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What Does a Ceramicist Do?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A ceramicist is a professional artist who creates objects with clay to sell to the public. By molding clay on a potter’s wheel or hand-building the clay, the ceramicist constructs an object out of wet clay and often fires it in a kiln, or ceramic oven, at low temeperatures so it can then be glazed or painted. The glazed piece is often fired in the kiln again at high temperatures, especially when the ceramicist is creating cookware or dinnerware.

Clay artwork can be created either by molding a form on a wheel, building it freehand, or combining both of these techniques. Molding or “throwing” clay on a potter’s wheel allows the ceramicist to make symmetrical cylindrical shapes suitable for bowls, plates, cups, teapots, vases and other functional items. The use of the wheel also enables the practiced artist to produce pieces more quickly.

Coil building is one method a ceramicist might use, for instance, to make a vase without the use of a wheel. Clay coils are made either by rolling the clay by hand or using an extruder. Another hand-building method requires the artist to flatten the clay into thin sheets to use with molds or shape into objects. Clay is a suitable material for making sculptures too, especially of the human form.

The type of clay being used often dictates the final product, whether earthenware, stoneware, porcelain or china. Once a clay piece is made out of wet clay it must be allowed to dry slowly until it reaches a leather-hard state. When the clay reaches this stage it is still slightly damp but not very pliable. At this point the piece is often loaded in the kiln for bisque-firing, a process that slowly removes the water from the clay so that it solidifies to the point where it can no longer be reconstituted. Water is usually driven from the clay when the kiln reaches 1100°F (about 590°C).

Glazing is often the final step a ceramicist takes in finishing his or her piece. Various types of glaze can be used depending on the look the artist wants to achieve and the purpose of the final piece. Certain firing techniques like low-temperature firing and raku firing require special glazes and are not suitable for dinnerware or cookware. Clay is usually fired at about 2200 to 2400°F (about 1200 to 1300°C) for use as dinnerware or cookware.

The professional ceramicist can sell his or her work to the public in a number of different ways. Local cooperative artists’ schools and studios might conduct shows and sales, or a ceramicist might sell work directly from his or her own studio. Regional craft shows may be another avenue to sell ceramic artwork, and many ceramicists travel to these shows. Stores specializing in fine art and crafts are also available.

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