Taxonomy of Ceramics Techniques

Section 1: Introduction

A ceramic work has two domains: the body and the surface treatment. When approached as an applied art, a work may be judged based on its functional qualities as well as its aesthetic qualities. When approached as a fine art, a piece’s functional qualities may or may not be disregarded. Both the body and the surface treatment are factors in producing both functional and aesthetic qualities. We studied all of these factors in Ceramics I.

We did not, however, analyze or classify the techniques used. In this paper, I attempt to create taxonomy of ceramics terms and techniques. Figure 1 is a concept map of this classification. Techniques are visible as orange nodes. Solid lines represents subservience; each node is a subtype of the node it is pointing to.

Ceramics Taxonomy Graph
Figure 1: Concept Map of Ceramics Techniques (click for PDF)

Properties used to classify technique are varied, but prominent among them are the substrate being modified, the nature of the modification, and the nature of the applied force (when applicable). All terms have been operationalized (that is, given a technical definition). It is my intention that this taxonomy be utilized to quickly and precisely describe any modification to a clay work. Section 2 is a brief survey of techniques. Due to the limitless nature of artistic techniques, it is necessarily incomplete. Section 3 suggests possible applications of this taxonomy.

It is necessary to clarify some definitions. I use body to refer to the manipulation of clay to create the three-dimensional shape of the work. While surface treatments, described below, are physically three dimensional, as all objects are, they are typically manipulated and regarded as if they were two dimensional and projected onto a three dimensional surface. I will restrict my use of surface treatment to those techniques that involve adding materials to the surface, that is, decorative slip, underglaze, and glaze. While there is no doubt that the topographical nature of the surface of the clay body proper is relevant to the appearance and properties of the surface, the techniques used to manipulate the surface of the body are generally similar to those used to manipulate the overall shape. Additionally, direct manipulation of the surface is generally (or at least ideally) done while the clay is first being shaped and is still wet. Sanding is an exception, but generally, sanding is an attempt to “repair” mistakes made while the clay was wet, and I will thus consider it to be a manipulation of the clay body, not the surface. Sanding also has the potential to radically alter the exterior shape of an object.

Many of the methods taught in ceramics do not fit these criteria; they are not specific techniques, but rather bundles of techniques; the canonical application of a series of techniques. Bundles are displayed on Figure 1 as green nodes. They may be subservient (or have subservient nodes), similar to techniques. Dashed lines show what techniques a bundle employs. Dotted lines show what materials a bundle may be applied to. Materials are displayed in blue.

Section 2: Survey of Techniques, Their Taxonomy and Operationalization

The body of a ceramic piece is made up of material confusingly called the clay body. The only clay body we used was stoneware. We surveyed pottery techniques, which can be classified as hand building, throwing, and molding.

Modifications of the body can be form-dynamic, in which the shape of the body is changed, or form-static¬, in which the shape is not changed.

Form-dynamic techniques used in sculpture and manufacturing are generally considered additive (when material is added) or subtractive (when material is removed) processes, many—or perhaps most—methods of body creation in ceramics use both methods, or else defy this overly simplified bifurcation. An abundance of methods involve merely re-shaping existing material; I will refer to them as plastic processes.

Form-static techniques include humidity modification, firing, and turning. In humidity modification—wetting or drying—the amount of water in the body is altered. This changes the physical properties and is often a vital step before further manipulations can be made. Firing is self-explanatory. In turning, the work is rotated. This provides the dual benefit of amplifying applied force and ensuring radial symmetry.

Form-dynamic techniques include volume-dynamic and volume-static techniques (also known as plastic techniques). Volume-dynamic techniques alter the volume of the body; in additive techniques, material is contributed to the work, in subtractive processes, material is removed. Additive techniques are classified by the nature of the material being added. They may be liquid application or solid application. Liquid application may be dipping, pouring-in, brushing, or spraying.

Subtractive techniques are classified by the area the force is applied to. In force-limited techniques, the force is only applied to a portion of the work. In force-non-limited techniques, the force is applied to the entire work. Two forms of force-limited techniques are wedged techniques and abrasion techniques.

In wedged techniques, force is concentrated in a specific, well-defined area. In abrasion techniques, force is applied to broad, poorly specified areas. Although wedged techniques are typical accomplished with a blade or similar edged tool, the definition does not exclude the use of fingers. Wedged techniques are defined by the orientation of the edge, and include scraping, where the edge is parallel to the surface and cutting, where the edge is perpendicular. Types of scraping include subtractive scoring, planning, and carving; these are self-explanatory.

In abrasion, the application of force is distributed. In the most common form of abrasion, sanding, there are multiple point of contact. One force-non-limited technique is pouring-out, where the force of gravity is used to remove anything insufficiently attached.

Volume-static techniques are classified by the relationship between the action and its result. In freehand techniques, each action makes a direct and corresponding change in the work. In nonfreehand techniques, changes made are not made directly by movements, or do not correspond to the movement. These techniques may or may not involved tools— a tool may be used with freehand techniques as long as the tools do not excessively alter interfere with the relationship between the movement and the effect, and clay can be shaped nonfreehand by applying it to one’s immobile arm. The neutral term end-effecter will be used to describe either a hand (or portion thereof), or a freehand-appropriate tool.

Freehand techniques are classified by the relationship between the portion of the body in contact with the end-effecter and the portion of the body the intent is to alter. In direct techniques, the portion in contact with the end-effecter is being altered; in indirect techniques, a portion another portion is being altered. Two direct techniques are dragging and pushing. In dragging, the point of contact is perpendicular to the direction of movement. In pushing, the force is parallel to the direction of movement.

Indirect techniques include bending, and squeezing. In squeezing, the point of contact is proximal to the area being modified, and the force is perpendicular to the desired direction of movement.

Nonfreehand techniques are split between casting(pure) and extruding. Casting(pure) is the precise act of shaping clay by conforming it to an object. Casing(bundle) is a bundle of techniques which includes casting(pure), as well as other techniques required to create a finished (or semi-finished) piece. Casing(pure) is forced if pressure must be applied, otherwise it is nonforced.

Form-static techniques include humidify modification, firing, and turning. Humidity modification—drying and wetting— and firing need no introduction. Turning is the processing or altering the orientation of a work. While this may not seem to be a technique at first glance, its potential to alter a work by dispersing the effects of another technique grant it a significant position in the province of technique.

Section 3: Potential Applications

In addition to enriching our understanding of the process of manipulating clay, there are several practical applications of a taxonomy of ceramics techniques. One prominent example is improved training. Practice is generally accomplished by repeatedly creating finished products through bundles. Practicing specific techniques allows for a more focused and efficient experience, with increased precision of success and failure criteria.