Advice for beginning potters

This morning I received a question from a beginning potter worried about clay coming off as she was thinning the walls. She also revealed that she was learning to trim her pots. What advice do I have for her?

This is what I said:

I don’t know the level of your experience other than that you self identify as a ‘beginner’. The advice I will give you may not be appropriate, because students require different information the more they know, but these are the things I would tell anyone showing up in their first several classes:

I prefer not to teach trimming to beginners because it takes pressure off learning how to throw well if you feel you can correct every poorly thrown pot by trimming it. If pots are not thrown well they do not deserve to be trimmed. The time you spend trimming could have been spent learning to throw a better pot. It trades the benefits of a developing skill set for the short term gain of this one poorly thrown pot getting salvaged. This one pot does not matter. Your ability to throw better pots is what you should focus on. I prefer to teach that only a pot specifically designed to be trimmed (even walls, appropriate shape, etc) should be trimmed. You do no learn as quickly if you are not focused on how to get the most out of your clay. Trimming for beginners is a shortcut to making poorly thrown pots less bad, its not a technique for making good pots. Its giving a person a fish rather than teaching them to fish.

The problem you are having with a band of clay separating from the wall is not unusual. It would be difficult to know exactly what you are doing without observing your technique. My guess would be that you are not keeping the walls as consistent as you might, the pressure you apply in squeezing the walls is more focused than dispersed, and you are not sensitive enough to release your hands when a problem starts to develop. My suggestion is that when you first notice things going wrong don’t just power through. This is your chance to learn something about both the clay and your own relation to it. See why things are going off kilter. Try doing it a bit different. Try to understand the physical principles you are working with and how those things limit what you can do. Be as sensitive as possible to the difference you can make. Strategize based on what you know.

For instance, keeping the walls as consistently thick/thin allows you to work without the danger of thin spots weakening the structure. You are aiming for consistent walls, so keeping them as close to that ideal as you go makes sense. The technique should serve the purpose, so know what you are trying to do and find the most direct and accessible way to get there. You will find that the technique itself is less important than understanding what you are doing. It may turn out there are alternate and even better ways of getting there. Focus on what you are trying to achieve rather than mastering a technique. The technique is just a tool. Sometimes its a good tool. But if you don’t know what a hammer is for, no matter how well you have learned to swing it you can’t build things. The technique is not the purpose. Don’t not learn it. Simply know what part it plays in what you are doing.

Clay separates from the pot for even experienced throwers, but beginners often lack the sensitivity to make it less problematic. Often beginners apply pressure to the wall in a focused way, and for them its not an advantage. When things go wrong it sometimes is like using a laser where a flashlight would be more useful. The tight focus only helps you if you already know what you are doing, where you are going. You can get away with so many more things once you have some skills and understanding under your belt. Professional potters can do amazing things that no beginner in their right mind should attempt. If you are a beginning potter you should learn the skills beginners need, not advanced techniques. The fact that an experienced potter can do it does not mean you are ready for it. Until then do what it takes to maximize your learning. You learn algebra and geometry before doing calculus. What things do you need to learn to get you to that place?

Your smartest tools will always be your finger tips. They are the most sensitive and useful tools you’ve got. Get them involved as much and as often as you can. So, rather than just one point of focus on the clay wall, spread your fingers to cover more of the vertical surface of the pot. Get as much of that wall under your supervision. Learn to use each finger tip as a delicate instrument rather than blundering through the process wielding a sharp knife. The more you spread the influence of your fingers the more information you will gather from what you do. Cast a wide net for your understanding.

Think of technique not just as a process to get a specific job done. Also understand why you are doing it, what the advantages are, and what the clay itself allows you to do. You are in a relationship with the clay, and your job is as much trying to understand what the clay wants as figuring out what you yourself would like. Its only going to work if you are sensitive to the needs and are able to put your best foot forward. Know the clay and your own abilities enough to know what is required when. Try not to put the cart before the horse. In the long run you will get results by having listened to the clay. Your finger tips are the most sensitive part of your hand for listening. Give them the space and opportunity to play their role.

Hope that helps.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Advice for beginning potters

  1. Catherine says:

    This response has produced a ‘lightbulb’ phenomena for me especially this statement: ‘technique is not the purpose…..know where you are going’.

  2. You wrote “If pots are not thrown well they do not deserve to be trimmed. The time you spend trimming could have been spent learning to throw a better pot. It trades the benefits of a developing skill set for the short term gain of this one poorly thrown pot getting salvaged. This one pot does not matter. Your ability to throw better pots is what you should focus on.”
    Wow! This really needs to be posted at our Guild. I never thought of throwing and trimming in this way.Thanks for the insights!
    Eva Gallagher

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