One of the classes I occasionally teach is called “Better bottoms” and the students usually get a smirk or two out of the associations with fitness, exercises, and such. Well, the truth is that if you take certain things for granted in making pots, you sometimes find things are a bit bottom heavy. Pots can get flabby down low all too easily if you don’t train yourself to go the extra distance in keeping thing nice and trim and focused. Firm up those buttocks, er…, bottom areas, with our patented formula of new and improved exercises.
There is, of course, no one right way of doing things on the potters wheel, and even poor instruction can be overcome by intuitive and intelligent hands. That’s why I often orient my teaching toward maximizing the sophistication of my student’s hands rather than a reliance on pure technique. If a potter’s hands are smart enough they can figure out ways of doing things that are balked by the limitations of only knowing particular techniques to address particular problems. Smart hands will always be the potter’s best tool.
So one of my aims as a teacher is to put students in a position where their hands eventually are smart enough to understand the clay, its limitations, and also its possibilities. But that understanding does not often come immediately. Quite often students will have to understand things with their heads and their eyes before their hands are ready to take over. Often students will need to have a conceptual understanding before their intuitive awareness can compensate in what they need to do. And so, part of my job as a teacher is getting students to see where there are potential problems and give them the tools for addressing these stumbling blocks. Eventually, it is hoped, their hands will be so sensitive and intelligent that they can feel their way through whatever issues confront them.
One of the hardest things for potters still learning their skills is understanding how thick the walls of the pots are around the bottom area. Its hard to know what you are looking at, and at this stage your fingers often don’t properly interpret the information that they are getting from the clay. They don’t know how good or poorly they’ve done in getting all the excess clay out until they pick the pot up off the wheel or cut it in half. Cutting pots in half is a great visual proof of how well you’ve done, and its a good sacrifice to make as there’s no sense in keeping pots if they are excessively thick. The temptation to keep every precious thing that lifts off the wheel must be tempered with the knowledge that mistakes need to be acknowledged to be learned from. Don’t be afraid to chop up a few pots if it can be the incentive required to make the necessary improvements. Its not always worth keeping simply because it came off the wheel…. Aim for pots that are worth taking off the wheel.
One connected bit of advice I heard when in school was that if you think you are done thinning the walls do three more ‘pulls’. The idea being that at this stage of our development we shouldn’t trust what we think we know but instead always push ourselves harder. What you have to do is often more than what you think you have to do. You simply can’t trust what you think you know. This advice suggests that our conscious opinions can deceive us, and that instead we need to simply ignore our innate satisfaction that we’ve already done a good enough job. We need to cultivate a critical and even a suspicious mind where our own pots are concerned. Its a caution that that seductive voice is selling us short, that if we are sometimes afraid to push it farther we are not challenging ourselves to do as well as we can. Go farther than you think. Sometimes its only our mind that is holding us back….
It is always hardest to perceive the thickness with our fingers the further down from the rim one goes, so giving the bottom area of the wall a few extra ‘pulls’ is often a good counter measure. But remember: There is no rule that says you must start a ‘pull’ all the way at the bottom and always finish right at the top. You work the area that needs working. And if the bottom is excessively thick, then that is the area to concentrate on. Simply squeeze the clay where it needs to be squeezed and leave the rest of it alone. Teach your hands to identify and address the specific qualities that are at issue. Try to be conscious at all times during the process and not simply enacting some preprogrammed rote performance. Think “Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this here? Why am I doing this now?”
But we have other resources besides not trusting our germinating insight and infatuation with precious pots. One thing you can also notice is the visual comparison between the inside diameter and the outside diameter of the cylinder while it is still on the wheel. The shapes should fit together in the same way. Usually what you will find in a poorly thinned pot is that the cylinder will have straight vertical walls on its exterior but that on the interior the walls taper to a narrower shape at the bottom. Until you learn to judge the thickness with your fingers you simply can’t trust your hands to give you that information. And if you can’t trust you hands at this point, sometimes you will need to trust your eyes. If there is a difference in the thickness of the wall often you will be able to assess this simply by comparing the inside and the outside volumes. A thick bottomed pot will have a far lesser volume at the bottom than it should, and your eyes can often see that. Learning how to see what we are doing is part of our education with the process.
One other way of visually assessing the difference in thickness is to stop the wheel and put your hands on both the inside and outside of the wall of the pot. By moving your hands down the wall and looking at what is happening to them you will often notice that they are separating more the further down they go. This is one more way to tell visually whether you have done a good enough job on that bottom area.
If you are working on modest sized pieces of clay, another exercise might be to actually push the clay so far that it starts to weaken and becomes too thin. You can tell when you’ve gone far enough because you have brought the pot into peril. If its not under threat you haven’t pushed it far enough. Don’t be afraid to lose several pots like this until you get the hang of how far is far enough. Sometimes its important to find where the limits are and even to exceed them so you are in a position to dial it back to where you need to be. Eventually our hands become smart enough and can do the right things naturally without needing to second guess ourselves.
One of the other difficulties in not being able to get the clay out of the bottom corners is sometimes that the curve of our finger tips on the inside of the wall actually promotes a curved shape on the bottom of the wall on the inside. By holding our fingers in such a way on the inside a curve naturally develops. Its just not easy using the soft curve of our fingertip to thin out a corner. One way I have of counteracting that when I’m throwing is to stick my fingernail into the corner to dig out that extra clay. You can do this either by pointing the fingernail down into the corner or by bending your hand so the knuckle is pressing downward on the floor of the pot and the nail is extended out toward the wall.
The knife edge of your fingernail is simply much harder and much sharper than the soft pad it protects. By getting a hard corner down at the bottom I feel I am better able to get a thin and consistent wall all the way up. Establish the corner early, while the walls are still short or while you are compressing the floor, and the inside wall will (generally) more easily maintain a perpendicular relationship as you work at keeping the thickness consistent. If there is a curve in that bottom corner you automatically know that the walls are not all the way consistent…..
Remember: Your hands are your best tools, and your fingers are the most versatile. sensitive, and adaptable parts of that. By turning them and by holding them in different positions you can radically alter the effects you are having on the material. This only makes your mastery of the material easier and more accomplished. One of the goals every aspiring potter should have is to make their fingers the most intelligent and sophisticated tools they can be. Once your hands are smart enough none of the so called rules of technique you have picked up along the way really matter. You can invent new ways of doing things and discover alternatives that suit your own strengths and limitations. The only question that matters in the end is “What works?”
Hope that helps!
Make beauty real!