The Art of Ceramics: Creating a Modern Mug | Helen Levi | Skillshare

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The Art of Ceramics: Creating a Modern Mug

teacher avatar Helen Levi, Potter

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Preparing Your Clay


    • 3.

      Throwing on the Wheel


    • 4.

      Trimming Your Mug


    • 5.

      Forming the Handle


    • 6.

      Attaching the Handle


    • 7.

      Glazing and Finishing


    • 8.

      Bonus Lesson: Notes on Bisquing


    • 9.

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About This Class

Ceramics are having a moment, and the beauty of the craft raises so many fascinating questions about science, design, and everyday objects. How do you work with clay? How do you glaze your piece? How do you walk the line of beauty and function?

Join potter Helen Levi for this inspiring, informative 35-minute class on making a mug from start to finish! You'll join Helen in her studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn and follow her through the process of creating a beautiful mug, including: selecting the clay, throwing it on the wheel, and glazing the final piece.

This class is perfect for the aspiring potter or creative looking to get their hands dirty and understand the process of ceramics. Helen's demonstrations reveal the breadth of ways to consider ceramics so that you can gain insights and explore the possibilities, both in this class and beyond.


Note: In this class, Helen primarily uses professional equipment (for example, a professional potter's wheel) but offers suggestions and resources for those eager to try this out on their own.

Meet Your Teacher

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Helen Levi



Helen Christgau Levi is a photographer and potter born and bred in NYC.

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1. Introduction: My business is a mix of selling wholesale to stores who then resell it. I sell directly online, on my web shop, and then I also do special commissions or custom work, whether it be for restaurants, or interior designer, or a client. My number one seller for sure is the mug because handmade ceramics are definitely more expensive than what you buy at a regular store. A mug is a nice beginner piece for someone to start out with. Everybody has a special mug at home that they love, that doesn't fit in with them or their mugs, but they feel attached to that mug. The class we're going to do today is making a mug from start to finish, which I think is a great place to start because it's really satisfying to drink out of a cup that you made. The first step is preparing your clay and throwing it on the wheel. Then, once its dried a bit, we're going to trim the bottom and add the handle. Some potters really focus on the glazing and the surface design, and some potters really focus on the form and it might not be glazed at all. For me, it's always when I add the handle to the body and those two work together and you see them and it looks right in your eye, it kind of comes together, literally. Then, I'll show you skip ahead to glazing, which is after the piece has dried, and been bisque fired and you take it back out of the kiln, and then glaze it, and then I'll show you the finished product as well. So, you'll see that I have a lot of equipment in here that you don't have at home but there's lots of ceramic studios that offer classes or are just communal spaces where you can work with other potters. There's so many different ways to make ceramics. What I was showing you was just like a tip of the iceberg. There's so many things I don't know about and I've been learning a lot just by doing it over the last few years. It's exciting for me knowing that if i keep doing this as long as I want, there's always going to be something else that I can learn from it. I'm Helen Levy, we're in my studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn where I make ceramics with my business partner Billie. Billie, did you hear your name? Hey. 2. Preparing Your Clay: This is a dark brown stoneware that I'm using. I know from experience that it's a pretty soft clay body and because I'm using such a small lump of clay, it's just under a pound, that I don't wedge it because for such a small piece, I feel like I'm just adding more air into it and because it's nice and soft and ready to throw right out of the bag. I would definitely say, if you're making a bigger piece, you should wedge it. Wedging it is just like kneading the clay and it's helpful to make the consistency really uniform. Because if you have a bigger piece of clay, you want to make sure it's really consistent throughout. Small pieces leftover from cutting and weighing my clay, I can just slap them back together and wedge them a little bit which I would recommend doing for if you're throwing a larger piece anyway. But basically, wedging is like kneading. What you're going to do is keep your hands together, push the clay away from you, roll it back, push it, roll it back. Your goal here is to just incorporate it really evenly. I kind of move it over if my surface gets a little wet from the clay and then it might start sticking, and it's important to keep your hands cupped like this. If they're not, you're just going to make a long sausage. So, your idea here is to get out any air bubbles, any inconsistencies in the clay, make it more pliable and workable. If your clay is recycled, you need to do that a lot longer. Some people recommend 50 wedges. It's kind of a good place to start. So these three are ready to be mugs and I like to just kind of pass it in between my hands and get it into a shape that's a little easier to start with on the wheel but that's all I do for a piece this small. 3. Throwing on the Wheel: I like to use a bat if I'm throwing a shape that's rounded because it's hard to pick that up off the wheel without warping the shape. If I was throwing a cylindrical piece, like a taller piece, I might just use my hands to remove it from the wheel. But I find a bat to be really helpful and this small bats are good because they don't take up a lot of space. So, you want to slam it down really hard, it should startle you. Your hands always need to be wet all the time. So, you can see how it looks all crazy. My first step is just going to be to press down, cut my hands over the piece and press down as hard as I can A to cement it to the back but also to try to get it under control a little bit. So, I'm going to just prop my elbows on my legs and just start pressing down. So, now it's a little more under control but it's still off. Then what I like to do, and every potter finds something different to be comfortable for their hands. For me, this is what's comfortable for me. I prop my left arm against my leg and you can see how my hand is being pushed by the clay. My goal is to steady my arm and then I use the top hand to press down so I'm pressing in with my left hand and down with my top hand at the same time. My goal here is to keep this hand from being pressed by the clay. So, now it looks pretty centered. You can see it doesn't look too wobbly. I'll show you what I would do if this was a bigger lump of clay a small piece like this less than a pound, I don't have to worry too much. But if you had a bigger piece what you would want to do is squeeze it to bring it up, this is called coning and then press it back down with the heel of your palm. What that does is exposes all the clay that's in there so that you're reaching and touching all of the clay not just the outside. But it's such a small piece. It's not totally necessary but it's a good habit to get into. So, you cone it up and then press it back down. Basically, what I'm looking for here is to have the piece look like it's not moving at all. Even though the wheel is spinning. That's how you can visually tell that it's really centered. You can feel it with your hand and it feels like it's not moving as well but it just takes some practice to get that feeling of touching it and feels like it's not really moving. A good tip my pottery teacher when I was a kid taught me is, when you take your hands off, don't take them off like this because you'll knock it back off again. She wants me to be graceful. So, once you feel like it's centered, just gently remove your hands. So, now it's nice and centered and my next step is going to be to make my hole in. While you're centering it and while you're putting your hole in, you can go pretty fast with the speed of the wheel, but after that I would slow it down considerably. So, I'm still going to go pretty fast. Usually I just, I've done it a lot, so I don't have to as much now, but I like to press down a little bit and then take my hands away to make sure I really placed it right in the center. If you put your hole not quite in the middle, you're going to start off with your walls being uneven and you're setting yourself up at a disadvantage. So, it's nicely in the middle and I'm just going to press down. You can either do two thumbs like this. You can just do two fingers, whatever feels comfortable. So, you're going to press down pretty far. Obviously, you do not want to go through to the bottom. It's always better to leave a little more on the bottom than not enough because you can trim it off in the next step. So, now I'm going to go a little bit slower and I'm just going to widen out the hole. So, basically what I'm doing is I'm taking this hand, starting in the middle and I'm squeezing it towards my outside hand. Your two hands should always be working together supporting each other. You never want just one hand on there on its own. It's not as strong. The two hands together are nice and stable. If you notice you have a lot of gloopy stuff on your hands, just rinse them off. You want them to be wet, you just don't want them to be so muddy. So, the more that you're adding water to the clay, the weaker it's going to get. So, you want your hands to be wet you just don't want to be dripping like with your splash pants are full of water, you're probably using a little too much. Okay. So, once I have opened it up a bit, I'm going to take my sponge, squeeze all the water out and I'm just going to press on the bottom, that's called compressing. It helps you not get any cracks on the bottom. You can use a rubber rib, you can use your finger. I like to use a sponge but just make sure it's not sopping wet, you don't want to have a puddle in there. Then I'm going to start thinning out the sides. So, again, I like to use a sponge but use what's comfortable for you. So, I'm starting at the bottom and I start to squeeze and I slowly move my hands from the bottom to the top. Squeezing from both sides, the inside and the outside. You really want to do this gradually so that it's even. It's really easy to have one side be thicker than the other if you're pushing unevenly or pushing too fast. It should take a few pulls to get it done. So, now with my second pull, I'm going to start to widen it as I can start getting to the top because I know the shape of the mug that I want is more rounded and wider at the top. I just do as many pulls as I feel is needed. Another tip about when you're raising the walls like this, is I like to feel the clay move around at least one whole time before I move my fingers at all. That way you know you've touched the whole circumference of the piece. If you raise it too quickly, you're going to get a big ripple. So, feel it move around once or twice before you even shift up at all. Then, I take my rib and I use the corner of it to just start to trim away at the bottom. Then I just gently run it along the outside to skim off any gloopy stuff and just to find the shape a little more. You can also use the rounded edge to compress the bottom. So, you're starting in the center and going out towards it like pick a number on the clock and go in a straight line out towards that number. Then you can smooth the lip a little bit. I've just knocked it off but that's okay. That's it. 4. Trimming Your Mug: Okay. So once the mugs that I threw are leather-hard which means that they're still holding their shape, but they're still wet enough that I can feel a little bit off, it's time to trim it. I like to trim a shape like this on a foam bat. That's because it's wider at the mouth like a bowl. If it was something that was more of a cylinder, I would not use this. But for this shape, this is my preference, and I've drawn some lines on the foam bat so that I can center it really easily. So, I just place it with the lines and turn it on slow to just double-check that it looks all right, and then I don't go too fast. I keep one hand on top to keep it stable. My goal here is not to alter the shape. It's just to clean it up. When I do the bottom, I really just want to flatten it out that's it. I throw it so that the bottom is pretty thin already. So, I'm not trying to take off a lot of weight on the bottom. If I press too hard with my tool, try to take off too much at once, it will go flying. So, I always try to do it gradually even though I'm not really taking that much off the shape. If I can see the transition from where I was trimming to where I wasn't, I might take a rubber rib and just very gently smooth it out. But I also just like using a finger to get rid of that line, and that's it. So, I have three here to do. This one's a little dry, but I'll do it anyway. So, I just want to continue the round profile of the mug that's already there. If I was making a cylindrical mug which I do a lot that are straight up and down, I wouldn't want to make this rounded edge here. But I feel like because of the shape of the handle I'm going to add, and because the kind of wide opening, it makes sense to have this little flared effect. I personally don't add a foot ring, hardly ever, because it's a little bit fuzzy, and I tend to like a little bit more of a straightforward design. Also, because I'm a little bit impatient and I don't want to spend that much time on every single one. So, I've just rounded it out. 5. Forming the Handle: When I make handles, I like to use the pull method. So, I just rip off a piece, make a fat coil with it. I always have more than I need and this particular mug has kind of a big handle, so these are a little chunky. So, I have my bowl of water. I make my hand shaped so that it will be a rectangle as it passes through. I don't want a completely round handle. So, as you can start to see it's already looking a little rectangular. That's what I want, and I can rotate it as I go around so that I can see all the sides and make sure one side isn't getting a little thicker or a little thinner. If the bottom, I can just pull it off. I always like to have extra for that reason. That one broke but I can probably still use it. So, then what I'm going to do is lay it out on my bat and I just kind of I'm going to curl the top loosely towards the shape that I want, but it doesn't have to be perfect. When it dries a little bit more, I can manipulate the shape more. But, for now, I just kind of get it in the general direction. When the clay is wet like this and it's so soft, it's easy to squish it, or get your fingerprint on it, or kind of mar it in a way. So, I try to really handle it as little as possible when it's this wet and then, I wait for it to dry a little bit. If you're in a rush, you can put a little fan on it. So, this is good. This is extremely long, but it's good. It gives me a little more to play with. So, lay it down real gentle, try not to touch it too much, curve it. Sometimes, you might want the handle to be thicker on the top and thinner at the bottom, and then you attach the thicker side at the top of the mug, and so, it has that kind of natural slope. But for this design, I don't really want that. Sometimes I like that, but for this, my goal is to have the handle be pretty uniform, start to finish, because of the shape that it's going to be. You don't want to push too hard because it's so easy to break it. It's better to just push a little softer and take more strokes to thin it out. It's the same with trimming, I mean, with all of it really. You don't want to rush it and try to get it all done in one motion. 6. Attaching the Handle: Okay. When the handles are dry, you can see I can touch it without getting my fingerprints all over it and smashing it, but it's still soft enough that I can move it around. That's a good time and I would put plastic over the ones you're not working with because it's such a small piece of clay, it's going to dry pretty fast. I take this tool which has a blade on one side. So, yeah, I'm just going to gradually cut away at it and like this part you can see, it's a little bit thicker than this part. This is probably the top of the handle closer to where I was holding the piece of clay, and for this shape, I really want it to be uniform all the way around so I'm going to cut that off. Here I'm cutting it at an angle, because it's going to want to sit flat here. This side I'm cutting a flat straight line. But that's what's nice about this little blade, if you can just cut it however, make sense for that piece. So, once I have the general shape of it laid out, I'll hold it up against my mug. There a little bit dry which is why I'm keeping them so covered right now. You can see it's still way too big. So now I know just keep trimming it back. I always prefer to have extra. So, every mug is different. Some mugs, like for example this one, this is meant to fit like your whole hand in there or at least three fingers. This mug I'm making right now, it's just probably going to be more of a one finger mug. But, for some people that might not be as comfortable but some mugs are more about the way they look versus how they feel on the hand. It's always a balance, and when I'm designing a mug, I'm not strictly thinking about what's going to be the most comfortable on your hand, I'm thinking about what's going to feel good, but also what's going to look pleasing, or what's an idea I have that I want to try. So, it's different for each one. I wanted to show this mug because I think it's a little bit more unusual than this type. This was actually what I was going to do at first, but I just felt like it was a little bit plain, and I just wanted to show some of the other ways that I think about handles. So, I was trying to think about what type of shape would complement this rounded mug, and I liked the idea of the handle being round as well, but then also like gripping the side of the body of the mug. So, I think this is pretty good. I'm just going to make it a little, the tail of it, a little bit shorter. I think that