Arts

Ready to throw down? A beginner's guide to learning pottery

Whether you’re ready to join a year-long class or simply "clay curious," this story is for you. Artists from the Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down share expert advice for prospective potters.

Stars of the Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down share expert tips for getting started

Artist Renu Mathew sculpts a block of clay on a work table. The artist is a woman of colour with long, dark wavy hair and she wears a yellow T-shirt and blue apron. She smiles as she carves the clay with a fine-tipped tool.
Renu Mathew appears on The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down. Whether you’re ready to join a year-long class or simply "clay curious," this story is for you. Mathew and a few of her cast mates have helpful advice for prospective potters. (CBC)

Maybe it was something you saw on Instagram or TikTok: a gloopy glaze or an oddly satisfying trimming technique. Maybe your prized possession is a worn-out copy of Ghost on VHS. Whatever the reason, you're obsessed with ceramics, and you've decided you want to make it a hobby. But where to begin — beyond scouring Kijiji for tools that definitely won't fit in your condo? 

We reached out to the stars of CBC's The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down for advice. As experts in the craft, they understand how it feels to be clay curious, and they have plenty of helpful tips for prospective potters.

"You can make anything with a block of clay," says Renu Mathew, one of the Season 1 competitors. But before you explore those infinite possibilities, there are a few things to consider.

What's the very first thing newbie potters need to do?

"Just connect with the community. That's the first thing to do," says Throw Down potter Kiefer Floreal, and making those inroads can be as simple as following an artist on Instagram, he says. "Find some inspiration!"

While you're at it, don't be shy about saying hi to IRL potters near you. Depending on where you live, connecting with local artists might prove challenging, of course. Mathew teaches high school in Olds, Alta., for example — population: 9,567. Her classroom is one of the few places in town where you'll even find a pottery wheel, and last she checked, there are no private studios in the community offering lessons. So when one of her students catches the pottery bug, they get resourceful, chatting with potters who sell their wares at nearby farmer's markets — asking them for leads on studio availability and instruction.

Bottom line: put yourself out there. Says Floreal: "First thing you learn about potters is we're all pretty chill. I've never met somebody who works with clay who sucks."

Artist Kiefer Floreal, photographed in profile seated at a work table. A Black man wearing a neon green toque and striped blue and green T-shirt, he works on making a small clay vessel.
Winnipeg-based artist Kiefer Floreal works on an assignment for The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down. (CBC)

Should you sign up for pottery lessons right away?

"I think the first step for anybody interested in getting into pottery is learning in some sort of communal environment," says Throw Down artist Andrew McCullough. Based in Fredericton, McCullough developed his passion for ceramics at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. "It's a really social art. Potters learn a lot from each other, so I think it's so important that they start with others," he says. "Even as a beginner, it's really important to be around other people who are struggling with the same things and having the same sorts of successes."

His castmate Jackie Talmey-Lennon would agree. She's a teacher herself, at Café Au Clay in Vancouver. "In-person instruction is more personal, it's more nuanced. And your instructors … they can diagnose where you're running into problems, and that's something you will not get off of YouTube."

"For absolute beginners, a six-week session is really what's going to do it," says Talmey-Lennon, but if you're unsure whether you can truly commit to the hobby, she suggests finding a studio that offers one-day workshops to start. "You're not having the full experience, but for some people who aren't ready to jump all the way in, it's enough to let them see how they feel about it," she says.

Jackie Talmey-Lennon, a white woman dressed in a black tank top, blue apron and floral hair scarf, sits at a pottery wheel, making a vessel out of clay.
In addition to competing on The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down, Vancouver's Jackie Talmey-Lennon teaches ceramics at Café Au Clay in Vancouver. (CBC)

What if you're more than a dabbler? How much time will you need to invest in a pottery hobby?

There's a reason they call ceramics a "slow art." The process involves several time-intensive steps: designing, making, drying, trimming, firing, glazing — and then maybe repeating all of those steps if you make a mistake along the way. For newbies, building confidence can take weeks, if not longer. "It is definitely a big time investment," says Floreal. Back when he was starting out, he struggled for two weeks before finally nailing his first lesson: centering clay on the pottery wheel. 

"You have to mess up a lot of pots and make a lot of mistakes before you get anything good," says McCullough. And in his opinion, putting in regular studio time — no matter the length of the session — is key to building muscle memory. "If somebody can find a few times a week to practice, they'll be off to a great start," he says.

How do you choose the right studio for pottery lessons?

Before you start skimming Google Reviews for all the studios near you, consider what you need to get out of the experience. As a beginner, you'll probably want to find a place where they include all the tools required for lessons. But ask yourself what else is important: do you need to find a studio that offers 24-hour access? Are small class sizes a must for you? Maybe you need the workroom to be dog friendly? "Don't just sign up for the first thing you see if it doesn't seem right," says Talmey-Lennon. In cities like Vancouver, where she lives, there are plenty of options, which makes it easy to compare what you'll get for your money. But wherever you are, she recommends shopping around.

