Learning to throw pots in the digital age
August 26, 2014 3:51 PM   Subscribe

I lucked into a professional level potter's wheel for a great price this past weekend. While pottery is something I've been interested doing in my whole life, I've never actually used a wheel before. There are plenty of beginner classes and workshops around... but there are also a lot of videos on YouTube. Any reason I shouldn't have a go at it myself and put money towards tools/supplies/a kiln instead of spending it on a class?

I have patience, an inclination to go digging for answers online when I get stuck on something, and decent hand-eye coordination. I've successfully picked up various other skills via books and videos. I'll still need to get some hands-on with glazing and firing, but in the meantime my inclination is to research obsessively, watch a ton of videos, get some clay and go for it.

I guess my question to the potters of MetaFilter is: How did you learn, and with the perspective of time and experience would you go back and do it differently?

Bonus follow-up question: If there are any widely-acknowledged "bible" books or videos of the craft, I'd love to know about them. Thanks!
posted by usonian to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I learned from a class, frequently with my instructor's hands joining mine on the clay. Just learning to center the clay on the wheel can be a very slow, frustrating learning process. And the actual throwing itself has so many ways things can go instantly from beautiful pot to twisted pile of clay. So much of throwing is done by feel that I think it would be hard to learn from a video and very easy to get frustrated because you won't have anyone there to say "Here's what happened." or "I see where you're going wrong."
posted by hydropsyche at 4:03 PM on August 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I learned from classes in the beginning, and would advise doing so. As much as I tend to do my own research when I want to learn something, pottery is a learn-by-doing kind of thing, and it took a lot of practice and watching other people to get the basics. A good instructor will make a huge difference in the learning curve.
posted by wens at 4:32 PM on August 26, 2014

You can't do it alone. It's an art that requires live feedback. Every beginner screws up in infinitely different ways, more than any book or tape could cover. every teeny movement you make, even the ones you don't know you're making, translate to the clay. Pottery equipment is really expensive. Don't throw your money away before you know what you want to spend it on.

Also, as a pottery teacher, one of the most irritating, frustrating things is trying to teach someone who watched a bunch of videos & thinks they know what they're doing. Not that the videos and books aren't helpful, is just that if you don't have a feel for the clay before watching, you learn all the wrong things, which you'll then have to unlearn before you can throw. Basically, videos and books provide a kind of diagrammatic shorthand: they are a translation of a 3 D process into 2D media.

Also, some people, even some amazing potters, never really learn to throw well. Or sometimes they find they are good at or enjoy throwing with one type of clay or another. If you bought glaze or clay without having some idea of where your preference or skills lie, that's another way you could end up with lots of useless, expensive equipment.
posted by lesli212 at 4:56 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been teaching myself how to use a wheel and it's definitely possible. Just...not easy. And I sound a lot like you, skill set-wise.

I grabbed a bunch of books on throwing from a used bookstore, I figured the methodology hasn't changed much since forever, so no need to get anything new or fancy.

The things that have helped me get somewhere with it are:

-Lots of time and clay (you know you can recycle old clay when it gets too wet or too dry, yes?)

-Having some goals. A good first one, taken from one of my stacks of books, is to first focus on making cylinders. You can cut them in half with a piece of wire to see how even your sides are, focus on just making a perfect tin can shape for a good long while (weeks....). It can be easy as a beginner to think that because you can make latte bowl shapes pretty easily that you're getting good at throwing. Except...you're kind of not, because that's the natural shape the clay wants to go into.

Also, there's nothing wrong with giving it a shot with youtube and books first and then take a class later, just start with a beginner class even if you've been teaching yourself for a while first.

Good luck!
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 5:01 PM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Unless you're especially gifted in creating 3D forms directly with your hands, at least a couple of classes are really necessary. Like you, I'm someone who researches things a lot and while this seems like something you could "pick up" from videos, actually there are so very many variables in pottery that having an expert guide you through the early stages is invaluable. You will save so much time and frustration taking just a few classes.

