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Open 4 Discussion: Figuring Out Form

So the proverbial form, as in form follows function.

This mysterious aesthetic angle continues to elude me. As I look at the pieces I've been creating as of late, I cringe at the silhouette that appears before me. In fact it seems a silhouette is not there at all. When I am making pots I pay so much attention to process, construction, function, and surface but so little to the shape of each vessel. It has me thinking about how exactly a potter develops her form.
This idea came to the forefront of my attention during the recent workshop with Christa Assad that I attended. The shape of her works is so clearly essential to her concept and has become unmistakably identifiable as her own. In the slideshow that accompanied Assad’s demo, several photographs were shown to explain the artist’s direct influence. It was interesting to see how an antique iron becomes a teapot via her imagination. But how do you accomplish such a feat? Assad explained that creating the perfect form doesn't happen overnight. A form is not perfected so much as it is refined, through constant working and reworking of the same vessel. I think this is a good point, but for some, including myself, a starting point can be difficult to come by. I have yet to find my own iron.

Inspired by the practicality of a Bauhaus education, I am now on a mission to provide for myself the course on three-dimensional design that I never had. When I studied 3D design in school it was more of a sculpture primer than a formal course in the fundamental elements of design. I've done some research online and checked out a few good books from the library on the subject including Johannes Itten's Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later and Louis Wolchonok's The Art of Three-Dimensional Design. While it looks like these resources have a lot to offer me, I can't help but feel a need for something more specific to pottery.

My friend Amy Horn recently embarked on an interesting exercise to help along her own explorations of form.  It is such a great exercise that I don't know why none of my professors ever gave such an assignment. Working from the visual reference above, Amy embarked on a plan to copy every one of about 30 different forms- in the process discovering which forms felt best to throw, to hold, and to drink from. This is brilliant and ever since I have been in search of more of these "referential menus". (Please let me know if you have any you might care to share.)
It's also interesting to look at other artist's sketches (like Jake Allee's above and Euan Craig's below) to see how the develop shape in a two dimensional space. In my own sketchbook I have noticed that I only draw form once or twice before moving on to the next idea. In other artist's sketchbooks I'm noticed whole series of forms. Either drawn from one starting point to an evolved end point or in so many variations of one idea as to cover all of ones bases, these collections become a catalog of forms from which to work. And in trying many versions of the same idea, one might arrive at a resolved shape, as Christa Assad explained.

Euan Craig

But before you can even begin to refine your form through throwing exercises or sketches, one must consider what type of form best suits her work. Some questions to consider:

-Do you want a shape that suits your surface or...

-...will you find a surface that suits your shape?

-Does your surface design require smoothness or texture?

-Are your pots intended more for use or more for decoration?

-Will you make molds from these forms for quicker reproduction?

-Which methods of building pottery do you have at your disposal?

-What type of clay body do you care to use?

-Is it important to work in a cohesive series of forms?

-How much time do you have for each piece?

-How much time do you spend on surface treatment?

Kevin Snipes via The Art Room Plant
When I really get to thinking about my work, however, and when I try to answer these questions for myself, I realize that pottery, and more broadly clay, suits my work mostly as a blank canvas. I am not so interested in making forms as I am interested in decorating the surface and telling a story, similarly to artists like Kevin Snipes (above) and Greyson Perry (below). In realizing this my entire understanding of form shifts. I now feel less concerned with making objects and more concerned with how many different forms I can create with a relatively level plane over which I can build my story. While I still love pottery and am fascinated by the history of our media, I need to adapt all I've learned to the ideas I am trying to express. I used to feel frustrated by the fact that I couldn't invent spectacular shapes on the wheel or build intuitively coil by coil, but I've accepted this now. Perhaps the reason I couldn't develop these shapes is because my heart was always thinking about the surface- color, pattern, texture, motif, line. 

Greyson Perry via the Victoria and Albert Museum
I believe this is the greatest jump that I've made in all my seven or so years as a ceramist. I've figured out that my relationship with clay is not about what I can do with the clay but what the clay can do for me.  I am not a ceramic artist. I am an artist who enjoys using clay. And for me, that is perfect.


A couple more resources on form:

Emily Murphy wrote a great post on the subject on her wonderful blog a while back about wheel thrown forms.

And Ceramic Arts Daily posted a nice little video from Dennise Buckley a couple months ago about hand-built forms.

And if you don't already watch Ron Philbeck's videos, you should start now. He often discusses the relationship between form and surface with really clear insight.

Well, I hope some of you weigh in on this topic. I've been thinking about this post, and actually writing it for a few weeks now. I'd love to hear all of your thoughts, so do chime in with your own bits of wisdom.


Tracey Broome said...

I think Clary Illian's book addresses this topic the best of any I have read. Once I stopped surfing the internet looking at everyone else's work I was able to feel more what I wanted to say. I was clouding my brain too much looking at what everyone was doing and wishing my work looked like theirs. Now I just enjoy other artists work but I don't wish I was making it, more that I just want to own more of it and make what is true to me. Love the images you posted though!

Brian said...

I've also found Robert Peipenberg's 'The Spirit of Ceramic Design' very inspiring and helpful explaining all the various design elements.

k.houser said...

This is an issue that I also wrestled with and possibly still revisit occasionally. I often think Im a painter/printmaker that just wants to paint using ceramic materials ...forms just add the extra problem. I oscillate back and forth between purely sculptural forms as matrix for my surface designs and utilitarian forms. Grayson Perry was a game changer for me...saw him speak at his exhibition back 05/06...I agree with your comment..."Im just an artist that uses clay".

Jesse Lu said...

Frank Lee,

I'm sorry I had to remove your comment. While I welcome your input on the subject of form, this blog is not an appropriate forum to talk about whether you care for a person or not.

I would be happy for you to repost your comment about the resources you mentioned, as I think others could benefit from the information.

Hope you understand! :)

dahlhaus said...

Hi Jesse,
Great post on form- and great questions to be asking too!
I used to play around with form when I was cutting/pasting and altering wheel-thrown work. At some point when I decided to focus on a glazing style, I minimized the expressiveness of my pots so that the glazes could really sing. Practically speaking my forms require a smooth surface for my glazing process, and at the end of the day I appreciate simple forms paired with decoration for functional, everyday ceramics, otherwise it felt a little too 'busy' for me. It seems to have worked well for my current body of work, however this might change down the road.
Sometimes the complexity of form meeting surface decoration pushes work beyond the 'humble kitchen' and into a 'gallery realm', so it often really depends who you are making pots for and how your pots will be used.
Congratulations on graduating! H.

Jay Wiese said...

I've found it most helpful to work on a range of shapes more or less simultaneously. Right now, I'm working on a 12-piece range of tableware. The challenge is to design each piece so that it reads as part of the line, while still retaining its intended function. I've tried to set it up so that each firing cycle I can make 2 copies of each of three different designs that range in size and complexity. This month, for example, I'm working on large casseroles, 8-oz. pitchers, and dinner plates.

Acácia Azevedo Studio Pottery said...

Thanks for sharing, great post. Sometimes it's very hard to find this information in Portuguese. But, I´m always trying some books in English on the subject. This workshop with Christa Assad, it was amazing, for sure. I´m always taking a look here at your beautiful blog. Thank you for all.

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