5 Ceramic Techniques You Need to Know
study published in the journal Science confirmed that the earliest known ceramic pots, found in Xianrendong Cave in China’s Jiangxi Province, were made during the height of the Ice Age. That means they predated the emergence of agriculture in the Neolithic period by some 10,000 years—a development that scientists previously believed had led to the creation of fired clay vessels for cooking and storing food. Ceramics—in the form of bricks, tiles, vessels, and sculptures—have endured for millennia, and the medium continues to be explored today.
Modern and contemporary artists such as
The relationship between hands and clay is the basis of the ceramic art form. When you put your hands to clay, the natural inclination to form, shape, and ultimately create something from the fine-grained soil is inescapable. Handbuilt objects can be produced by pinching balls of clay, joining slabs, or creating coils. “Handbuilding, a combination of coil, carving, pounding, and squishing, has taken center stage in the art world,” says Adam Welch, an art lecturer at Princeton University and director of Greenwich House Pottery, the oldest non-profit ceramics studio in the country (since 1909). “It seems most adequate to fight the slickness of conceptual art and most adaptable toward a return to an inner impulse.” And while certain vessels would be easier to achieve using one of these processes over another, Welch notes that “it all depends on style, taste, and one’s tolerance.”
Khnum, the Egyptian deity of water and pottery, was believed to have created the first children using his potter’s wheel and clay from the banks of the Nile. This Egyptian statuette from ca. 3500–3400 B.C., in the Predynastic period, was not made with a potter’s wheel, however. In this era, Egyptians employed the pinching method to create remarkably thin-walled vessels and representational figures out of hollowed-out pieces of brownish-red clay also known as terracotta. After the object’s final form was pinched to perfection, it was dried in the sun, polished smooth with a stone, and painted to endow it with features such as hair and clothing. This female figure’s small, pointed head may be an exaggeration of the nose to symbolize “the source of the breath of life,” as described by the Brooklyn Museum, where the work resides.
The American artist
Many contemporary artists working with objects depend on assistants to execute much of their work, but not 86-year-old Woodman. “I have a deep-rooted love for ceramics and a passion about it and a knowledge of it. It’s just part of who I am,” she says. “I really like doing my work myself. I’m not interested in having somebody else do the work.… It’s about my touch and my hand.”
How it Works
Shape a piece of clay into a smooth ball about the size of your hand. As you hold the clay sphere, press your thumb into the center of the ball, about halfway down to the bottom. As you revolve the ball with one hand, press the walls out evenly with your thumb on the inside and your fingers on the outside. Smooth the surface with a damp sponge.
Found in Indian and Mesopotamian architecture, ceramic tiles are believed to have been constructed from slabs of clay since 14,000 B.C. Effigy urn in the form of the Sun God from 12th–14th-century Mesoamerica is formed from a slab of unglazed clay (also called earthenware). The figure’s elaborate garb, jewelry, and headdress represent the god’s divinity—as the protector against everything from drought to illness. In ancient Mayan culture, slab-built lids and bases for vessels, boxes, and incense burners were used alongside coiled pots and clay slips to create the intricate decorative arts that the Mayans are well-known for.
California artist says of the many contingencies inherent to the process of slab construction. “Which meant you didn’t necessarily know where you were going or how you were going to get there.… Clay has a tendency when it’s plastic, when it’s mixed up and it’s malleable, it won’t support itself very much. So what do you do to hold it up?… It’s a discovery…it’s not just an exercise.”
How Soft Slab Works
Begin with rolled-out, flat, and wet or moist pieces of clay (you can roll them out by hand-tossing or using a rolling pin or slab roller). Soft slab naturally warps and bends during the making and firing, so roll out the slabs on each side repeatedly. Stack with a smooth and wrinkle-free material in between each slab to prevent any tearing or distortion. Then cut each individual piece into shapes, and connect or form them into an object. Score and slip the joined areas to ensure the object will dry out without losing its form.
