The illusion of technique

I have always been fascinated with this idea. I have kicked around different ways of looking at it and I see with increasing clarity that taking a stand on it says something about both how we practice our own art and how we teach others. So of course this is one more thing I care about and use as an excuse for further howling at the moon. And if its a burr caught in my fur and not anyone else’s, or if the burr I feel is warmest cuddly bedding for others, I have no complaints. I’m not about to insist that you all feel my discomfort. Just putting some thoughts out there that others might also find interesting. Ignore me at will.


Learning technique is something like walking toward a closed door. We have a key, but we also need to understand how to use it. The key won’t open the door by itself. It takes a little aim to fit it in the slot, a little jiggling, and then a smidgen of elbow grease. And so, with this special tool and our understanding how to use it we can open the door and step through as proof of our mastery.

Understanding can be specifically how to use that particular tool, what using that tool can get you. Understanding also has a deeper level that lifts our eyes from the particular to the universal, from the specific to the general, and from the tool to the qualities of the door it unlocks. Understanding can be practical, but it can also be visceral and intuitive.

A technique is merely one way of doing things, and learning technique has great practical value. It has application. But adherence to technique is also making a commitment to a focus. A reasonable focus, of course, but always a nose to a particular grindstone that ignores all other options. Giving ourselves over to technique is training a specific routine, my way or the highway. It is an insistence that things be done a certain way, and it puts that habit on a pedestal of necessity, far higher than the results or the different ways that other people do things. The tighter we bind ourselves to a technique the more it becomes a monothetic practice and the more it excludes difference and variation.

But learning technique is also sometimes learning more than just how to use this one tool. It can also be a learning about the wider possibilities and potentials of doors in general. We may find that this particular key can open other doors. We may find that turning it one way gets you through one door and turning it the opposite way gets you somewhere entirely different. We may discover that there are other keys that unlock the same door. And we may even find out that the key itself was not what was important but that we learned how to find new doors and figure out how to get through them. A key is a tool for problem solving, and inventing new keys is an admission that the keys are not the important part. Solving the riddle is what counts, and any key will do.

And at this fringe of our understanding we learn that sometimes keys can be like crutches. We learn that if we depend on techniques we will never walk free, we will be hobbled by our commitment to a mere tool. If the tool works, go ahead and use it. But don’t let the tool become the excuse for what you are doing. The tool is no longer a tool if it tells you what you should be doing. It is now your master.

So it starts to dawn on us that we can put all tools in their proper place. We can stand up and be the masters of our endeavors, and all tools the servants of our mastery. Use them in a cause, our cause. Don’t let ourselves be used in service to their purposes. Remember which end is the cart and which end is the horse. If our tools are the excuse for our doing something whose life are you now living? Who rules your life when your tools are making your decisions for you?

When we can step away from technique we have learned that our relationship to the medium can include a wider focus and a deeper more intimate understanding. Technique is only one such relationship. It has things it does well and others that it does not do well. It is one way of approaching a task. And if we understand this relationship not through the eyes of a particular technique but through a more direct communication with the materials, we can see that technique starts to lose significance and disappear. Merely going through the motions only gets us so far and is only an illusion of necessity. And at this more intuitive and intimate connection with what we do we find that technique itself becomes an illusion, a placeholder for something entirely unnecessary. Why fall in love with a picture when you can fall in love with a dynamic living breathing person? Why settle for the hors d’oeuvre when you can feast on the entree next and more things to follow? And this is true every day of our lives.

In the end the only rule I can think of is that there are no necessary rules, only what works and what doesn’t. And that can mean anything depending on your intentions, right? Some things are aids, helpful hints, the tips we give students, but they are also crutches if folks learn only to depend on them. Dependence is what the infant needs to survive. Independence is what we earn when become the masters of our own destiny. We get advice to help us climb the mountain, but once we get to the top the need for the ladder no longer exists. The ladder can even be a burden if we insist that it be carried around at all times. Kick away the ladder! Explore on your own! Be the master and not the slave! You may have needed it to get here, but above the clouds technique is only an illusion.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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10 Responses to The illusion of technique

  1. Talk about coincidence! I just wandered over to MK’s blog and found a link to another blog for Eckhart Tolle. The big quote at the bottom was:

    “The realm of consciousness is much vaster than thought can grasp. When you no longer believe everything you think, you step out of thought and see clearly that the thinker is not who you are.”

    I don’t think I am reading too much into this to find parallels to all that jibber jabber I just posted.

