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Ceramic art. Why clay. A human is “a being with brains and hands. As such our greatest joy comes when w can employ both our brains and our hands simultaneously in ways which are creative, useful, and productive.” – Thomas Aquinas

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Ceramic art

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why clay
Why clay
  • A human is “a being with brains and hands. As such our greatest joy comes when w can employ both our brains and our hands simultaneously in ways which are creative, useful, and productive.” – Thomas Aquinas
  • Is unique that is can be both an additive and subtractive sculptural medium to work with
  • Clay is grounding, therapeutic, and popular with students
historic roots
Historic roots
  • Ceramics: art made from earth
  • Is one of the most ancient and fundamental techniques of sculpture
  • As early as 24,000 BC, animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials, than fired in kilns partially dug into the ground
  • The first use of functional pottery vessels for storing water and food is thought to be around 9000 or 10,000 BC
  • Cross cultural, universal,spans entirety of human history
  • Great overview of world and historic ceramics:


ancient exemplars
Ancient exemplars

African pottery; Kushite nation

4,000 BCE

  • The Oldest Known Ceramic Figurine (29,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE)
  • Venus of Dolní Věstonice
  • Czech Republic

Mayan burial urn

200 CE?

  • Oldest Known Pottery
  • from about 18,000 years before present
  • China
types of clay
Types of clay
  • Can range from fine grained and smooth to coarse and heavily grogged
  • Some are better suited for handbuilding, others for throwing
  • Colors range from white, gray, buff, and red-brown
    • Depends on iron content
  • Smooth clay
    • Will show fine detail when molded
    • Tends to be soft and floppy
  • Grogged clay
    • Will support itself
    • Best for large sculptures
tools and equipment
Tools and equipment
  • Kiln
  • Calipers
  • Variety of wooden modeling tools
  • Wire strip tool
  • Potters knife
  • Fork
preparing clay
Preparing clay
  • Kneading and wedging: ensures the clay has an even consistency
  • Only need to do this if the clay is recycled
  • Clay should be soft and malleable, but not sticky or sloppy
  • Should be able to squeeze into shapes with your hands

Click on photo to play demo

methods of building
Methods of building
  • Coil

Pinch pot


methods of joining
Methods of joining
  • Soft clay: can smear together or use a coil of clay as an adhesive
  • Leather hard clay:
    • Roughen the edges with a fork
    • Wet the edges
    • Press together
    • Score across the seam
    • Wet the seam
    • Smush a coil into the seam to smooth surface again
methods of building1
Methods of building
  • Solid modeling: shaping a lump of clay (air dry)
    • Can’t fire solid clay; it will burst into pieces
  • Hollow modeling: joining hollow forms
    • Pinch pot
    • Slab
  • Using armature: a temporary or permanent skeletal system
  • Clay shrinks as it dries
    • If you have areas of widely varying thicknesses, can dry at different speeds and crack
    • Use plastic bags or wraps to help control speed of drying
    • Make sure your armature can shrink with the clay, or remove it at the leather-hard stage
using armature
Using armature
  • Why:
    • So you can build complex shapes without the weight of the clay distorting the form as you work
    • So you can build medium large hollow forms; the hollowness helps prevent cracking and breaking while firing
  • How
    • Build a skeletal structure
    • Sculpt your clay on top of and around the armature
    • Let the clay dry to “leather hard”
    • Cut the clay from the armature base using wire
    • Piece sculpture back together by roughening the edges and joining them
    • Fire in the kiln
  • Alternatively, use cardboard or crumbled newspaper which will incinerate during the firing process
molding and casting
Molding and casting
  • Can use clay in conjunction with plaster for molds
  • Can make multiples of a ceramic or plaster sculpture
firing clay
Firing Clay
  • Leather hard after 24 hours
  • Bone dry and ready for firing after about 3 days
  • Bisque
    • Turns the clay into ceramic material
    • Without fully fusing it
    • Brought to temperature more slowly
      • reduces the risk of breakage in glaze firing
  • Glaze
    • Melts glaze
    • Fuses it into the clay body
  • Complete step by step to firing:




Easier to control at low settings

  • Fuel burning
    • Rise in temperature faster
methods of finishing
Methods of finishing
  • Glazes
  • Painting and drawing
    • Painting on wet clay yields a “sensuality beyond that of charcoal or chalk on paper”
    • In clay, lines have form and depth: there is a weight to the inscription
  • Slip

