Hishaku - Ladle

Ladle is a standard household implement and potter’s tool in Japan. It is used for glazing fair sized to large pots when there is not enough glaze to dip them, or when they are too large or eccentrically formed to dip, or two or more different glaze are to be applied in such a way that dipping the pot is impossible.

The ladle is also used in the purely decorative sense, trailing patterns on the sides of pots or inside bowls and plates. Shoji Hamada was a famous exponent of this type of decoration. By changing the thickness of the glaze, the size of the ladle, and using various trailing method, you can get an unlimited number of decorative effects and motifs.

Ladling is a precise and demanding technique, requiring specific tools and a set of skills that must be practiced and perfected. These are, of course, the ladles themselves and the physical dexterity required to manipulate them. But beyond that, the sense of proportion and composition must be raised to a level where good results will come consistently despite or because of the strict limitations of the technique and unpredictability of the fluid glaze.

Ladling might be defined as a planned spontaneous event. It is not just splashing about, but the tight control of a difficult physical technique. It is hard to believe the degree of control possible with this technique, but there are thousands of old production pots ladled with almost the magic consistency, identical down to the almost the last drip and spot.

It is not important for the decoration to be representational or nonrepresentational; the important qualities are the spontaneity, the fluidity, and the dynamism of the decoration poured. These qualities are dependent upon many variables – the size of the pot; the shape of the pot; the thickness of the glaze; the size of the ladle and the method of pouring.

Though simple in principle, the ladle is actually a sophisticated decorating instrument. Following are several ways to use this tool.

There are several factors that affect glaze trailing. First is the thickness of the glaze. A fairly thick glaze (for example, a natural ash glaze) is easier to control than a thin one. Modern glazes, thin watery, are very difficult to control. Various pottery books say you can thicken these glazes simply by adding china clay or ball clay. You will have to find the proper thickness of glaze by trail and error.

Second is the size and shape of the ladle itself. All ladles can trail a line, but only certain ones are suitable for trailing spirals and loops. The Chinese cooking soup ladle is good only for straight lines. Its disadvantages are its shape: its sides are not vertical, and thus it cannot be more than one-third full and pour consistently. But worst, it has no “cutting” lip. Its hemispherical shape means that the glaze flows, because of the vagaries of surface tension, around the cup of the ladle and will separate (flow) from the ladle cup at points varying with the speed and amount of the glaze flow, i.e. the glaze may separate at points higher or lower on the outside of the cup, depending upon the circumstances noted above. But with an angled mouth design, the lip will cut off the flow of glaze.

Basic Rules:
There are a few basic rules to keep in mind while trailing. The pouring must begin before the ladle is over the pot or there will be sloppy splashing. The ladle should be one-half to three-fourths full, since a brim-full ladle cannot be controlled. The distance between the ladle and pot should be kept ever while the ladle moves; the ladle trails best when held between 2 and 5 inches above the pot. There will often be same unwanted drips and splashes on your pot. If you wish, these are easily scraped off with a trimming tool and will not show up after firing. Or just let them make their own statement.

To get a fairly thin trail on a plate, slab, or flat surface, use a large ladle. Fill the ladle and hold in the right hand (or left if you are left-handed), with the arm extending across the front of your body. Hold the pot in your left hand in front of the right side of your body. Your arms should be crossed as in figure 1. Making sure you start pouring before you move the pot, move the pot and ladle simultaneously across the front of your body, pouring the glaze as the pot passes beneath the ladle as in figure 2. This will produce thin, relatively even lines without extraneous splashed. This method is suitable only for pots light enough to be held securely in one hand. If the pot is very large, simply place it on the ground or a table directly in front of you, hold the ladle beyond the far side of the pot, and draw it quickly toward you while pouring. There is much greater control this way than pouring away from yourself across the pot. Figure 3 shows the method and result. Keep the hand and arm moving in the same direction for all decorations; move the pot itself around to produce crosses and other line intersecting designs, as in figure 4.

Loops Technique:
The famous Hamada loops are shown in figure 5 and 6, Start pulling the ladles  towards yourself, curling around from left to right (counterclockwise, fig 5), then finishing with a thrust away from your body. In this way, all of the loop, except the last thrust, is under control. You may also do the loop clockwise (fig 6). This may seem awkward at first, but it elongated the loop and adds other unexpected variations.

The double loop pattern is done basically the same way (fig 7), but since the pattern is more complex, a smaller ladle does better. These loops and other complex designs can be done on smaller pieces; it is best to do this holding them in the hand and moving them underneath the ladle during the pour, as in fig 8. This encourages the use of small, deft movements and refines your technique.

The most difficult pattern is the spiral. This must be begun in the middle, so one does not have the advantage of starting the pour and getting the stream consistent before moving across the pot underneath. Great control must be exerted throughout so that cross-drips and splashes do not destroy the pattern. It is especially difficult not to make a great blob in the center and to keep the stream of glaze even while moving the ladle in a spiral. Note in fig 9 that you always end with a thrust away from you along the edge of the pot. These are other methods, such as starting from the outside and moving to the middle, or spinning the pot on a banding wheel while pouring, all of which should be tried to find the one that suits you.

There is one simple “thrust”, as opposed to “pull”, pattern, which is illustrated in figure 10. First, tilt the surface to be glazed to about 45 degrees. Put only a small amount of glaze in the ladle and touch it to the pot. Tilt the ladle and hesitate for a fraction of a second, to produce a wide blob on the surface, then quickly thrust the ladle away from you, creating a long ribbon trail. Through repetition, this can be a very interesting effect, particularly if the trails are of different glazes.

These techniques are only the bare basics. They may be combined in numberless ways to get you started in the infinitely various world of glaze trailing. 

Ladling is an acquired taste, an acquired skill that requires a lot of work, particularly if you are the perfectionist who must have his pots under control. But the payoff is large. Once you can recognize and feel the vitality, the dynamism that this decoration gives to a pot, you will not be satisfied until your work shares those qualities. And the conceptual leap that accepting such undisciplined irregularities both fine art and part of functional ware requires will change the way you look at every other method of decoration and elaboration of form and eventually work its way more or less into everything you make.

Following are some pots trailed by ladling: 

Photo and materials from :
Inside Japanese Ceramics by Richard L. Wilson 1995
The World of Japanese Ceramics by Herbert H. Sanders
The Japanese Pottery Handbook by Penny Simpson
Shoji Hamada, A Potter's Way and Work by Susan Peterson
The Art of Bernard Leach by Carol Hogben


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