Ceramics and ‘Wet’ Clay

WetClaySomething odd that I saw in my time in art school, was that Ceramics 101 was considered a foundation class. You could take it without any prerequisites, no other medium o f study could say the same at this school. From one perspective I could understand the reasoning behind this decision, after all you don’t need to know how to draw to manipulated clay. Also by not having any prerequisites you open the class up to other non art majors that might not have tried it if it meant taking drawing and design first. But one very obvious problem this created was that the work produced in the class is substantially sub-par. There are a thousand and one ashtrays, more lumpy mugs than you could count, and enough crappy cat sculpture to bury the college in. This type of attitude about ceramics does it no favors as far trying to earn credibility in the art community. It reinforces the already very substantial believe that ceramic is just a craft medium. This practice of letting the uninitiated take the same classes as serious artists tends to obfuscate the real advantages of the medium, and there are many. When the only thing you see when you look at the world of ceramic art are bowls and mugs it hard to image its ability to be anything more. But the truth is that the material commonly know as clay is quite remarkable.

At it various levels of moisture content clay can be treated as a liquid, semi-solid (mud), canvas, leather, wood, or stone. The incredible flexibility (literal, as well as figurative)of clay, is possible due to the special structure of the material. In the most general of terms Clay is dirt. In fact clay can be dug straight for the ground, thrown into shape and fired on practically the same day, in some areas. The reason you can’t just use any dirt however, comes down to two elements, first is the size and shape of the individual grains of clay, an odd phrasing I know, this is because clay is so small and so smooth that it is more commonly recognized as a powder, or paste, with little consideration of the individual particles. They get their size and shape from the waters that deposit them at the bottoms of ponds and lakes. As the rivers flow eroded it stone down the small particle that are removed also get polished, and then settle to the floor of a calmer are of the water system. Clay can only be found on river and lake beds, although some clay mine are inland, they are on the site of ancient river of lake bed.

What all this means is that the particles of clay can be pack together quite tightly but that their is always some space between, when that space is filled with water and organic matter it creates an adhesive effect. This sticky quality is what gives it the ability to be moved, and then stay, we call it plasticity. The plasticity in a particular piece of clay is determined, as I said, by the moisture content. And due to evaporation, that moisture content is in a  constant state of decline, though there are ways of reversing or slowing that decline.

At it’s most liquid state, clay is little more than dirty water and not of much use, except as a lubricant. As the clay dry up a bit more, or conversely, as more clay material is added to the solution, it becomes what is called slip. Slip is slightly thicker than a heavy chowder, and is commonly used to adhere two pieces of dryer clay. It is sometimes advised that slip also makes good lubricant, this is poor advice, slip by its very nature is a natural clay adhesive and will have the exactly opposite effect desired. Slip is also a great way to build up texture on a dryer piece of clay and can be used to pour molds using a plaster cast. Slightly less wet is Slurry, which is a more the consistency of mud or soft serve ice cream, this is the stage that you will usually want to get to when reclaiming older, dried out clay, once is this stage you can more easily scoop the clay into a container to dry (usually a plaster or ceramic bowl.

Next up is what is commonly called green clay, and is what most people think of when they picture clay. Green clay is not actually green, the name is meant to indicate the moisture, as in a green leaf, or a green branch is one that has not dried out yet. So this kind of clay is soft and moves with ease, most people will work with the clay in this stage to get the rough shapes in, before letting it dry some more for further detail work. The stage of clay dryness is also the stage at which most people throw on the wheel with. The disadvantage of working at this stage is that the clay is structurally quite weak and loses the detail you make very easily. However, if planned out carefully and correctly, the entirety of the work can be done in this stage and in a fraction of the time is how take in the dryer stages.

The next stage of dryness is the “leather hard” stage, so called because the consistency is similar to that of leather, potter’s tend to be more descriptive than creative when naming things, this is a theme that will become more and more apparent as I write more about the ceramics world in the future. Leather hard is considered to be the ideal dryness for working sculpturally, since the clay is still soft enough to be moved and bend  to a fair degree, be has gained a great  amount of strength compared to the previously listed stages. The major downside in my opinion is that you are only about 45 mins away from the next stage of dryness which, called bone dry. What this means is that you either have only 45 mins after reaching this stage to finish your piece, or that you have to constantly monitor the moisture content, a task that can be extremely tedious as you are working and one that if not properly managed can be the death blow to a sculpture.

The last stage, which I mentions just a moment ago is called ‘bone dry’ once again because the constantly roughly approximates that of bone, so clever. Anyways the stage of clay tends to be considered a fairly dead stage, all of the plasticity of the clay has evaporated away with the water, and the form has become very brittle. This is the stage where most people start to see cracks form, if there are going to form at all. However the stage is also quite nice for adding surface detail in the form of some light carving or, more often, in the form of colored slips. As I said before slip can be a great way to build up a texture on the surface but if you thin the mixture just slightly and add a colorant (not to be confused with a pigment) the slip will give you bands of whatever color you want, before firing the piece.

The next stage, technically, is one called bisqued, but this stage can only be reached by firing the piece in a kiln, a Process I will talk about in another post.

And that’s my take on ceramics and ‘wet’ clay.

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