Ceramic Art
History and Types of Fine Art Ceramics & Pottery, Earthenware, Stoneware, Porcelain.

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What is Ceramics?

Known as an important plastic art, "Ceramics" (derived from Keramos, Greek for 'potter's clay') refers to items made from clay bodies and fired in a kiln to obtain the finished form. Outside of art, due to new technological processes, the term ceramics now encompasses a wider group of materials, including glass and cements, so clay is no longer a key component.

What is the Difference Between Pottery and Ceramics?
What is Fine Art Pottery or Fine Art Ceramics?
When Was Fine Art Pottery First Made?
What Are the Different Types of Pottery?
- Earthenware
- Stoneware
- Porcelain
How is Pottery Made? - A Basic Guide
Famous Modern Ceramicists

Some of the 8,000 warriors in the
Terracotta Army (246-208 BCE). This
collection of terracotta sculpture
created during the period of
Qin Dynasty Art (221-206 BCE)
took 38 years to make and
involved a workforce of 700,000.

For a list of important dates about
movements, styles, famous artists,
see: History of Art Timeline.

What is the Difference Between Pottery and Ceramics?

In visual art, there is no difference between ceramics and pottery. Both denote the basic 4-step creative process of (1) forming (ie. shaping); (2) firing (baking in a kiln); (3) glazing/decorating (coating the object with a glaze, or applying to it various decorative techniques); (4) Refiring (rebaking) to harden the glaze.

What is Fine Art Pottery or Fine Art Ceramics?

There is a broad distinction between "fine arts" (unique objects created purely for their visual or aesthetic appeal) and "crafts" (objects which, no matter how visually decorative are usually functional and typically made to a formula). Thus "fine art pottery" (or ceramics) describes artistic works, while the term "pottery" tends to be reserved for pots, dishes and other functional items. These definitions are not absolute: some ceramic items can be both beautiful works of art and still have a function. (See also decorative art and applied art.)

Field (UK version) (1994) Tate Gallery
Installation of terracotta figures,
winner of Turner Prize 1994
By Antony Gormley.

Contemporary Ceramic Sculpture
By Dutch artist Harvey Bouterse.

Clay is a fine-grained mineral
or rock, encompassing ceramic
clays, mudstones, clay shales,
glacial clays and deep-sea clays.
In its natural state, clay typically
contains a combination of other
material, notably quartz. Impure
clays can be used to make cruder
forms of pottery, while kaolin or
china clay is needed for finer
grades. Plastic and malleable
when wet, it hardens when dried
or fired in an oven (kiln). It has
been used in the manufacture of
pottery since prehistoric times.

When Was Fine Art Pottery First Made?

Some experts consider that the earliest known fine art ceramic sculpture is the cache of figurines unearthed at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, as exemplified by the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, a statuette of a nude female figure, which has supposedly been dated to approximately 25,000 BCE.

In comparison, the earliest ancient pottery - allegedly found in China - are believed to date from approximately 30,000 BCE. However, no date has yet been scientifically established for these discoveries. At present the earliest carbon-dated Chinese pottery is the Xianrendong Cave Pottery, discovered in Jiangxi Province, which dates to 18,000 BCE. After this comes the Yuchanyan Cave Pottery from Hunan Province (16,000 BCE), followed by Vela Spila Pottery from Croatia (15,500 BCE) and Amur River Basin Pottery (14,300 BCE). Meanwhile, in Japan, ceramics began with Jomon Pottery (from 14,500 BCE). For more details of chronology, please see: Pottery Timeline.

In the West, pottery is associated with Neolithic art, and achieved an early high point in Classical Greek art, in the creation and decoration of vases. Many art critics consider Greek pottery to represent the zenith of ceramic art. Other sophisticated forms appeared in Islamic art, made by Middle Eastern ceramicists, who invented tin-glaze in the 9th century CE. In the East, the most outstanding fine art ceramics were first produced in China, where significant advances were achieved in the composition, glazing and decoration of clay objects.

