Saturday, June 9, 2012

Centering Clay, Transit of Venus, and some big pots

Earthenware pot about 31 inches high (787mm)
When I was a painter I had a lot of people tell me about their Aunt who could paint, or their brother who could really do detail so fine that you would think it was a photo.  Some people would look at me enviously and say "I always wanted to paint, but could never draw a straight line!"  I have found that people have similar stories to tell me now that I am a potter, only this time it is a talented daughter "who can sell her pots!", or a friend who makes teapots so fine and light in weight that you would think they were almost as good as the ones in the department stores!  One sad story that some tell me is that they really wanted to make pots, and even went to an evening class somewhere, but they never could center clay on the potter's wheel.  I think that is roughly the pottery equivalent of "I could never draw a straight line!"  I do find it sad, as I am sure that centering can be taught.

When I started to make pots I worked first on an electric wheel, and I think that gave me some bad habits that I later had to get rid of.  I tended to try to center clay by brute force.  When the wheel slowed because of the effort that I was putting into wrestling a small lump of clay into submission, I pushed harder on the accelerator pedal.  I slowly built up from being able to center about 1 kilogramme of clay to maybe 2.5 kilogrammes maximum that way, and it was frustrating and tiring.

About a year after I began potting I purchased a second hand kick wheel (a wheel that is worked by a foot operated treadle).  When I used my brute force on that wheel, it stopped, and refused to budge.  It was like a wise old horse that had an inexperienced rider in the saddle!  I had to rethink what I was doing.  

The method that I use now allows me to center really large amounts of clay without a great deal of effort, and I have made a short video of me centering a lump of about 6 kilogrammes of clay, an amount that I now find very easy and comfortable.  Sometimes I work with about twice that amount.

I am not posting this as THE way to center clay, there may be another way that suits you better, but I am posting this in the hope that it might help someone.

Here are a few notes to go with the little video.
I place my clay near the center of the wheel and slap it with both hands to help the shape run true. I always run a finger around the clay to seal it to the wheel head.  

I like to lift my clay into a cone shape after putting it onto the wheel. In order to lift the clay, my first action is to push forward and down with my hands on either side of the clay near the wheel head, I then lift the clay with the palm of my hands.  

Once the cone of clay is formed I push the cone forwards, I don't need to push down on the cone, just push it forward with my left hand and steady it with my right.  The the cone gets lower and lower all by itself, and finds the center of the wheel as it does so, it is quite miraculous how easily it does this! I have noticed that some potters who cone clay to center it, put their hands around the far side of a cone of clay and pull it towards themselves, but I find this puts a great strain on the back. Pushing forward uses the upper body weight in a very natural way and is much easier on the body.

I use a version of this for small lumps of clay too, even if the clay can be centered in one hand, the essential action is similar to that of centering a large amount; a bit of a squeeze in and down, the clay rises and is eased forward.  It finds the center and runs smoothly.

I do not need a lot of wheel speed to be able to center clay, the kick wheel has taught me that, just give the clay time to adapt to what you want it to do, don't fight it.

Blurry image of the sun with Venus crawling across it like a small fly.  The image was projected onto a sheet of paper from hand held binoculars.  The auto focus on the camera was all confused and this is the best that it could manage!

A few days ago we watched the transit of Venus.  This was a historic event for those of us in New Zealand, as Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779) visited New Zealand whilst he was on his voyage to observe the transit of Venus.
Voyages of James Cook from Wikipedia.

Sailing in a small and slow sailing boat, Cook and his crew achieved astonishing feats of seamanship, and a brief glance a globe with the routes of Cook's voyages shown on it should impress.  The image above is from the wiki entry for
James Cook

I have been working away on some largish earthenware pots and planters and hope to have them fired fairly soon in the wood fired kiln.  

Earthenware pot with a coat of white slip.

The large pots were made by throwing and coiling. Here is the base of the pot that appears in the next photo.

