Basic Making Methods
Here is a quick guide to some basic making methods. To illustrate the text I've chosen images of work by artists whose work exemplifies each technique. Their skill in applying each technique is far from basic.
Perhaps the oldest way to use clay is to model with it. Just squeeze it into shape and add bits as required. For very small items this is a good way to work but if you want to make larger items and you want to make them permanent, then complications arise. One method is to caste the item in bronze from the clay original. See the work of Berit Hildre for example. Another method is to hollow out the form to allow it to be fired without exploding.
Pinch or thumb pots are made by taking a lump of clay and pinching it out between your thumb on the inside and your fingers on the outside. It is essentially an extension of modelling but because the walls are thin the work can be fired without the problems associated with large masses of clay.
The size of pinched pots is generally limited by the size of your hand.
Pots made in this way can be very light and delicate as typified by this bowl made by Elspeth Owen.
You can see more examples of her work in her gallery.
The main challenge in pinching is to control the drying of the clay. Too dry and it cracks - especially on the rim - too soft and it is unable to hold its shape.
Coiling is a way to make work on any scale from tiny up to hut-sized.
Sausages of clay are joined-on successively to grow the form. The sausages can be rolled out on the table or in the hand and can be flattened into straps before joining.
The pot shown here by Wendy Hoare stands 1m high. As you can see, coiling is a particularly good method for sculptural work. Coiling is also very versatile allowing almost any shape to be created. Although rounded, this piece is not circular, as it would be if it had been thrown. Notice also the texture that has been added, emphasising the form.
Slab building is perhaps the most modern method of making. Once confined to very geometric or architectural work, potters now apply it to making items as diverse as teacups and animals. Clay is rolled into a flat sheet and then cut up and stuck together. This can be a very precise process with templates and scalpels or it can be quite free-form with sections simply torn from the sheet and applied.
The goat shown here is by Elaine Peto. Modelling is used to add details such as eyes and other anatomical details.
This teapot is made by Petra Reynolds. Her work uses clay slabs when they are still quite soft so that they can still be bent and folded without cracking.
Unlike Elaine Peto's work above, the construction is made more planned and repeatable by using templates to cut out the various sections before assembly.
Throwing - using a potter's wheel - is surprisingly ancient dating back to at least 3500BC, see wikipedia. Invented initially as a way to speed-up pinching and coiling, the wheel speed increased and it became a technique in its own right. Its main advantage is speed and its main drawback is the limited range of shapes that can be made. Having said that, this vase by Bridget Drakeford shows just how beautiful those shapes can be.
Throwing is used mainly for making cooking, serving and drinking vessels but some potters have used it to create sculptural work by altering and then joining several sections together. Hans Coper is a good example. There is a collection of responses to a piece of his held by the V&A on their website which gives a nice introduction to some of the aesthetics of modern studio ceramics.
Thrown pots can also be very large when throwing and coiling techniques are combined. This youTube video of Svend Bayer illustrates such a technique and here is a Sudanese potter doing something very similar