What Do You Call Someone Who Works With Clay?

Clay is a type of fine-grained soil that can be molded when wet and hardened when dried or fired at high temperatures. As an art medium, clay has been used for thousands of years to create both functional wares such as pottery and decorative art objects. The oldest known clay artifacts date back to around 28,000 BCE, and clay continues to be a popular art material today due to its versatility and wide availability.

Clay’s workability when wet and durable nature when dried allows it to be shaped into almost any form. As a medium, it provides artists with the ability to hand-build or throw functional items on a pottery wheel, as well as sculpt decorative objects. When fired at high temperatures, the clay undergoes physical and chemical changes that further harden and strengthen it. The firing process also allows different colors and textures to emerge through the development of a clay’s natural glaze.

With a rich history and unique plasticity, clay remains an important and dynamic medium within the world of art and craft. The term “clay artist” encompasses potters, ceramicists, sculptors, and those who work in a diverse array of clay art forms.

Types of Clay Artists

There are a few main types of artists who work with clay:


Potters specialize in creating vessels and functional objects out of clay, such as bowls, cups, vases, and plates. They throw clay on a potter’s wheel or hand build pieces.

Some famous potters include Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and Eva Zeisel who are known for their craftsmanship and mastery of functional pottery.


Clay sculptors use clay as their medium to create sculptures and three-dimensional artwork. They may model figures, abstract shapes, or decorative objects.

Renowned clay sculptors include Auguste Rodin who created monumental figurative works like The Thinker, and Louise Nevelson who constructed abstract assembled sculptures.


Ceramicists are artists who use clay to produce ceramic artworks, both functional pieces like tableware and purely decorative ceramic art. They handbuild or throw forms on the wheel, then decorate and glaze fire the clay.

Pioneers of ceramic art include George Ohr’s contorted organic pottery forms and Beatrice Wood’s lustreware.

Working with Clay

Working with clay requires several steps to prepare it for sculpting and firing. The process starts with wedging, which involves kneading the clay to remove air bubbles and create an even consistency. Wedging can be done by hand or with a mechanical wedging table or pug mill. Next, the clay must be centered on the pottery wheel or shaped by hand using techniques like coiling, slab construction, or pinching. Handbuilding involves sculpting the clay without the use of a wheel.

Clay artists use various tools for cutting, smoothing, carving, and sculpting the clay. Basic tools include wooden ribs, metal scrapers, loop tools, sponges, knives, wire cutters, and needle tools. Pottery wheels, kilns, slab rollers, extruders, and pug mills are examples of larger clay working equipment.

After the clay is sculpted and leather hard, it goes through the drying process. Once completely dried, clay pieces are loaded into the kiln for firing. Firing hardens and permanently sets the clay through exposure to high temperatures. Glazes can be applied before or after firing to color and decorate the final ceramic artwork.

Clay Art Forms

Clay is incredibly versatile, allowing artists to create a diverse array of art forms. Some of the most common clay art forms include:


Pottery refers to any ceramic ware made from clay that has been shaped and then hardened through firing in a kiln. There are several types of pottery, including:

  • Earthenware – Made from clay containing iron and other minerals, fired at lower temperatures. Earthenware is porous and heavier.
  • Stoneware – Denser and less porous than earthenware due to higher firing temperatures. Stoneware has excellent durability.
  • Porcelain – Made from pure clay and fired at very high temperatures. Porcelain is thin, translucent, and smooth.

Pottery can serve both decorative and functional purposes, with forms ranging from vases and bowls to cups and plates.


Clay sculptures involve shaping figures, designs, and 3D artworks from clay. Sculptures may be decorative or functional. Some sculpture techniques include:

  • Hand-building – Pinching, coiling, and slabbing clay into shapes
  • Wheel-throwing – Using a pottery wheel to form clay vessels and shapes
  • Casting – Pouring slip or liquid clay into a mold

Clay sculptures can portray abstract shapes, plants, animals, figurines, and much more.


Ceramic tiles are thin slabs made from clay and other materials, fired in a kiln. Tiles are used to decorate floors, walls, countertops, fountains, pools, and more. Types include:

  • Floor tiles – Durable and slip-resistant
  • Wall tiles – Range from plain to ornate decorative tiles
  • Mosaic tiles – Small pieces assembled into images

Functional Ware

In addition to art, clay allows creating functional pieces for everyday use, such as:

  • Tableware – Plates, cups, bowls
  • Cookware – Baking dishes, tagines, ramekins
  • Storage – Jars, canisters, urns

Clay’s versatility makes it ideal for crafting both decorative and useful wares.

Clay Art Styles

Throughout history, clay art has been shaped by major artistic styles and movements. Geographic locations have also influenced the development of distinctive ceramic art styles.

Some of the major clay art styles include:

  • Japanese Ceramics: Japan has a long tradition of ceramic artistry, with distinct styles like Jomon pottery, Haniwa funerary objects, and Arita porcelain. Japanese ceramics are known for minimalist forms, subtle glazes, and artful use of negative space.
  • Chinese Ceramics: Chinese ceramic styles like Han dynasty funerary pottery, Tang sancai ceramics, and Ming dynasty porcelain have greatly influenced ceramic art globally. Distinctive glaze colors, symbolic imagery, and technical innovations characterize Chinese ceramic styles.
  • Ancient Greek Pottery: From terra cotta amphorae to Attic black and red-figure pottery, ancient Greek ceramics integrated form and function with artistic expression. Recurring motifs from Greek mythology and daily life decorate early Western ceramic art.
  • Pre-Columbian Ceramics: Ceramics from Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican and South American cultures exhibit bold colors, intricate surface designs, and symbolic shapes. Mayan vessels and Moche portrait pots showcase these ancient American ceramic styles.
  • Art Nouveau: The Art Nouveau movement influenced European ceramic design in the late 19th century with its sinuous organic forms and dynamic surface patterns. Major Art Nouveau ceramists include Galle and Daum of France.

