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What Are Pottery and Ceramics?

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What are pottery and ceramics? Is there a difference? Is everything that is made out of clay pottery? Are all ceramics made out of clay?

Pottery and ceramics have been an important part of human culture for thousands of years. From prehistoric storage jars to tiles on the space shuttles, pottery and ceramics have played a key role in innumerable human endeavors. But how do we define them?

What Are Ceramics?

A collage of images of various ceramic objects.
Images Courtesy of Quinnums and Bernt Rostad (Flickr) and Beth Peterson

Technically, ceramics are those things made from materials which are permanently changed when heated. For example, clay has chemically-bonded water in it which will cause it to slake down (disintegrate) when a dried clay object is put in water. Once heated (fired) to between 660⁰ and 1470⁰F (350⁰ and 800⁰C), the clay is converted to ceramic and will never dissolve again.

All clay is a ceramic material, but there are other ceramic materials, as well. Glazes are also ceramic materials, because they permanently change during firing. Industrial ceramics include a range of materials such as silica carbide and zirconium oxide.

What Is Pottery?

Form a simple spout for the thrown pitcher.
Photo © 2009 Beth E Peterson

Pottery is generally considered to be containers made from clay. "Pot" is a term used for any number of container forms. Both words derive from the Old English potian, "to push". When we consider how the potter pushes as they throw the clay on the wheel, it is easy to see how the process got its name. The term "pottery" may also be used as an adjective with some objects, such as small figurines.

In industrialized countries, modern pottery can be classified two ways. There is commercial pottery or ceramics which are produced in factories, and there is studio pottery which is produced by individual craftsmen. You may also hear of "art pottery," which may be either produced commercially or by an individual craftsman.

Studio Pottery

Three pottery plates created by Beth Peterson.
Photo © 2009 Beth E Peterson

Studio pottery (studio ceramics) can be quite diverse. Production potters are most active in making large quantities of ceramic wares such as plates, platters, dishes, bowls, and so on. Production potters can sit down with a hundred pounds of clay and throw the same form all day. The technique of throwing off the mound is often employed by production potters because it reduces time spent centering the clay and moving bats on and off the wheel head.

Other studio potters are more concerned with creating forms for their uniqueness and beauty. These "art" pieces might still retain full functionality, or they may move toward being more sculptural. Many of these are "one-off" pieces, meaning they are one-of-a-kind.

Clay as a Sculpting Medium

Ceramic figure of an ancient Maya woman from the island of Jaina, Mexico.
Image Courtesy of Ilhuicamina / Thomas Aleto

From prehistoric times to the present, clay has not only been used to create utilitarian items like bowls and storage jars, but also rich works of three-dimensional art. Clay artists such as Peter Holland may work as designers for commercial potteries, they may do sculptural work as part of their studio pottery, or they may work exclusively as sculptors in clay.

Potter, Ceramic Artist, or What?

There is not a singular term for those who work with clay. Rather the opposite is true. Some of the most common terms are

  • potter: a general term for an individual craftsman working in clay
  • production potter: these folk make large numbers of functional pots as their main employment
  • studio potters: often those who create one-off pieces but may also do production pottery
  • ceramic artists: those who create clay artwork
  • clay artist: same as a ceramic artist, but may not fire their pieces (i.e. they are working as a designer for a commercial pottery)
  • ceramist: anyone who works with ceramic materials either industrially or as an individual, and
  • ceramic engineer: those who work (often in industry) with the chemistry and physics of ceramic materials
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