You might remember this line from any job interviews you participated in: what do you bring to the table?
Come to think of it, you might have heard it even if you’ve never been on a job interview; it is a fairly common phrase that implies you must provide a measure of something to receive something in return.
It’s also, if you think about it, a little bit demeaning, as though your obvious qualities would not be sufficient to close the deal – whatever the deal may be.
The good news is, when it comes to ceramics class, you don’t (necessarily) have to bring anything to the table, at least as far as equipment goes.
Ceramic arts are engaging and challenging. They require fortitude, a bit of physical strength and endurance, and more than a bit of knowledge about the creative process involved.
How does one go from concept to actual, tangible earthenware that you can seal with a ceramic glaze and then safely serve food out of?
To be sure, there is equipment involved in ceramic art; the art center or ceramic studio where you’ll take your classes is no doubt full of tools and equipment for the burgeoning ceramic artist.
No doubt that you will find everything from ceramic materials to pottery wheels, extruders, slab rollers and more. Let’s not forget the most important piece of equipment: a kiln... or several, depending on how big the space is and the type of ceramic products they produce.
For instance, raku pottery is fired at a much lower temperature than studio pottery or art ceramics; if this is the type of pottery you want to specialise in, you would need a raku kiln.
It’s a good thing that ceramics studios have different types of kilns already installed. Can you imagine yourself lugging your gas kiln or electric kiln to every single class you attend?
The fact is, although you may be asked to pay for the clay and other materials you use in class, the studio where you take lessons will most likely have all of the equipment you need.
They will also recommend that, if you’re serious about pottery-making, you should work at home at least as much as you work in class.
So, let’s say you are on your way to a Bachelor of Fine Arts, taking an extracurricular class at a ceramics studio in town. You will still have to do a bit of work at home, even if it is only mold making so that you can make a whole set of tableware with the same pattern.
You can make your plaster moulds at home if you have the right materials and equipment.
Likewise, if you’re taking adult classes, working with ceramics for the first time, you might make clay figurines at home that you could then fire in your next class.
So, when it comes to equipment you might need for your classes, the answer there is: depending on how far along you are in your studies (you’re going for your Master of Fine Arts?) the more tools and equipment you’re going to need.
Superprof now takes a look at the list of utensils and implements you need to become the artist in residence.
Kilns: the Essential Ceramics Equipment
It goes without saying that you would have a difficult time declaring yourself a maker of ceramic sculpture if you did not have the most crucial piece of equipment: a kiln.
Besides deciding whether your kiln will be powered by gas or electric (or wood, if you build one yourself), you have to decide what size kiln you will need – now and in five years.
If your goal is to make small ceramic medallions for painting and drawing, you may choose from among the smaller models available but if the thought of vases fills your mind day and night, you will certainly have to choose a kiln with a larger interior space.
And then, materials matter. The above-mentioned raku kiln, for instance, would be a low-temperature model. It would be suitable for terracotta and low-fire glazes. On the other end of the spectrum, if you aim to create durable stoneware, for example, you would need a high-temperature kiln.
Unfortunately for your budget, you cannot simply buy the hottest kiln and turn the temperature down as needed. The thermostats are set for specific temperature ranges so selecting a kiln based on the type of pottery you plan to make would be your best bet.
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Art history teaches us that our ancestors made pottery long before the invention of the wheel.
If you wanted to be an absolute purist, your signature style might involve making pottery as it was done long ago: by placing the piece on a grass mat, turning the mat as needed to work on all sides of the vessel.
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On the other hand, why reinvent the wheel? A pottery wheel will make your work faster, easier and with less chance for error... after you get good at working clay, that is.
Clay artists suggest beginners take a wheel throwing class.
It takes a certain amount of skill to know exactly how fast to permit the wheel to spin, how much pressure to put on the clay and how much water to use. It is also a good idea to get into good pottery-making habits from the start: good posture, good pressure and a good skills set.
Naturally, if you take a wheel throwing class, you will surely want to follow up at home, on your own wheel.
Here again, you have a wide selection to choose from – different sizes and different heights. The speed is controlled by a treadle, much like a sewing machine, making it variable so that is one factor you don’t necessarily have to worry about.
Wheels are not cheap so consider carefully. Your selection should be based on the pieces you intend to create and the ceramic material you intend to work with.
Don’t waste your money on a lightweight tabletop model if, eventually, you intend to work heavy pieces!
A wheel, a kiln and a variety of clays are enough to get you started in the visual arts. Everything else on this list is optional, even the hand tools!
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Naturally, you can cool terra cotta pieces on any surface that can withstand the heat – remember, whatever comes out of the kiln is going to be very hot.
One particular sculptor we talked to raved about the functionality of milk crates. She had built an entire wall full of shelves with nothing but milk crates and boards.
The boards form the shelves while the crates work as storage space for anything from paints and glazes to hand tools.
If your studio space is limited, perhaps this could be an option for you, too.
Naturally, your hands are the best tools for pottery. Besides them, you will need a few more implements:
- a wire clay cutter
- loop, wire and ribbon tools
- wooden modelling tools
- ribs and scrapers
- potter’s needles
Naturally, there are plenty more clay tools – fettling knives and clay turning tools but the ones listed above should be enough to get you started.
Once you have sunk deeply into the world of studio ceramics – in other words, you live, breathe, eat and sleep studio art, two pieces you will certainly add to your equipment inventory are a slab roller and an extruder.
Extruders are particularly handy if you intend to incorporate the same shape into all of your designs, say, a handle on a mug or a repeating pattern on a vase. It works a bit like a cake decoration set: a filled body with a variety of ‘tips’.
If you plan on working with very big pieces, having a slab roller would be quite helpful. Basically, it is a giant rolling pin; you set the slab’s desired thickness and the machine will roll it out for you.
If you wanted to roll out smaller pieces, you could, of course, use a kitchen rolling pin but you’re not guaranteed uniform thickness throughout.
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Space, the Necessary Component
Space is neither a tool nor a piece of equipment but it is absolutely vital to becoming a resident artist.
You must have enough room for storage; it is not likely that you will buy your composite materials in retail shops – meaning a pound at a time. Rather, you would establish an account for bulk purchases of ceramic materials... and you will have to have a place to store them.
Besides the space needed to store your raw materials, you will need space for a cooling rack or three.
Your art studio should also have a water supply and a sink outfitted with a clay trap – you don’t want bits of clay clogging the sewer systems. You’ll also need sufficient lighting and a power source for your kiln, if electric kilns are what you have your eye on.
By contrast, if a wood kiln strikes you better, you will have to have room to store wood and make sure your space is well-ventilated – or have a space outside for your kiln.
Finally, you have to have room to work in.
That may sound obvious but you’d be surprised at how many just-starting-out ceramic artists don’t leave themselves enough room to work or worse: choose to work in cramped, potentially dangerous conditions!
To get an idea of the space you would need, cast an eye around the studio you take classes in. Is it large? Well-lit? Does it have plenty of room?
That is what you need to aim for when setting up your studio, too.
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