From utility to art and back, ceramics is one of the rare forms of expression that has often encompassed both definitions at the same time. Different ceramic techniques provide pottery makers and artists alike with the wide array of choices to demonstrate their skills, aesthetic tastes, and even political and social stances—and all that often through utility wares. Coming from the ancient times (oldest preserved ceramic works go back to 29,000-25,000 years B.C.) ceramic techniques evolved and developed through centuries but also preserved the basic operating models which include the use of hands, wheel and clay. However, as Michel Barsoum explains, ceramics should not be just correlated with pottery, pottery techniques or sculpture, as there is a distinction between traditional and modern or technical ceramics. Following the Industrial Revolution and technological innovations of the 20th century, ceramics evolved and broached into different fields such as auto industry or electronics where ceramics is used due to its insulating properties. On the other hand artistic practices still mostly revolve around traditional ceramic techniques. They rely on the easily malleable clay, or in more technical terms—the silicate-based porous microstructures.
The procedure of creating ceramics in art and pottery studio includes kneading of the silicate-based microstructures, their shaping through either handbuilding, wheel throwing or slip casting, then drying or firing in kiln, and finally decoration where different ceramic glazes and painting techniques are employed.
Different ceramic techniques and processes are used in production of ceramic tableware, pottery, vessels, decorative objects, sculptures and artistic installations. Before going into techniques, it is important to note two basic ceramic making processes—mixing and melting. The first process starts with the mixing of fine clay particles with some adhesive solution, such as water or some other liquid or lubricant, in order to reach rheological properties of the mixture. Such mixture is then shaped and sintered. In the second process material is melted and poured into prepared moulds. This may seem less creative or a bit too mechanical when compared to the first one, but both old and contemporary artists were able to draw inspiration from this process and to make remarkable works of art.
Handbuilding is the term used for the ceramic technique where hands are employed in shaping of clay. This technique may also include the use of wheel, in the so called ‘throwing’ method where centrifugal forces of the spinning wheel are used as an aid in shaping. Without the wheel artists rely mostly on their hands and the material. Pinching, slab or coil constructions, pounding or squashing are all mechanical elements of this technique with their particular modes of execution. Artefacts made through handbuilding technique can be sintered by firing in kiln or drying in the sun. Different ceramic glazes and ceramic painting techniques can be later applied for final decorative purposes.
Some of the oldest archaeological artefacts are made with pinching technique including some Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese and Greek vessels. In pinching the clay is first kneaded in a ball.The artist then presses the middle of the ball with the thumb of one hand while holding the ball in the other. The process continues in circles around the initial pinch until the desired shape is formed. This may seem as a rather maladroit technique when compared to a much more smooth finish of wheel-thrown artefacts, but small imperfections that characterize pinched forms add to their general aesthetic appeal.
In slab and coil constructions artists use previously made strips or slabs of clay and by combining, joining, pressing, bending or folding them make different forms. Slabs and strips of clay are made with the use of different tools such as slab rollers, rolling pins or by tossing. Slabs are usually rolled to even thickness and cut into desired pieces. Among the most utilized objects created in this technique are painted and glazed ceramic tiles often used for decorative purposes in both sacral and secular architecture.
When the potter’s wheel appeared some 4,000 years ago new technique developed called wheel throwing. First, the ball of kneaded clay is thrown on the spinning wheel and poured over with water. The spinning of the wheel helps in shaping of the desired form. During the work artist holds clay centred on the wheel with one hand and models it with another. The process includes simultaneous shaping and thinning of the walls of the object until the water is dispersed and final shape achieved. Among the most veneered examples of this type of ceramics are Longquan celadon made in China in 13th century. Celadon derives its name from the green or transparent glazes that are used on vessels and other objects. Glazing with transparent or green colour was innovative and respected method in China and Longquan celadon was highly coveted throughout Middle East and Asia between 13th and 15th century. The work of Adam Silverman presented in 2016 on his solo exhibition is one of the most prominent examples of this technique. His artistic project includes forms inspired by human body where accident and deliberation interplay in creation of these glazed works of art.
Different from the handbuilding technique, slip casting does not include shaping by hands. Instead, liquid clay (slip) is poured into plaster moulds which absorb the water from the slip. The longer slip is left in the mould the thicker it becomes. When the desired thickness is achieved excessive slip can be poured out from the mould. What is left in the mould is the casting which will continue to dry until it is firm enough to be removed. This technique is especially useful for creation of more complex and irregular forms. Both old and contemporary artists used this technique precisely for this. Porcelain figurines particularly popular in the 18th century in Europe are among the best examples, while contemporary artists such as William Wilhelmi deploy the same technique only now with a Pop Art twist. The potter and artist Christopher Russell turns his interest from popular to nature and allows for different natural forms to inspire his terracotta works while Jessica Putnam-Phillips returns to the great porcelain tableware tradition as a basis for investment in gender issues. Drawing from her own US military experience she replaces traditional pastoral scenes with images of women soldiers on her porcelain plates.
It is not an exaggeration to say that ceramics follows humankind from the humankind’s first steps ever since. Intimate engagement with material, with often few or no tools that come between the artist's hands and clay demonstrates the accessibility of this art form to wider public. Artist William Wilhelmi notes very aptly that “…every culture knows clay… Everyone can relate to clay.” The presence and endurance of ceramics over centuries testifies to its importance in both ancient and present times. As the poet Robert Browning would say:
“Time’s wheel runs back or stops,
Potter and clay endure”.
Editor's Tip: The Ceramic Bible: The Complete Gide to Materials and Techniques
To get a better understanding of ceramic techniques we recommend The Ceramic Bible as it offers a comprehensive overview of the subject with up-to-date information on techniques, contemporary artists and artworks with both contemporary and historical examples included. Illustrated with over 700 full-colour photographs and with an extensive resources section and troubleshooting tips this book is an invaluable source for students, artists and collectors alike.
Featured images: Antony Gormley-Field for the British Isles, image via pintomiraya.com; Jin Eui Kim-Counter-Shading, 2012, image via artelite.com; Jessica Putnam-Phillips-Downtime, year not available, image via artworkarchive.com; Adam Silverman-Untitled, 2015. All images for illustrative purposes only.