You may not need to take a lot of classes because the other key is practicing on your own. As lesli212 points out, you need someone to watch you to give you enough feedback that you end up practicing the right thing. There are lots of people who throw pots that are too thick, or awkward, or alternately, too thin, or prone to cracking, etc. and they've been throwing forever - most of the time they've missed creating the right muscle memory and getting useful feedback from an expert watching them. But if you get useful feedback and then practice a lot, you'll improve very quickly and have the right kind of muscle memory on which to build the rest of your pottery skills.
posted by ashworth at 5:12 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for at least a few classes when you get started. You learn so much from in-person instructions.

Once you have the basics and want to learn specific techniques, Ceramics Arts Daily have some of the best videos out there. Some are subscription only, but others are free.
posted by pantarei70 at 5:29 PM on August 26, 2014

I'm in a class now trying to learn the basics and it is really, surprisingly hard to throw a pot on a wheel. Like, I'm astonished how hard it is; I'm good with my hands and assumed this would be easy for me and it's SO NOT. Not only do you need a teacher; you need a good teacher.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:38 PM on August 26, 2014

I've done pottery on and off for many years. Yes, take a class. Buying a wheel is not enough. You're going to need a kiln and all kinds of other tools and stuff and it's a lot easier to learn how to use it all in a class. You may also find that you don't like working on a wheel as much as you like handbuilding. And you may find you like a different kind of wheel better than the one you've found.
posted by mareli at 5:52 PM on August 26, 2014

If you are good with your hands, and take to it, a couple hundred dollars, a few months, and a few classes, will get you a really good start on throwing. You should develop not just the beginnings of good practices, but also a fairly good feeling for what is going on and why. You'll also get your pieces fired, an intro to glazes, and some critique of your finished products. All hands on.

You could buy some clay and just start throwing, but it would be slower, and separated from all the ancillary benefits I described. I spent hours practicing on the wheel, but sometimes justa single well placed sentence from my instructor was worth days alone in the studio.
posted by OmieWise at 5:52 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've taken three years of evening pottery classes, and now have my own wheel. I had three different teachers during those three years. Luckily, the first one was the best one to learn from. I value the way I learned to throw SO MUCH. My first teacher has his new students centre--only centre--for at least a full class period, before teaching them how to open the clay and throw a cylinder when they are ready. He did not teach us how to take a piece off the wheel until the fourth or fifth week of class. We focused on cylinders only for the whole first session. Every time I throw, I value his emphasis on basic technique, and perfecting core skills like centering, opening the clay, and throwing a cylinder. I know other people who have taken as many classes as I have and don't throw as well, and while I'm sure that hours of practice plays into it too, I think that my first teacher's unusually hardcore attitude is also a huge part of it.

If you want to be really serious about learning to throw, you need to go slow, and you absolutely need someone to tell you when you're screwing up in subtle technical ways, or when you're ready to move on to the next step. Absolutely take at least one class. Youtube will still be there later.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:12 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another person who has done pottery on and off for quite awhile who suggests taking a class. I learned handbuilding for many many years before I attempted throwing pots and when I did, for someone who was very proficient and confident as a handbuilder, I was TERRIBLE at throwing pots. Just TERRIBLE. I would also suggest taking a class because kilns are not only expensive to buy, but very difficult to use, especially if you have no experience with them. If you do not set them up correctly and heat up the clay to the correct temperature, the clay can explode! Or the glazes can melt off, all sorts of fun things like that.
posted by ruhroh at 6:12 PM on August 26, 2014

Conversely, I had a small pottery wheel as a kid and learned on my own and made a ton of pots and it was definitely something you can teach yourself at least on a basic level if you are remotely artistically inclined. I ended up taking a class or two at a community center too which did help but I wouldn't say we're 100% necessary.
posted by celtalitha at 6:25 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may also be able I trade time on your wheel for informal classes from an artist or grad student near you. Especially if you have a kiln. This is not at all an unreasonable path to learning. Try an ad on craigslist, in your local student paper or by reaching out to likely orgs.
posted by stoneweaver at 6:48 PM on August 26, 2014

People have mentioned the cost of other equipment but what's even more important is health and safety issues.

If you are saying to yourself "What health and safety issues?", yeah, a class would be a really good plan.

