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Ceramics: the Definition of Art History

By Daniel, published on 25/09/2019 We Love Prof - AU > Arts and Hobbies > School Art > Ceramics

Before Indiana Jones captivated our imagination with his tales of derring-do, archaeologists mainly laboured in obscurity – both in the literal and figurative sense.

Sure, when a great find is made, such as Tutankhamun’s tomb or the greatest discovery of clay sculpture ever made, the Terracotta Warriors were found, those discoveries make headlines around the world.

But when a graduate student on a dig finds pottery shards… that’s not necessarily earth-shattering news.

Although rarely publicised, those finds invariably point to pottery-making being one of the most ancient forms of art, right up there with cave-painting.

Why did early humans make pottery? How did they discover pottery clay and figure out that it could be used to make things?

More importantly: how is it that this ancient art, born of necessity, is currently enjoying a resurgence?

From Australia to the Americas and, of course, in our own lovely country, clay artists are keen to promote their craft by offering adult classes in pottery as well as the occasional kids’ ceramics class.

You have to be careful mixing kids with clays; the high-temperature kilns alone make it a risky proposition!

If you’re reading this, you must have some interest in the materials and processes involved in ceramic arts.

As always, your Superprof is fully supportive of your endeavours.

Whether you’re aiming for your Bachelor of Fine Arts or looking to become the artist in residence in your home-built ceramic studio, we now provide you with all of the information you need to get started.

Wash your hands, shut off your kiln and follow along!

What Are Ceramics?

Terra Cotta warriors are world-famous the Terracotta Warriors are perhaps the most renown ceramic sculptures of all time Image by broquitos from Pixabay

We tend to think of ceramics in terms of what we’re familiar with: ceramic tile, ceramic vases or delicate ceramic boxes (those are called raku, by the way).

Seldom does the average person consider the full scope of things that are ceramic; nothing illustrates that point better than the insulators we see on electrical poles.

Most people make a distinction between glass and ceramic insulators; the fact is, they are both ceramic.

Likewise, most make a distinction between pottery – say, the terra cotta pots in the garden, porcelain fixtures in the bathroom and the bone china used on special occasions. Here again, they are all ceramic.

Any substance that is inorganic and non-metallic is considered ceramic.

That means that the bricks your home is built of and the mortar that holds them together; the windows you look out of (provided they are glass, not some polycarbonate compound), the fixtures in your bathroom and maybe even your kitchen… they are all ceramic.

Ceramics have many uses in fields of science and engineering, too. Consider reusable launch systems such as the US’s space shuttle or reusable space capsules.

Those components must be protected from the extreme heat of re-entry into our atmosphere; that is why they are protected with heat-resistant ceramic tiles.

Admittedly, space travel and re-entry is a fairly limited proposition; it is much more common to board a jet and fly from one country to the next than fly away from our planet altogether.

Would you be surprised to know that ceramics play an integral part in the workings of jet engines?

Learn more about ceramics and their many applications

What Equipment Do You Need for Ceramics Lessons?

one should fire this type of ceramic at low temp This type of pottery is fired at low temperature Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Most people, when considering ceramic art generally don’t consider archaeology, building techniques or the transition temperature of re-entry; they just want to tap into their creative process and express themselves through the visual arts.

Well begun is half done. Aristotle

Most who stand by that adage would start their venture into studio art by being thoroughly prepared: the right tools, the right equipment and the right materials and the right attitude – we all know attitude counts for a lot!

Believe it or not, to properly prepare yourself for lessons in pottery, all you really need is an openness to learning and a can-do attitude.

As far as equipment and materials, to make even the simplest pot out of clay, you will need:

  • A potter’s wheel: you don’t have to have one but it sure makes pottery-making faster and easier!
  • A kiln: you may choose an electric kiln, a gas kiln, a wood kiln or a raku kiln
  • Clay: there are many types and grades to choose from
  • Water

It is remarkable that, over the millennia that humans have been working clay – the oldest figurines, found in the Czech Republic, have been dated to 45,000 years ago, very little has changed.

True, we have nifty clay tools and it would be a good bet that those ancient potters, coiling their rolls of clay would probably be amazed at the convenience of pottery wheels.

But you don’t need to bring any tools or clays to begin making pottery in class. You will likely be asked to bring an apron, though, and to dress appropriately.

Find out what else might be asked or expected of you in your first few ceramics classes

Where Can You Find Ceramics Classes and Workshops?

As mentioned earlier, art ceramics are enjoying a new wave of popularity all around the world. Everywhere, people are turning out earthenware, glazed or unglazed, to use in their gardens or serve as accent pieces.

In light of that, could finding classes be difficult? That depends on several factors.

If you live in a city, it would be much easier to find an art center offering pottery lessons than, say in the Scottish Highlands.

On the other hand, if you live in Scotland, you might seek out the Scottish Potters’ Association to connect with experienced ceramic artists; you may even become a member of their group!

One of the first questions they’re bound to ask you is: why do you want to learn pottery? That question is at the heart of finding the best ceramics classes.

If you’re only just beginning to work with ceramic materials, beginner’s classes at an art studio or open classes at your local college of art would work well. There, you could learn all of the basics:

  • the different types of clay (and what they’re used for)
  • the different equipment and tools a clay artist uses
  • properties of kilns – high temperature, low temperature, inner diameter and so on
  • wheel throwing: how to work with a pottery wheel

In fact, pottery artists recommend taking a wheel throwing class because it can be quite tricky getting the hang of working with a pottery wheel.

Conversely, if you’ve already met with a bit of success in turning out stoneware creations, you might keep an eye out of workshops that address a skill you’ve not yet mastered.

Essentially, finding pottery classes and workshops really boils down to what you need to further your art education

you may have to exercise patience before turning out tableware Beware that you won’t turn out a full set of tableware on your first try! Image by Dieter Fettel from Pixabay

Getting Started with Pottery Lessons

You may be a fan of the classic film, Ghost, in which Demi Moore’s character sits half-clad at a pottery wheel in the middle of the night.

The vase she’s making grows, grows, grows taller until Sam sits behind her. She gets distracted, the vase flops…

In that story, floppy vases are of little consequence. So, for that matter, is pottery.

On the other hand, for the perhaps overeager ceramist, clay creations that continuously flop can a source of frustration. Plenty of people have gotten discouraged over their clay not becoming what they want it to be!

Ceramic artists all aver: check your expectations.

It would be safe to say that hardly anyone sitting at a pottery wheel met success the first time out. It takes patience and skill to turn out a flawless piece.

Your instructor will no doubt make pottery-making seem very easy but there is a measure of skill involved even if it seems effortless when done by a pro.

Knowing exactly how much pressure to exert on the clay as it turns, how often to moisten it and when to stop before the piece is ruined all take time to learn.

The wonderful thing about clay is that it is so forgiving! If what you’re working on doesn’t satisfy, you can knead the clay into a ball and start all over again or try something new, maybe even experiment a little.

It is important to remember that you’re not going to master pottery or clay sculpture after only a couple of lessons; in fact, the dedicated ceramic artist makes learning his craft the work of a lifetime.

In light of that, if you’ve never thrown a pot – used a pottery wheel, you will have a few things to get used to. A good rule of thumb is to learn one ‘thing’ per lesson, starting with the ceramic material you are currently manipulating.

Your instructor should explain what type of clay you’re working with, what it’s composition is, and what they mean by ‘bisque’.

You will be treated to so much information about ceramics as an art form… why not read our companion article to get fully prepared?

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