looks pretty good, and for this, I wanted the circle, like the circular part of the mug, to be centered over the lip of the mug. So basically, now what I'm going to do is I'm going to score the parts that need to be attached. So, if you just stick two pieces of clay together and you let it dry, it'll pop right apart. Because as the clay dries, it shrinks. That's just one of its properties. So, to make sure they stick together, you're going to score it. I like to use a blade, but you can use a variety of tools. So, I make some scorelines both directions, and then I see where it's going to attach here, and I need to reach in there and score as well. Then I also need to score this whole side and this whole side. So, we really don't want to be too dainty with this, you want to make sure you make nice deep scratch marks because that's what's going to lock the two pieces of clay together, and really get them to stick. Make sure I went down far enough here. That looks pretty good. Then, you're going to put some slip on there. Slip is just water mixed with dry clay pieces. So, like when these pieces dry out I'll just add them to my slip. It creates a glue. I like that clay naturally separates from water, the heavy stuff sits on the bottom and the water's on the top. So, sometimes I might just want more water and less actual like chunks of slip. So, I just like to keep it like this. I use a paint brush. So, I'll take a little bit of water, I don't want to make a big soppy mess. So, especially right here on this like inside part, I'm just going to put like a drop with the paint brush. Then I'm going to press it on, and so I'm trying to attach it without deforming the shape, but you do really need to go over the whole seam with your finger to really make it stick. So, then I take the other side of this tool which is just like a rounded piece of metal. Any place that I can't reach with my finger, I just really gently just press it in with that piece of metal. The clay is going to dry at different rates, the small piece like this will dry so much faster than a bigger piece like this. So, if this dries really fast, it's more of a risk to pop off. If it all dries nice and slow together, they're going to stay together more. So, once I'm done with these, I'll just loosely wrap them in plastic and just leave them like that for a couple of days. If it was a tumbler or a bowl, I wouldn't really have to baby it like that but for a mug you do. Then I'll take my paintbrush. I don't want it super wet here, but I just go over that with the brush. I don't have to make it perfect right now, because once the mug is totally dry before I fire it, I can kind of give it a sponge down and just make sure it's really nice. But I'd like to make it pretty good right now. So then, take my brush, and put some water here, again not too much. Then I'm going to press the handle on. Now, because for the design of this mug, I like the seam here, and I don't want to loose that by like really pressing the clay in. I'm just going to compress it from the top. This is why if the handle was too soft, and too wet, as I pressed it, it would just squish it out. So you need to wait for it to be firm enough that it can take this type of pressure without losing its shape entirely. Unlike in here, where it's hard for me to reach it with my finger, I'll just take this and really make sure that seam is connected. So, then I'll take my pressure again, almost dry brush, and I'll really go back in along the seam to make sure there are a slip in there, and also to smooth out like any extra scratches that I made. This part is the longest step for me always longer than throwing or longer than trimming or usually longer than glazing because, I feel like it's the most important step. It's where the mug becomes a mug and like a plain shape like this round bowl on its own is not that interesting, and a handle on its own might not be that interesting. But then when you put them together, and you feel like you get the proportion right, that's when it turns into something else. So, like this is the step that I feel where you really make your mark on it, and you're really making the design become a reality. Also, if you rush the handle, you're probably going to get a little crack somewhere, and then your piece is going to be a second. So, then once it's attached, depending on how wet or dry it is or depending on the shape, you might want to let it dry upside down hanging to keep gravity helping you or you can leave it upright. I think I'll leave it upside down just for a couple of minutes. 7. Glazing and Finishing: Okay. So, now, that the mug is bisque, which means it's been fired once to a lower temperature, it's ready to be glazed. At this stage, if you saw anything on it that was a little rough, needed to be smooth, now you could take a little piece of sandpaper. I try not to sand if I can help it because it creates super fine dust that then might make it hard for the glaze to stick to it, and regardless, I always sponge it down because you can see there's some little stuff in there and that can all keep the glaze from really sticking really well. So, I just give it a little sponging. You can see it's porous and it just absorbs it real quick. So, for this piece, I want to glaze the inside and the lip and then I also want to glaze the handle with a strap around it. You could use wax resist, which keeps glaze from sticking. Personally, I don't really like using wax. I would rather sponge it off with a sponge than use the wax resist and that's just more of a personal preference than anything else. So, I'm going to mix up my