How to Color Your Own Ceramic Aquarium Gravel

Thickening without Glassifying

If you think that generating thousands of just-right tiny chunks of dried clay in order to have ceramic aquarium gravel is madness, you would not be far wrong. But it ends up the rewarding kind of madness, as you shall soon see.

I really did not think this through! But how could I? No one I know and no one they know has done this, so it has been necessarily one foundering discovery after another.

After hand-generating the gravel, those buckets of tiny bisqued chunks need coloring. But glazing them won’t work; the glass-forming ingredients in glaze will simply fuse them in a lump to the kiln shelf. A rookie mistake. Perhaps a nice effect when done on purpose, but for another project. (Hindsight Hint: generate the next batch of aquarium gravel with pre-colored clay and call it done!)

If I couldn’t use glaze, then would mason stains, oxides or underglazes stick well and evenly? The viscosity of underglazes can be thin and take three coats to cover well, but they seemed to offer the strongest color in the easiest format.

At the first try, the bits got too wet and wound up unable to bind with the color. It looked a little like bluish barf: color in a flat puddle punctuated by the pinkish chunks. Dang. I let them dry overnight while I felt a bit queasy over it. I considered the possibility of resorting to acrylic paint….but that thought both freed me and bolstered my resolve to find a fired-on solution.

I talked with the deeply resourceful Gail Ritchie and we agreed we needed to add something which would sticky-up the underglaze, but not be glassy in the slightest. We came up with CMC gum fixative, Karo Syrup, honey, maple syrup…..all of which we theorized would help the underglaze attach while it dries and then burn away in the kiln, it’s job done, leaving the gravel in beautifully-colored separateness.

Karo Syrup was handy. Karo worked! Best use for Karo Syrup since homemade popcorn balls.

I added a few large drops of Karo to about 2T of underglaze…stirred well, and then mixed in the gravel sample to make a thick and dry-ish sticky mound.

Mixing the Bisqued Gravel with Karo’d Underglaze

For most of my samples, I used a heat gun to gently dry and separate each pile and then handled it as little as possible to avoid knocking off any hard-won color. I left one pile wetter and fully connected, just to see if that mattered…and while every sample fired up evenly colored and separate, the wetness of that one damp batch left a lot of color on the kiln shelf, which I needed to scrape off and re-coat the shelf with kiln wash. It’s worth it to dry things before firing them.

Here’s what the little test kiln known as Sparky looked like when I opened it the next day. So fine!

Lovely little colored piles

Ceramic aquarium gravel-making has been the full creative catastrophe, with a happy ending. I’ve worked harder both physically and mentally and it’s taken scads more time than expected. Ironically, this gravel is only a bit player – pun intended – in the finished ceramic Aquarium Set-Up For Sale piece I envision. In that respect, it’s like fine silk lingerie, something usually only the wearer knows about, but great for self-confidence.

Every speck of ceramic aquarium gravel represents the whole effort to me now and I find I cannot let even one fall off the board or over the edge of the kiln shelf. They’re shards of meaning and intent, like artistic DNA, each carrying the whole idea.

Share this:

Time and Gravity Fall Down Go Boom

Fallen Sphinx Totem

It happens several times daily: the dog pushes open the back door to get in and I am too pre-occupied to get up and shut it. Besides, we are having weeks upon weeks of the best Summer-in-the-Winter ever here on the Monterey Bay and there is no need to batten the hatches. The daffodils are blooming and the bugs are still asleep, a sweet time.

Last week Zorro, our sly XL Mini Schnauzer, pushed himself inside and disappeared around a corner. Shortly, I heard an emphatic crash which ended with semi-tinkling flourishes. Well, that got me up! I wasn’t sure where the sound came from and found no obvious broken dog messes anywhere in the house. Nothing jiggled off the dryer, no artwork detached from the walls, my studio remained quietly waiting for me. The dog was unconcerned. I concluded that because of the open door I must have heard one of our (nine – but that’s another story) neighbors, or the roofers three doors down. Back to my pre-occupations.

What fell is pictured above. It has been a fixture in the side yard for years and it fell over behind plants, a wooden cart and the fence so I didn’t notice it until days later. I called it the Sphinx Totem and it is still one of the most wildly complicated things I have ever pulled-off in hand-building ceramics class.

Each of its parts were soulful references to ancient and classical imagery, the entirety crafted to resonate with the sacred geometry of the Golden Mean as explored and diagrammed in the commanding book The Power of Limits by Gyorgy Doczi.

I can’t locate a photo of the completed piece in its former wholeness. Instead, I found my concept drawings:

Sphinx Totem Sketch with Golden Mean Harmonics

Starting at the bottom, a ring of roots surrounding a Greek column – a column being a formalized tree as well as an axis mundi. On top of the column a sphere within a cube frame. Then a large shallow bowl windrose with symbols for the eight winds of the Mediterranean around its rim. Above the windrose, an s-ribbed wind turbine which I had designed to spin at the slightest puff, but inertia and friction have long-proved to be fearsome contenders.

Guarding the whole piece at eye level, the Sphinx, one of my first figures in clay. She’s magnificently capable of issuing a perplexing riddle. She rendered the top pieces – a fairly graceful Lamp of Learning and a lumpy Rub ‘n’ Buff-colored Chakra Tower – mere finials of denouement.

The interior support for this four foot high twelve-part affair was a metal pipe which went about half way up, with a longer wooden dowel inserted into it running the entire height. As predicted for Someday, the dowel rotted and broke at the exact top of the metal pipe, toppling everything higher than the axis mundi onto the marble, bricks, and Mexican river rocks below. Teetering Empyrean! Someday’s arrived!

Years of ceramics have left me with little resistance to the shardy reality of a broken Opus. This might be an oxymoron, but I felt rather Vulcan: it was fascinating! I photographed it, swept up the pieces and noted that my favorites survived whole: the roots ring, the column, the Sphinx.

What's meant to remain

I take this as a sign of necessary evolution and simplification, of putting away childish things, of movement and progress, crossing the bridge, fording the river, sailing to the New World. I am blessedly released from a certain kind of past and this crash reinforces it.

With a new studio, the new year, new associations and the ACGA Exhibiting Member acceptance, fresh vistas have appeared. And while a few somethings, even significant ones, are lost, Time is currently sending more fascination than lack. Gravity is just not all that grave right now.

Fall seven times, rise eight as the saying goes. But maybe it’s easier than that; maybe falling is like autumn leaves, utterly natural… and if we trust and allow, don’t mope and protest, and stay fascinated, we see that rising up and leafy renewal are already written within Fall Down Go Boom.

Share this: