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Ceramics can be practical, decorative, or both, making them beloved by interior designers and aspiring artists alike. Here, we’ll cover the history of ceramics, give an overview of the most common artistic forms, and show you some beautiful examples for inspiration.
What Are Ceramics?
The dictionary definition of ceramic is “of or relating to the manufacture of any product (such as earthenware, porcelain, or brick) made essentially from a nonmetallic mineral (such as clay) by firing at a high temperature.” Ceramics are also sometimes called pottery, although pottery is a type of ceramic (and not all ceramics are pottery).
There are various types of ceramics, but only the following are commonly used for arts and crafts. (Other types of ceramics, like glass or titanium carbide, are used for industrial or scientific purposes, and for architectural ceramics.)
The oldest and softest form of pottery, earthenware ceramics absorb water and can be scratched easily. Earthenware pottery has been made since at least the Stone Age.
This dense, opaque ceramic resembles stone after firing. It originated in Shang Dynasty China (1600 to 1050 BCE) and is now used to make commercial as well as fine art pottery.
Porcelain is similar to stoneware, but it’s thinner and can be translucent when held up to light. Porcelain originated in China and became popular in Europe from the 1700s.
Bone China is the toughest type of porcelain and is resistant to chipping. It’s made when powdered bone ash is added to the raw materials of porcelain, and it’s clear or white when fired.
Oh, and in case the question “What is the name of the oven used to fire clay objects so that they become ceramics?” has been bothering you: That’s a kiln.
Art Ceramics Vs. Household Ceramics
Most of us encounter a ceramic piece via the utensils and vessels we use for eating and drinking, like mugs or fine china. But art ceramics—like sculptures, vases, or small-batch vessels—can be truly stunning works of art. Some artists and manufacturers (such as Heath Ceramics) walk the line between functional and artistic ceramic works.
A Brief History of Ceramics
Humans have been working with ceramics for a very, very long time. The oldest ceramic artifact (a female figurine found in the Czech Republic) has been dated to the Paleolithic era, about 28,000 BCE.
Ceramics and pottery as we know them today originate in East Asia, particularly China, Japan, and eastern Russia. Asian civilizations experimented with and perfected ceramic production. From about 9000 BCE, clay-based ceramics became increasingly popular as containers for food and water and for use in art and brick making. The invention of the wheel, around 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia, facilitated the making of round, circular pots and vessels. In fact, the wheel was invented in the first place as a means of making pottery.
For a long time, Western Europe got most of its pottery from trade along the Silk Route. However, in the 15th century, blast furnaces were developed in Europe, making it easier for Europeans to produce their own fired pottery and other items that were instrumental in the Industrial Revolution from the 16th century.
Nowadays, ceramics are widely used in most modern societies. Different cultures have different ceramic styles and traditions, just as they do other types of art. Chinese and Japanese ceramics are still widely appreciated for their quality, style, and functionality.
How to Work with Ceramics
If you want to make your own ceramics, there are a few things to consider. First, for many projects, you’ll need access to a kiln, and most people don’t have these at home! Art centers, community colleges, universities, and art schools often do, though. Look for evening or weekend pottery classes that provide access to a kiln, or see if any of these places offer kiln access for a fee.
That said, some clays can be air-dried and don’t require a kiln. They typically aren’t as strong as fired pottery, but they are an option if you don’t have access to a kiln.
Also consider whether you want to use a potters’ wheel. These are ideal for making bowls, mugs, plates, and other round or circular objects. However, they’re not essential, and you can make freeform ceramic work using other techniques. You can buy a potters’ wheel from some specialty art and pottery stores, but they vary in price and quality. Consider your needs and how much you’d use one before investing.
Finally, you’ll want to pick up some glaze—or the paint used on ceramics that goes on as a liquid or paste and dries hard in the firing process. Glazing protects the ceramic item from damage and moisture, but it also adds shine, color, and detail.
Here are a few examples of ceramic items you can make and glaze, plus online classes you can take to learn how.
Create Colorful Ceramic Spoons
Craft a Ceramic Sculpture
Craft a Hand-Thrown Mug
Make a Ceramic Dish
Create a Dramatic Ceramic Mask
Use Ceramics in Tile Painting
Paint Some of Your Own
Raise a Drink to Your Art!
The Art of Ceramics: Creating a Modern Mug