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Artistry and Aesthetics

Pottery Beyond Mere Utility


Effigy urn in the form of the Mayan rain god, Chac.

Effigy urn in the form of the Mayan rain god, Chac.

Image Courtesy of Leonard G.

Throughout the ages, even before history began, pottery has been used as a medium for expression. The earliest pottery and clay objects we have found show a true sense of artistry and aesthetic. Pottery has been used to tell stories or emphasis them. Clay has been used to supplicate gods and kings. It has been used to express social and religious ideals.

A Historical Perspective of Pottery Aesthetic

Beginning in the late 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement changed the concept of pottery and ceramics. What had been often seen as purely utilitarian became infused with an understanding of and focus on the interaction between the potter and the clay. Art Pottery, which emphasized pottery to be valued for its own artistic sake, was born. During the 1950’s, ceramic art took an even further digression from the utilitarian, as studio potters reacted to and explored the ideas presented by artists working in the abstract expressionism movement.

As potters today, we have the understanding that clay can be either art, or craft, or (ultimately) the marriage of both. Artistic merit and technical expertise meld in the current world of studio pottery. Many production potters (those who make hundreds and thousands of matching dishes for utilitarian usage) are also engaged in making one-of-a-kind pieces that are primarily artistic and aesthetic expression.

Artistry in Two and Three Dimensions

One of the most wondrous things about working with clay is its vast flexibility as a form of expression. You have everything available to you within two dimensional surfaces and three dimensional form. Color, line, form, surface texture, surface finish are all readily available and waiting. With clay, you can become painter, sculptor, and craftsman all in one.

To work to your fullest ability with pottery, you need to take some time to consider and learn about pottery as form.

Pottery Parts

It is helpful if we first establish a common language when speaking about the parts of a pot. Most terms derive from our own human bodies; we speak of pots having shoulders, lips, and so on. Not only is there a functional component to these parts, but also an aesthetic component. For example, a very narrow waist on a pot may add visual interest, but it may also make it much harder to pour liquid out the pot in a controlled way.

Vessel Shapes and Transitions

Vessels, probably the most common type of pottery, generally fall within three basic vessel shapes: the cylinder, the disc, and the sphere. Other, much more abstract and organic shapes are of course possible, but are not used nearly as much.

However, not only are there the overall shapes, but also shapes can be used in conjunction with each other. For example, a pot may have a very round belly (spherical) with a tall, narrow neck (cylindrical). Such pots have transitions between areas that also very strongly effect their aesthetic and visual "read".

Three-Dimensional Design

Pottery exists in three dimensions. Developing as a potter is enhanced when you have a knowledge of three-dimensional design. Pots, as well as other three-dimensional objects, have balance, rhythm, and proportions.

Elements of Three-Dimensional Design

What are the elements that are at work to create balance, rhythm and proportion? Shape, space, value, texture, line, color, and time and movement are all elements of three-dimensional design that are at work when you create your pottery.

Pottery as Three-Dimensional Art

If you are creating work that is meant to convey a story or an idea, you also need to be aware of the foundations of three-dimensional art: subject matter, concept, and form. Even functional, primarily utilitarian pottery can be greatly enhanced if you think about these foundations as you work your clay.

Your work as a pottery will almost certainly benefit from your knowledge and conscious awareness of the aesthetic elements of the pots you create. Pottery offers a wealth of opportunities to you as pottery and to you as an expressive, artistic person.

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