All potters develop their own ways of throwing on the wheel, and what’s presented in this article is only how I teach it. Methods of throwing are VERY individual, and will be developed by each potter themselves in time - simply by doing it over and over.
What I teach my students is the easiest way for ME to do it. And then they will have to work at it to find the way that makes it easy for THEM to throw. For example - I like to open up a vessel on the wheel with my right fingers, steadying them against my left hand as I do it, and so I show beginners how to do that. But with practice, some may find that opening with their thumbs is easier - and that's exactly how they should do it!
Throwing pieces on a wheel begins with the most basic process - kneading. Thus the first lesson in wheel throwing is to show students how to knead clay effectively in order to ensure that the clay is the same consistency throughout, and to remove any air bubbles. Sometimes as you knead, you’ll hear the air bubbles pop!
Recycled clay will have to be kneaded especially well to mix the wet and dry clay together thoroughly, as well as remove the air bubbles and dry it out to the right consistency for throwing.
Although there are several ways to knead clay, I teach what I call SPIRAL kneading. Personally, I have found it to be the most efficient method, and so that's what I show beginners. Below is a short video demonstrating this method.
The second basic part of wheel throwing is to learn to center that ball of clay on the wheel. Two things that I believe: EVERYONE can learn to wheel throw and EVERYONE can learn to center! That said, centering is probably the hardest part of wheel throwing for many. For some students however, it comes easily. Why the difference?
Over time and after working with lots of students, I've come to understand that it's more difficult for those who are logical thinkers, used to thinking their way through new things one step at a time, to learn to center a ball of clay. Those who naturally embrace centering as a more body-centered process seem to have an easier time from the very beginning. Eventually centering will become a visceral experience, as it is a very intuitive process. This is why I encourage students from the very beginning to focus on the feeling of centering the clay from their bodies through to their fingers. I will often ask beginners to close their eyes if they have problems centering, so that they are activating their sense of touch rather than their thought process.
I think this is why centering clay can be a powerful and active form of meditation!
Below is a very short centering video that shows hand placement and the process of bringing the clay up into a cone and pushing it down so as to do a bit more kneading on the wheel while centering.
video demonstrating this method.
As a teacher, I think it super important to allow students time after demonstrations and instructions to struggle a bit on their own with centering. This is when they begin to get the feel of what they are doing. Once they have become more familiar with the feel of the clay, the degree of moisture needed, their hand placement and their body position, I am more able to help them tweak and evolve their technique. Then we can move on to opening. But it's really important to note that clay on the wheel must be solidly centered before opening it to create a shape!
There are so many ways to open clay on the potter's wheel. Some potters use their thumbs, some use one finger, and some will position their fingers on top of each other. Below is a short video of the way I demonstrate what I do. As you can see, I am continuing to use my left hand to keep the clay centered and to steady the right hand and fingers as they move toward the middle of the clay and then down to open it.
Trying to explain this in words is like trying to explain what centering clay is without demonstrating it. Showing it is so much more valuable than telling it!
I love teaching, because in doing so I’m privileged to see the joy on a person’s face when they finally GET IT, and they can knead, center and open that clay on the wheel. AND I am able to encourage those who are discouraged at first, and thus prove the truth of my sincere belief - that with practice everyone can learn to throw.
What happens now that the clay is kneaded, centered and opened? Stay tuned for the next blog in the FUNDAMENTALS OF CLAY ART TECHNIQUES series!
This is an explanation of why I start off all my beginning students with handbuilding. Some students feel they may be wasting time on learning handbuilding techniques, but I think handbuilding is the FOUNDATION of working with clay.
This series is not meant to be a comprehensive course in ceramics. But since I've been making pottery and teaching clay courses for many years now, I want to share some of the insights I've gained. And by insights I mean things that I think make it easier to teach and to learn Clay Art.
Wheel thrown pottery is always symmetrical. You can alter it on the wheel after throwing so that it's no longer symmetrical. Wheel throwing is essentially a production "sport", and an accomplished potter can throw many pots in quite a short period of time, repeating the same sizes and shapes over and over. This makes sense if you need to quickly produce 50 mugs, bowls, plates, pitchers or vases!
But even if you envision yourself in the future to be wheel throwing exclusively, and your final goal is to be a throwing production potter - you will still benefit enormously from learning handbuilding techniques.
