Line & Form | In Conversation with Ali Tomlin

Line and Form | 13th February — 7th March 2020
Emily Myers, Anna Silverton and Ali Tomlin  

Ali Tomlin | Photo: Seamus Flanagan
Our current exhibition brings together three makers whose work explores relationships between surface and form: Emily Myers, Anna Silverton and Ali Tomlin. For each maker, it would be difficult to divide where the starting point of throwing the vessel separates from ideas around decoration, or the finished surface. Emily Myers observes: “My forms are all thrown initially and then altered, carved or faceted at the leather hard stage. Some pieces are textured with sculpting tools such as a surform or hacksaw blades. I aim for well-proportioned forms with poise.” Anna Silverton describes her process: “I work iteratively, closely watching the profile while making incremental modifications — stretching what I can do and what the porcelain will tolerate.” Ali Tomlin explains: “I like to make most pieces more or less in one go; this means throwing, drying and turning still on the wheel, all the while contemplating what this piece will look like.”

We wanted to find out more about each maker's creative practice, particularly the shared exploration of relationships, and we open our conversations with Ali Tomlin.

"I work with the shape of the piece when I make the marks, I want the colours to accentuate the forms, not fight them."


Ali Tomlin | Stem. Burgundy & yellow splash
Contemporary Ceramics: How do you approach the relationship between colour and mark-making? 

Ali Tomlin: I like my colours to be strong but muted, if that’s possible! There are different approaches and requirements of the colours depending on the style of decoration that I’m using. When making the graphic brush-stroke marks I’m not looking for a soft wash or blurred edges, I want the colours to be bold and opaque. For the brushed, painterly style I use stronger colours that I can soften with sponges or gently scrape away areas from. Often the colours are a combination of neutral tones with one other brighter colour to lift the whole piece. I love discovering a new colour that changes the personality of a piece. I have a desk in my studio where I paint too, usually onto bare wood, and sometimes the paintings will inform how I approach brush marks on my pots - and vice versa.
CC: In this exhibition, the work on display illustrates three approaches to surface: splashes, brush painting and sgraffito. How does your decision process work ?

AT: I think that each approach works off the other so I try to keep a balance of the different styles. I make several shelves of bare pots, in all shapes and sizes. I can see the collection growing while I’m throwing and I live with the blank shapes for several days before I decide which ones will be decorated in which way. There’s not a science to it but some shapes do suggest, for example, sgraffito lines to me and others not. As I gradually complete them and the shelves become colourful, I get a feel for what’s needed.

CC: You throw simple, classic forms in porcelain. Please tell us more about the relationship between form and surface?

Ali Tomlin | Green yellow splash bottles LG & small
AT: I have quite a lot of different styles of surface decoration and my range of colours is constantly growing which runs the risk of a rather messy collection. This diversity happened naturally - perhaps it’s my low boredom threshold! - and I only noticed once I started going to fairs that many potters have one, strong personality to their work which looks really cohesive and recognisable. The way I try to tackle my mixture of styles and allow myself to try new ones is by having some other constants; I leave the main substrate the natural, white porcelain and I have my signature mark as a common element too. I keep my forms simple, but hopefully elegant. The clean, soft lines really become a canvas for my mark making so I tend to avoid making cups or anything fiddly with handles which can complicate the forms.

I work with the shape of the piece when I make the marks, I want the colours to accentuate the forms, not fight them.

I like to have several pieces of one form in various different colours and styles. This works well with smaller pieces like the stem vases and is a good testing ground for adding new pieces.


CC: How do you work?

Ali Tomlin | Photo: Dee Honeybun
AT: I am in my workshop most days of the week. Every few weeks I have to devote a day to selecting, wrapping and packing work to send out. This always takes much longer than I anticipate so I have now learned to put the whole day aside to do this, rather than an ad hoc box here and there throughout the week. It’s my least favourite thing, I hate deciding which pieces to send, I’d much rather galleries told me which pieces they wanted!

I have two wheels and what is probably a very bad system of throwing on one wheel, applying a fixed heat gun and drying it as it’s slowly turning while using the other wheel to make another one or trim/decorate one from earlier. Most decoration is done on the wheel to try and capture the feeling of movement that I like.

I’m not terribly efficient otherwise, in that I tend to make one whole pot at a time, not several of the same size. I may make ten stem vases first thing in the morning for a week to build up stock but otherwise it’s a one by one approach.

I have the radio on all day, usually Radio London - I live in Farnham now but it makes me feel connected to the real world. Otherwise it’s Radio 4.

My studio is in the garden and my husband works at home too, so there are many coffee breaks and people regularly call in.

CC: What images keep you company in the space where you work?

AT: I have my half finished paintings and sketches on one side of my studio. I flick back through these occasionally and often it’s just a simple, drawn line that catches my eye. In the same way I have drawings that my son did when he was small, that have brilliantly unselfconscious lines and marks that I love. I have some metal number and letter stencils, some wood block letters and some handmade papers one of which has asian characters on it.

I opted for windows on three sides of my studio to get as much light as possible in instead of walls, so unfortunately there isn’t enough wall space to put more imagery up!
Ali Tomlin | Photo: Dee Honeybun


CC: How did you first get involved in working with clay?

AT: My local art school, in Putney, did pottery classes on a Saturday morning and I thought it might be fun. I was a partner in a graphic design business but I was finding that after twenty years I was inevitably involved in running projects, dealing with clients and not designing very much. When I started trying out clay it was a revelation of suddenly remembering what pure, uncontrolled creativity felt like. Although just having one morning a week to achieve something was frustrating, let alone the nature of clay itself, the pleasure and satisfaction of ‘making’ was addictive. I didn’t know that I was going to adopt it completely but I really enjoyed it.

CC: What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?  

AT: My aunt had posters of exhibitions at her house and one was a poster for a Miro exhibition which I was fascinated by. To me at that age, a printed poster was art. Our walls now are jam packed with paintings or drawings and I know who created them and where they have all come from, some well known and many not, but all important to me for different reasons.

CC: What has been a seminal/inspirational moment?

AT: In my Saturday morning class, I started to realise that pots didn’t have to look like what my very limited knowledge of pottery looked like. After having fun with earthenware and stoneware, I then discovered porcelain. My teacher at Putney, John Dawson, is a porcelain thrower and demonstrated how it was possible to make elegant, refined shapes. Since then there have been many other seminal moments. Long may that continue.

 CC: How does working with clay influence your life beyond the workshop?

Ali Tomlin | Small round pots collection
AT: If you ask my husband, I don’t have a life beyond the workshop! I’ve always been influenced by the visual, but working with clay has introduced me to makers in all materials and broadened my interest to the three dimensional and crafted.

You can see Ali's work, together with Emily Myers and Anna Silverton in Line and Form, at Contemporary Ceramics until the 7th March 2020


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