While pottery is something I've been interested doing in my whole life, I've never actually used a wheel before.

It's not clear from this if you have lots of experience working with clay and have never used a wheel, or know so little about clay that you assume pottery=using a wheel. If it's the second, take a class for certain! Don't be surprised if it's suggested you learn about wedging or even handbuilding before you even get to touch a wheel. You can only learn about clay by working with clay.

I had done quite a bit with clay with a break of some years when I decided to take a wheelthrowing class. Throwing is something some people pick up a lot faster than others and I think I would have gotten disheartened and quit if I hadn't had both the encouragement of the instructor and had already paid for the 8 week class. Many physical skills are easier to learn in person where someone can see what you are doing and offer feedback, and this is even more important for throwing where really small things that you might not realize you are doing make a big difference.

I also found it to be nice to have other people around and see what they are doing, see what their technique is, look at what they were making -- and I'm more of an introverted happy to do things at home instead of in a class sort of person. I liked this aspect of things even though others seemed to be learning faster than I was.

put money towards tools/supplies/a kiln instead of spending it on a class?

For what it would cost me to get just a kiln, nothing else, along with ventilation and electrical work, I could take classes and have access to practice time for a year at one of the more expensive places in my area or for 5 years at one of the less expensive places.

Your money might be better spent trying things out a bit more first. Also, better to find out what you do and don't like before buying.

If you want to teach yourself, you can often pay by the pound to have things fired elsewhere. If you've never worked with clay before you will probably end up with a lot of things they will be unhappy with you for or refuse to take in for firing though.

If you have never worked with clay before at all, and are bound and determined to teach yourself, forget about the wheel for now. Research about how to protect yourself from silicosis, and buy a bag of clay. Start there.

Also, you don't mention where you will be setting up your wheel. They are very messy. Because of the risk for respiratory problems I would not personally set one up in a living area of my house, or a part of my house that is on the same heating/cooling as a living area. You'll have to decide what level of risk you are comfortable with here, but ethically you should inform anyone who lives with you about the risks. If you have small children living with you, this could be very bad for their health in ways that might not show up for 10 or 20 years.
posted by yohko at 6:53 PM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have been a potter for almost 20 years. I started with a single throwing lesson at the request of my partner who wanted to try it--and I hated it instantly. Because I had already paid for a full set of 8 lessons, I switched immediately to a hand-building class--and then spent almost fifteen years doing that. About four years ago I wanted to learn to throw and basically taught myself using youtube videos. Of course I had the benefit of 15 years of working with clay, but take it from me, throwing is no great feat. You can definitely teach yourself how to do it by watching other potters online and practicing, which is how I did it.

Some awesome online (mostly youtube) resources:

Simon Leach (Bernard Leach's grandson) does great basic (and advanced) videos on youtube. He doesn't edit his videos, which is awesome because you can see exactly how much time he spends on a piece. (Full disclosure, I took a workshop with Simon about 11 months after starting to throw and he's a great teacher in person. Very methodical and concerned with getting the basics down and building from there.) Simon will even give personal online lessons if you contact him via email.

A potter from England who goes by youdanxxx on youtube also has a lot of throwing videos that were very useful to me when I started to teach myself. He's got a laid back, sardonic style that I find very amusing.

Hsinchuen Lin makes unedited throwing videos (similar to Simon Leach), so you can see how a potter who works with porcelain approaches things.

All of these potters also have various videos showing parts of their glazing, decorating, and firing techniques.

Also: Don't be put off by this idea that you have to learn to center clay on the wheel and that it's so difficult, etc. One of the most famous Japanese potters of the 20th century, Shoji Hamada, spurned centering as most potters learn it and still managed to make stunning pottery. (Several videos are posted to youtube showing him at work. Google his name and watch a master!)

Also, I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about my experience and process if you memail me.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 9:14 PM on August 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

Thank you for all of the detailed perspectives, this was pretty much exactly the input I was looking for.
posted by usonian at 7:52 AM on August 28, 2014

« Older Can lactose intolerance cause leg muscle cramps?   |   Having heart palpitations, should I be worried? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.