  2. Judy Shreve says:

    I love that you quoted Eckhart Tolle, because when I was reading your post I kept thinking about the book ‘Be Here Now’ by Ram Dass – I think Tolle is this generation’s Dass (
    But now to respond to your post:
    I think in all mediums there are two parts in learning something new. First would be the time it takes to master the techniques and materials — or when the artist has enough ‘tools’ to say what they want to say. Then the second part comes when the voice of the artist rises above technique. I believe a really successful piece is when the work contains not only the voice of the artist but the voice of the medium as well.

    I think sometimes we continue to take classes long after we have enough technique. Maybe we are afraid that we don’t have a voice yet when really what we need most is to just do the work.

    • Well said Judy! (And thanks for wandering on over to the blog πŸ˜‰ )

      If you can believe it I may have heard the name “Eckhart Tolle” before, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything he’s done. I look forward to investigating that website though, so kudos to MK and RP for spreading the word. I did browse the Ram Dass many years ago, so I have to imagine it is part of the mental stew that sends forth all these rambling posts. I sometimes wish I knew these ideas could be located somewhere else because it always feels like I’m struggling to come up with it all from scratch. The fact that I am always growing and changing my mind as I learn just makes placing these thoughts much harder!

      I absolutely agree with you that mastering the techniques and mastering the materials are different projects, but I’m not always convinced you have to start with much in the way of technique. Basic basics, sure, but even then I try to get students to see that there is never only one right way of doing things. If you ‘get’ what the clay is telling you, what it needs from you, you may have a variety of ways of responding. Learning how to listen, hearing the clay’s message, is far more important than doing what any human instructor tells you.

      I think students can make use of this at an early stage. And that’s why I try to focus more on the principles behind the techniques rather than the techniques themselves. Learning how to address those principles is a matter of problem solving, and if you understand enough you will be able to figure it out on your own. Difficult if you are a beginner, but putting them in this position is teaching them how to walk without always leaning on crutches. Its like learning how to move with the constraints of gravity rather than learning to move in some step by step dance routine. The visceral intuition can be the foundation of all our expression, and this can start from very near the beginning.

      The more we communicate directly with the clay the more the artifices fade into the background. What I try to establish is a firm foundation of body knowledge so that this communication is as much second nature as possible. Technique always stands in between and mediates this. I try to convince them that coning up and down gets them familiar with the kinds of force required to move the clay around. This builds their confidence so that they can now apply this body knowledge to the act of centering. They understand the principles of orienting the clay symmetrically about the wheel’s axis and that harmony with that still point is more an advantage that fighting against it. And how their hands achieve this is sometimes personal preference, sometimes dictated by limitations of their own hand strength, and sometimes by the circumstance of the clay’s stiffness or size. There is no ‘one size fits all’ technique that covers all the circumstances. And as soon as the student knows this the more ready they are to problem solve.

      The only real advantage I have seen in teaching technique as the focus of learning is that in situations like the community arts center where I work students can have structured projects that show the difference between doing it ‘right’ and doing it ‘wrong’. Many students prefer this because it gives them a measuring stick for ‘progress’. It can be like a check off list where they pick out the things they ‘know how to do’. And there is nothing wrong with that, especially if the purpose of class is to keep the students entertained. I always like to argue that long term a reliance on technique stands in the way of our work becoming second nature to us. Sometimes students agree and sometimes they don’t. And since I am there to help them get what they want I give it to them just the way they say. Can’t stop a Philosopher from tryin’ πŸ˜‰ . Just a different way of proceeding, I guess…. Each one with advantages and disadvantages.

      Anyway, I sure do ramble! Thanks for the great comment! And see you around the ether!

      • Judy Shreve says:

        Carter – I actually agree with your ramblings πŸ™‚ If I show someone how to make a box in clay – my technique of making a box – that person then has one skill – how to make my box. But if I talk about why I am using certain techniques in building the box and point out clay response, I’ve taught that person to perhaps build his own box — not mine.

        And I also agree – that there will always be some students who only want to learn how to make my box.

        • I’m glad my ramblings were not too off the wall! I absolutely agree with your own approach. Teaching folks why to do something is putting control in their hands, and they can either use this information or not. Only teaching technique without giving them reasons is pretending that you have to do it this one way. This is a disservice to the student, is lazy teaching, or maybe the instructor just doesn’t know any different. Or maybe the instructor thinks its worth hiding all the other possibilities and has a good reason for doing so. Maybe, but I like to always put students in a position to think for themselves. If they decide against my advice I don’t take it personally. There are advantages and disadvantages to every approach, and learning for yourself is always the best teacher. Seems to me at least….

