How It’s Done: Hand-built ceramics

The first thing that comes to a person’s mind when ceramics is mentioned is clay on a pottery wheel and that famous scene from “Ghost.” Hand-built ceramics, however, does not involve pottery or its wheels at all.

It is exactly what the name implies: building clay into art with your hands.

“It’s very hands on; you get clay under your fingernails and everywhere else. You feel like you’re really putting some of yourself into it,” ceramics student Teri Gravenmier said. “Then there’s the whole concept of making a piece, cutting it apart, then putting it together again. There is something cathartic about it.”

The process of making a hand-built ceramics piece begins with an armature. Wooden poles and stakes are built up from a base to act as the skeleton for whatever is being molded around it. Wads of newspaper fill up space for bulky areas like a head or a globe-like structure.

Chunks of clay are stuck onto the skeleton and smoothed into one another with the artist’s hands to make the basic shape of whatever is being created, like making a rough draft of a paper.
When the image is put together roughly, certain parts are separated. If the ceramic is of a person, arms and legs will be separated from the torso.

The next step is to hollow out the inside of the figure. A wire tool easily cuts the clay in half and carving tools shear away strips of clay from the inside. Any clay that is removed is saved and dumped into a bucket of water with other remaining clay to be reused.

Once the pieces are hollowed out, they are stuck back together with a method called “stitching.” Needle and thread are not used, but crosshatches are pressed into the clay along the seams and then smoothed over. You can tell that the seam is sealed correctly if you try to pull it apart and it rips jaggedly. Details are added to the assembled piece with finite instruments.

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When the piece is properly assembled, it is left to dry to what is called the “hard leather” stage. Once it reaches here, strips of color called “slips” can be added onto the clay to color it in. Color stains involving painting chemicals on can also be added.

The artwork takes its first trip through the kiln once all colors have been added. This is called the bisque firing, and it lasts for approximately two days.

The ceramic piece is then removed and is now as hard as stone. It is painted in a glaze that will vary in color and glossiness, depending on what the artist desires. If the artwork is meant for practical use, like plates or cups, a special glaze is coated on to seal the creation and make it safe to eat or drink from.

The second firing is called the glazing, and lasts around 12 hours. After this, the piece should be just about finished and ready to be admired.

“I got into ceramics by accident,” Marcia Maxwell said. “I signed up for watercolor but there was a misprint and it didn’t fit with my schedule. Pam Pemberton had taught art appreciation and highly recommended hand building. After I started, I really liked it.”

The art technique that could not be more reminiscent than playing with play-doh as a child has a lot to offer an artistic soul. Even watching people shape and create something from lumps of clay is enchanting. It is worth a try for any curious artist.

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