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Plus: The 6-Day Pottery Class Experiment
By Chris Dunmire | Posted 6/1/05 | Updated 2/16/20
Have you ever watched someone work on a potter's wheel, and found yourself captivated by the smooth vessel pulled up from a mound of clay? Are you curious about what it would be like to make your own wheel-thrown pottery? If you like working with the medium of clay, you may enjoy giving wheel-thrown pottery a try.
Clay is such a flexible, forgiving medium. Unlike other types of sculpting, clay can be kneaded and formed into anything the artist desires, and if mistakes are made simply wadded up and reworked.
Some people wonder what wheel-thrown pottery is like for a beginner. Is it easy? Is it hard? Does it cost a lot of money to take a class? What should a newbie expect?
I had all of these questions too. That's why I decided to take a beginner's wheel thrown pottery class to see for myself what it was like. And though experiences will vary, I found out some interesting things about this art form that I'll share with you.
If you want to get some true experience with wheel-thrown pottery, then I suggest taking a class. Classes are offered at community colleges (often under ceramics), at art studios, and at pottery/ceramic businesses. The nature and length of the course will determine the cost and time commitment involved.
For example, a college credit course will usually run for a semester and may require you to purchase all of your tools and materials. A continuing education course or a private studio may offer shorter-term instruction for less money, and alleviate the pressure for competition or a passing grade.
I found a class at an art studio that was comfortable for me. It was a 6-week course that met for 2 hours once a week for 6 weeks. The cost was $85 and included all the tools and materials I needed: clay, glaze, sculpting tools, and a wheel. The beginner's class was led by an experienced pottery instructor who demonstrated excellent pottery making and communication skills.
If you're like me and never touched a potter's wheel, expect a real learning experience. The first class should instruct you on the type of clay you'll be using and how to cut and wedge it for the wheel. "Wedging" means to knead the clay and make it supple for use.
The instructor should take time to thoroughly demonstrate the wheel-throwing process: centering, opening, raising, shaping, and removing a pottery vessel (usually bowl) from a wheel. After a demonstration like this in my class, we were allowed to practice what we learned on our own wheels.
Again, this is a real learning experience. A skilled instructor has the knack for making the pottery making process look simple, but a beginner should not expect it all to come so easy at first. Through practice, a willing student will become skilled at demonstrating the techniques shown to them.
Your first class experience may be much different than mine. My first class was challenging, messy, and somewhat disheartening. By the end of the two hours I was convinced that I was not cut out for wheel-thrown pottery because each time I tried to duplicate the instructor's steps on my own clay, I fell short. I grew increasingly frustrated and wanted to give up. Thankfully it was only two hours long. It was through persistence and patience coming back each week that this attitude changed, I became more skilled, and I didn't give up after all!
I share my experience with you for two reasons: 1) to give you a realistic perspective on what may happen in your first class, and 2) to assure you that it gets easier. Remember how it was learning how to ride a bike? I have full confidence that when you stick with something and really put forth honest effort to learn it, it does get easier.
If your first class went smooth, you are on your way to becoming a wheel-thrown pottery master. If you struggled, you'll find the second and successive classes easier as you go. After each of my classes, I made progress! By the fourth class I was able to complete two bowls on the wheel that I went on to glaze and take home (see above picture).
A pottery class with a conscientious instructor should be a continuous learning experience. Each of our class sessions had two parts: a demonstration and studio time. Our instructor was available to answer any questions and aid us during the entire class session, which was reassuring.
In my ongoing quest to understand the intricacies of various art forms and expand on my own education, I’ve made it my mission to indulge in some hands-on class work. First class on the roster: Wheel Thrown Pottery.
So I signed up for this 6-week course (one night a week) after meeting with the instructor, Alex, at the pottery studio. Alex and I discussed — at great length — the creative process and the therapeutic aspects of working with clay and other art mediums.
Afterwards, Alex took me on a small tour of the art studio we’d be working in together and showed me some of her own air-dried pottery pieces waiting to be glazed.