For early works, see: Neolithic Art in China (7500-2000 BCE). An example of Chinese ceramic art is the remarkable Celadon glaze (first made during the Han Dynasty 206 BCE - 220 CE) created by a high-iron mixture which turned various shades of green during firing. (For other East Asian Celadon, see also: Korean Art.) For a guide to the aesthetic principles behind Oriental pottery and other arts, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics. For the evolution of pottery and porcelain in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE-present). In the Americas, pottery first appeared in Pre-Columbian art around 2000-1800 BCE.

A soft white clay, essential for the
creation of china and porcelain,
kaolin is named after Kao-Ling
(Gaoling) a hill in Jiangxi, China,
where it was mined for centuries.
Raw kaolin is a white powder
which like other clays becomes
plastic when mixed with water.
The absence of any iron or alkali
compounds in the chemical
make-up of kaolin (kaolinite)
makes it ideal for whiteware or
porcelain, when mixed with
approx equal parts of feldspar
and silica, plus a smaller
amount of ball clay.

For a guide to the chronology
and evolution of 3-D art,
see: Sculpture History.

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

Known in England as Dresden
porcelain and, in France, as
porcelaine de Saxe (Saxony),
Meissen porcelain was the first
true version of the Chinese type
produced in Europe. After the
formula was discovered in late
1707 by Ehrenfried Walther von
Tschirnhaus & Johann Friedrich
Böttger, production started at the
Meissen factory in 1710. Output
included a wide range of fine art
figures. A notable enhancement
was introduced in in the 1730s
with the invention of a blue
underglaze decoration called
zwiebelmuster (onion motif).
By 1760, Meissen's leading role
had passed to French Sevres
porcelain, even though the former
remains a highly prized form of
high quality ceramic.

Originally a Japanese lead-glazed
style of earthenware made during
the 16th century in Kyoto for the
tea-ceremony, raku ware is
traditionally molded by hand
instead of using a potter's wheel,
and thus each item is unique.
However, its key characteristic
stems from the firing technique
used. While regular earthenware
is fired and cooled quite slowly,
glazed raku pottery is fired for
up to an hour then removed with
tongs during its white-heat stage
and placed in a cold reduction
chamber along with a selection
of combustible materials. This
triggers an immediate ignition
of the combustible material, and
as the fire sucks all the oxygen
out of the clay body and out of
the glaze, it creates unique effects
and patterns in both.

The best porcelain from England
was produced during the third
quarter of the 18th century, first
at Chelsea by Charles Gouyn,
later by Nicholas Sprimont, his
Flemish successor who created
the outstanding figurines, for
which the Chelsea factory was
famous. Outstanding English
porcelain was also produced
at Worcester and Derby. In the
1760s, Josiah Wedgwood began
his unique series of contributions
to English ceramics at his Burslem
and Etruria factories located in
'The Potteries' Staffordshire.
He became renowned for his
improved cream-coloured
earthenware (creamware), his
neoclassical style black basalt
unglazed stoneware, and a white
matte unglazed stoneware known
as Jasperware, as well as a series
of fine decorative figures created
by a number of ceramic sculptors
and artists, such as John Flaxman.
Following Wedgwood, during the
first half of the 19th century,
Josiah Spode introduced hybrid
porcelain, combining components
of true hard porcelain with bone
ash to make bone china. Spode
was succeeded at his Stoke works
by William T Copeland, who became
famous for a white matte unglazed
porcelain, called parian ware, of
which two types were made.
Statuary parian (soft porcelain)
used in the creation of figures
and reproductions of sculpture,
and hard parian (true porcelain)
from which hollowware was made.

See how the visual arts evolved:
History of Art Guide.

For a list of the top 100 3-D artists
(500 BCE - now), please see:
Greatest Sculptors.

What Are the Different Types of Pottery?

There are three basic categories of pottery: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. They vary according to the clay used to make them, and the temperature needed to fire them.


