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Clay, Ceramics, and Porcelain: The Magic of Molding and Firing Earth into Art

As I often get asked the same questions from ceramic beginners, I would like to share with you the basics of clay and ceramics. If you are new to ceramics this might be very interesting to you.

Photo: Studio Neda Rajabi

Clay is one of the oldest and most versatile materials used by humans, and it has been transformed into beautiful and functional objects for thousands of years. The origins of ceramics are difficult to determine with certainty, but the earliest evidence of ceramics dates back to around 24,000 BC. This evidence comes in the form of ceramic objects that were discovered in various archaeological sites in Europe and Asia mainly in the form of functional ceramics. From simple earthenware pots to intricate porcelain figurines, over time clay has been molded and fired into art that has captured the imagination of people across cultures.

Clay is a natural material that is found in soil and sediment all over the world. It is composed of tiny particles of silica, aluminum, and other minerals that give it its unique properties. Clay can be easily molded and shaped when it is wet, and it can be fired at high temperatures (up to 1300*C) to make it hard and durable. The firing process also gives clay its color and texture, and the type of clay used, the temperature at which it is fired, and the length of time it is fired for can all impact the final result.

Photo: Studio Neda Rajabi

Ceramics is a broad term that refers to objects made from clay that have been fired. This can include anything from simple pottery to complex sculptures and decorative objects. The beauty of ceramics lies in its versatility, as artists can use different types of clay and firing techniques to create a wide range of textures, colors, and shapes. Ceramics can be both functional and decorative, and up to today they are often used to make dishes, tiles, and other household items.

These days more and more artists discover the versatile material to express themselves.

Porcelain, on the other hand, is a type of ceramic that is made from a special type of clay that contains feldspar and kaolin. Porcelain is known for its delicate, translucent appearance and its ability to be molded into intricate shapes. It is also extremely hard and durable, as it is fired at maximum temperatures of up to 1450 °C, making it a popular choice for fine china, figurines, and other decorative objects.

Photo: Studio Neda Rajabi, Ceramics: Anke Buchmann

The process of making ceramics and porcelain is a magical one, as artists and designers take a simple material like clay and transform it into something that can be both beautiful and useful. The process usually begins with the preparation of the clay, which is sometimes mixed with other materials to give it the desired properties. The clay is then molded into the desired shape, using a potter's wheel or hand building techniques. Once the clay has been shaped, it has to dry before it can be fired in a kiln, where the heat transforms it into a hardened ceramic object.

During this process the clay changes its consistency from liquid or soft, to leather hard, and finally bone dry. In all these different stages clay can be recycled and brought back to live again by adding water. Only after firing once clay turns into bisqued or glazed ceramics, there is no way back.

If you read so far, you might also want to learn about the two different types of ceramics - earthenware and stoneware. Both have distinct characteristics and properties. Earthenware is a type of clay that is fired at a low temperature, usually between 1000-1200°C. This type of clay is porous, brittle, and has a relatively low strength, making it less durable than other types of ceramics. Earthenware is often used for decorative purposes, and it is also a popular material for making dinnerware and other functional items. Earthenware is known for its distinctive texture and warm, earthy colors. Stoneware, on the other hand, is a type of clay that is fired at a much higher temperature, usually between 1200-1300°C. This higher firing temperature makes stoneware much harder and more durable than earthenware, as well as non-porous and more resistant to moisture and stains. Stoneware is often used for making practical items such as cookware, baking dishes, and storage containers, as well as decorative pieces. Stoneware is known for its dense and heavy feel, as well as its smooth, hard surface and earthy colors.

Photo: Studio Neda Rajabi , Ceramics: Anke Buchmann

Knowing of the high firing temperatures and the long duration of a firing process, a responsible ceramicist in our todays world with a growing awareness of the impact of human activities on the environment, needs to start questioning the sustainability of their practice. (Read more on the upcoming article on "Sustainability in Ceramics".)

In conclusion, clay and porcelain are fascinating materials that have captured the imagination of people for thousands of years. From pottery to intricate porcelain figurines, these materials offer endless possibilities for artists to express their creativity and bring beauty into the world. So, the next time you see a ceramic object, take a moment to appreciate the magic of molding and firing earth into art.

This blog post was written by Anke Buchmann in collaboration with ChatGPT. / 10.02.2023

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