Right before my eyes were beautifully crafted stoneware mugs, that once painted, could very well be sitting on a shelf in some high-falutin department store with a crafty sticker on the bottom:
This handmade stoneware was made with the highest quality ingredients and with the greatest care.
Marketing manipulation or not, I was going to take this class! And while anticipating my entrance into the world of fine art pottery making, I’ve been gearing up these last few weeks waiting for the very moment my hands would touch the organic earthy clay that would be delicately formed into beautiful things.
Yes, in my naive, grandiose mind I've assured myself, that I too, would be making mugs worthy of gracing the shelves at the Pottery Barn.
[Record scratching sound bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzpppppp]
Okay, this is where fantasy and reality collide. Seriously. And this is not easy to say because I’m sitting here with an imaginary lump of clay in my lap with the word HYPOCRITE carved into it with a sharp, imaginary clay tool.
What is not imaginary is that it took only one class for me to come home completely frustrated and seriously contemplating NOT going back to see Alex. Wheel-thrown pottery making is hard. And messy. And out of five students, I sucked the most. (I know I'm being harsh. That's the frustration talking.)
There’s nothing worse than being the slowest, not-getting-it student in the class. Well, maybe there is. But, yep, that was me. Slowy McSlowstein — the one who kept calling the teacher over and being gently instructed in 10 different ways how to do the same thing . . . and still failing, and not getting it in the perfect way I should have! (That's perfectionism talking.)
I'll slice right in here with my indoor coaching voice and say that wheel-thrown pottery is not as easy as it looks. Nor should it be. The beautiful things we see made out of clay take time to create. After lots of time is invested in learning.
And so when I realized that I wasn't going to get very far in six little classes, that made me want to throw my hands in the air, because at that point, if I couldn't master this great artform immediately, I didn't care.
(Of course my attitude sucks. Halfway through the evening I fantasized about ditching the next five sessions, which is what kept me there the entire two hours. The knowing that I wasn't coming back. In my self-loathing and ego scraping I reminded myself, “I bet THEY can’t work Photoshop like I can!”)
“But Chris, you tell everyone else not to be quitters!” I can hear you say. And you’re right. That’s the irony of this whole thing and exactly why I'll keep on pressing on like Lee Nails.
Yes, I decided to use this experience as a teaching moment, to illustrate how easy it is to struggle when trying new things, and how the voice of quitting gets louder in proportion to the level of frustration one feels when they think they should instantly learn a new skill and go right into The Great Hall of Fame. Using this as a lesson in patience and perseverance is the least I can do now that the class is paid for. No refunds!
Seriously, if I’m going to coach people how to be their best creative selves, I have to practice what I preach. And I also have to be honest about the hard work it takes to accomplish wonderful things even when they look fun and easy at first, like wheel-thrown pottery.
Truthfully, it's not always going to be easy. Expectations don’t always align with reality. And sometimes, maybe more than we like, it's going to be messy and we’re going to get dirty.
Now that I’ve had a few days to settle down and think about my first pottery class, I’ve decided that I am going back next week. Even if I have to spend the entire class re-doing what I did the first night, it’s going to be worthwhile.
How many light bulbs did it take Thomas Edison to break to finally get one to work? Good thing he didn't quit, or we'd be missing out on all of those "how many ____ does it take to screw in a light bulb” jokes.
See, through my frustration I still have a sense of humor. Now watch me NOT be a quitter!
Before Class Attitude:
Wheel thrown pottery? Never done it. But Alex assured me that it would be a lot of fun. Plus her personality oozed patience so I was completely at ease with the idea. Besides, the course catalog noted that the class was “designed for beginners as well as those who are somewhat experienced in creating pottery on the wheel. What a great opportunity to learn something new with other newbies!
I arrived at the art studio 15 minutes early and Alex was getting materials ready for the class. She said there would be five students total, and as each one arrived we introduced ourselves and warmed up with the usual “getting to know you” banter.
