There are so many interweaving elements in pottery – the type of firing, the clay and glazes used, the potter’s repertoire of shapes and sizes and the peculiar character of their work – that trying to pin down succinctly what makes a great pot great feels like a fool’s errand.
So we’ve decided to write a series of guides on how to spot a good pot. By no means will they be exhaustive, but we hope they will offer a starting point for those who’ve yet to enjoy the experience of owning and using handmade ceramics.
Here’s part 1, where we look at the importance of form in a good pot.
Korean potter Lee Kang-hyo carefully looks over the form of a Moon Jar on his throwing wheel
‘Pottery is about the majesty of form.’ – Michael Cardew
Good pots begin and end with form. Strip away everything else – the decoration and the firing, who its maker was, where, when and how it has been made – and all that remains is a pot’s shape, its silhouette. No amount of glaze wizardry, decoration, or potting kudos can save a bad form.
A good pot will have a well-balanced form; the proportions between different areas of its body, between the neck and the shoulder, the base and the belly, will be carefully considered so that there is a feeling of ‘correctness’, a harmony and flow throughout the pot that pleases the hand and the eye.
Balance is the key word here. Good form is not merely a case of making symmetrical pots, or applying mathematical rules to make exact angles. Lines and curves can be played with and pulled around, and often the most interesting pots are those that dance around the principles of proportion rather than adhering to them strictly.
French potter Jean-Nicolas Gérard thorwing his loose beakers – each beaker is based on the same underlying structure but is stretched and squashed in different ways
Even lop-sided pots can have well-balanced forms. The wobbliest of good pots still rely on an inner structure for their sense of proportion, a framework which the potter can manipulate to emphasise different areas of a pot but which remains essentially unchanged beneath the surface.
It might help to think of form in ceramics as if it were the pulse in a piece of music. While a classic waltz or a syncopated jazz track will push and pull its underlying beat, speeding up one passage and slowing down the next, overall the pulse remains steady. For every change in one direction comes an eventual change in the other to keep the movement of the piece balanced.
two different large jars by Anne Mette Hjortshøj demonstrating the knock-on effect of small changes to proportion
Similarly the wall of a vase may be elongated or a curve accentuated, but every change to the underlying form will effect a change elsewhere on the pot. A good potter recognizes this intuitively – they play with proportions but keep them balanced, countering a lean here with swell there, a deep curve here with foreshortening elsewhere to achieve a shape that feels just right despite its asymmetric lines or its unusual proportions.
Rightness in form is almost instinctive, both for the potter creating it and for the customer looking at it. If the proportions are off, you might not know why – but the more pieces you look at, the more quickly your eye will notice good form.
But form is not just about silhouette, how a pot looks – it also dictates how a pot feels in your hand. Above all else, pottery is a tactile medium. What separates ceramics from many other arts are those elements of feel and function – pots are to be held, turned over in the hand and clasped between fingers as they are used.
(above) potter Nic Collins looks over the final shape of a medieval jug; (below) an impress-patterned dish also by Nic Collins
The first thing you notice when you pick up a pot is its weight. Too many studio potters working today in the minimalist, ‘interior design’ aesthetic throw their clay as thin as they can. While such pots may be clean and crisp, in their meanness they lack that sense of invitation that a great pot can offer.
A good pot will be generous of form, its shape asking to be held and its weight reassuringly present in your hands. In most domestic ware pots, good form will translate to good function too: a well-thrown jug won’t be too heavy when it holds water, its handle easy to clasp and pleasant to the touch.
oval dish and porcelain mugs by Anne Mette Hjortshøj with their beautifully simple handles and their calm, rounded forms
Ultimately, spotting a good pot starts with form, and is as much a matter of feeling and handling, of getting to know the shape through the palm of your hand and the tips of your fingers as it is of looking at its silhouette. Sometimes it can take some time before we realise what it is that feels right about a pot or what is stopping us from picking it up; but invariably our eyes and instinct know best.
Look out for part 2 of our ‘How to Spot a Good Pot’ series where we’ll be looking at pot surfaces, coming soon.