This article features an ‘A’ grade, AS Level Art & Design: Three Dimensional Design (OCR) Coursework project by Shawn Kwan, of Mayfield School, East Sussex, United Kingdom. The project features handmade ceramic pieces, and shows just how exciting this area of speciality can be. The level of detail and insight provided by Shawn below makes this a very valuable read for anyone considering undertaking a ceramic project themselves.
Transitioning from a GCSE Fine Art student in Hong Kong to an A Level Ceramics student in the UK was one of the biggest steps of my life. When I was still doing GCSE in Hong Kong, I received a lot of help in Art; from both my teacher and the Head of Art. I also had a lot support from my mum, who would encourage me to push myself further. When I was applying for boarding school in the UK, I was interested in the Ceramics course at St. Leonards-Mayfield School, an all-girls boarding and day school. Over the summer holidays, after my GCSE exams and before I moved to the UK, I took a summer workshop in Ceramics, in order to develop my skills as well as to understand the art of clay.
On the first day of my Ceramics course, I was pretty nervous and a bit timid when I started my sketchbook work, however, I was put at ease when my Ceramics tutor praised my drawing skills and set me some challenges to try other different types of medias. We were given the freedom of either choosing our own themes, or a set theme (‘Man-made Objects’) for our AS Level coursework. I chose to focus on cats in general, because I was intrigued by their flexibility and agility.
During AS Levels in both Art and Ceramics, I discovered that I enjoyed working with mixed media: watercolour, acrylic, coloured pastel pencils, HB pencils, fineliner pen and charcoal. I also learned that I could substitute watercolour mediums using acrylic paint and diluting them using water. In Ceramics, when it came to sculpting an idea from my sketchbook, I had to set myself a deadline for when I would get the sculpture done (the sculpting process can sometimes take a week to complete), so that I could bisque this in the kiln. To ‘Bisque’ in Ceramics means the first stage in kiln firing, when pots and sculptures are fired up to 1000 degrees in the kiln so glazing is easily applicable (this firing normally takes three or four days). When your work is in the bisque kiln, you have to use your time wisely, such as experimenting with glazes or adding more ideas to your journal about how you can take your work to the next stage.
I learnt how to sculpt when I made my first cat (image below) using slabs of clay. The clay that I started off with was Y Material, a white earthenware clay. The clay was flattened using a slab roller (machine used to roll sheets of clay) to get rid of the air bubbles, in order for the sculpture to not break in the kiln when being bisqued. When there is an air bubble, the air gets trapped at a high temperature causing the clay to expand and break or crack. However, if the sculpture is not severely broken, the broken pieces can be super-glued back after the work has been glazed and fired again at a high temperature. I used bubble wrap to create the body of the cat and sliced out holes to prevent the sculpture from exploding in the kiln due to its hollow body. The bubble wrap burns away leaving the inside of the sculpture empty. The head of the cat was pinched (this is a sculpting technique) into two small semi-circles, which were then scored and slurried (scoring is using a sharp tool such as a knife to create diagonal cuts and slurried is a term used for joining clay together using a watery substance) together using Y Material slip.
One of the final stages in making Ceramics is glazing. Some glazes are made out of coloured oxides and carbonates, but the glazes I used in school were already made; coloured underglazes. Depending on the type of clay, the glazes may not turn out the colour you wanted, so I had to experiment by glazing test tiles to see how many layers of glaze I would have to apply on my sculpture. Sometimes, if I wanted to give a shine to my sculpture, I would apply a thin layer of transparent glaze (this always comes in white) over my glazed sculpture, which would be then fired to a high temperature, such as 1280 degrees (high firing takes around three days), in the kiln as the final stage of the making process.
Nearing the end of my Coursework project, I had finally decided to do a sculptural series of falling cats inspired by a cinematic photographer, Edweard Muybridge. I had always wondered how cats were able to land on their feet unharmed, which the cat demonstrates with their agility and flexibility. Upon deciding my final outcome, I was immediately thrown into the process of making the falling cats. This was a pressurising and challenging stage of my Coursework, because I had to make sure that the cats were all the same length, size, height and width in order to show the movement of just one cat falling. By this time, from my experimental sculpting, I was able to pinpoint the anatomical structure of the cat and got the face shape correct. I also already knew which underglazes I would use for their colour, after several glaze tile experiments. I had a lot of encouragement from my Ceramics tutor who had helped me both practically and theoretically, and because of this, I was motivated to
complete my final piece; the Falling Cats.
During the Coursework process, there were times when I occasionally doubted my Ceramic tutors’ praises, however, I was encouraged and taught to accept praise and compliments positively. I had also learned that it is wrong to degrade yourself when you have talent and the most important thing of all, which I have been constantly telling myself, is being yourself. It is not terrifying to take on new challenges and worrying about the outcome, because being given a challenge and actually doing it helps you discover your identity as a artist or a ceramicist; what you yourself specialise in or love working with most.
Shawn’s A Level sketchbook pages are shown in more detail in our upcoming publication: 100 High School Sketchbooks!
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