Of all the various media that artisans use, I find myself the most fascinated by ceramics. Now that I’m researching ceramics to stock at Waxwing Mercantile, I’ve been learning more about the materials and methods that ceramicists use.
The very basics of ceramics are that you start with clay, shape it, fire it in a kiln, where it hardens, and decorate it with glazes. Each step is incredibly scientific, precise, and there are so many variables. One of the most interesting things about clay is that humankind has been using it for millennia. Some of the most famous works from history are the 8,000 figures of terracotta that were buried with Emperor Qin in China circa 200 BCE, the models that Gian Lorenzo Bernini made during the 17th century, and of course the ancient Greek vases.
So here is a little Ceramics lesson!
Let’s start with the raw materials. There are many different types of clay; here are just a few of the most common kinds: earthenware, terracotta, porcelain, and stoneware. Some ceramicists mix their own clay, combining minerals and materials like feldspar, kaolin (China clay), flint, water, sodium bicarbonate, etc. to achieve a particular mixture. Chrome, manganese, cobalt, copper, and other oxides can be added to the recipe to give the clay a hint of color, like turquoise or brown. The recipes can be mixed by hand, which is extremely labor intensive, or combined in a machine called a pug mill.
Ceramicists possess complex tool kits containing supplies like knives, scrapers, sponges, wire (for slicing clay), calipers, chisels, lathes, rolling pins, and brushes. There are various techniques that artisans can use to create different types of objects. I’m most interested in vessels and decorative objects, but ceramics extend to sculpture, figurines, or even installation art. One simple technique is to shape a vessel by hand, rolling out the clay to an even slab and “gluing” it together using a liquid clay material called slip. Other ways to form an object include stacking coils of clay and then smoothing them out; “pinching” a block of clay until it forms a vessel; using a mold; or throwing the clay on a potter’s wheel.
Once the object is formed, it needs to air dry and harden before it’s time to fire it in a kiln. There are multiple kinds of kilns, including gas, electric, Raku, and others. Pottery can also be fired in a pit fire in the ground. The temperature of the kiln depends on the type of clay that you are firing. According to the resources I consulted, it seems that most clay is fired between 1800 and 2400 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the most exciting parts of the process is the glazing. A glaze is a thin, hard layer of glass that is brushed onto the object, and then melts and fuses to the clay when fired in the kiln. They can be matte or glossy, and come in a spectrum of colors. Artisans can buy pre-mixed glazes or make their own depending on how much control they desire. When applied, glazes have a different color than they appear after firing, so ceramicists become familiar with the outcomes by testing small swatches of clay with different glazes until they achieve a certain effect. Sometimes the glazes drip organically, like in the mug pictured above, which I think is really neat. You can apply them with a brush, a tool, or by dipping.
Now that I’ve read up on ceramics, I have a whole new appreciation for ceramicists and the amount of knowledge and experience they need to have in order to envision what they want to create, and then have the finished product turn out as planned. I took ceramics classes in high school and loved them, but haven’t revisited since then. Now the idea of enrolling in a class is sounding pretty exciting!
If you want to learn more about ceramics, The Ceramics Bible by Louisa Taylor is an excellent place to start.
Here are some of the ceramic artisans and workshops whose work I particularly admire–
Let me know if you like this kind of post. If so, I may do similar posts about letterpress printing and woodworking later this year!
Sidenote: I studied art history in grad school and I currently work in the museum world. So I also like to keep up-to-date about contemporary fine art ceramics. By this, I mean ceramics that are not meant to be used in a utilitarian way, but artworks that are made of clay. This artist, Kit Dickey, makes absolutely gorgeous works.