glaze. This particular glaze does not settle very much. Some of them you might need to use a drill with a paint mixing attachment but this glaze is pretty easy. Plus, I use it almost every day, so it doesn't settle too much, but I just give it a mix, and I'm going to fill up my pourer here and it doesn't really matter if I make a mess here because I can just sponge anything off afterwards. So, I'm going to roll it around just to make sure I get the inside really good and then I'm going to pour it out, and then I'm going to dip it to get the lip, and when I dip it, I'm also going to dip this round part of the handle. So, first, I'm just dipping the lip and then I turn it to get the handle and then I'm going to pour it around here. Different glazes take a different amount of time to dry, but you can see how quickly it's drying on the inside there. So, I can start sponging off the parts I know I don't want glazed like around the lip here. I'm careful not to do directly the top part of it, but just the side. I don't really like how it feels to have it on your mouth when there's no glaze. Also just a personal preference. So, you want to keep rinsing your sponge a lot but then also squeezing it out a lot. If you put too much water on it, you're just going to dilute the glaze that's already on there. Okay, so, for this part, make sure your sponge is like really feels almost as dry, and then I squish it up, so that it's a little firmer there, and then I'm just going to go back and forth to make that line and then I'll move it and use another clean part. You can see the lines starting to form there. A lot of people might use wax if you want really sharp lines like this, but you have to put the wax on. Let it dry awhile. It's just like another step to me and there's already a lot of steps to making the mug as you can see. Each step might not take that long, but you keep adding more steps, and it just becomes a pretty lengthy process. I also like this line here where the glaze meets the clay. You can see how the clay gets a little bit darker and I think that's defined a little bit more with a sponge than with wax. So, now I do here and I'm just eyeing it. I don't mind if there's a little bit of difference between each one and I don't mind if it's not perfectly rectangular. So, now I've got the basic shape. As the water dries, you can still see some like white marks of glaze. Depending which glaze you're using, some glaze is stained more than others. This is just white, so it doesn't really stain and it's a dark clay body, so it doesn't really stain. But, if this was, for example, black glaze on a white clay body, you'd be at risk of having some smudgy marks left over, but this is a pretty forgiving combination. So, I just go over it one more time to wipe it off and because you want to let it dry all the way before you put it in the kiln anyway. Do your little wipe, then put it to the side, let it dry, and as you're loading it, you can check. Make sure there's no big egregious smudges that you could then wipe off. That's about it and then I'll put my stamp on the bottom. So, you'll notice when I was making the mug, I didn't use an imprinted stamp which is only because I use a lot of different types of clay and they don't all react to it based on how groggy or how smooth they are. Also, I do some slip casting, which they don't really react the same way. So, I prefer to use a rubber stamp because it looks the same on all pieces for me. So, I have this special stamp pad that you can get anywhere, any ceramic supply place, and then I have a whole bunch of rubber stamps. This is just a regular rubber stamp. It's not like a special clay stamp and then I just press it on and now it's ready to be fired. 8. Bonus Lesson: Notes on Bisquing: After the mug is dried slowly for several days and it's completely air dried and there's no moisture left in it all, then I bisque it and that's so then it's ready to be glazed. If you put it in the kiln before it's completely completely dry, it could explode, which every potter has had happened to them when you're trying to rush something for a deadline. You load it up in the kiln and when the piece hasn't been fired yet at all and you're just bringing it to bisque, that's a lower temperature than when you glaze it. When you're bisquing it, you can really stack the pieces on top of each other, they can be touching, you can fit cram as much in there as you can. I like this small kiln for that because I can really just like shove it full. Once the piece has glaze on it, and you're loading it back in the kiln, they can't touch. Cause any glazed surface that touches each other gets fused together like molten glass. Even if I fit a ton of stuff in here, then I need to spread it back out so that's why I use the bigger kilns for glazing. I fire to cone five/six which is about 2100 degrees. When you bisque it, it's a lower temperature than that but then you glaze and that's like the peak temperature. Firing a bisque takes about 24 hours in one of my bigger kilns, 36 hours for a glaze. That's from start to finish because it might fire in eight hours, reach the peak temperature and then it cools really slowly and if you rush the cooling process too much, your piece can get shocked by the cool air and crack or break. You really can't rush that part even though it's tempting. It takes a while the whole process from when you make it, needing to dry a few days, bisque it, glaze it, fire it again. It has to take a certain amount of days. You can't really cut out too much of the time or else the piece won't come out. 9. More Creative Classes on Skillshare: