Pot Appreciation 101

Get a refill on your morning cup of coffee. With the blog format changing to bi-weekly posts, we are going deep today, so put off this post until you’re ready to read.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but maybe a 300-level student, capable of guest-presenting a 100-level Bonsai pot primer. Pots aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they are an important part of Bonsai, and for something as simple as clay and glaze, the range of pots available is staggering.

Pots can be simple in design too, they all have a defined shape, visible proportions, a body which contains the roots and soil, and an edge or lip. All pots normally have a bottom with drainage and tie-down holes, and the bottom may have feet, a pedestal, or may be flat.

Pots are manufactured in several ways, and for specific reasons:

Carved: smaller pots are often carved, allowing details to be highlighted such as cut corners, detailed feet, reliefs. These will be slightly irregular, but quality carved pots will not appear irregular. Compare the feet, finished height, and the inside of the pot may show scrape marks made by the loop, ribbon, and wire tools. These pots are usually formal and relatively more expensive due to the labor involved. Porcelain is a common media for carved pots because the texture of the clay is fine, allowing for very fine details.

Free-form: these pots are usually quite organic, tea-cup shaped. Sometimes called pinch-pots. These pots are usually informal, good for literati and accents.

Slab: larger pots of quality are often slab-built. This is what it sounds like. The bottom and walls of pots are made separately, then assembled. Feet are added in a later step. Slab pots tend to be formal.

Wheel: Clay is placed on a wheel that spins, and the pots are shaped as the clay turns. Usually, rounds and vase-shaped pots are made this way, and they can be stretched into ovals or other shapes. Wheel-thrown pots look like they’ve been spun, the clay will have a texture that suggest streaks. Wheel-thrown pots can be formal or informal.

Mold- or Press-cast: Molds may be styrofoam silicon, or other forms, into which clay is pressed to establish the exterior shape. The bowl portion of the pot is then carved out, or indented with another part of the mold. When the clay is leather-hard, it is stripped from the mold and cleaned up. Most shapes can be made in a mold, and this is a faster alternative to carved, slab, or wheel-thrown pots.

Slip-cast: this is another type of mold pot, but the clay used is liquid, and poured into a mold, which is later stripped away when the clay is leather-hard, able to hold shape. Slip cast pots are relatively cheaper, and the clay tends to show some ripples outward from the hole through which the clay is poured. This is a means for mass-producing pots.

With so many common attributes, what determines “value”? Here are some factors to consider while exploring this topic:

  • Quality of craftsmanship
  • Clay used
  • Level of detail
  • Execution of glaze
  • Scarcity
  • Popularity
  • Degree of difficulty (shape, glaze, painting, carving)
  • Unique feature
  • Age

Let’s start with a couple examples. Forget whether or not the pot is planted, we are only looking at the pots. Before scrolling down, try to evaluate the pots in the photos for quality of craftsmanship, material used, detail, glaze.

Photo A

The pot on the left is an Ito Gekkou, hand-carved from porcelain, and hand-painted by the potter. The painting appears not only on the body, but also on the feet and the lip. The pot on the right is a production grade earthenware, mold or slip-cast, glazed white (except the feet), and wrapped with a decal, yours for about $6. Even from the photo, it should be apparent that the left pot is of exponentially higher quality, and at approximately 100x the price.

Going beyond this, Ito Gekkou paints several motifs. Usually it’s a tea house tucked in some trees, or near the sea. Often, boats, bridges, mountains, pines, and pagoda roofs appear in his landscapes. This pot is different because of the subject cranes, which are less common than the landscapes. He does a few really nice dragons as well.

Gekkou often paints his pots to support movement to the right on one side, and movement to the left on the other. That way, the painting will accommodate the directionality of a tree going either way. Good planning, if you’re dropping that type of coin on a pot, you’ll want to be able to use it going either direction!

This pot is painted in a single color; single colors are usually blue or red, and rarely black. Sometimes painted pots will include a combination of blue, red, and black . This is usually done by painting a frame in one color, and the landscape in another. An additional combination is a 5-color, which includes black, green, yellow, red, and blue.

Ready for a more subtle contrast? Pick the “higher quality” pot.

Photo B

On the left is a Koyo, a Tokoname potter; signed and stamped, but not with the fan stamp, which signifies his best works. I believe it is mold-cast, by the texture on the bottom. It is earthenware, and glazed with the green commonly known as Oribe. It is a very good pot, with nice proportions, quality clay, interesting glaze, and should be easily recognizable as a Koyo to almost anyone involved in this addiction, er, hobby.

