A Level Ceramics: Falling Cats

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

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.

high school ceramics classes

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.

Drawings of cats
This is one of the first two pages of my Coursework journal. Here I have experimented with the mediums that I had previously worked with, during GCSE Art. On the second page (the fineliner pen drawings of the cats) I began to expand my artistic skills by combining fineliner with a white pastel pencil and black charcoal. Having these drawings as a starter for this Coursework project made my sketchbook appear dynamic and resourceful. My drawings also helped me to think through ideas for how I would like to showcase my final project.
Observational drawings of cats
I slowly began to evolve my drawing skills, experimenting with other mediums that I had previously worked with, such as acrylic and watercolour, and combining these with other mediums. The first drawing is completed using watercolour pencils. I tried to challenge myself to avoid using ‘black’ and replaced it with a ‘chocolate brown’. The second page consists of cats in action; running, jumping and landing. I used acrylic paint, which I diluted in water, making the medium look like watercolour. I went over the cats and added their details using a fineliner pen. Further developing my drawings through these mixed media works has allowed me to discover my identity as an artist, as well as to finding out which mediums to specialise in.

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.

A Level Ceramics sketchbook
When my work was in the process of being fired in the kiln, I sometimes used my lesson time in the studio to come up with other ideas for my final outcome. The Ceramics studio provided their own library of resources such as books and articles based on animals, people, sea life etc. One of the books that helped me with my coursework project was 500 Animals in Clay: Contemporary Expressions of the Animal Form (Amazon affiliate link). These pages from my sketchbook show how I have explored and expanded my ideas by responding to the ceramicists and interpreting their own work with my own.
Ceramic design concepts
This is one of my favourite journal pages of my AS Level Ceramics sketchbook. Here I have studied the anatomical structure of the cat and have shown possible ideas to how I could apply them to creating ceramic pieces. The pencil drawings on the right demonstrate my aesthetic sense in understanding the bodily form of the cat and how they differ from humans.

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.

Development of ideas in A Level Ceramics
The images above show the making process (sculpting) based on ideas from my sketchbook. I experimented with two different types of clay; Y Material and Craft Crank. Both clays are earthenware clays that contain molochite; a substance mixed in with the clay to prevent the sculpture or pot from exploding in the kiln when it is fired. The only difference between Y Material and Craft Crank is that Y Material has a variety of colour options, due to its white colour, while Craft Crank has a limited amount of colour options because of its dark colour, so a number of layers of glaze would have to applied to the surface in order to get the glaze fired to the colour you want.

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.

Porcelain pottery A Level
I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for my Ceramics school trip, to gain inspiration for my Coursework project. I liked several of the ceramic vases that had protruding figures, flowers or animals from the main body or neck of the vases. In this section of my journal, I have responded to the V&A vases by slip-casting a miniature milk jug from an already made plaster mould using Porcelain in the form of slip (‘slip’ means clay in a liquid form used for casting). Porcelain is a pristine white clay that is extremely delicate to work with and fragile. As for the two cats, I used Porcelain clay to sculpt and slurried them onto the surface of the jug. I used a Celadon transparent glaze (green transparent colour) as the finishing touch to make the jug shiny.
A Level Ceramics coursework
I also made a porcelain teapot in correspondence to the V&A vases, just like the milk jug. This teapot was created after I had finished the final piece of my Coursework project. Slurrying the cats onto the teapot was trickier than the milk jug, due to the flat cylinder shape and surface of the teapot.

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.

Falling cats, A Level Ceramics
This is a photoshopped image of the final outcome for my AS Level Ceramics Coursework. The cats are skewered on a long metal rod (holes were drilled through the cats’ bodies) and metal screws were screwed beneath the cats to support them in their position. The sculpture was propped up against a black cardboard background while I took the photo. When I photoshopped the image, I adjusted the brightness and contrast of the background and the cats themselves. I also inserted a black and white colour filter to emphasize the colour of the 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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