Porcelain… the final frontier?
With its reputation for being hard to work with, porcelain is often considered off-limits for all but the most advanced and professional ceramicists. Jo Davies helps de-bunk some of the myths and offers her tips for working with this special clay.
As a wheel-throwing porcelain specialist, I fell in love with the material early on in my studies and work with porcelain because of its beautiful elasticity, its capacity as a ground for glaze-colour as well as the movement and ‘softening’ it undertakes in the kiln firing. There are many challenging aspects to the clay but through trial and error – part of its appeal – progress can be made. Everyone has to start somewhere, and I’d encourage every ceramicist who’s intrigued but intimidated by this captivating material to give it a go.
At first glance, starting out with porcelain can be daunting as there are lots of different porcelains, each with different material qualities due to their slightly different chemical makeups, requiring us to choose an appropriate clay for the design being made. However, this is very much the modern picture of porcelain, as it was originally simply a white kaolin clay, with some small additions, that came out of the ground in central areas of China around 2,000 years ago, focused on the city of Jingdezhen (where porcelain is still produced today using many of the same methods).
For someone wanting to try porcelain, I’d suggest working out what you want to make and unpack the process from there. We all have to work out how to make the objects we want to create and, even after years of working with a material, there is always some trial and error simply because you haven’t made that exact object before. Don’t delay your experience of porcelain until a time when you feel that your skills are completely ‘ready’. Just get on with the learning and make some mistakes – it’s just another clay after all. It doesn’t help to hold it in too much reverence.
If you’ve been working with another clay, then you could try to re-make items you’re familiar with making, to give yourself a direct comparison of the way that it ends up. It’s good to be mindful and curious about the way the making feels as you are doing it – what’s different or unusual compared to your other experiences of clay? The most important thing is to try it, and be prepared to have partial success with a few mistakes – like all learning.
There is a sensitivity to clay that porcelain gives you. It’s extremely smooth and so, when throwing on the wheel, the fingertips will need to become better at measuring things like water in the clay, the thinness of the clay and implementing the subtle movements needed to change the shape. All of this comes with experience, like anything.
There are many porcelains on the market, so your choice of clay really depends on your goal. If you are hand-building with porcelain it can be good to use a body that already has grog in it, or even a paper porcelain (although make sure you have good extraction for your kiln if you take this option). If you’re planning to throw with it, then Audrey Blackman Porcelain or even Limoges are good. However, I would say that Limoges is limited in terms of the size it can achieve and can misbehave more, whereas Audrey Blackman porcelain is a versatile throwing clay which is happy at scale and being constructed. Many ceramicists enjoy working with DL Porcelain and I have certainly seen some nice results using this clay even with beginners.
We can’t discuss porcelain without touching on the horror stories, and I’ve certainly had plenty of disasters in my time – but it’s honestly the only way to learn! I always make more than I need, to mitigate this possibility, which continues to be a professional hazard for even the most experienced makers, especially when making something new and untested. Drying your pieces slowly can help a lot, especially when you have component parts attached to one another like handles or any two pieces joined with slip. It is good to keep a plastic tub of porcelain slip that you add to as you go along. This way the slip will sour and become better for attaching clay – if your slip is too fresh then it is significantly less effective.
There’s a reason that professional ceramicists have a ‘practice’ – every day is an opportunity to learn. In 2018 I was lucky enough to spend time teaching and researching porcelain in its home region of Jingdezhen. It highlighted some differences between the ceramic traditions of the East and the West, which I have since been able to contemplate in my own teaching and making. The porcelain clay in Jingdezhen has come out of the ground rather than having been constructed from a recipe designed for certain material qualities as we mostly do in Western cultures. In China, ceramics is very much more a communal endeavour, although this is changing and there are many more young Chinese ceramicists working with clay as individual artists, which is an exciting development. The teaching in China is also more by rote than in the West, particularly in the UK, which values independent creativity and the observance of first-hand source material in order to come to new exciting and creative conclusions. In China, the dominant teaching-method is to learn from the masters, recreating the work of previous generations in order to learn. This method has its benefits and is something we could use more of in the UK, simply because this type of learning does give you a foundation in skill and an acute ability to observe, but now that China is moving into a new age many people are seeking new methods of learning and researching to create new work and the communal activity is transitioning into the individual endeavour.
For me, seeing Chinese techniques up close and personal helped validate some of my – sometimes challenging – professional opinions on porcelain. Very often in the UK we have this idea that porcelain always has to be paper thin; when we throw in particular. To me, it simply doesn’t, and the ‘paper-thin’ prejudice highlights a confusion around what porcelain is actually capable of and what is relevant in an individual design – of course the construction should depend on the intentions the designer has for its use. In China the porcelain is simpler, in some ways less versatile than Western versions, but the Chinese artisans are building with it to make huge ware, sometimes metres high. The only way to do this is to build structure into the clay by giving it weight and width, throwing the pieces that will be constructed together later on to about 5-7cm in thickness. These pots are then trimmed down but not to an excessive thinness which would make them collapse in the kiln – the base must hold up the weight of the top after all. Before I went to China I knew this but found myself having this conversation around porcelain and its need to be so, so thin many times and so it was a relief to visit Chinese workshops and see these methods, which have been used for hundreds of years.
Perhaps my advice is simply that the best place to start working in porcelain might be to lose your hangups about it! Learning about a new material has to involve a little play and if you’re afraid of it or overwhelmed with all the ‘shoulds’ – like it should be thin or it should be worked this way or that way – then you won’t get anywhere with it and there will be no dynamism in the objects you make. Be prepared to get it wrong, use the knowledge from that and make more.
- Jo Davies (London) – book a Masterclass with Jo Davies and take your existing wheelthrowing skills into porcelain: jo-davies.com/classes
- Jessica Thorn (Bristol) – 1-day slab-building Introduction to Porcelain: jessicathorn.co.uk/shop/porcelainworkshop
- The Ceramics Studio (Warwickshire) – porcelain Christmas decorations: theceramicsstudio.co.uk/pottery-classes-and-workshops
About Jo Davies
Jo Davies is a ceramicist specialising in wheel-throwing porcelain. Her practice includes hand-making a fine porcelain design range, lighting and unique objects. Her individual approach to pottery, where high-fired porcelain often appears paradoxically to be fresh off the wheel, balances softness with rigidity, sensuousness and smoothness with weight and tactility. The enjoyment of the making process and the continuing development of an evolving creativity drive her practice.
A Royal College of Art MA graduate, she exhibits internationally and has worked with, among others, the National Portrait Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Somerset House, Heals and the National Trust. Her practice has been supported by the Crafts Council and Arts Council, and is based at The Chocolate Factory Studios in Stoke Newington, East London.