This is the longest-established type of pottery, dating back to the Stone Age. Although its composition can vary significantly, a generic composition of earthenware clay is: 25 percent ball clay, 28 percent kaolin, 32 percent quartz, and 15 percent feldspar. It is the softest type, being fired at the lowest temperature. It is porous (absorbs water) and easily scratched. To make earthenware objects waterproof, they need to be coated in a vitreous (glass-like) liquid, and then re-fired in the kiln. The iron-content of the clay used for earthenware gives a colour which ranges from buff to dark red, or even cream, grey or black, according to the amount present and the atmosphere (notably the oxygen content) in the kiln during firing. Earthenware can be as thin as porcelain, but it is less strong, less tough, and more porous than stoneware. Generally speaking, earthenwares are fired at temperatures between 1000-1200 degrees Celsius. The category of earthenware includes all ancient pottery, terracotta objects, 16th century and later Japanese and Chinese pottery, as well as European pottery made up to the 17th century. In particular, it includes maiolica (faience or delft) a tin-glazed style of earthenware. The greatest examples of fine art earthenware are undoubtedly the series of Chinese clay warriors, known as the Terracotta Army.


Called stoneware due to its dense, stone-like character after being fired, this type is impermeable (waterproof) and usually opaque. In its natural state stoneware clay is grey but the firing process turns it light-brown or buff coloured, and different hues may then be applied in the form of glazes. Generally speaking, stonewares are fired at temperatures between 1100-1300 degrees Celsius. Stoneware clays are used in the manufacture of commercial ware, but are also preferred by artists (eg. Bernard Leech et al) creating fine art pottery. The earliest stoneware was produced during the era of Shang Dynasty art in China (c.1400 BCE); it first appeared in Europe in Germany (the Rhineland) in the 15th century. Later in the 17th century, English ceramicists first began producing a salt-glazed form of stoneware. Enhancements followed in the 18th century when Josiah Wedgwood created a black stoneware (basaltes), as well as a white stoneware known as Jasperware.


The distinction between porcelain and stoneware is rather vague. Chinese ceramicists define porcelain as any pottery item that gives off a ringing tone when tapped, whereas in the West it is distinguished from stoneware by its characteristic translucence when held to the light. According to the Combined Nomenclature of the European Communities, "Stoneware differs from porcelain because it is more opaque, and normally only partially vitrified."

Chinese porcelain first appeared in China during the era of Han Dynasty art (206 BCE-220 CE), or perhaps later in the era of Tang Dynasty art (618-906), using kaolin (white china clay) and ground petuntse (a feldspathic rock). However, enhancements were made during the eras of Song Dynasty art (960-1279) and Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368), as well as Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644). Sixteenth century Florentine ceramicists tried to reproduce its unique translucence by adding glass to clay (creating a form known as 'soft' porcelain) but the formula of the true or hard type of Chinese porcelain was not discovered until the 1700s in Meissen and Dresden, Germany, when ceramicist Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus and alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger began using ground feldspathic rock instead of glass. Later English ceramicists like Josiah Spode varied the German formula by adding powdered bone ash (a calcium phosphate) to make bone china - the standard English type of porcelain which is less prone to chipping and has an ivory-white appearance. The Continent still favours the German type of porcelain while Bone china is more popular in Britain and the USA.

The colour of unfired porcelain clay can be anything from white to cream, while bone china clay is white. After firing they are both white. They are typically fired at temperatures between 1200 to 1450 degrees Celsius, a little higher than stoneware.

High Quality Commercial Ceramics

Commercial tableware may be manufactured using extremely high quality materials, but it remains a mass-produced product, despite its high price tag. Notable brands include: Delftware, English Delftware, Jasperware, Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, and Meissen porcelain.

How is Pottery Made? - A Basic Guide

Raw unprocessed clay consists of clay particles and undecomposed feldspar, usually combined with quartz, mica, iron-oxides and other materials. However, apart from the coarsest earthenware, which can be produced from clay as found in the ground, most pottery is made from special clays mixed with other materials or ingredients to produce the desired results. The mixture is known as the clay body.