Marilyn Lysohir

contemporary exemplars
Contemporary Exemplars

Clockwise from left:


13 by Seven

Eva Hild

Yagi Akira

contemporary exemplars1
Contemporary Exemplars

Clockwise from left:

Wanxin Zhang

Jonathan Trotter

Jorie Berman

Peter Voulkos

categories of ceramic artworks
Categories of ceramic artworks
  • Sculptural
  • Figurative
  • 2d: painting, carving, reliefs
  • Vessel/vase forms
  • Teapots, pitchers, and drinking vessels
  • Student ceramic art contest:


  • People, places, or things
3d design basics
3D design basics
  • Volume and mass
    • All freestanding sculptures can be viewed from all angles
    • Size and shapes gives a sense of volume
  • Planes
    • Important to think about top and bottom views of a sculpture as well as front, back, and sides
  • Line
    • Can be used to create a sense of movement or shape
      • Vertical: height, diagonal: direction and tension, curves: movement or flow
  • Scale
    • Where will the sculpture be displayed?
  • Surface
    • Defines the character of the final piece
      • Polished: reflects light, enhances features
      • Rough or textured: absorbs light so need more emphatic modeling
  • Relief
    • Special category between a picture and a sculpture
    • Can be low or high relief
  • Paper art
special needs students
Special Needs Students
  • Some respond very favorably to the tactile nature of clay, others are repelled by it; have tools on hand so the students can interact with the clay without touching it
  • Be very alert to those students who have a history of pronounced oral exploration; they are likely to lick, sniff, or ingest the materials
  • Resources for general art lessons for special needs students:



artful problem elementary school
Artful problem:elementaRY SCHOOL

Inner Animal:

  • Is there an animal that you feel a special affinity for? One that you feel like you might share some characteristics with?
  • Take a piece of paper and write about 10 words that you would use to describe both yourself and your animal of choice
  • Hold the clay in your hands. Start molding the clay into the animal. Think about how the animal moves, and picture in your mind how that must feel. Keep shaping the clay and turning it in your hands.Try to not set the clay on the table at any point.
artful problem middle school

Build a Buddy

  • Using the provided worksheet, reflect on the idea of bringing an inanimate creation to life.
  • What kind of companion would you build if you were able?
  • Begin to give form to your idea by pinching and pulling the clay into a desired shape. Keep turning the figure in your hands and viewing it from all angles. When you are satisfied with the basics, consider and then add the details that will give it it’s final personality and presence.
artful problem high school

Earth Suit

  • In some belief traditions, an individual human life is viewed as an eternal flame which passes though numerous lifetimes and is housed in a number of different bodies, human or otherwise. One way to describe this concept is the metaphor of our bodies as a “borrowed earth suit.”
  • Brainstorm this concept using mind maps, word lists, and thumbnail sketches
  • Choose your best design and use clay to give form to your idea.
earth suit 2
Earth suit 2
  • The human body has been likened to an “Earth Suit.” Just as every astronaut must have a space suit to survive in space and every deep sea diver must have a diving suit to survive in the depths of the ocean, each of us must have an “Earth Suit” to survive on this planet. Earth Suits come in many wonderful varieties. Some Earth Suits are female and some male. Some are taller, some shorter, some younger, some older. Earth Suits also come in a variety of attractive shades. No matter what type of Earth Suit you may have inherited, certain realities apply to everyone. Each of us gets one and only one Earth Suit. If your Earth Suit is damaged by harmful substances, it may not perform very well. If part of your Earth Suit must be removed surgically, it will not grow back and, if your Earth Suit dies, you can’t stay here at all.
  • Take care of your Earth Suit!
And help others do the same.


assessment for artful problems
Assessment for artful problems
  • Growth from previous projects
  • Creativity and unexpected discoveries
  • Fulfills assignment
  • Care paid to project
  • Helpful and attentive
  • Focus
  • Experimentation with composition and design

Similar printable version available here:


other projects with dirt and clay
Other projects with dirt and clay

Painting with

modeling clay

Dirt spheres,or dorodango

Dig for your own

local clay


Favorite resources:

  • Any clay or art supplies company for lesson plans
    • Dick Blick, Skuit, Amaco
  • Marvin Bartel: potter and art educator


  • Sculpting Basics by Karin Hessenberg
    • Very simple, clear, easy to follow book