Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Ceramics is 75% science, 25% magic

Toby is now a regular student on our Ceramics Hand-building and Throwing courses. Read about his journey into the pottery studio, and his love for science and clay. 

Toby in the ceramics studio working on a bowl
My background is in science - ever since I finished university (Physics with Nuclear Astrophysics, if you're interested!), I've been working in various jobs that try to connect science with the public, so I love anything where I can get my geek on. In my spare time, I do a lot of crafting - I knit and bake and I was looking for a new creative challenge.

Last January, I signed up for RACC's Handbuilding and Throwing evening class to get my hands on some clay. It's safe to say, I've never looked back! In the last 18 months or so, I've had a huge amount of fun, met some lovely people and created some pieces of work that I'm truly proud of.

Hand-building vs throwing

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to focus on hand-building. Using techniques like pinching, coiling and slab-building, you can create whatever shapes you want, from geometric to organic. I love pieces that are obviously handmade (if it's too symmetrical, you may as well buy it from a shop!) and hand-building lets you work at your own pace, rather than be subject to the tyranny of the wheel. 

My favourite pieces that I've made are heavily textured with carving and facets (using tools to create texture), and look like they've been pulled from a quarry or an archaeological dig! I love playing with the contrasts between glazed and unglazed pottery, experimenting with different clays to get an interesting texture or finish in the final product.

Science + art = fun

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of pottery is glazing. I think of this as being around 75% science and 25% magic. The art school's glaze collection is really exciting; from glassy to matte, functional to sculptural, smooth to highly textured, there are lots of options to play with! 

Glazes are, essentially, chemically similar to clay itself, but with some extra little ingredients (and then mixed with water). Once you apply glaze to the bisque fired clay, it's these special ingredients that give your final piece its unique finish, colour or texture. You can also apply other chemicals (called oxides) to the glaze to add another layer of colour to your object. Then this is fired in the electric or gas kiln. Whilst both of the kilns are basically just ovens for pots (albeit really hot ones), the chemical reactions that they create make for another very exciting opportunity for creating something special. 

The magic of the kiln process

Handmade ramen bowl with colourful glaze insideThe really interesting part is the "25% magic" bit. You might think you have a good idea of what's going to happen after the kiln door is closed, but the results can really surprise you. The glaze can behave in all sorts of exciting ways, depending on how the kiln is packed, how thickly you apply the glaze and 1001 other factors that will subtly influence what your pot looks like. 

This makes the time when you first pick up your pot a very special one - will it look as you imagined it would or will it be totally different? Whilst, sometimes, you can be a bit disappointed, you can also be utterly delighted by something that you had no idea would happen! 

On one of my recent pots, I used a glaze that (I thought) would give an all-over sapphire blue, but what came out of the kiln was mostly silvery grey with a full spectrum of colours that spanned turquoise through to a deep violet - I was thrilled! All of these magical factors come together and make your finished pot truly unique. It'd be boring if you knew exactly what was going to happen in the kiln, and the highs and lows of "discovering" your pot makes ceramics deeply satisfying.


Initially, I wanted to get confident with handling clay - learning how it behaves, and what you can make it do. My early pieces were heavy and chunky, but I'm still really pleased with them. I made platters with slabs, vases from coils and had lots of fun with pinched pots (from little bowls to lidded vessels). I also experimented with slips, glazes and oxides to understand how they can be used in a controlled way. From here, I want to make things that are intriguing, tactile and unique - and (hopefully!) a pleasure to use. 

Gathering inspiration

Where next? I've started using Pinterest and I've been drawn to Japanese and Korean pottery. I've been amassing a collection of ideas for new projects in this style. I've already made a sake set (a pitcher and three cups, which I entered into the St Helena's Trust competition at the college) and I've been exploring various forms. I like Chawan - relatively wide, shallow, straight-sided bowls used for the preparation of Matcha (frothy green tea) as part of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. I'm interested in Yunomi - beakers for drinking regular green tea, and I've got a pair of these on my desk at work that I use for my tea and coffee.

Planning more ambitious works

Yunami handmade bowl in muted colours
I'm planning to do some more ambitious multi-part projects, like a teapot, and to work on refining my work to make my objects thinner and lighter. I'm thinking about making some pieces to sell in the college's Parkshot Gallery, so keep an eye out! I've also had my first commission - a storage pot for my friend's stained glass studio.

The art school is a fantastic place to learn - our tutor (hi Nic!), our helpful technicians (hi Zoe!) and my fellow students make the class a lot of fun. I'm so glad I gave ceramics a try! So much so I've signed up for the next three terms already...

You can follow Toby on Twitter and keep up to date with his latest creations. If you'd like to try ceramics yourself, have a look at our courses starting in September. Be quick, they fill up fast!