First there was Natalie, who had already been doing wheel-thrown pottery for a year. Then walked in Lena, who had a pottery wheel and kiln at home. Next was Gloria, who came in to work independently on her own advanced clay projects (not sure if she was part of our class). Do you notice a theme here? These women were beyond somewhat, and I was the only beginner. That was until Tina walked in. She was new to wheel thrown pottery, but had worked with clay before.
As class began, we all stood around a table where Alex cut each of us several pieces of “stoneware” clay and instructed us how to "wedge" (knead) it together and work out any air pockets. Next, she took a lump of clay to a potter's wheel and demonstrated how we were to “throw” it onto the center of the wheel (which is the only “throw” in “wheel thrown” pottery), and work it into a simple bowl. Through the demo she used words like “centering” and “coning” and made it all look quite simple. Next we took a wheel and spent the rest of the class practicing bowl making, like this learning to throw technique shows.
This is it.
I sat in front of my wheel, threw a lump of clay onto the center, pushed the pedal down (think sewing machine) and the wheel started spinning. Whoops, too fast. So I eased up. Too slow. Hmmm… variable control.
I found a comfortable speed and was mesmerized by my off-centered spinning lump. “Uh oh, what now?” My mind went blank. I already forgot what I was supposed to do.
For the first of about a dozen times, Alex checked on me and helped me get started. “Seal the base with your finger.” She motioned. I did.
The next hour was a blur, but I remember her visits were frequent and these are some of the words I remember:
“Brace your arms on your legs.”
“Turn the wheel faster.”
“Use this part of your hand.”
"Can you feel it off-center?"
“Yes, you can chuck that into your scrap bucket and start again.”
“I want to see a muffin shape.”
"No, not a poofy top muffin."
“No it’s okay…”
“Here, let me show you again on my wheel.”
“You’re doing okay Chris.”
“Yes, you can start again.”
“Too much water.”
“See mine, yours should look like…”
“Squash it down more.”
“Cone it up more.”
"Nope, you can fix that."
“Not enough water.”
“Look at mine…”
“Smooth that out more.”
“It’s okay if you just ripped the top off.”
“Do you want to try another?”…
Somewhere between the second and third throw my frustration level grew beyond my comfort level. I quickly forgot about the “fun” I was supposed to be having and lost my inner coolness. I just wanted to "throw" my clay at the wall and go home. My patience left me and inside I FELT like a third grader! Oh, my exterior was alright, I’m good at hiding things. I think.
It was obvious that others in the class (even Tina) were having a much easier time of it, and that made it even more difficult for me. They were all completing one or two bowls apiece, and I couldn’t properly do one. When you’re in a group, there’s always a certain level of “trying to keep up” so you can stay on the same page with everyone else. My first lesson: My classmates were already on a different page before class even began. I had to find a way to accept this truth and be “okay” with being imperfect (I can hear SARK now...).
After Class Attitude:
I seriously contemplated dropping this class. Fantasizing about not going back helped get me through the tough time I was having. I rationalized, “I’m taking this class for fun, not for frustration!” Who needs that?
After class we toured the art gallery featuring some AMAZING stoneware dishes crafted by talented potters in the same studio. One set in particular reminded me of an antique tea set you’d find at a Tiffany’s auction. I remember standing in front of it while looking at the clay drying under my fingernails.
Although life IS too short to voluntarily agonize through such things, I realized that I’m taking this class for more than just fun. There’s an experience here to enjoy beyond my tiny frustrated mind, and there’s important things to learn that reach beyond a lump of clay and temperamental wheel. Everyone HAS to begin somewhere. And even if I’m the beginner, so be it. Others in the class were beginner's at one time too. They know what I’m going through, and as long as they don't point and laugh I'll be okay (or we'll really know what clay throwing is!).
I will go back. I will try again. And I KNOW it won’t be as hard as the first time.
And so I grow.
You didn't think I'd be back, did you? DID YOU?
Well, I'm not only back, but I have something very interesting to share about this whole pottery class business. By the way, I'm NOT going to quit (<-- affirming self-talk). Only four more classes to go.