For biographies of outstanding
contemporary ceramic artists, see:

David Seeger
Abstract clay forms.
Jane Jermyn
Abstract organic forms.
Ayelet Lalor
Figurative ceramic sculptures in
porcelain, earthenware, bronze.
Sara Roberts
Porcelain wall hangings.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
creative/applied arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.


The unfired clay body (greenware) can be formed or shaped in many different ways: manually, using a potter's wheel or other mechanical means (eg. jollying or jigging), or by using various types of molds, or 'formers' (consumed during firing) to hold the required shape. Once the body is shaped it is usually dried before firing, although some ceramic artists have developed "wet-fired" processes.


After drying, the clay body is fired (baked) in an oven called a kiln. Over the years, potters have resorted to various types of kiln, ranging from holes in the ground topped by a fire, to coal or wood fired ovens. Modern day potters typically used electric or gas-fired kilns.

Decorating the Clay Body

There are numerous ways of decorating the clay body. Some are used before firing, others afterwards. They include the following:

Patterns can be applied to the raw clay body, including reliefwork. Roman pottery features terra sigillata, a type of decoration not unlike the repoussé method used in metalwork.

Scratching, Sgraffito, Carving
Incisions or indentations can be made to the unfired body, often accompanied by the use of a slip (watery coating).

Slip Decorating
After firing, rather like a baker applies icing sugar to a cake, ceramicists use a slip, often combined with glazes, to achieve decorative effects.

After firing, some earthenware made from fine clays can be burnished or polished, as exemplified in the works by early Turkish and Inca ceramicists.

Like a varnish, a glaze is often applied to a fired item for decorative effect, although in many cases its primary function is to make the item impermeable. There are four main types of glaze: feldspathic, lead, tin and salt. Lead and tin are commonly used to glaze earthenware, while stoneware is usually salt-glazed.

One particular style of tin-glazed earthenware is known as maiolica. After its first firing, the clay body is dipped into a bath of fast drying liquid glaze and then hand-painted before being refired. The glaze interacts with the metal oxides of the paint to produce beautifully rich translucent colours. Originally invented by Islamic potters, tin-glazed maiolica reached its highpoint during the High Renaissance in Italy.

There are two basic painting methods used in ceramics: overglaze painting, a technique applied to a fired clay body already coated with a fired glaze; underglaze painting, which is used on a fired but unglazed body, including those coated with as-yet-unfired glazes.

An advanced decorative technique utilizes metallic mixtures of (eg) powdered gold, silver, copper or platinum to achieve a range of colours and effects. When applied to a fired body, gold produces a purplish hue, silver a straw colour, copper anything from lemon yellow to gold or brown, and platinum a silver tone.

This decorative method includes the use of transfer printing, as well as modern lithographic methods.


Famous Modern Ceramicists

Bernard Howell Leach CBE CH (1887-1979)
Seen as the 'Father' of British studio pottery, Leech studied etching at the London School of Art before moving to Japan where he trained as a potter under the great master ceramicist Shigekichi Urano (Kenzan VI). Returning to England in 1923 with fellow ceramicist Shoji Hamada, he founded the Leach Pottery Studio at St. Ives, Cornwall, where he built a traditional Japanese wood burning kiln. Leech viewed pottery as a combination of art, philosophy and design although he was also a strong advocate of utilitarian rather than fine art work. In 1977, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London staged a major exhibition of his art, and his work is represented in several museum collections including the Tate St Ives.

Shoji Hamada (1894–1978)
A notable influence on 20th century studio pottery, he trained in ceramic art at Tokyo Institute of Technology under Kawai Kanijiro. Shortly afterwards, he met Bernard Leach with whom he travelled to St Ives in England. After three years in St Ives he returned to Japan where he founded a world-famous pottery studio in the town of Mashiko. In 1955 Hamada was designated a "Living National Treasure" by the Japanese authorities.

