We all use ceramic objects every day, whether functional or decorative. But how much do we really know about ceramics? North Bristol Artist Linda Brogan explains the basics.
Definition of ceramics
The term ‘ceramics’ refers to an object that is made of clay and fired in a kiln, often using glazes, slips (coloured liquid clay) and metal oxides for colour and decoration.
Clay is a versatile material that lends itself to many forms and you can see lots of these on the North Bristol Art Trail.
Ceramic work may be described as earthenware, stoneware or porcelain.
Image by Linda Brogan
Types of Ceramics
Earthenware is fired to a relatively low temperature (around 1050 degrees C) and is porous. It is used for a variety of work from plant pots to tapas dishes.
Stoneware clay is fired to a higher temperature (around 1260 degrees) and is more durable. It is used for a range of work from tableware to outdoor sculpture.
Porcelain is fired higher again (up to 1400 degrees) and gives a very fine white translucent finish. It is used for a variety of work from bowls to earrings.
How are ceramics made?
Ceramic artists may specialise in ‘throwing’ on the potter’s wheel to make items such as mugs and dishes or may specialise in hand building using traditional methods of pinching, coiling, or slab building to make more ‘one off’ pieces.
Some artists also may use ‘slip casting’ (where liquid clay is poured into a plaster mould) where repetition and accuracy of a particular shape is required.
Clay can also be modelled with great success to produce sculptural forms.
The process of making a ceramic object takes time and patience. It is a repetitive process beginning with the initial preparation of the clay, the making process, drying then firing, glazing/ oxiding and then retiring.
Once the clay is completely dry, it is fired in the kiln to around 1000 degrees. This is ‘bisque’ firing which makes the clay more durable and porous so that it is ready to be glazed.
It is then dipped or painted with glaze and oxides before being fired again to a higher temperature. Glaze gives a glassy coating to the clay and a variety of colours and finishes can be achieved. Each firing can take around two days to heat and cool. Some artists do ‘raku’ firing, a different method involving fire, smoke and sawdust!
When you buy from a ceramic artist you will have something very different from a mass produced piece from the usual outlets. Ceramics are very tactile, so handle the object, feel it’s weight, it’s surface, how the handle of a mug feels. You will know that you have a piece which is unique, hand made by a skilled craftsperson and artist.
Image by úna.pots
Ceramic artists will have different reasons for exploring clay as a medium, some ceramicists will work across the various clay bodies described and so too will the method by which they make their ceramics vary.
Some of the processes that are followed by North Bristol Ceramic Artists are outlined below.
Formfinding & Discovery
Úna.pots describes the concept of form-finding and playful discovery within her process;
” I enjoy the unpredictable nature of clay and use the idea of form-finding as an explorative method of creating ceramics. I find that the clay will often reveal to you what it wants to be in a playful manner.
Throughout my work, I like to explore this process often not fully knowing what I will make and letting the fluidity and memory of the clay inform the final result. This can also apply to glaze and oxide application where chemistry dictates the final result.”
Natural vs. Manmade
Claire Redwood describes the importance of the interplay of natural versus manmade to her process;
” I gather ideas from photos taken of buildings, I like the interplay of nature with the man-made, like reflections of trees on high-rise building windows, for example.
The translation of images from photos to drawings, from thoughts to paper often become more abstract. The confines of city life and the juxtaposition of natural forms to man-made forms are ideas I explore in clay.”
Lyn Harradine describes creating a sculptural form with very deep personal meaning by using slip-cast porcelain;
“I often feel porcelain is like a teenager – beautiful and has its own strong ideas of what it wants to do! I originally used porcelain in slip form to create a remembrance piece called ‘Silent Bells’ , which hung in the Ladychapel of Bristol Cathedral.
Thirty bells to represent fifteen years of silence since my daughter Philippa had died at the age of fifteen.”