Without exaggeration, we can state that ceramics shape our daily life.

From the tiles in your bathroom and kitchen to the mug you drink your tea or coffee from, ceramics beautify our lives and make them safer and easier.

To wit, ceramic components make it possible for you to read this on your computer, laptop or even your phone. Of course, the form ceramics take in electronic applications is vastly different from anything you might eat or drink out of.

On the other hand, you might well recognise ceramics on your way to work or school; even now they top most of our electric poles, acting as insulators.

What exactly are ceramics? How did they come to dominate modern life? Why are they still so important?

Superprof answers these questions and more...

What Are Ceramics?

Wouldn't you like to make such figurines?
You may decide that art ceramics is your niche Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

Now that we’ve planted the idea that ceramics are everywhere in our daily life, in visible and invisible forms, the pertinent question would be: what, exactly, do we mean by ceramics?

The easiest way to explain what ceramics are is by defining what they aren’t: Ceramics aren’t metallic or organic.

That’s the short answer. The more comprehensive one is going to take a few more words. Let’s give that a try.

Compile a list of things that are familiar to you; they can be made of any substance or compound.

Once you take away all organic material including wood, rubber, plastic, plant fibres and anything else that once lived, and once you scratch out all metal... what’s left is ceramic.

Building materials such as bricks, glass, mortar and cement; dishware like earthenware or the more popular and durable stoneware; plates, mugs and cups – all of those fall under the heading of ‘ceramics’. We’ll add diamonds and graphite for good measure; they too are ceramic.

What if your plates are made of porcelain? What is the difference between porcelain and ceramic?

For one, they are both made of clay but porcelain is fired at much higher temperatures. Also, ceramic is opaque but, depending on how thin your porcelain is, you could see through it because porcelain is translucent.

Most importantly, porcelain is finer – less porous than ceramic, meaning that porcelain resists staining and provides a much smoother surface: bacteria are less likely to take root and fester. That is why your bathroom sink is made of porcelain.

Porcelain is also easier to mould into complex shapes and add colouring to, in case a pristine white does not suit your décor.

All of which begs the question: if porcelain is so much smoother, finer and better, why isn’t everything made out of porcelain instead of ceramics?

The short answer is that porcelain is not suitable for every application that ceramic is.

Another reason is cost: everyday things would be much more expensive if they were made of porcelain, that is why glazed ceramics are suitable for most daily applications – like your fav mug or cup, your floor tiles and...

And decorative pieces. Ceramic arts are quite popular these days; in just about every city in the UK you can find a ceramic studio where people practise the art and craft of ceramics sculpting.

Also, many university art programmes offer Master of Fine Arts degrees – in fact, a whole art education revolving around ceramics.

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A Brief History of Ceramics

pottery making has reached every corner of the world
Pottery-making is an ancient art that spans the globe Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

It is truly amazing how simple it is to create ceramic art; only four factors come into play:

  1.  clay-based material, dug from the ground
  2.  mixing the material with water to make it a proper consistency for moulding
  3.  forming the mixture into the desired shape (often using pottery wheels)
  4.  firing the sample – your clay form is placed in a kiln and fired to a specific temperature

The end result is, invariably, a perfect ceramic sculpture that only needs finishing: maybe painting or glazing.

Most interesting, the same process is used whether the artist is working with terracotta or bone china!

Art history reveals that this process has changed little over the millennia that humans have been working with ceramic material; archaeologists have found ceramic figurines in the Czech Republic that date back nearly 45,000 years.

Around 14,000 BC, people in India and Mesopotamia were painting and drawing on ceramic tiles while in China, people were using terra cotta vessels to cook in or store liquids.

Sometime between 7,000 and 6,500 BC, humans starting forming clay into bricks but it was definitely in 6,000 BC that our ancestors built a kiln to fire their ceramic materials. Back then, it would have been a wood kiln; today we have a choice of gas or electric kilns.

Between 8,000 and 5,000 BC, Egyptians experimented with ceramic glazes; soon came the discovery and use of glass.

These are all remarkable discoveries but the best is yet to come: sometime between 3,500 and 2,500 BC, the potter’s wheel was invented.

Join the discussion: should every ceramic artist have a pottery wheel, extruder and electric kiln?

Nobody is exactly sure who the first were to use such as device; evidence of pottery made on a wheel has been found in China, Romania and Iraq – in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur.

Amazingly, after all of these early advances, the act of working ceramics remained the same for about 5,000 years.

Sure, those clay artists discovered that not every material they dug from the ground had the same toughness; some clays were better suited than others for certain applications but, by and large, working with clay stayed the same for centuries.

The next big advance in ceramics came in the mid-1800s, in tandem with the installation of telegraph lines. Later, as electricity became commonplace, insulators were needed on those lines as well.

And then, in the 1940s, the need for ferrite magnets – for motors and loudspeakers spurred yet another innovation in ceramics production.

Finally, the development that opened up all sorts of possibilities for technology that we use every day: the discovery of high-temperature superconductors, in 1986.

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Common and Not So Common Uses of Ceramics

As we’ve seen so far, ceramics have a place in virtually every aspect of human life, from the ceramic artists creating contemporary art to beautify our homes to jet engines whose individual parts need protection from the heat generated by the engine.

Take a look around your home. Is it concrete or brick-faced? Are there tiles in your kitchen and bathroom? Naturally, your loo and bathroom sink are at least coated in porcelain if not made wholly out of ceramic.

Does your home have windows?

Keep in mind that ceramic is anything inorganic or non-metallic, meaning the glass in your windows also falls into the broad category that is ceramics.

Building techniques and materials are common uses for ceramics; now let’s take a look in places where you never thought ceramics would play a part.

Do you have any incandescent lightbulbs in your house? That tungsten filament that glows when you switch the light on is ceramic. So is the glass bulb that contains it.

Your hoover, washing machine and refrigerator motors most likely have ceramic components.

Do you have an electric kettle? Most likely, its heating element has ceramic insulators built-in, as do the heating elements of your electric cookstove.

That’s not the only place you’ll find ceramics: new-style cooktops are made of ceramic glass, as are oven doors.

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Don't scratch your new stovetop
Be careful! Your new stove top can withstand high temperatures but it doesn't like to be scratched Image by Fernando Arcos from Pixabay

And that’s just in your house. Have you ever had an ultrasound scan at the hospital? Those machines contain piezoelectric transducers (yep, ceramic!) that create the ultrasonic waves.

That’s just one instance of ceramics usage in medical equipment. They’re also used in all types of prosthetics from bone implants to tooth implants.

But, if you’re a student working your way toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, you may not be wildly concerned about the many and varied composite materials in medical equipment or the building trades.

Your department of art may just want you to come up with new ideas for contemporary ceramics... or maybe you just want to make some new tableware ahead of the holiday season.

Connecting With Ceramics

The good news is that you don’t have to enrol in a school of art to get started in ceramic art and design; knowing a little about ceramics and what you’d like to try your hand at is enough, at the outset.

Knowing what equipment you'll use to make your ceramic creations would help, too...

But first, you should really pick up on the basics, such as wheel throwing – placing the clay on the wheel and shaping it, and coiling; the way pottery was made before the invention of the wheel.

Are you looking for adult classes? You might check in at the community centre or your local art center.

As long as you are working with the artist in residence – maybe in a weekend ceramics class, you might try more advanced techniques such as slip casting, wedging and even mold making.

In fact, you should try a variety of techniques and mixed media before settling on a type of clay with a given porosity, lest your creations become too brittle after firing.

According to one clay sculptor, people new to the art of clay should learn at least one new skill per lesson...

Now discover how you can get started with pottery lessons.

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A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.