On the right is an Ino Shukuho, a second-generation Kyoto potter. Stamped with his mark, as well as the Fuyo-en chop, signifying it was commissioned by that nursery. It is carved from a single block of earthenware clay, of a finer texture than the Koyo clay, and also glazed with his version of the Oribe glaze, down to and covering the feet. Earlier I mentioned degree of difficulty; and getting the glaze to the feet and freezing the drip in the center of the pot while still getting it free from the kiln after firing is difficult. It has a richer look, the glaze is glassy, thick and drippy, and the hand-carved clay offers a greater level of detail. The Ino is worth about twice the Koyo for these reasons.

While on the subject of oribe glazes, let’s look at a couple more:

Photo C

On the left is what appears to be a wheel-thrown porcelain pot. The chop on the bottom shows MGT 03. I don’t know who this is, or even if the intent was an oribe glaze. The pot on the right is by legendary Heian Tofukuji. His clay varies from pot to pot because he used what he could find. His pots are popular because of his mastery of glazes, shapes and proportions. This small example of his oribe glaze is subtle and beautiful, as are the proportions of this round mold-cast pot. On Ryan’s blog, he happened to shoot a photo of Matt Ouwinga holding this pot while they were visiting Yorozu-en, shortly before I bought it from Yorozuen-en:

Nihon de Hajimete, Part 12: Pottery and Display Journal Part 3

Below is another example of the oribe glaze. Be observant, it contains a clue and we’re going to revisit this pot shortly:

Photo D

Another oribe glaze on the right, and an unglazed on the left:

Photo E

Why this comparison? The glaze on the right pot is sprayed on. Notice the difference in depth between the glaze on this pot, and the glaze of the Ino pot from earlier? This pot is a $35 Japanese Houtoko pot, likely slip cast and definitely a mass-production model. It is stamped on the bottom, but stamps are only identifiers and don’t mean a pot is valuable, they mean the pot isn’t anonymous!

The pot on the right has some detail; a nice lip, a ring around the base, and even some detail to the “cloud” feet; all can be done in a slip-cast mold. But compare the detail to the pot on the left, which is a mirror-shape Hokido pot from Japan. It is a mold or press-cast pot, allowing the edges to be much sharper, and the detail on the feet is exceptional. Increasing the value by 5x or more.

Below is another comparison of 2 unglazed footed rounds; both Japanese. Can you tell which is considered the higher quality? Look at clay quality, sharpness of detail on the feet, and the proportions.

Photo F

The pot on the right is a slip-cast cheap Japanese pot worth maybe $8. The pot on the left is by Bigei, a popular and prolific Tokoname potter whose rich, burnished clays are immediately recognizable, and worth about 10x more than the pot on the right. The Bigei pot was likely mold-cast with feet added in a later step.

A quiz: Which is the “better” pot below? Can you identify the maker?

Photo G

The left pot is also a Tokoname, wheel-thrown pot with a slip added for texture and color. It’s signed on the bottom (again, not for value, but for identification).

Did you correctly name the potter who did the pot on the right? It’s another Bigei. This one was likely wheel-thrown too, with an in-curved lip, and very nice feet.

Here is another quiz: 2 footed ovals below, both glazed in yellow, with a small lip and similar size. This is where the similarities end. Which one is the higher quality? Consider proportions, glaze, details and the clue from earlier.

Photo H

So which is the higher quality pot? Why? Look back at Photo D. See any similarities between that pot and one of these yellows?

The left pot is the cheapo. Slip-cast earthenware, unidentified, and with a very thin glaze applied to just the body and rim. The feet are exposed. Still a decent pot and very usable, but art it ain’t.

The right pot is by a well-known Tokoname potter, Ikko. His father was a potter too, specializing in unglazed pots. Ikko was a fan of Tofukuji’s work, and like several others, created homage pots to the late master potter. This is one example. The shape and feet are clearly tributes to Tofukuji works, as he used that foot style frequently:

Photo I

Photo J

Photo K

(Still paying attention? There is a clue for later in the photo below)

Photo L

I mean a lot:

Photo M

The pot just above has a whimsy to it that is charming, and gives a little insight to the man’s approach to pottery. Consider the factors that determine “value” of a pot mentioned at the beginning of this post, and then imagine how a pot like this riveted glazed blue drum might be valued:

  • Quality of craftsmanship: Flawless.
  • Level of detail: Incurved rim, rivets, and how many feet?
  • Execution of glaze: Thick and rich, with several tones from blue to nearly black.
  • Scarcity: Likely unique.
  • Popularity: Check.
  • Degree of difficulty (shape, glaze, painting, carving): Check.
  • Unique feature: the number of feet is definitely a unique feature.
  • Age: The man has been gone for nearly 50 years, so it can’t be any newer than half a century.

Since we’re on the Tofukuji topic, one of the pots below is an example of his whimsy. The other is a domestic by Byron Myrick. Using a clue from a photo above, can you tell which is which?

Photo N

Remember, chops are identifiers. Recognize any of the chops on the right pot? The right pot is a Tofukuji pinch-pot; hand-formed like photo L above, and a frequently-used style of his. However this one is adorned all around with 25 of his various chop marks, providing a unique feature to a popular style of his pots.

The left pot is by Byron Myrick, a MS potter who does good work, and I really dig this little pot, for the form, glaze drips, and the wrap-around clay seen poking through the glaze. The feet in the photo are a little, dare I say, pedestrian; but in the context of a display they are light and fun.

One more, this one may be tricky. Look at the lines, feet detail, proportions, and appearance of age. Which one is higher quality?

The right pot is a 3rd generation Yamaaki. It would be welcome in any regional exhibition, and often appear at the US National Exhibitions (thought it doesn’t have a threshold for pots). It is high-quality clay, most likely slab-built, has good proportions, some age, and sells for around $250.

The left pot is an antique Chinese, Middle Crossing, from the late 1800s and is stamped from the ShoYouKouSei kiln. It is likely slab built of very fine udei (dark brown) clay, and is in perfect condition. The foot detail is superb, along with how they’re just slightly inset inside the body of the pot, creating a nice visual line across the bottom of the pot. Notice the slight warp across the front lip and the repeated warp across the bottom of the front panel? Serendipity. That’s common in larger antique Chinese pots, and it’s desirable to show a little character (unique feature). The other side of the pot is razor-sharp, so if the user doesn’t want to show the warp, it offers the option of a very clean straight line. Again, options.

Old Chinese pots have proportions that are usually twice as wide as they are deep, making them identifiable by their relatively short front-to-back proportions when compared to Japanese pots. This one is about 14″x7″, with a height that is proportionally pleasing. On a good day, this is a $1500 pot, with no chips or flaws. The same pot with the shudei (red) clay and heavy patina could fetch more.

Let’s look at another pair that includes a Chinese pot. Namako glaze (translated as Sea Cucumber) is the blue glaze with white speckles which often reveals some of the brown clay body beneath, especially at thin areas like edges and corners. This is an old glaze, and has many variations. What can be deduced from the Chinese Namako glazed pot on the left?

How is the fine detail, clay, and glaze application? Just because a pot is old doesn’t mean it’s valuable. This is a trash pot, mold- or slip-cast, low fired and cheaply glazed. Don’t be fooled by age and poor workmanship. The cheap Japanese pot on the right is slip-cast, mass-produced, and at $12 is probably worth twice as much as the old Chinese pot on the left.

How about one last quiz with three unglazed pots.

One is by a contemporary, award-winning potter within the last few years.

One is slip-cast-made by a ceramics manufacturer, but the oldest of the three.

One is a mold-cast Korean production pot from the mid 1990s.

Left: this is an older Japanese pot, slip-cast, highly vitrified, but also highly orange! Likely from the 1980s, with a gold sticker on the bottom that reads “Keep World Green” Fuji Tonkin Co., LTD, Yokkaichi Japan. Notice the lack of detail, the rather obnoxious color, but decent proportions.

Center: this a pot by Shinobu, whose unglazed pottery won a gold award at the 2014 Gafu-ten. This was purchased from Ryan Bell, and the information on his pot is from his blog site, at https://japanesebonsaipots.net/2016/03/08/the-11th-annual-shohin-pottery-competition-1/

Right: this is a Tongrae pot, Korean and from around 1995. Mold-cast, and decent quality clay, although lacking a bit in detail due to the means of production. Ironically, this is probably the pot I have owned for the longest time; at least 21 years. Wanna see how I know? Here is my very sad indoor setup from my college rental duplex in September 1997, with something potted in this little Tongrae at the bottom right, sitting on a Blue Bunny ice cream bucket.

And the caption on the back of the photo:

Ok, the bell is ringing and class is dismissed. Homework? Look at some pots on eBay, Facebook, and Kokufu albums and see if you can start to pick out details of pots that suggest construction, quality, unique features (or lack thereof).

4 thoughts on “Pot Appreciation 101

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