Pinching pots is the probably the earliest method used to create clay vessels and will teach you LOTS about working with clay. Beginning with handbuilding, specifically pinch pots, builds traces from your brain to your fingertips. You will learn how much clay can stretch, how far you can coax it, and how thin it can become. Handbuilding pinch pots also teaches you how to create a shape with your hands and how to control the creation of that shape. The shapes you can build by pinching are endless.
This is why, in my beginner classes (kids AND adults), I always start by making pinch pots. Even students who have been in my classes often choose to build pinch pots along with the beginners in order to expand their abilities, make more complex shapes and experiment with processes of smoothing and finishing. There's always room for improving technique! I love a project where students build two pinch pots of the same size and join them together, subtly moving into the process of joining pieces of clay together. From this egg shape there are so many possibilities: vases, sculptures, teapots...
It seems a logical transition from here to coil pots ....
Coiling is a simple matter of forming "snakes" of clay by rolling a lump of clay first in your hands and then against a flat surface. These coils can be small and thin, the size of your thumb, or VERY large, and either rounded or flattened. They are put together, one atop the other and joined by rubbing the coils together and pinching them. The form is then shaped by repeatedly adding coils, joining them and turning them as you pinch.
Thus, coiling and pinching methods are combined to create either asymmetrical OR symmetrical vessels or pots. Making a successful symmetrical coil pot is quite a challenge. Once students have done them, I encourage them to design an asymmetrical pot in order to perceive and appreciate the beauty of asymmetry. Since you can be symmetrical on the wheel, why not explore how natural and exciting building an asymetrical work of art can be?!
Coil or pinch pots can be very thin, very smooth, very large or very small. The coils can be decorative on the outside or on the inside (a bowl, for instance). They can be built freehand, or by using the inside or outside of a shape. They can be many and various different shapes that are all basically rounded.
Let's move on to slabs .....
Slabs are essential if you want to create flat shapes. Slabs are pieces of clay rolled or slammed out flat. You can use a slab roller, a rolling pin or slam the clay against a flat surface, slowly expanding the shape. Slabs can be used to create rounded shapes by rolling them around a cylinder and joining them at the edge. They can be shaped by being draped inside or outside of a mold to create platters or bowls. Almost anything can be used as a mold: a plaster mold created just for that purpose or a bowl, a platter, a pan, a wok! Bas-relief tiles begin with slabs.
You can also build boxes from slabs by rolling out a slab and cutting the sides, joining them together when they've dried to leather hard. Boxes can be tall and thin, short and squat, many-sided or cubed. Boxes can become bird houses, fairy houses, treasure boxes or containers of secrets!
In conclusion ….
You can combine ALL these handbuilding techniques with wheel throwing. Knowing how to hand build and becoming familiar with the techniques above will expand your horizons and your ability to create even more shapes. My birds, mermaids, loons (soon on the website!) and hanging animals (soon on my new Etsy page!) all began as wheel thrown pieces. The necks and heads are then coiled and pinched, and the wings made from slabs. The feet (those of my pieces who are lucky enough to have them) are a combination of pinch, coil and slab techniques!
Next in the Fundamentals of Clay Techniques series, I'll talk about my own method of teaching Wheel Throwing - stay tuned!
Imagine the myth of Pandora's box turned on its head. Open that box and only GOOD things come out of it - beautiful things, magical things! Good memories, good ideas, good times and more. Certainly not pestilence and war and world-wearying troubles …
That's my dream, and it fuels my infatuation with making handmade clay boxes.
What I love about boxes:
They hold treasures and precious things. Your grandmother's wedding ring, a lock of your child's hair from their first baby cut? How about the tiny sculpture your father gave you when you were 11, or a stash of money?
They keep secrets safe. Yes, boxes conceal secrets - especially when you can lock them! Christmas lists, secret notes, an engagement ring you're not ready to give yet, the key to your lover's house?
Boxes contain disorder and organize our messes. Those trinkets we can't lose, our sewing supplies, even spare batteries - boxes holding our extra 'stuff' are everywhere; in the bathroom, under the bed, in the hall closet, in your office. They make all appear neat and tidy - and give your brain the space and energy it needs to be at ease.
The potential of boxes to hold surprises is unlimited! When you hold that box in your hand, you just don't know what's inside. A gift? A prize? That long-awaited engagement ring, or a wrapped box with a colorful bow that contains the gift of your dreams? Even your weekly organic food basket could be full of unexpected surprises like garlic scapes, hakurei turnips or yet another bunch of kale….
