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6 Ceramic Techniques Every Lover of Pottery Needs to Know

Humans made art well before society formed.

Ceramics is one of the oldest, most ever-present forms of art to come from human history.

Sculptures, tiles, bricks, and other vessels for cooking and storing food survive millennia. The oldest ceramic artifact we have is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which came from the Czech Republic around 29,000 years ago.

Today, the pottery making process has been modernized, but the techniques remain much the same.

Below, we’ll show six types of pottery, how each of these ceramic techniques works, and how the technique you use influences what objects you can create.

1. Handbuilding

handbuilding ceramics

Working the clay with your bare hands is where ceramic art started.

You can’t stop your hands from immediately wanting to form and shape the fine-grain soil when you touch it, and there are plenty of objects you can create using your hands.

The process starts with pinching off small balls of clay to work in your hands. Instead of using a pottery wheel, plan to get your hands dirty. The results appear more organic.

Hand-building involves squishing and pounding out the clay with your bare hands. You might use a combination of other techniques in handbuilding as well, such as joining slabs, pinching the clay into form, and creating coils (more on this later).

Handbuilding pottery as an art form is more common in the art world. It’s easier to learn, and the technique takes pottery back to an old-school, inner impulse to adapt the material with your hands.

It’s also much easier for beginners to learn while they play around with different techniques, and there’s a wide range of sculpting clay to try. The best sculpting clay (at least from an ease of use point of view) is called ‘air dry’ clay, and as the name suggests,

Whether or not the technique is right for your project, however, depends on your taste, style, and tolerance.

2. Pinching

woman in pottery workshop

The best technique to make super-thin vessels, like a vase or drinking pitcher, as well as figurines with hollow centers. Pinching can also help you form small decorative objects.

Ancient Egyptians used the pinching method to create crazy thin vessels and figurines from hollowed pieces of red-brown clay called terracotta. They would pinch the object into form using their hands and set the object to dry in the sun naturally. Afterward, the Egyptians would polish the object smooth with stone and paint it to create features and designs.

Pinching today is slightly different. Contemporary ceramic artists still start with a ball of clay and press the thumb halfway into the center of the ball. However, today you would smooth the surface using a damp sponge. Then, you can allow the clay object to air dry or fire it in a kiln before glazing.

To pinch a pot, start with a ball of clay in your hand. Insert your thumb into the ball and pinch the clay between your thumb and forefinger, rotating the clay ball to thin and raise the clay simultaneously. Revolve the ball with your hand. Your thumb should remain working the inside of the pot while the fingers shape the outside. Press the walls out evenly to fit into place.

3. Slab Construction

man working in ceramic workshop

Slab construction is an excellent technique for tiles and figurines.

Ceramic tiles and figures were often constructed in India and Mesopotamia from slabs of clay as early as 14,000 B.C., according to Ancient Pottery. Ancient Mayans also used slab construction to create lids and bases for a range of objects, like boxes, vessels, and incense burners. Both cultures are well-known for the intricate decorative pieces.

Slab construction tends to involve working flat and rolled-out clay. You can either use your hands entirely or form the clay around a mold for the same shape each time. Taller objects involve stacking multiple shaped slabs on top of each other to create geometric formations and unique objects.

Although slab construction makes some of the same shapes you can with a pottery wheel, the technique allows you to form more angular and challenging shapes. The process is more complex than other hand-building methods because the clay takes on a plastic, malleable substance that can’t support itself while it dries.

Thus, how you complete slab construction depends on using soft or hard slab. The difference lies in how much moisture your clay holds and how you use water to shape the clay.

Slab construction is the most versatile and creative but also takes the longest amount of time to learn. There are so many methods you can combine in various projects. Some slab construction projects may involve other hand-building methods, like coils and pinching, for example, to make rims or handles.

Many slab construction projects also involve the scour and slip method to attach sections of clay together. The process involves roughing up one side and attaching two pieces using a glue-like adhesive or slip.

4. Coil Constructions

Coil construction is the best technique if you want to create intricately coiled pots or vessels. Instead of a pottery wheel or mold to help the clay take shape, the process involves coiling pieces of soft clay and forming them together to create a new object.