Before Class Attitude:
After last week, I decided to make the best of this pottery class with the healthiest attitude I could muster up. I said "Chris, just go and try again. If you spend this class and the next four classes repeating the same three steps to learn one tiny thing, so be it." With the pressure off, I was a lot more at ease.
Again, I arrived early to the art studio and Alex greeted me with a guarded "How are you?" I think I shocked her with my upbeat attitude.
Smartly, she had me dive right in and handed me some clay to wedge. (By the way, kneading clay is a great stress reliever. Hey! I just realized what she was doing...!)
We sidestepped discussion about the first class and small-talked about exercise routines while waiting for the others to show up.
Class officially began when Alex took us to her wheel for another demo which was two-part: a reiteration of the first night's demo (centering the clay on the wheel and forming a bowl), and the next step of "trimming" excess clay off the bowl to make it less dense and lighter. The trimming step also included the technique for creating a decorative "foot" on the bowl so it didn't just sit on a massive base.
The trimming technique reminded me of what a woodworker does on a lathe. With a tool, he carves away excess material from his piece of wood to form an elegant design as the shavings fall to the floor. But in this case, the "wood" was clay, and the "lathe" was the potter's wheel.
I should mention at this point that I haven't made it far enough in this project to even think of trimming elegant feet into my clay bowl, because I have no finished bowl to speak of. After the second class, I was still "stuck" on centering the pottery. My "pressure off" attitude gave me permission not to care about a production schedule, or even bringing home a finished project. I may very well still be centering my lump of clay on the wheel in the sixth class. C'est la vie.
After Class Attitude:
Forget about my slow progress. I discovered a metaphor this week related to this whole pottery class mess I'm in. The synchronicity has me buzzing.
Interestingly, I've been reading about getting unstuck in the anthology Inspiring Creativity. Rick Benzel uses The Pottery Approach as a way to move through "creativity halting goo", referring to Centering in Pottery, Poetry and The Person by M.C. Richards:
In Centering, Richards uses the potter's wheel as a metaphor for life. When you try pottery, you quickly learn that if you do not center the clay on the wheel, it is nearly impossible to pull the clay up into a balanced object. For Richards though, centering clay means far more than simply plopping it down in the middle of the potter's wheel. Centering also must take place in your mind, in your feelings, in your entire physical being.
The irony of my current predicament is further revealed with Benzel's insightful words:
When you are stuck, it often means that you are not centered in your being. Your inner artist is at odds with something in your life that does not support your art. Something is awry that tilts your "clay" — that is, your ideas, your projects — and you will not be able to get unstuck in the same way that a potter is not able to fashion a nicely centered pot.
These excerpts reflect great meaning to me, so much that a profound shift happened within that makes this class situation much more bearable and relevent. I am reminded to be aware when I'm physically at the wheel, to take this class more than just at face value, and celebrate the rich symbolism it carries for me. This timely revelation is deeply satisfying.
Well! Things are moving right along here.
Before Class Attitude:
Class three means I am half-way done! Not only that, but I’ve settled into the mode of having fun with this and no longer dread failing. My creativity coach told me after my first class, “Any time we experiment with something it is part of the process and the intention of experimenting to learn about whether the medium/skill set is a fit for us.” I have to agree there. And I responded that I would see this through to make that determination.
In doing so, I’ve turned myself into a “pottery class mole.” You know how actors take on odd-jobs to prepare themselves for an upcoming role? Well, I’m acting my way through this process, and by shifting my attitude, I’m beginning to have a lot of fun. And because of this, it’s no surprise that other things are getting smoother along the way.
I went back, worked my clay, and ALMOST had bowl to take off the wheel. Can you believe it?
Class started with instruction on how to merge older dried-out clay with newer wet clay to achieve a happy medium of clay mixture for the wheel that was not too wet, or too try (hmmm, let’s call this the “Goldilocks” technique). Definitely good advice to tuck away, you know, to stretch resources when I open my big pottery wheel clay business (NOT! But yes, still a good tip).
