Teachers at all levels introducing clay to their classrooms often struggle to find an exciting introductory project to build construction skills and confidence with the medium.
The pinch pot is always a good place to start. Students learn to feel the clay and determine what it will and will not do. They also learn that clay is less plastic over time. Slowly rotating the clay between the thumb and the forefinger is the easiest way to make a pinch pot. Students and teachers must be prepared to have students restart this project a few times until a comfort level with the material and the creation of a small symmetrical pot is reached.
This assignment extends the pinch pot into a sculptural event. Students were told to transform their simple pots into zoological forms capable of holding nuts or candy. Students considered different ways of integrating animal forms into their pinch-pot bowls, looking at Egyptian, Inca and Mayan samples for inspiration.
IT IS GOOD PRACTICE to have students sketch their ideas—as even the simplest drawing will give one an idea how to proceed after the basic pinch pot is achieved. Through this exercise, students can conference with teachers to become better acquainted with what is possible with clay and what supports are needed to realize a particular project.
Brianna’s whimsical cow needed a pinch pot with a flatter bottom area for balance, while Laura’s ambitious crab required the careful addition of two claws and multiple legs—which in turn needed to be supported by clay “stilts” until the piece reached the leather hard stage.
For Kaitlyn’s owl, it was decided that two pinch pots, slipped together would provide the basic structure. For pieces like Max’s fish, it was clear that important texture elements would need to be addressed while the clay was still approaching the leather hard stage.
AFTER THE COMPLETION OF THE PINCH-POT FORMS, the technique of joining pieces of clay with slip can be introduced to add distinct features—arms, legs, tail, heads and other weird and wonderful appendages. At this scale, it is not necessary about worrying that shapes are hollow—but students should be alerted about the problems of trapping air that would cause their work to shatter in the kiln.
Students were cautioned about using water to smooth out cracks and surfaces. The addition of water to a localized area on a clay sculpture will cause that area to dry slower than the rest of the figure, and unless some very creative drying solutions are devised, the result is often cracking, imperfect joins or in some case breakage during firing.
To finish their projects, students used a combination of underglaze and clear glaze. Underglaze fires to a matte finish and can be applied using sponges, stencils and is particularly useful with brushes to add fine detail. Underglaze colors can be mixed and/or watered down to use as a stain. It is important to refer to sample charts, as the color of the raw underglaze rarely reflects how it will appear after firing.
It is possible to apply underglaze on greenware (unfired clay) and then use a variety of tools to scratch the surface so that the color of the clay is exposed after firing. This approach is quite effective with stoneware.
Underglaze application after bisque firing offers a few more options, as the clay can no longer be reactivated with water. A damp sponge can be used to remove underglaze applied to the surface of the sculpture so that the coloring agent remains only in the textured and recessed areas. Students can then selectively add clear glaze to the areas that they wished to appear shiny.
This project came to a sweet end when, for presentation at our annual art show, the pinch-pot animals were filled with jelly beans to the delight of all who passed by the display.
High school students will …
• recognize that a ceramic piece can also be decorative and utilitarian.
• demonstrate expertise with the coil and pinch clay construction.
• will be able to identify clay that is plastic, leather hard and bone dry.
• create slip from dry clay and use it to attach clay parts.
• understand the use and importance of the kiln.
• use underglaze and glaze effectively.
• Stoneware clay
• Clay tools, kiln
• Underglazes, clear glaze, brushes
Arts & Activities Contributing Editor Irv Osterer is Department Head – Fine Arts and Technology at Merivale High School in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
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