Let us flash for a moment on the first day of school. It doesn’t matter if the school in question is a primary school, a secondary or if you’re starting on the path to your Bachelor of Fine Arts...
Inevitably, there will be a run on school supplies, shopping for new clothes and perhaps even a little treat to make resuming studies more palatable. A nice lunch and maybe a new haircut?
Would you need to make such purchases before starting lessons in the ceramic arts?
Should you clutter your home with clays and pottery wheels? Maybe build a kiln in your back yard? Perhaps even make a bid for a slab roller or that extruder you found for sale on Gumtree?
All of those would be good purchases if you were setting up your own ceramic studio but if you’re proposing to learn about ceramic art, you probably don’t need to go quite that far.
In fact, learning how to make beautiful terracotta figurines or functional yet decorative earthenware really does not call for you to invest a lot of money, at least at the outset.
Once you get really good at creating art ceramics, then you might consider setting up an art studio!
This article deals with what you might need to get started with pottery-making and we can’t wait to amaze you with how little you need to purchase before your first lesson.
That being said, why don’t we just get on with it?
Consider Your Apparel
Nobody has ever claimed that creating ceramic products is a tidy affair.
Ceramics used in science and engineering applications do require an element of cleanliness to prevent contamination of the end product or, in the case of ceramic tile production, to prevent them becoming too brittle.
Ceramic artists need not be quite so fastidious.
In fact, they would be the first to tell you that theirs is a messy business that involves gooey earthen materials, water and a fair amount of grit. Going to class dressed to impress is obviously not a good idea.
Suggestion #1: wear something you won’t mind getting dirty.
If you are taking a ceramics class at an arts center, most likely you will be provided with an apron but there’s nothing wrong with you bringing one of your own; in fact, you might be instructed to do so.
You may also be warned to wear something loose-fitting and comfortable... but not too loose – no flyaway sleeves, scarves, ties or anything that could get caught up in any of the equipment.
On the flip side of that coin, you don’t want to wear anything too confining, either.
Working with clay involves long periods of sitting with a pottery wheel between your knees. If your trousers are too tight to make extended sitting and leaning forward uncomfortable, you might want to reconsider your wardrobe choices.
If you usually wear skirts, you should consider wearing one with enough flare to permit your knees being far apart.
Suggestion #2: choose your clothing with an eye toward comfort.
As for shoes, obviously, you would go with ‘sensible’. High heels would be out and, for safety reasons, it might not be acceptable to wear open-toed shoes.
While an artist’s studio is not quite an industrial area, there are still industrial elements like kilns and heavy materials that, should your foot come in contact with them, might result in serious injury.
In a similar vein, be cautious about jewellery. Especially in adult classes, participants are reminded that wearing rings is not a good idea: not only could a ring gouge your design but you might not ever get it clean again!
You may take that idea further and leave off earrings, too, especially dangling ones and if you choose to wear a necklace, be sure that it stays tucked inside your top or doesn’t hang so low it gets mixed up in the clay you’re working.
Finally: if you wear your hair long, you will most likely be instructed to tie it back, both for safety reasons and for convenience – you really don’t want a stray hair in your eye or mouth while your hands are full of clay!
Suggestion #3: safety first! Don’t wear anything that might snag, impede or expose you to injury.
Time to challenge your knowledge about ceramics history and modern uses!
Temper Your Expectations
Let’s suppose that you’ve decided on gifting everyone on your holiday list something made by your hand out of ceramic materials. What a thoughtful idea!
Clay artists make it look so easy: a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel, a bit of water and the curving of hands; a bit of pressure – we don’t know how much and, voila! Stoneware is fired and ready for use.
In truth, it’s not quite so easy to be that artist in residence.
You have to know a bit about the ceramic materials you’re working with:
- Because of its toughness, common clay is usually used to make building materials – bricks, cement and aggregate (the base for concrete)
- China clay, also known as kaolin clay is used to make glossy paper (and for stomach remedies)
- Bentonite has many industrial uses and is also used in cat litter
- Fuller’s Earth is also used in pet waste products
- Ball clay is a high-quality clay used for ceramics including floor tile, wall tiles and bathroom fixtures such as sinks and loos.
Bear in mind that, even within these broad categories, there are infinite grades and qualities.
Now delve deeper into what ceramics actually are...
Most likely, you will be working with ball clay but even working with such quality material does not guarantee a good outcome of your first few tries.
You will have to learn the right amount of pressure to exert and how fast to turn the wheel. You will need to know how much water you will need to use you will need to learn how to recognize that your piece is in imminent danger of collapse.
You will have to keep from getting frustrated if, at first, you don’t succeed in creating the beautiful pieces you had envisioned.
In fact, it would be best if you set your mind to learning one aspect of ceramic sculpture per lesson... meaning that your goal to gift everyone art pottery this Christmas is a little ambitious.
However, nothing says that, if you have the time, money and inclination, you cannot take more than one class.
For instance, you might consider looking for a workshop in wheel throwing that can help you master the basics of working clay on a pottery wheel. Or, if you’re more advanced, look for a masterclass to learn glazing.
You can usually find such classes at your local art center; if you have an art institute in your city you may even check with them – sometimes they host open classes to address a particular skill.
To learn more about pottery classes in general, you should read our companion article...
Check for different online art courses here.
What to Expect from Pottery Classes
Unless you have some extraordinary talent – you know instinctively how much pressure to put on the clay as it spins, how wet your hands need to be and an intuitive sculptural technique, you can expect a few setbacks and frustrations on your way to being the ceramic artist you always knew you were.
Do you remember that scene from the movie, Ghost, when the vase Molly was making flopped over? It’s really not so unusual for a piece to flop, especially when you’re a beginner.
That is why the best ceramic and glass teachers recommend approaching your artistic aspirations by first embracing the creative process.
Focus on the materials and processes that go into making visual arts. Learn the various properties of that inorganic material you propose to work with, the various clay tools and what they’re used for.
Realise how taxing creating clay art can be.
You might be surprised to find that working with ceramic material is relaxing but physically challenging – from the amount of pressure you exert on the clay to maintaining a position for a long time.
In fact, your instructor will most likely address your posture in the very first class.
Ideally, your back would stay straight with your arms against your body and bent at the elbows to roughly 90 degrees. Any tools you might need should be close at hand.
You might work on your posture at home if you’re called out on it.
Once you get the basics of making pottery down in class, nothing says that you can’t practise clay sculpture at home. You might try your hand at coiling – an ancient technique that does not require a wheel.
The wonderful thing about clay is that it is so forgiving! If you can’t quite get those vases right, you can try again... or turn it into a contemporary ceramics art piece. If you can’t quite get the grooves right on the bowl you’re making, you can ‘erase’ them and try again.
Likewise, if your clay sculpture doesn't turn out exactly right, have another go at it.
The important thing to remember is that learning how to make a beautiful piece takes time and work; so the most important thing you need to bring when you get started with pottery is patience!
Now learn what supplies and equipment you should have on hand before you start your ceramic classes...
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