How Hard Slab Works
Use only dried and firm slabs of clay for this technique. Once the clay is leather-hard, cut out your pieces and join them by scoring and slipping. This technique offers less warpage than soft slab construction.
Hunter-gatherers of the Jōmon period (ca. 10,500–300 B.C.) in Neolithic Japan built pots using the coil construction technique. In fact, the word “jōmon” derives from “cord markings,” a term that describes layers of soft, coiled clay. As Jōmon ceramics are some of the earliest-known examples of pottery in the world, scientists believe the Japanese were influenced by Chinese techniques, since the Chinese originated the world’s very first pots. Jōmon women would undertake the laborious task of mixing the clay, creating the coiled pots, and firing them in an outdoor bonfire. The style of Jōmon pottery was incredibly diverse and evolved considerably across some 10,200 years. The earliest vessels were low-fired and simplistic with small bases that were either pointed or flat. They were used for boiling water. But as the kiln evolved, enabling pots to be fired at higher temperatures, ceramics grew more intricate, with ornate decoration on the rims of vessels used for ceremonial purposes.
Finnish artist says. “The quiet hours of building are what I enjoy the most. Silent days in the ateljee, the view from the window every day different, changing seasons from winter to summer—day after day.”
How it Works
Use your fingers to roll out soft clay into long, thick strips about ¼ – ½ inches wide (think: long, thick pasta noodles), and smooth out a plate of clay. This will be the base on which the coils will be stacked. After layering the coils one on top of the other, ensure that they are joined securely by scoring and slipping them together.
Wheel Throwing / Hand Throwing
The potter’s wheel, often referred to as the process of “throwing,” was invented around 3,500 B.C. in Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq, and it remains one of the most significant inventions of all time. The wheel’s centrifugal force allowed potters to create vessels with unmatched speed and quality, enabling the formation of thinner and more refined vessels than was previously possible with handbuilding techniques. The invention of the wheel is largely accountable for the more than 100,000 vessels that survive from
Welch points out the potential for innovation that the wheel ushered in. “In the 1950s, the wheel was seen as the source of the greatest freedom, but that was probably linked to its view as a device to churn out pots,” says Welch. “So using it to [experiment] was all the more glorious.”
How it Works
Drop a kneaded ball of clay with some force onto the center of the wheel head. With a bowl of water, wet hands and clay as the wheel spins quickly. Cup clay in your hands and use your legs and core to keep your body steady and to provide extra strength in order to bring it into a tower shape. Pushing the clay down and in simultaneously with the palms of your hands, let extra clay and water disperse from the shape being formed. Keep the clay centered for an even rotation and appearance. Use one hand to find the center of the ball and open it with your fingers as the other hand holds it intact. Once the bottom is compressed, the walls are raised, thinned, and shaped as much as you like, and the top is evened out, let finish and dry.
The China wares you might see displayed behind glass in your grandmother’s dining room originate from the golden age of China’s
South Korean artist modernize traditional practices and he did so with +,– (2013) by applying multiple layers of porcelain slip one at a time (until each is semi-dry) into a mould on a spinning wheel. Welch says that slip casting is the best approach when “making multiple molds, which allows for numerous sets to be created in short order.” Although slip casting may seem like the most mechanical and restrained of the traditional techniques, Welch points to artists whose works contradict this assumption. “A few years ago I would have said slip casting seems the most limiting process and likely the least free,” he says, “but the work of Mathew McConnell subverts that idea. His work using a combination of casting and press moulding is, in my eyes, completely original…it’s rather spectacular actually.”
How it Works
Pour liquid clay (the slip) into a securely fastened plaster mould. After a few minutes, allow the clay to form and solidify within the mould’s interior wall, and then pour out any remaining liquid clay. After a few more minutes, remove the hardened clay from the mould, trim unwanted areas if necessary, and air-dry.