Camille Le Tallec (1908-91)
Noted for his Vincennes and Sèvres style Limoges porcelain, produced in his world famous studio, the Atelier Le Tallec.

Peter Voulkos (1924–2002)
Born Panagiotis Voulkos, he was a Greek-American artist noted for his Abstract Expressionist ceramic sculpture.

Eva Zeisel (b.1906)
Born Eva Amalia Stricker, the Hungarian abstract ceramicist is renowned for her abstract works, which are represented in museums around the world. She continues to design a range of glass and ceramic items.

Robert Archambeau (b.1933)
Influenced by Japanese pottery and artists like Akio Takamori, the US-born Archambeau is Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of Manitoba. In 2003 he received the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, Canada's highest artistic honour.

Bennett Bean (b.1941)
A sculptor and painter in the medium of clay, Bean is best known for his pit-fired white earthenware vessels, notably his non-functional bowls and teapots. His work is represented in the permanent collections of museums such as the the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Massachusetts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Jun Kaneko (b.1942)
Based in Omaha, Nebraska, the prolific Japanese-born ceramic artist Jun Kaneko is noted (inter alia) for his series of large-scale sculptures, as well as his large-scale Dango (closed) series of vase-like works. A member of the erstwhile 'contemporary ceramics movement', his work appears in many museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. He is the recipient of numerous awards including an honourary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London.

Hideaki Miyamura (b.1955)
Japanese-born Miyamura is renowned for his unique iridescent glazes, which change colour when viewed from different angles. His studio pottery appears in several US museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Smithsonian Institute.

Other famous ceramic artists include: Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988), the Danish studio ceramicist Jane Reumert (b.1942), as well as American ceramicists Charles F. Binns, Anne Currier, Val Cushing, Ruth Duckworth, Ken Ferguson, John Gill, Wayne Higby, Karen Karnes, Howard Kottler, Harrison MacIntosh, Theodore Randall, Daniel Rhodes, Mary Roettger, David Shaner, Ellen Shankin, Robert Turner, Bruce Winn, Beatrice Wood, and Betty Woodman.

Contemporary Irish Ceramicists

As far as Irish sculpture is concerned, Ireland has a number of outstanding modern pottery artists, including:

Cormac Boydell, Bozena Chandogova, Jennifer Comber, Stefanie Dinkelbach, Isobel Egan, Clare Greene, Niamh Harte, Jane Jermyn, Christy Keeney, Sonja Landweer, Ayelet Lalor, Nanette Ledwith, Andrew Livingstone, Dorothy Lordan, Caomhán Mac Con Iomaire, Jane McCormick, Deirdre Mcloughlin, Anne McNulty, Peter Meanley, Michael Moore, Kathleen Moroney, Terry O'Farrell, Siobhan O'Malley, Henry Pim, Noreen Ramsay, Robert Rasmussen, Neil Read, Elaine Riordan, Beatrice Scott Stewart, Alex Scott, Peter Scroope, Brigitte Seck, Kathleen Standen, Jim Turner, Katherine West, Adrian Wistreich, and Lisa Young, to name but a few.

Watch out for details of their lives and works in our forthcoming series on Irish ceramicists.

Museums Containing Fine Art Pottery

In addition to the display of ancient ceramics in collections of the Louvre in Paris, the Pinakothek in Munich and the Hermitage in St Petersburg, fine art pottery and sculptures are displayed regularly in galleries and museums around the world, such as: the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Brohan Museum (Germany), the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the National Gallery (Melbourne), the Musee des Arts Decoratifs de Montreal; as well as the the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the American Museum of Ceramic Art (Los Angeles), the JB Speed Art Museum (Louisville), The Museum of Modern Art New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), Museum of Contemporary Crafts (New York), Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, Nancy Margolis Gallery (NYC), the Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art (New York), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Mingei International Museum (San Diego), and the Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC). See also: Kinsale Pottery & Arts Centre.

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