Empty space itself is magical - it's something that has yet to be filled - but maybe it will REMAIN empty. Empty space in a box will always be waiting for something precious or important; a treasure, a surprise, or a secret.
Wishes and hopes go into boxes - they just do. For instance when you give a wedding gift or a baby gift. When you bake a cake FOR someone and carry it to them in your cake box. When you open a box and whisper the wish into it that can't be spoken aloud, and then you put the lid on it.
Boxes can also manipulate time with memories - you put something into a box and forget about it. When you open the box and find your memento, present time melts away and you are reliving another moment; when your kids were tiny, when you married, when your father gave you that special and unexpected gift.
Some of the treasures I store in boxes:
I use all kinds of boxes: metal, wooden, silver, ceramic, old jewelry boxes, orange crates, cigar boxes and match boxes. My boxes hold:
The ceramic boxes I make….
….are sculptural, and always have a guardian atop them. The guardian dictates who owns the box, but not what's inside it. When I make boxes for people, the sculptures (what they are and how they're situated on the box) always say something about the person who has the box - but nothing about what's IN the box of course - that's the joy and mystery of boxes.
What an opportunity it is for an artist to have the FOUR sides of a box to decorate! It's like having a four-sided canvas to carve and paint on. And some of my ceramic boxes are double-tiered, giving me even more surfaces to carve on. Recently I've begun to have fun writing messages on my boxes - it adds a whole new level of meaning for me.
The Sea Turtle boxes, the Lionfish box, the Pelican box, the Dolphin box and others like them are expressions of my love of Florida nature and the beautiful environment I live in. For the people who own them, not only are they gorgeous and unique pieces to have in their homes, but they're environmental statements too. Beloved and protected sea turtles, the beautiful but invasive lion fish and our dear Florida pellies embody our love of the natural world and our hopes and wishes for it too.
I can't stop doing art - I create things compulsively and joyfully! Let me share with you how you too can do this….
Here are 6 simple strategies that will empower YOU to create - and to be overtaken by joy in the process.
Bring a sketchbook with you wherever you go. If you're off on a walk, a bike, a kayak adventure or a road trip - make sure you have with you the tools you need to make notes and sketches about what you see, and the ideas and inspirations that strike you. Words alone will not help you to remember what you see, you must SKETCH it too - right away. A quick drawing captures the visual feeling, the essence of what you see. If it's really impossible to stop and sketch, take photos to remember and then do a sketch at home. The sketching begins to build traces from your eye and brain to your hands, and creates a more lasting memory.
Learn to observe everything around you with interest and attention; the colors and textures, the funny things that surprise you or make you happy. Watch for the things that fit together. Pay attention to sounds too! Look for patterns and light even in man-made forms; buildings, pipes and mechanical objects. Actually, this is really not unlike the practice of mindfulness, and will help you to be more centered and happy in general.
Spend time looking at the work of other artists; in class, at the art museum, at galleries, on Instagram. Don't copy what they do, but go ahead and allow yourself to be inspired by them.
Choose a place you love, go there and just sit for some hours. Spend the time simply looking around. Watch the light at different times and see how it changes throughout the day, and how it plays with everything. I have favorite places that I kayak to at different hours; early morning, late afternoon or early evening. I like to watch what the birds are doing when, how the sun rising and setting changes the surface colors in the water, and which animals emerge when.
Use clay to tell a story from your childhood, or from a book you love. I use stories from everywhere - from my life, from books, etc. The Just So stories of Rudyard Kipling are tales I personally never tire of, and I read them over and over. I'm always fascinated by the pure crazy imaginativeness of The Elephant's Child, for example - or How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin. They make me laugh out loud as I read them, and they inspire me too. Find a story YOU love and turn that lump of earth into something that expresses it or re-tells it.
Go ahead and put things together that don't normally GO together! Juxtapose and re-invent. The resulting quirkiness will surprise and delight you. I'm particularly gleeful about my Turtle-Armadillo and my Armored Rhinoceros, and in fact all my steampunk work. Sometimes I think that it's actually the re-invention of nature that makes artists like me happy! But I also get pleasure from watching people look at my work and "get it" because it triggers a memory and delights them too
The advice I give to my students is this: follow what you love and do what your heart leads you to do. Don't try to dig ditches or make the same sort of things everyone else does - do what makes YOU smile. If what you create makes you laugh - lucky you! I hope one day to see you laughing aloud in one of my classes….
