When people first begin learning to make in clay, one of the questions I get asked quite often is “how do I go about approaching a new make?”
This is a great question! It’s especially great for ceramics because often we are taught how to make in clay by dividing the skills up between the various techniques like pinch pots, slab building, coiling etc. because ceramics is such a potentially huge subject and this division makes sense for giving people a way into clay as a new subject (I teach this way too!). The down side of this is that for many creations in clay we actually use more than one technique in a single piece (especially with hand building) and often there are many ways you could make the same piece (although figuring out which you like best is a great part of the learning journey😊). What this can sometimes mean is that new makers have a fantastic idea for something they would like to make but really aren’t sure where to start, which technique to use or what they need to consider to find the answers to this.
The tricky thing about this as a subject is that I can’t give you a definitive answer that will work best for you. It is something that you’ll need to refine and change as you try out different options but I can give you some tips and explain how I do it. I’ve also done a video of me approaching a new make and explaining my thought processes as I go – you can check it out at the end of this post.
I start by investigating my source material which is to say I find whatever it is I want to use as the inspiration for the piece, collect some in person if I can and gather pictures together. I’ll then study these, sketch out the pieces I’m interested in maybe or take it apart so I can see how it’s made to help understand the layers in the structure. I find thinking about what’s underneath really helps me when I make as it means I know where to stretch and manipulate the clay to hint at what’s underneath. For example, when I build figures I build in section that correspond to the skeleton underneath which means the limbs and joints are all in the right place and things are straight where they should be and bend only where there’s a joint.
Once I’m happy I understand the subject matter enough to start making, I use that understanding of how it’s built to choose a technique to make it. For example, in the video I make a magnolia flower and because the petals are wide and flat using slabs is the obvious choice. If I were to make something like a pumpkin that round and heavy I would look at pinch pots if it was smaller or coiling if I wanted to make it larger. Usually a shape will lend itself more towards one of the techniques however you generally build anything in more than one way so you also want to consider what technique you feel most comfortable/confident making in.
One of the key things at this point is to not be afraid to fail. You’re trying something new and each choice, each step is a chance to learn and develop to build your skills. We rarely get things right the first time so don’t expect that when you’re making something that new and different.
Another aspect I consider at this point is my materials. I may default to my usual clay and materials for the first try even when the piece may be better served made with something different just because it gives me the best chance of learning what I need to know about the build in the first attempt. I’ll then continue and make in a new or different material once I have an idea of how it can be built. This is exactly what I did for the magnolia flower. I used my usual Potterycrafts raku modelling clay to build it even though a white clay would have lent itself better to the pale petals and delicate colouring.
After this it’s all about the making. Start with a testing mindset. You’re making something to test out your idea of how would be best to make it rather than making it thinking this is going to be the finished piece and you won’t have to make another one again. Almost everything we make we learn from. There’s always something you could have done differently to either make it better next time or to develop the idea a little bit more or to tweak the appearance slightly. You may not take this learning to make the same piece again but it will be there to inform your next makes as you continue your journey. This isn’t something that is limited to beginner makers either, it’s something that I think should stay with you as you continue to improve and make and develop as an maker and an artist, so that your work evolves and grows with you the more you create.
If you’re finding that you’re struggling with the ‘blank canvas’ fear, feeling overwhelmed with where to start, try starting with a clay sketch. Grab a piece of clay, not too much and model out the kind of shape you’re aiming for very quickly. Don’t worry about technicalities as it doesn’t need to go in the kiln. This is all about quickly learning the form and feel on a smallish scale quickly and simply to get you started. It’s a great way to get a feel for how sections can fit together and how scale can affect the idea Where you need to consider layers it can also help with the order of build while at the same time just getting you started with the clay.
So, I’d say you can approach a new make with the following steps in mind:
- Breakdown the subject matter – literally or metaphorically depending on the subject
- Use the breakdown to help decide on what method(s) you’d like to try first
- Think about what materials you’d like to use
- Start testing
I’d love to hear if you found this helpful or you have a different approach that works for you. It’s fantastic how many different approaches there are to every aspect of making in clay! 😄
This is my video of approaching how I would make a magnolia flower for the first time 👇