This one is just over 24 inches (610mm).

These handles were made from a loop of clay that was bent in half.  I got the idea from looking at a photo of a Chinese pot that was made many hundreds of years ago.

Tall bird jug.  I was thinking about Pompeii and archeological finds!

I got all interested in texture and smeared generous amounts of the clay that was sitting in the catching tray of my potter's wheel after a day at work.
I did try to put a video together about the coil and throw method of making pots, and may yet post parts of it... trouble was that the video got longer and longer and longer and longer..... 


Linda Starr said...

Oh you've got some beauties there. earthenware and you can wood fire them? How do you control the temp to not go too high, I love the pompeii one and the one with the slip decor in the middle interested techniques on those

Michèle Hastings said...

that 24" pot with the handles and slip deco is a real beauty!

Peter said...

Hi Linda,
I'm tempted to say that the biggest challenge with wood firing is making the temperature go up! :), but that is not entirely true. It is quite easy to stop the temperature going higher, the temperature will only keep going up if there is enough wood in the firebox and it is burning well. As soon as it starts to run short of fuel (or if the firebox is choked with too much fuel!!), the temperature will want to drop, and this can happen quite quickly. The difficulty is getting the temperature reasonably even throughout the kiln so that some parts are not over fired, whilst others don't get hot enough. It takes several firings to understand the heat distribution in the kiln, and the best way of stacking the work in order to direct the flame around inside the chamber. This is
one of the many challenges of firing work this way, and it is very satisfying when things go right!

The Pompeii pot was really fun to decorate, and smearing all that clay around was a bit like oil painting.

Hi Michele,
I like the form of the 24" pot, but was a bit worried that I might have overdone the decoration so I appreciate your positive feed back on that. It is a special pot that I am making for someone so I am walking a "tightrope" with the decoration and wobble between what seems right for the pot, and what is right for them! Not easy!!

Armelle said...

Nice video and nice pots Peter, the blurry image is nice too, how little is Venus !!!
I like the "chinese" handles, the Pompei vase is amazing !!!
Best wishes from Belle-ile-en-mer, the rain doesn't seem to stop, my tomato plants will need some copper sulfate not to get the"mildiou"

Christine said...

Thank you for the picture of the transit of Venus. We missed it here so good to see the little bug crawling across the sun. I do like the Pompeii pot especially, oil painting technique on clay, I like that!

Peter said...

Bonjour Armelle,
This morning the sun is shining and the sky is the most beautiful pale blue, but I want it to rain, please send us some of yours! Snow is supposed to be here tonight. Brrrrrrr!

It was fun to see Venus, although she looked even smaller when in focus! I think she was very brave to fly so close to the sun!

Hello Christine,
I thought that some of you might like a photo of our view of the transit of Venus, so often such things look different from this part of the world. It was fun to be able to see the event so well in the middle of the day when our winter sun was fairly high. A shame that the camera objected so much to focusing on the projected image... auto focus drives me nuts sometimes!

I did enjoy smearing the clay around when doing the Pompeii pot, and want to explore working more in that way. So much of what I have done so far has been to "civilize" clay and bring it under control, it was nice to explore its more gestural qualities.

Angie said...

What wonderful tall pots them ...wish I could see them in real.
As you know the only time I've played with clay was when I was 21 ...I really was not very good ,,,especially on the wheel. I found your video intesting ....and it brought back memories of me drawing up the clay and it shooting off the wheel as though with a life of its own ...shame you were not my teacher back then...but I hope the image I created made you smile.

Peter said...

Good Morning Angie,
Lovely to hear from you, and thank you for your really nice comment, and for making me smile. I think clay does have a life of its own, my clay doesn't try to escape, but it does get grumpy with me if I take too long when making a pot and it shrugs its shoulders, sighs, and sags on the wheel. If I am too aggressive with it, it wrinkles up in a very petulant manner! Px