After that, Alex moved on to demonstrate the next pottery feat: taller cylinder shapes, perfect for mugs and other tall non-bowl things. She even brought in some of her own cup creations currently serving as her tea mug and her husband’s wine goblet, respectively.
A cool side point was seeing how the wider “bubbly” base on a mug is achieved. We didn’t get to see how the handle is made just yet. That’s supposed to be covered in the next class. Another demonstration showed us how tiny things like a single-rose flower vase are made on the wheel. Nope, you don’t have to start with a teeny ball of clay and work it with two fingers. You actually work it off the top of a big mound of clay and trim it from there when you’re done.
Back to my project. Of course I’m not going to move on to mug-making until I get the bowl right. And low and behold, on my second try, I actually managed to make a bowl that Alex approved of to take off the wheel. Yahoo! The only problem was that I made the bottom too thin, and when we tried to slice it off the wheel, the bottom literally fell out (<-- hey, a pottery cliché!) Without a hint of disappointment I declared, “I’ll just try again next week!”
The highlight of the evening, of this whole process so far, was sitting in front of the wheel looking at MY BOWL. I did it! After three weeks, I finally had a breakthrough. Well, literally with the bottom falling out and all…
After Class Attitude:
Maybe, I just might have something to show at the end of the course. Alex won’t let me move into the “glazing” step unless I have something of my own doing from the wheel. What good is the pottery class if I can’t dip into the glaze?
I will complete a bowl.
I will complete a bowl with a thick bottom.
That won’t ‘bottom out’ when taken off the wheel.
That won’t fall out of my hands and squish on the floor after successfully taking it off the wheel.
That won’t be taken out of my hands and thrown at the wall by my jealous classmates.
That will be protected and dry without someone touching it so it can be fired.
That will be fired and not spontaneously combust before I get a chance to glaze it.
That will be glazed in all of my third-grade glee.
That will be fired a second time without incident and turn out awesome.
That won't be carried off by an army of ants before I get to see it.
That will be picked up by me and not dropped and broken into a zillion fragments before I get to take a picture of it.
Just thinking out loud.
By the way, I found out that Tina isn’t digging the whole pottery thing either. Why does that make me feel better? Because now I have confirmation that it’s not *just me*.
Well! Things are moving right along here.
I did complete a bowl.
I did complete a bowl with a thick bottom.
That didn't ‘bottom out’ when taken off the wheel.
That didn't fall out of my hands and squish on the floor after successfully taking it off the wheel.
That didn't get taken out of my hands and thrown at the wall by my jealous classmates.
In fact, I completed TWO bowls, a big one and a small one.
Are they top-notch pieces of pottery?
Are they a significant step forward in my pottery making skills?
Are they manifestations of positive self-affirmations, intention, and four weeks of hard work at the wheel?
They're a symbol of humility and good humor.
Now they get to dry out for a week.
Trimming is next.
I completed TWO bowls, a big one and a small one.
I will complete a bowl ... that will be protected and dry without someone touching it so it can be fired.
Well! My bowls survived a week of "leather" drying in the studio and were happy to see me again. If they only knew what was in store for them they might have retreated back under their plastic covering!
Tonight was all about taking those bowls and trimming the excess clay (weight)off of them, and giving them a more refined form. You can see application of this technique when you turn over a piece of pottery and see a "foot" on it, usually a rim-like ring with a void center. That's done during the trimming stage.
Since my bowls were amazingly bad examples of good pottery form, there was plenty of dead weight clay to trim off them. The trimming process includes placing them back on the wheel upside down (securing them with pieces of wet clay), and using the wheel like a lathe as excess clay is trimmed away.
This refining stage for a beginner can turn out disastrous if too much trimming is done. One (me) can easily gouge too much from a foot void and break through the bottom, or get trim happy on other parts of the piece. And once the clay is taken away, you can't put it back. Because of these risks, I opted for Alex to use one of my bowls in a class trimming demo, so I could be sure at least one would survive the night. Stella did it with ease, and the bowl looked great.