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    Wow, the view from above the clouds sounds awesome. Seriously. But down here in the illusory muck, I’m still clinging to the middle of the ladder as if my life depends on it! I can just barely wrap my head around the idea of working in a post-technique universe, but actually getting there — at least, in this lifetime — seems impossible.

    Or, to riff on your first metaphor, who needs a key when you can just smash your entire body against the door repeatedly, until either the lock breaks or the door collapses into a pile of splinters? Whatever works, right? Just like control, efficiency is for chumps.

    This topic tangentially reminds me of that Michael Simon quote: “Something tells me that a really mature phase of making things is going to be not thinking about making them.”

    Oh… and Carter, I totally feel your discomfort. Feel free to ignore me at will, too!

    • Hah!
      I think your “body slamming/head bludgeoning” riff really is most beginners before they learn any sophistication or finesse. If they get through the door it is only sheer luck and persistence paying off. And the eyes closed head first approach can be turned into a habit because if it worked once clearly it can work again. Technique makes it easier, and mastery even more so, and maybe that’s the lazy way. If these beginners can dispense with both then clearly efficiency and control are shortcuts for chumps and for sissies. Macho potters don’t need finesse. All the sophistication of professional potters is clearly a cop out πŸ˜‰ . And I guess that makes me a chump….

  4. Okay, okay, I know I’m way behind, but a couple of weeks before this blog, someone posted a demonstration video of Warren McKenzie. As he was throwing, the student who was filming him interrupted and asked him, ‘Aren’t you going to center that?’ He said no, that an engineer would laugh at our notion of centering anyway, that clay didn’t have to be centered to be thrown. Of course I’m paraphrasing– or maybe I made it up? But I took that bait– hook, line, and sinker. By the time you posted this I was well into an experiment of ‘free throwing’ that was so much fun and so interesting, all my ‘planned’ projects are still just ideas in my head. I am at a place in my work where I want to test the limits of the clay. I want to throw my grogless stoneware as thin as the walls can stand, and then I want to thin it again. I know I couldn’t have gotten here had I not had a thorough primer in technique, but I also have to give a nod to the variety of technique to which I was exposed. I believe this makes a difference. We all don’t throw the same way. Textbook potters (is there such a thing?), edumacated potters, folk potters, European potters– I’ve learned different techniques from each of them. Everyone has something to teach me about technique, and I’ve been able to surprise a few people myself. i.e. I’ve never met anyone in the states who throws a one-piece lid upside down, like a bowl with a double rim, but that was the way I first learned to throw one. The truth is I find other techniques interesting, and want to learn your way of throwing, not because I’ll use it (I may or may not) but because it always gives me something to chew on or to file away. I can’t tell you the number of times when, inspired by a beautiful image or form, I’ve started processing in my head how to begin, and had that ‘aha’ moment where something someone somewhere did fits perfectly. Or while in the process of creating, had an ‘accident’ that took me tangentially somewhere wonderful, somewhere unexpected, somewhere vital, and been able to call up someone’s process to really finesse a project. I really enjoy your blogs Carter, and the many comments– I’ve missed commenting, but the truth is you generate so many ideas, by the time I’m ready to comment you’ve put another blog out there! I hope I haven’t put all of the ideas you’ve germinated together in this comment, I’ve tried to stay on point, but I do love how you challenge my mind. I take your words with me into the studio and ruminate a lot while I’m working. I’m quite grateful for that! Thanks for continuing to challenge me, often!

    • That just made my day Cara!

      Thanks for the kind words and the encouragement! I’m glad you get so much out of my little ramblings. But if I am responsible for putting some seeds of ideas out there it is you and people like you who take the credit for planting them, nurturing them and eventually harvesting their fruits. I can tell that with you my ramblings are not falling in a desert or a weed choked ditch. There is fertile soil where you practice your pot making and I hope that my little gifts to your garden will grow into things you like and that will benefit you down the road.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and for being out there and for being willing to take on new challenges. The potting world needs your energy.

  5. Reblogged this on CARTER GILLIES POTTERY and commented:

    Having just eclipsed the 300 post mark for this blog I find that there have been so many interesting topics I’ve explored and fascinating ways I’ve entertained them. This post was written four years ago, and I am still charmed by some of the phrasings. Its amazing that I can come up with ‘new’ things to say after 300 essays, but I do. And yet sometimes its just fine to revisit the golden oldies, as if things past still mattered. Here’s one such tasty bit, in all its ancient splendor πŸ™‚ :

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