Photo by Bandelier National Monument, via Flickr.
Ceramics are perhaps the most ubiquitous of all art forms to have emerged from human history. The oldest known ceramic figurine, Venus of Dolní Věstonice, traces back to the Czech Republic in 29,000–25,000 B.C., during the Upper Paleolithic period, and a 2012 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 Ken Price, Betty Woodman, The Haas Brothers, John Mason, Lucie Rie, and Ron Nagle, to name only a few, have employed ceramic techniques as old as time to create radical and sophisticated artworks that can be found in galleries, museums, and art and design fairs today. Below, we dig up the origins, processes, and influences behind the foundational ceramic techniques.
Left: Maya (artist), Teotihuacan ritual object (350-500). Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum. Right: Ron Nagle, Incense Burner (1990). Image courtesy of Ferrin Contemporary, North Adams.
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.”
Left: Female Figure (ca. 3500-3400 B.C.E.). Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund. Right: Betty Woodman, Italian Pillow Pitcher (1977). Image courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.
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 Betty Woodman’s contemporary work invokes the ancient traditions of the ceramic arts in Egypt, China, and Greece, imparting new life into vases, pitchers, cups, and the human form. Woodman’s “Pillow Pitcher” series is not only inspired by the Cretan pitchers from the Minoan civilization (about 3000–1100 B.C.), but is created as if from that era, mimicking the basic technique used to create them, and also featuring elaborate designs. To create a pitcher, Woodman pinched two cylindrical pots together from one end to the other horizontally, then concealed the jointed area by wrapping a strip of clay around the middle section, which also forms the pitcher spout and handle. After drying, firing, and glazing, she painted the vessels in the styles of Matisse and Picasso.
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.
Left: Effigy urn in the form of the Sun God, 12th–14th century, Mexico, Maya. Image courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Lewis K. and Elizabeth M. Land. Right: John Mason, Twin Blue Figure 2 (2015). Image courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.
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 John Mason, one of the leading advocates of ceramics as a fine art, has been engaging in slab construction for more than 50 years, creating modern ceramic totems that can only be fully appreciated in person. Mason’s “Figure” works are the result of rolled, shaped, fired, and glazed slabs of clay positioned meticulously on top of one another in geometric formations. “There was the question of whether it was going to be a unique object or was it going to be a tool with which you explored the possibilities of the material?” Mason 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.
Left: Jomon Vessel (3000-2000 B.C.E.) on view at Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, Japan. Right: Kristina Riska, Animal (2014). Image courtesy of Hostler Burrows, New York.
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 Kristina Riska’s work recalls the craftsmanship and artistry of Jōmon pottery. She employs the ancient process of coiling and achieves the same duality between an object’s functionality and decorative purpose. Like the ceremonial vessels of the Jōmon period, Animal (2014) appears both strong and delicate. Instead of relying on a mould or the force of a wheel, coiling (as with slab-built ceramics) requires only the artist’s steady hand to shape the vessel’s form. As much of Riska’s work is large-scale (some objects reach as high as eight feet), the long and meticulous process of creating it would seem painstaking, but the artist finds it meditative. “The process is very slow and it takes weeks to finish the piece,” she 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
Left: Sotades Painter, Red-Figure Rhyton (c. 450 B.C.E.). Image courtesy of Walters Art Museum. Right: The Haas Brothers, Unique, Hand-thrown Clay-Z Accretion in Hulk Glaze (2015). Image courtesy of R & Company, New York.
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 ancient Greece. The complex wheel-throwing process used to create the famous Greek red-figure/black-figure vessels often demanded two or more sessions of firing. The objects were painted with a slip before the third firing—usually with scenes of war, agriculture, and ceremony, or abstract, geometric designs.
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.” The Haas Brothers continue to utilize the wheel to create forms that elicit the curiosities of sexuality, psychedelia, intimacy, and nature—and to comment on contemporary culture as a whole. Strange, quirky, lush, and erotic, the objects created by the L.A.-based twins manifest a wide range of sensations, materials, and techniques. It’s their “Unique, Hand-thrown” works particularly, however, that convey a certain timelessness, suggesting methods of the past.
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.
Left: Anonymous (China), Camel (7th century). Image courtesy of Walters Art Museum. Right: Minsoo Lee, +,-, (2013). Image courtesy of Gallery LVS, Seoul.
The China wares you might see displayed behind glass in your grandmother’s dining room originate from the golden age of China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907). Around 19,000 years after the first ceramic vessels from Xianrendong Cave, the Tang developed and perfected the manufacture of porcelain. Trade by sea and along the Silk Road enabled the exchange of goods with India and the Middle East, and may have led to the discovery of new chemical compounds for the invention of three-colored glazes. With a precise and controlled casting technique and the development of green, amber, yellow, and blue glazes, the Chinese created delicate, fine-bodied porcelain wares that elevated pottery to a sophisticated class of artistry. The 7th-century, double-humped Camel, made by an anonymous artist, has a streaked glaze effect produced during firing. The detail is the result of a Sancai (“three-color”) glaze that is believed to have been used for burial purposes.
South Korean artist Minsoo Lee produces gorgeously precise, minimalist, and functional wares that draw from the porcelain tradition. Blue-and-white vessels with perfectly aligning geometric accents along each rim, they satisfy the brain like the moment after solving a puzzle. Lee aims to 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.