I worked on my other piece for most of the class, and miraculously managed NOT to destroy it. My kid-glove approach was too careful though, and I think more could have been trimmed away. Oh well.
The final fun of the night was adding some finishing touch decorations on the bowls. Others in the class happily introduced me to some cool tools for doing this, a few that reminded me of baking utensils. That's where creativity really gets to play — in the decorative embellishments. Perhaps I should mention that it is possible to produce stunning errors in this process as well (who would have thought that a decorative line circling the outer circumference of a bowl might not meet with its starting point?). Still great fun.
Alex patiently watched me finish and then had everyone carry their pieces down to the kiln area where they'd dry out a few more days before getting their first firing. After that, we move onto glazing.
While we were in the drying room, my eye caught some clay sculpture projects done during another class running parallel to ours: the daytime clay camp. That class is working with clay in a "hand building" process without the wheel. I looked on with envy at some of the fun stuff coming out of that class, and some day I'll do that too.
Final Class Experience:
Until this class, I hadn't glazed a piece of fired pottery since the third grade (wow, decades ago!), so you can imagine the anticipation I had running through my veins.
Before we were even allowed to TOUCH the glaze, our class received an informative lecture on pottery and glazes from the art studio's director. What a treat! During so I learned about two types of glazes, one for decorative use only (containing lead), and another that can be used on pottery that will be used for eating and drinking from. The latter is the type of glaze we used.
We also learned about different techniques for applying glaze to pottery (brushing on, dipping, swirling), and plenty of things NOT to do that could cause contamination to a gallon bucket of glaze and/or mess up our pottery in the kiln during its final firing. The word stalactite floated through the room during the lecture (you know, those icicle-shaped rocky things dripping from cavern ceilings), and I would yet learn more about their formation after my pieces emerged from the kiln. Translation: I got a little glaze-happy.
The glazing process went off without a hitch, and I purposely mixed two colors of glaze (a blue and cappuccino tan) in and out of my bowls, hoping they would create a cool design effect. After class we took our glazed pieces down to the kiln area where they were loaded for their final step of firing. Their outcome was another anticipated surprise.
Picking Up the Pieces
A few days later I went to pick up my newly-glazed pottery bowls. The studio director showed me what they looked like right out of the kiln, and they were awesome, except for a few drippy glaze stalactites near the bottoms. No problem, the director indicated as she took them over to some kind of grinder and proceeded to grind and smooth the excess glaze spikes off.
The final result? I proudly present my pottery pieces, the two bowls I created with my own bare hands on a potter's wheel:
Big and small wheel-thrown pottery bowls
Top view (notice glaze color mixture)
Detail view of mixed glazes inside big bowl
Pretty cool, right? This is a good beginning.
©2005, 2017 Chris Dunmire. All rights reserved.
After successfully completing my first pottery class, here's some tips I'll pass along to you:
1. Wear comfortable clothes that you don't mind getting dirty.
Our class used brown stoneware clay that easily washed out of our clothes (like mud). Other clays (such as red terra cotta) will stain your clothes.
2. Expect gradual progress.
If you're new to wheel-thrown pottery, don't expect to easily duplicate what the instructor demonstrated to you for the first time. High expectations will lead you to disappointment, frustration, and giving up. If you do a little better in the second class than the first, that's progress. Keep it up and it will eventually "click" for you.
3. Make time for clean-up.
Working with clay and water is naturally messy. Clean-up time is an essential part of the process and class time. Studio owners and class instructors expect you to do your part in cleaning up your own mess.
4. Try to enjoy the experience.
You took this class because you wanted to try something new. If you find yourself getting overly stressed, breathe deeply and remember why you're there. A good studio class should encourage you along, but not make you feel like you have to reach expert status by its end.
5. Celebrate your (even small) successes.
Note your accomplishments during the process and give yourself a pat on the back for them. Even if you complete one small piece of pottery that leaves a lot to be desired, you were successful in your efforts. You learned. You grew.