Today, when I was grabbing a smooth lump of clay I started thinking of the different ways artists use the ceramic material to fashion their creations. There are many techniques to work clay that do not involve the pottery wheel. All these methods are the result of different skills and the outcome is beautiful designs with signature styles. The general name is ‘handbuilding’, where simple tools, or just the artist’s hands are used to shape the clay. Each artist generally favors one handbuilding technique to others, but we have most likely dabbed in all of them at some point of our career or at least during our forming years.
The three commonly used handbuilding methods are pinch pot, coil and slab.
Pinch pot is the simplest of the forms, and it has been used from ancient times, and across many cultures. The artist takes a lump of clay and makes a smooth sphere, then uses her or his thumbs to push into the center creating rudimentary walls. Once that step is complete, one hand turns the bowl or vase to be, and the thumb and forefinger of the other hand pinches the walls thinning them. This is repeated until the creation is finished.
Coil method can also be used to build bowls, vases or other creations. It also has a long history among many civilizations, ranging from early China to ancient Aztec cultures. The artist takes a lump of clay and rolls it into a ‘rope’, which can be of various thickness. Then, a coil is placed on top of the previous one, creating different shapes. The coils can be left visible or can be smoothed away depending on the artistic design. The beauty of this technique is that it permits to build thicker or taller walled vases and pots.
The third and last method is slabs, which allows the creation of shapes and textures otherwise not possible using a potter’s wheel or even coiling. The slabs of clay can be made in a variety of techniques. The most common one is to roll out the lump of clay with a rolling pin. Although this method was not as popular during history as the pinch point and the coil, today it has gain a new wave of popularity, with artists creating works using both soft slabs and stiff leather-hard slabs. Slabs of clay may be placed over rocks, bowls, plastic forms etc. to create interesting shapes. As the clay dries, it shrinks away from the form but retains the shape of the form. Also, working on a textured piece of fabric will leave imprints on the clay.