These are just a few examples of how ceramic art has evolved within certain cultures and artistic movements throughout history, taking on distinctive regional and period styles.

Clay Art in Culture

Clay art has played an important role in cultures worldwide for thousands of years. In many ancient civilizations, clay was used not just for pottery and sculpture, but also had deep cultural and spiritual significance. Clay objects were often used in religious rituals and ceremonies to represent gods, make offerings, and decorate places of worship. For example, small clay figurines called ushabtis were placed in ancient Egyptian tombs to serve the deceased in the afterlife. The Greeks used pottery vessels decorated with mythological scenes in religious festivals and rituals. In ancient Mesoamerican cultures like the Maya, clay was considered a gift from the gods that held symbolic meaning.

Clay continues to have cultural importance today. In many indigenous cultures, clay art and pottery carries on tribal heritage and tradition. Pueblo pottery made in the Southwestern United States exhibits bold Native American designs. Several African cultures produce intricately patterned and symbolic clay vessels. In India, clay sculptures of Hindu deities called murtis play a central role in religious ceremonies. Clay is also used worldwide to make decorative objects for holidays and festivals. Many cultures have traditions of making clay lamps, nativity scenes, or other special clay crafts to celebrate events.

Beyond its cultural meanings, clay has also served an important practical role across human civilization. Clay pottery has been essential for tasks like cooking, storing food and water, and transporting goods. Clay bricks and tiles have been used in home and temple construction for thousands of years and continue today. The history and evolution of human civilization is intertwined with the history of clay and clay crafts.

Notable Clay Artists

Ceramics and pottery have a long history dating back thousands of years across many cultures. Over time, numerous influential artists have helped advance and shape the field of clay and ceramic arts.

Some of the most notable clay artists include:

Kate Malone

Kate Malone is a renowned British potter who is known for her large, vividly colored, hand-built ceramics and sculptures. She often incorporates symmetrical circular and spiral motifs in her pieces. Malone’s work combines functional pottery with ceramic art and sculpture. She has created several public art installations and has work in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and National Museum of Wales.

Peter Voulkos

Peter Voulkos was an American ceramic artist who pushed the boundaries of ceramic arts in the mid-20th century. He is known for helping transform pottery from craft to fine art. Voulkos experimented freely with abstract sculptural forms and promotions, eschewing traditional vessels. His innovative and improvisational approach to ceramics influenced following generations of artists.

Beatrice Wood

Beatrice Wood was an American ceramic artist and sculptor, best known for her colorful lustreware and eccentric personality. She was associated with the avant-garde Dada movement in New York before focusing on clay. Wood created uniqueVarranging from functional wares to whimsical zoomorphic sculptures. She worked into her 100s, becoming known as the “Mama of Dada” and helping bring ceramics into the fine arts world.

These and many other artists have made outstanding contributions to the development of ceramic arts, from traditional pottery techniques to innovative sculptural forms.

Clay Art Education

There are many ways for an aspiring clay artist to receive formal training and education. Many colleges, universities, and art schools offer degree programs in ceramic arts. These programs allow students to take courses in ceramic techniques, art history, kiln firing, glaze chemistry, and more. Students build a portfolio and gain practical skills to prepare for a career as a ceramic artist.

Some of the top ceramic arts programs are located at Alfred University, Rhode Island School of Design, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, California College of the Arts, and Ohio State University. These programs have excellent facilities, accomplished faculty, and a rigorous curriculum to hone students’ skills.

In addition to formal university education, there are community art centers, studios, and private instructors offering classes and workshops in ceramics. These are great options for hobbyists, part-time students, and those looking to advance their skills outside of a degree program. Aspiring clay artists can also look for apprenticeships and residencies to gain hands-on training from a master artist.

Whether pursuing a full-time university program or taking community classes, education provides important foundational knowledge for working with clay. It allows artists to expand their capabilities and techniques under the guidance of experienced instructors.

Clay Art Community

Ceramic artists have built a vibrant community for connecting with each other and sharing knowledge. Many cities and towns have local ceramic arts guilds that provide opportunities for artists to network, exhibit work, take classes, and more. These guilds host regular meetings, events like potluck dinners or gallery crawls, and workshops with visiting artists.

There are also national and international ceramic arts organizations that hold annual conferences and events. The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) hosts one of the largest annual ceramic arts conferences in the world. Thousands of artists gather to take workshops, give lectures, display work, and make connections. Regional NCECA conferences also take place throughout the year.

Social media has become a popular way for ceramic artists to share ideas and get inspiration from peers around the world. Instagram and Facebook groups dedicated to pottery and ceramics give artists an online studio community. Popular hashtags like #ceramics and #pottery unite ceramic art on these platforms.

The close-knit ceramic arts community supports collaboration and the open exchange of techniques, ideas, and aesthetics. Experienced artists mentor newcomers, while the creative spirit of beginners breathes new life into traditions.


Clay artists play a vital role in creative culture by working in a diverse array of art forms and styles. From functional pottery to abstract sculptures, clay provides an incredibly versatile medium for artistic expression. Throughout history, cultures around the world have celebrated clay art for its beauty, creativity, and craftsmanship.

Today, clay artists continue to push boundaries and innovate new techniques. Their dedication to the medium keeps clay art inspiring and relevant. While clay may seem like a humble material, in the hands of a skilled ceramicist it can be transformed into magnificent works of art.

Whether creating traditional vessels, abstract sculptures, or conceptual installations, the passion and skill of clay artists enriches our lives. Their works not only delight our senses, but also connect us to the history of human creativity. Clay art allows people to experience the wonder of the human imagination made tangible.

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