Japanese hunter-gatherers from around 10,500 to 300 B.C. made pots using the coil technique. The entire Jomon period, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was named after the common technique. The word Jomon derives from the phrase “cord markings,” which describes the soft, coiled clay layers found in ceramics from early Asian potters.

In the past, Jomon women mixed the clay, formed the coils into pots, and fired them outdoors. Styles vary across the next 10,000 years or so, but the earliest ceramics would have used a simple, small vessel to low-fire the ceramics into form. They also added ornate decorations to the vessels if they were for ceremonial purposes.

Today, potters still follow the ancient process. However, we now use kilns that can reach higher temperatures to fire coiled ceramics. It takes time and patience. But many artists find the process meditative.

Start by using your fingers to roll soft, moist clay into long strips or coils. They should be around ¼ to ½ inch (6-12mm) thick and about as long as a thick pasta noodle. Create multiple coils.

Next, smooth out a plate-shape with the clay. The coils stack on top of the round plate, creating a base. Layer coil after coil, securing them together with the scour and slip method. Once all the coils are layered on top of each other, allow the object to dry.

5. Slip Casting

Used to create ceramic figurines and other decorative pieces, slip casting is the only technique that uses liquid clay and mold to create the shape. It’s also the best technique if you want to create multiple molds or produce more objects in less time.

Skip-casting was a popular method during China’s golden age under the Tang Dynasty, which was from the year 618 to 907.

Around 19,000 years after the first ceramics were found in Xianrendong Cave, the Tang became responsible for manufacturing sophisticated porcelain ceramics. They exchanged goods with India and the Middle East, allowing them to develop three different colors of glaze. This is why slip casting often features:

  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Amber
  • Blue

Over the years, potters have started to use the glaze to create stunning visual effects during the firing stage. The details often feature accents along the rim that align geometrically. It’s the most mechanical and restrictive process, but you can still design spectacular original pieces.

The process involves pouring the liquid clay, also called slip, into a plaster mold. The mold is secured tightly into place and determines how the object will appear exactly. It only takes a few minutes for the clay to solidify. Once it has formed along the mold’s interior, you can pour the remaining liquid out. Give the mold a few more minutes to set before you remove the hard clay and trim away any extra pieces. Allow the object to air-dry before painting.

6. Wheel Throwing

wheel throwing

Hand or wheel throwing is the technique that uses a potter’s wheel. It’s most often used to create vessels for food or drink, and throwing allows us to make ceramics faster than ever. The results come out more polished, thin, and refined.

The potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) around 3,500 B.C. It was the first wheel, and remains one of the most important of human inventions. In fact, the potter’s wheel is responsible for the more than 100,000 iconic red and black ancient Greek vessels in museums today.

Here’s how the technique works: Begin with a kneaded ball of clay. Drop the ball with a bit of force onto the wheel’s center. You’ll need to keep a bowl or bucket of water nearby.

Use the water to wet your hands and the clay, while you spin the wheel quickly. Push the clay down and inward using your palms, allowing extra clay and moisture to fall from the object you form. Maintain a central position on the wheel while it rotates.

Then, one hand opens the ball of clay from the center while the other hand holds the outter shape of your object intact. Run your fingers along the outside to form the shape. Add more water as needed. Your hands will get dirty.

After the bottom becomes more compressed and the thin walls of your vessel are raised high, you can shape the vessel how you want. This is your chance to add decorative elements. Even out the top, and allow your finished ceramic to dry.

Using a pottery wheel, however, isn’t an option for everyone. They can be costly. Most wheels range from $400 to $1,500, depending on the features and brand. Budget-friendly pottery wheels are available for around $500. This price makes pottery a serious investment, which isn’t so ideal if you’re just starting a ceramics hobby for fun.

Many people, especially beginners, can’t always afford the expense. If this is the case for you, check out shared artist spaces near you or see if you know a potter who is willing to share. You can also take a class to become more familiar using the wheel.

It’s a full-body workout as well, making this option unideal for some people. Your hands will cup the clay, your core will hold you up as you sit on a stool, and your legs and feet will pump the spinning wheel.

Summary

Pottery is a fun craft for anyone. However, the technique you choose may depend on your skill level. You’ll also need to consider what type of ceramics you want to make. Where hand-building techniques produce creative and organic-looking pieces, a more advanced pottery wheel results in seamless ceramics. The choice is up to you!

Kara Mars