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The Ancient Art of Pottery
Trophies of ancient culture, the pottery uncovered from excavations has inspired artisans worldwide. To this day, the manufacture of pottery continues to follow a legacy of human ingenuity and artistic flair, beginning with those ancestors thousands of years ago. Potters have the opportunity to indulge in art therapy, express themselves, reconnect with nature and defy a commercial mass production cycle, that has seen a detachment and indifference to household objects.
History of Pottery
The manufacture of clay bowls, baskets and pots first began in Asia, dating back to 14,000 BC. During the Stone Age, years later, the production of cooking pots was a reasonably simple process, requiring clay and a source of heat. Much of the Chinese pottery during this time used the earthenware methods, firing pots in bonfires for short periods of time while climbing up to almost 900 degrees Celsius. Eventually influencing populations in Africa and Japan, clay objects assisted farmers in practices such as grain storage.
The practical trend received a boost during the Bronze Age, when the introduction of the fast potter’s wheel dazzled users. Surpassing its slow predecessor, the efficient wheel spun on an axel base, producing a pot per minute. The emergence of technologies in smelting and metallurgy contributed to the range and quality of pottery.
Types of Pottery
Pottery has undergone countless transformations over the course of history. Long gone are the days where potters smeared clay around the insides of baskets and left objects out for the slow sun-dry. The 20th century has allowed seen a mass production of pottery, using a ‘jollying’ technique which has been described by some as a sort of mechanical adaptation of wheel throwing. Fired in a tunnel kiln after automatic drying, pottery transforms into deep reds, grey and blacks after the oxidation of chemicals. The basic types: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain, with their clay and firing variations, have been updated with ingenious and creative methods.
Made with a mixture of clay and water, earthenware marked the beginning of the pottery timeline. Distinct in deep reds, greys and blacks, the pottery has populated many kitchens where its heat and cold-proof material was found to be ideal for cooking, freezing and serving.
Fired at the lowest temperature of all pottery types, earthenware is porous and easily scratched. Though as thin, it is comparably weaker to its porcelain cousin. The most famous example of fine art earthenware is the Chinese clay warriors of the Terracotta Army, though the category encompasses a long line of Chinese and Japanese ancient pottery (16th century) and a century later across Europe.
Implied by its name, stoneware is dense, opaque and impermeable. Coloured light-brown or buff after firing, these clays are used for both commercial ware and fine art. Stoneware has undergone many changes since its first use in the 15th century during the Shang Dynasty art era in China, including a salt-glazed form in England two centuries later and black stoneware or ‘basaltes’ in the 18th century.
In Sui Dynasty China, the beginnings of porcelain eventually influenced pottery across Asia. Covered in glaze, the cups and pitches had a white and shiny aesthetic and around about the 1200 AD mark, these coloured glazes permeated Europe.
Other than its defining ringing tone when tapped or translucence under light, porcelain does not differ greatly to stoneware. Originating as early as 200 BC, Chinese potters used white china clay and feldspathic rock to create an object which would eventually influence potters all across Europe.
Though the original use of the term referred to clay objects fired in a kiln, a wide variety of materials, including glass and cements now fall under the term ‘ceramics’. Ceramics lends itself to the artistic strain of pottery, or ‘fine art pottery’ unlike the broader encompassing term pottery, relating to functional pots and dishes.
Pottery is not limited to practicality, but has served as an artistic expression of identity for Greek, Asian and Egyptian cultures across history. Ancient Greek vases are known for depictions of daily lives of people, stories of gods and goddesses. Other cultural décor uses carving, sgraffito methods of artistic expression.
Slip, made from differently coloured clay, is thin and easily applied to ceramics for means of decoration. Liquid slip can be brushed, sprayed and layered on, to create intricate designs. The earliest forms in Ancient Egypt, were animal and scenic motifs painted in a white slip on a red body. English slipwares during the 17th and 18th centuries feature yet another variation of slip design, featuring dotted and trailed patterns.
Slip carving utilizes knife carvings to achieve a raised design in slip. Both low and high relief can be achieved with the appropriate technique. Removing clay to add light and shadow can produce an illusion of depth across the object surface. Applying further high relief creates an aesthetic of detachment from background space.
Sgraffito, which literally translates to ‘scratch’ in Italian, involves the technique of scratching through layers of wet paint to reveal a hidden layer. With roots in the Middle East, patterns were incised by potters through a slip layer, resulting in a scratched aesthetic. A multitude of tools can be used for sgraffito, including anything from a painting knife to a fingernail. Apply a small amount of pressure with a chosen tool, potters can expose underlying coloured clay to produce a pattern. Once the top layer has dried, creators can add yet another layer to scratch through, to produce beautiful multi-coloured designs. Stiff bristled brushes are used after to clear slip crumbs and sharpen edges.
Dipped, poured, sponged or sprayed, glazing pottery ensures waterproof and food safe sealed coating, and adds vibrancy to designs. There are a variety of glazes, which all interact with clay materials differently, including gloss glaze to achieve a shiny and reflective surface and matte for the opposite.
DIY vs. Mass produced
When looking to decorate the home, its easy to glide your mouse over ‘eclectic blue vases’, ‘weathered white stone’ or a hoard of imported ceramics at Pottery Barn. More satisfying and economical however, is to get your hands dirty and make your own.
Creating your own household pottery is a therapeutic journey to forming a deeper appreciation for nature, injecting your own personality, all while saving a significant amount of money. Producing your own home wares can be deeply satisfying in a world where mass production results in detachment and indifference to the labors of artisans.
Pottery creation allows creative expression, improved focus, time to de-stress and socialise with like-minded people. Promote joint movement and dexterity by exercising hands, wrists and arms, and align yourself with ancient citizens by continuing a trend dating back thousands of years.
For those aspiring pottery makers with children, why not bring them along? Pottery is great for motor skill development, tactile therapy, discipline, creative expression and pride that comes with the accomplishment of transforming something raw into a solid creation.
Sign-up to a beginner’s class
Sitting down behind your first pottery wheel can be intimidating. For those starting out, find like-minded pottery enthusiasts, boost your confidence and walk away from a ClassBento pottery class with your very own creation.
Work under the expertise (all twelve years of it) of Yegana, founder of Silky Shapes Pottery Studio, in a Beginners Pottery Class. Learn wheel throwing, trim and glaze cylinders in a generously timed class. Experiment with themed designs and walk away with three objects, from bowls and mugs, to vases stationary holders
Soak up the philosophy of teacher Leanne Berelowitz, relishing in the sense of peace art therapy provides. Indulge in the tranquil and scenic surrounds of Something at Mary’s studio, and walk away with a fully-functional teapot.
There are a variety of classes on offer, from introductory workshops to specialised workshops in wheel-throwing and teapot making.