Over the years I've watched my sister fall ever more deeply in love with clay art. It's truly been a progression into joy. Not a linear progression however, because like many women she was waylaid by life's adventures along the way; 5 children, several businesses, and the intense reality of raising a family alone. But she's never wavered from her intense purpose and drive to create art.
From early years I remember growing up in a home filled with my sister's art; perspective studies, pointillism experiments, toothpick spheres, paintings, mosaics and more. Diverted away from her desired path to art college by overly anxious parents, she nevertheless persisted in ever more creative pursuits. From sketching, painting, photography, wood carving and textile art - she never stopped creating art. And then she discovered pottery.
Although Peggy spent many years raising kids and working in art education, she gathered the tools of her trade around her and began to learn. She did production pottery for several years and taught clay art in Florida public schools and at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. In recent years she has progressed into fulltime joyous clay art creation. She lives, eats and breathes clay - full of ideas and excitement about it from morning ‘til night. She experiments constantly with new techniques, new glazes and new ways of firing. And when I visit her - I am always shocked to see how incredibly beautiful her art continues to become.
To see someone finally become what they always were meant to be is both a privilege and an inspiration. May we all be so lucky as to find and do that work which gives us the most joy in life!
Written with love, by Betsy - Peggy's sister.
To me, firing my pots and sculptures is part of my art. It's an important step in my process of creation, and I derive as much satisfaction from it as I do from any other part of the process. I like being hands on with every step of working in clay; choosing it, shaping it, glazing and firing it.
I fell in love with firing clay way back in the 70's when I worked with a production potter. Production potters will often use the same clay and glazes, and fire in the same way so that they know exactly what will happen. Even so, anomalies can happen, as harnessing fire in a kiln is a bit like cooking on an open fire - results will vary based on the conditions.
My students at the Vero Beach Museum of Art often have expectations of what their pieces will look like when they emerge from the kiln. But at the museum we use so many different clays and glazes that there are lots of surprises! I try to prepare them for the unexpected, as often their work will look completely different after firing than they imagined it would. I always suggest they take these pieces home, and just wait until they fall in love with them. Usually that's exactly what happens.
I've learned lots more about the art and process of firing kilns since I started firing the big gas kilns at the museum. It's an exciting process - watching the temperature rise or the cones falling to know when to begin reduction by closing the damper a bit or turning the gas up. Either action will reduce the oxygen in the kiln, which is when the clay body and glazes reduce and darken as oxygen gets sucked out. As this happens, the flames will shoot out of the peepholes - what a dramatic sight!
I've learned the basics of the big kilns from Sean Clinton, the education coordinator at the museum. Sean has also encouraged me to play and experiment on my own with the art of raku firing, about which he is very knowledgeable.
So now I fire most of my own clay art in my home studio. I use and experiment with different methods of firing, but more and more I gravitate toward raku firing. It's the unpredictability of it that entrances me, although the whole process is marvelous! I love the heat and excitement of the fire itself, watching the glazes melt and then removing the pieces from the kiln one by one and putting them into cans with combustible material. I love the process of the carbon in the smoke blackening the clay and the crackling that results from the raku glazes. To me, the crackling and coloring that result from raku firing are the true beauty and character of a work as much as is the form.
This is my homemade Raku kiln - I made it with hardware cloth, ceramic fiber and a few firebricks. I'm so excited about this amazing workhorse of a kiln! It's heated by propane and a Venturi burner - you can see it at the burner port above. It will reach 1850 degrees in about 45 minutes. In this photo below it has reached about 1700 degrees.
I've been using it for about a year now, and I usually fire it up at least twice a week. On those days you'll find me in the backyard looking like this in my safety gear … in fact I almost scared the FedEx guy to death the other day when he came around the back to deliver a parcel.
When the kiln is red hot and 1850 degrees, I use tongs to remove the pots one by one. The pots are placed in garbage cans that I have set up nearby. The cans have combustible material inside - I've been using newspaper and straw recently. When the pots hit the newspaper, the newspaper bursts into flames and the lid is placed on top. There's LOTS of smoke!
The carbon of the smoke is absorbed by the hot clay, turning it a glorious black. What I Iove about Raku firing is the miraculous chemistry of how the kiln, flames and smoke affect the glazes and clay, creating a black clay and crackled glaze. Almost always there is some kind of unpredictable and wonderful surprise! Here's one of my recently fired Guardian Cats - who went into the kiln as a black and white cat and came out looking like this!
I love to educate people about clay, and am passionate about how it works; joining it together, kneading it and making it do what you envision - and then firing it.