for me from this exercise was having to take into account designing for the constraints of a 3D object. Working with design constraints is something I do all the time, but the considerations in 3D are more complicated because they need to take into account how and where the final image is going to be displayed and whether this works from the point of view of someone looking at or using the object.

Other constraints are the limitations of the materials. I don’t have enough knowledge of the glazing and firing process to know what’s possible.

Overall I was pleased with the results. It’s nice to see how my illustrations would look in a different context.

What went well

  • Through this exercise I learned the basic 3D capabilities of Photoshop.
  • Understanding the limitations of 3D texture mapping meant I was able to take these into account and end up with a design that fits the model fairly well.
  • I really had to use all of my Photoshop knowledge and techniques to composite the different elements of the illustration together.

What I’d do differently/better

  • Play with lighting and surfaces for example, to give the effect of a shiney glazed finish. It would have been nice to try to match the object to ‘real’ background to give better context to the final image.
  • I can see at some point in the future it would be good to understand more about the modelling capabilities in Photoshop.


Paterson, Mariko (2017) Historial Pots meets Contemporary Hysteria [Chicago: SOFA 31.10.17]

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – An Imperial ‘famille rose’ ‘Eighteen Luohan’ vase , Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795) At: http://www.alaintruong.com/archives/2018/04/18/36333212.html (Accessed: 27.03.20)

Figure 2 – Paterson, Mariko Pants [Ceramic vase] At: https://www.thejealouscurator.com/blog/2015/07/15/mariko-paterson/ (Accessed: 26.03.20)



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