Pottery 101: For when you're bored at home
I always said to myself that if I didn’t do art history I would be doing ceramics, or marine biology. But you can’t order an ocean online. You can, however, order clay, and thanks to the wondrous Amazon, I was able to get about a kilo of DAS clay.
Making pottery is always way more time-consuming than you imagine, especially if you’re a perfectionist. So if you’re looking for a way to pass the time, making pottery is a good choice. It’s very therapeutic which may be helpful if you’re getting overwhelmed by the fake news or general cabin fever. It’s a good skill to have if you ever need to mend broken pots or cups and you get to keep something cute at the end of it!
So let’s get started.
Clay. If you don’t have access to a kiln, like most people, make sure you get air-drying clay and the sunshine will do all the work for you. Any colour is fine but I went for white so that I could paint over it.
A bowl of water. With this you will make something called slip which acts as the glue to piece clay together.
Tools for cutting and shaping. I used a butter knife for cutting, a plastic fork for smushing, a cheese knife which was surprisingly good at scoring the clay with, and palette knives for smoothing.
A rolling pin, but I used a glass bottle.
To make a pot or bowl, you first need to roll out a circle (or square) in clay, about 3cm thick. Bear in mind that this has to dry by itself so thick clay risks staying damp and malleable inside. You can always add more layers to the dried ones if you want it thicker.
When you have the desired circle shape and size, roll a thin sausage-shape in more clay. Then use a knife to score the edges of the circle - this gives a texture that the clay can bind to, making it easier to stick two pieces together. Use the knife or your fingers to apply slip along the cuts and then slowly press the strip of clay around the edge. Don’t press too hard, just enough to see that the air has come out between the two clay pieces.
Gently scrape the edges of the strip of clay and blend it in with the base. Make sure it is attached and there are no air bubbles trapped between. You can apply small scoops of slip between gaps if it needs extra glueing. It is important to make this secure as it will be the base for the whole pot/bowl.
Roll another thin sausage shape, score along the edge, apply slip and repeat this process. Each time you add another layer, wait a minute to let the clay set slightly, then use the flat edge of a butter knife or palette knife to scrape the edges together.
You pretty much have to do this over and over again (see what I mean about time consuming?) vary the length of the strips of clay that you roll if you want the pot to taper out and become wider at the top but make sure you do this gradually if so.
Here was mine at this stage:
It doesn’t have to look perfect and don’t be disheartened if it looks a bit of a mess. The smoothing comes later but for now it’s about the structure.
Once you have your desired shape, use your hands to mould and smooth it. If the clay is too dry to be moulded, coat it in a THIN layer of slip, wait a minute for it to absorb, then try. This is the part where you play “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers and imagine you’re in a romantic movie.
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)
Okay back to reality: here is mine after many layers. I added an extra high layer to mine at the front because I plan to decorate this later.
At this point, if you want your pot/bowl/whatever to be smoother, roll out a thin, paper-like layer of clay. Score it very gently with a knife and apply slip, like spreading butter on toast. You want it evenly distributed and you want to avoid lumps. Very carefully place this over the surface and gently press it in. Cut the edges, leaving about 1cm extra to fold over the edges and under the base. Use the flat part of a knife to press the edges of clay in and smooth it out. This should ensure it is securely attached all over.
Leave to dry overnight. Don’t be an idiot and leave it outside as I did for it to get rained on and lose the shape. (Fortunately it dried out again)
Now is the part where you can add interesting textures and shapes! I chose to add another sheet of clay to the front surface so that it would flare out like wings. The front will be painted blue with stars and the inside will be painted gold (see below for the finished painted pot).
You can add dots, disks, rings, squares, swirls or coils - anything! So long as you always remember to score the clay you are about to apply and add some slip for glueing, it should attach fine.
Leave your new pottery to dry out for a day, then it is ready to paint! Or you can leave the material exposed if you prefer.
This is how I painted mine.
POT NO. 2
With the leftover clay, I made a smaller pot using the exact same process. Literally, it is just coiling, scoring and glueing, then smudging the pieces together. To make the fern leaf, I rolled a thin sheet of clay and used the cheese knife to carve a fern pattern into it. The rest of the leaves and flower were essentially ways to use up the last of the clay I had ordered.
To get the glaze-like quality, I used oil paints, applying a thin layer of the paint and then brushing sunflower oil over the top. It doesn’t give the same shine that real glaze does but it is a decent substitute, and it dried fairly quickly.
POT NO. 3
This clay also seems to work for piecing together broken pots. I was able to (kind of) repair this green pot by using the same technique of rolling sausage coils, adding them in small successions, using scoring and slip to glue them, and then smoothing after.
After it dried, I polished away the dried parts of the pot. I had some pieces of the pot left over so I smashed them up a bit more and used them to make a mosaic pattern. To do mosaicing, all you need to do is apply tiny clay squares onto the surface and then press the fragments in. Then use the same technique as before (with the flat part of a knife) to blend it in so it seems smoothly joined.
It was kindly painted by my lockdown buddies. The yellow paint that outlines the shards is to copy the Japanese art of Kintsugi - putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold. Kintsuhi is built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.
I hope my amateur how-to guide helps your amateur pottery making!
Be sure to send pictures of your creations to the Courtauldian Instagram, Twitter or post them on our Facebook page! All have the same handle @TheCourtauldian.