Making Glaze Work For You

Interview with Maria Spies

Eastern Shore Art Center Academy Director, Reanna Watson, sat down recently with Maria Spies to discuss her upcoming workshop “Making Glaze Work For You.” Luckily for us, they delved even deeper…


This became my mantra in my earliest weeks as the Academy Director at ESAC. From oil sticks to fiber arts, discussing the multitude of mediums and techniques taught at ESAC can be done without a second thought…


And then we have ceramics.

“It is not painting, it is glazing.”

Maria Spies

I owe my education of ceramics to the instructors and students of Pinewood studios. Snippets of wisdom such as “Not the 182, the 259… the brown one, Reanna” or “The green ware shelf, not the high fire” have given me insight into the phenomenal world of ceramics. ESAC Marketing Director, Adrienne Clow, and I have also become students, finding it a bit difficult to stay in our offices with such an escape just a few yards away. Beware… the world of ceramics is addictive.


Over the past year and a half, I have observed what can only be described as a “collective”. Guided by ESAC Instructors Maria, Zach Sierke, and Karen Clements, students absorb energy and creativity from each other. Artists share their work not only to celebrate pride, but to discuss the results of a particular glazing technique or color combination. These results are collected, just like the curious implements found in the tool box of a potter. With each firing, students become more aware of the artistry and wisdom needed to obtain desired shapes and color palettes. Although dexterity seems to take the spotlight when discussing ceramics, true artistry can be embraced when one begins to explore and understand the properties of glazing.


ESAC’s Ceramic Director and local potter, Maria Spies, has produced stunning pieces that vary in pattern and rich color. On display in the Wilson Gallery is a work of art that looks as if it were carved directly from the painted canyons of New Mexico while her pieces on the shelves of our gift shop celebrate a coastal vibe, with a myriad of blues and cool tones. Maria hand mixes many of the glazes at the Art Center, allowing students to experiment with innumerable color combinations (and saving a ton of money, too!) Along with instruction on glaze application, Maria discusses slips, under glazes, and stains. On August 10 – 11, 2019, ESAC is hosting “Making Glaze Work For You”, a comprehensive workshop that provides students with recipes, formulas, techniques, and the resources needed to formulate their own glazes. You can register here!


A lot of beginning students or admirers of ceramic art may be intrigued to learn that glazing is as vital a step as handbuilding or throwing. To better understand this aspect of ceramics, I sought out Maria for enlightenment. Enjoy!

How is “Glazing” not “Painting”?

The short answer is: Glaze is unlike paint in that glaze must be fired to chemically change the materials into a glaze or glass. A major issue related to glaze that is often overlooked is glaze was developed to seal a clay surface not necessarily for decoration. A decorative surface found on early pottery was made of slip or stain and fired at very low temperatures. Glaze was later discovered and developed to seal the clay surface for functional pieces such as a bowl. Also when glaze is used on architectural work it helps to keep moisture out and prevents freeze and thaw cracking.

What are commercial glazes and how to they differ from custom glazes?

One can buy a commercial glaze with very dependable results when used as instructed.  When a knowledgeable potter mixes a glaze the first difference is the cost savings.  The next difference is a glaze may be formulated very specifically for color, temperature range and the surface or glaze texture desired by the artist.  Both commercial and custom glazes may be formulated to accommodate low, medium or high firings.  Many artists combine commercial and custom glazes on their work successfully.  One just needs to test for the results desired.

Can you buy glaze?

Yes, as mentioned above there are excellent commercial glazes available.  And there are some suppliers that will mix a potter’s formula on request.  The reason I offer a glaze workshop once a year is to educate and empower the studio potter.  They not only will understand glaze and how it works but to formulate and make unique glazes for their art work.  The public then begins to recognize the potter’s work by their glaze and style.

Do you plan a palette for a piece prior to building or after? Does the glaze determine the shape or does the shape determine the glaze?

A little of both.  Because I’ve been a potter for 46 years, most days when I’m in the studio I go with a plan.  A special order may set my studio agenda for the day.  If it’s for a functional piece using my signature blue glaze I start with a specific temperature clay body and it would be fired in my electric kiln to 2160 degrees.  Or if I were creating work for an upcoming wood firing, I would produce the pieces with a higher temperature clay body and usually leave throwing rings or add texture.  This texture surface I prefer, it works in unison with the wood fire glazes and the fly ash that hits the glazes and surfaces.  They mature between 2300 – 2400 degrees.

What inspires your color palettes?

Every artist has a personal preference, that’s what make one an artist.  Personally I prefer a softer palette.  Perhaps it is from growing up along the gulf coast or the fact that I move slowly.  Who knows?  To me the bolder, brighter colors tell a story.  One personal example is a commission I had a couple of years ago.  It was for a fireplace in a new home.  The owner wanted Chinese dancers depicted in traditional costumes and different postures.  This was great fun working with the owner and granddaughter to create the palette of bright colors that were used.

Besides glaze, what else can be used to add color to your ceramics?

Stains, slips and underglaze are the most common.  What they have in common with glaze is the colorant such as cobalt for blue, copper for green.  The difference is they do not have the components to make a glaze.  Stain is simply colorant and water.  Slips are colorants, clays and water. Underglaze becomes a bit more complicated but offer more advantages.  Each of the above mentioned still needs to be fired to become permanent.  Some sculptors may use shoe polish, acrylic paint etc. These are referred to as “cold treatment” they are not fired.

How do you apply glaze? Stain?

Glaze may be applied many ways, pouring, brushing, spraying, sponging, trailing or dipping.  With each method comes a different result mostly because of thickness of application.  At ESAC and at my home studio I prepare the glazes using only water and the glaze formula; they work best poured, dipped or sprayed.  Commercial glazes have an additive of binders and gum which allows them to be applied smoothly with a brush.


A glaze is usually applied to bisque fired work but not always.  A stain, slip or underglaze may be applied when the clay is still damp also by pouring, brushing, spraying, sponging, trailing or dipping.  A stain or underglaze may be applied to bisque but a slip does not adhere well to bisque.  A stain or underglaze is often applied to texture and sponged off to emphasize the textured area.  Any stain, slip or underglaze may be fired with or without glaze applied over it.  Each method will yield a different result.

Have you ever fired a piece and were completely shocked/surprised by the glaze color/pattern?

Of course.  Luckily years of experience helps to eliminate some of the negative surprises.  With a positive surprise it is wonderful to unload a kiln and be reminded that you the artist aren’t always in control.  This usually takes place in an atmospheric firing such as wood, salt or soda.

What is your favorite glazing technique?

I would say because many of my forms are made using the pottery wheel pouring and dipping the glaze is the most efficient way to glaze my work.  It also provides an even and predictable application.  There are times that I will brush slip or stain onto a surface and glaze around that for a more complex effect.  Occasionally I will use a compressor and spray a glaze or glazes onto a larger piece, it is physically good choice.

What experiences have YOU had with trying new glazes? Let us know in the comments below!

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