As you begin that search, Mathew suggests looking into city-run courses first, since they're often well-established programs that are relatively inexpensive compared to private studios. Wherever the hunt leads, feel free to visit studios that catch your interest and ask questions, and while you're there, take a good look at the work that's on display. "Make sure it aligns with what you're hoping to do," says Mathew. Adds Thomas Haskell, her fellow Throw Down competitor: "If I see lots of fun things on the wall, I know that's the vibe for me." 

Don't underestimate the value of a vibe check, either. "You really should be looking for places that are going to foster community, that have a very welcoming feeling," says Haskell. Talmey-Lennon agrees: "My experience is that studios tend to be quite friendly and open and willing to have conversations with people who are clay curious," she says. "It should be easy, it should be friendly — because that's what you're going to want your studio to be if you do become a member."

Artist Thomas Haskell, a white man with short blonde hair and a beard, crouches to paint detail on a fantasy sculpture made of clay.
In this still from The Great Canadian Potter Throw Down, Toronto-based artist Thomas Haskell eyes the detail on one of his clay creations. (CBC)

Where's good? 18 artist-recommended pottery studios across Canada

In Vancouver, Talmey-Lennon naturally co-signs for Café Au Clay, the Granville Island studio where she's an instructor, and she also recommends Mudlab Pottery (Throw Down technician Vin Arora is on staff!) and the Potters Guild of British Columbia. The latter has a gas kiln, which is open to the public at a fee, and they take volunteers — of any experience level — to help with the firing. 

Like Talmey-Lennon, Haskell teaches at a private studio: Create Art Studio on the Danforth in Toronto. Another local option he suggests: Clay Space Studio in Little India.

In Winnipeg, Floreal is a fan of The Pottery Bug, The Stoneware Gallery and Mud and Ink Studios in nearby Portage La Prairie, M.B.

ClayTime with Jackie, in Fredericton, is operated by Jackie Doucette, a former classmate of Throw Down's Andrew McCullough. They both attended The New Brunswick College of Craft and Design in the city's downtown (he suggests looking into their continuing education courses). Also in Fredericton: Open Your Art (McCullough used to teach there himself).

For folks in central Alberta and the Calgary area, Mathew recommends several options, including the Red Deer Pottery Club and Flux Studio (also in Red Deer); Otter Pottery Studio in the hamlet of Markerville; and City of Calgary-run programs at the North Mount Pleasant Arts Centre and Wildflower Arts Centre. Also in Calgary: Workshop Studios and Mud Urban Potters.

Andrew McCullough, a white man wearing a printed T-shirt, blue apron and blue baseball cap, sculpts a tall block of clay on a work table.
Andrew McCullough on the set of The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down. (CBC)

Is there any way to learn pottery from home?

All the potters we spoke to agree: in-person instruction is best for beginners, but if you just can't wait to get your hands dirty — or you're having trouble finding lessons near you — don't despair. "There's definitely ways you can start at home," says Mathew, and if you haven't done this already, scour the internet for tutorials. That'll give you some background knowledge on the skills you're looking to learn, and inspire some project ideas too.

"I always say I studied at the U of Tube," says Floreal. "If you're chomping at the bit to get in there, I say get some clay." But maybe put a pin in your Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze goals for a second. For one thing, equipment can be a hell of an investment. Says Floreal: "My kiln is worth more than my car right now." And besides, most of the potters we spoke to say you're better off avoiding the wheel at first. Instead, learn the basics of hand building (translation: making stuff with your hands) if you want to get familiar with the medium. 

Building a pinch pot is a classic beginner project, says Haskell. "It's so focused on you, your hands and the clay, and it's such a versatile technique."

Another simple thing you can try at home? Experiment with altering the clay's texture. Do you have anything around the house that you could use as a stamp or tool to add unique impressions to the clay? Forks and knives, for example. Chopsticks or bamboo skewers. "If you can press it into the clay, it works," says Haskell. "What I love about clay is that tool-wise, anything goes."

If you're working with pottery clay at home, however, be especially mindful that your creation will need to be fired in a kiln if you want it to last. And as McCullough and Mathew warn, keeping a clean environment is essential when working with the material; inhaling dry clay dust can seriously damage your lungs.

So why not play it extra safe? Haskell recommends using other materials that will still give you an opportunity to sculpt something with your hands — air-dry clay or polymer clay, which are readily available in any craft store.

"I know some ceramics people will absolutely throw their nose up at the idea of that, but it's great for starting out," he says, and even a lump of plasticine will let you practice the same techniques that you'll be using in a class: rolling flat sheets, making coils, building pinch pots. Haskell actually carries a ball of polymer clay in his backpack 24/7 so he can sculpt little figurines in his downtime. "It's like sketching in a sketchbook," he says. "I'm a big fan of Dollarama materials. It's safe and fun."

What are the biggest challenges beginner potters face?

If you've watched thousands of hours of mesmerizing clay content, prepare for a shock.

Creating something beautiful — or just anything, period — is hard, especially if you're trying the wheel for the first time. "It's almost a joke in the ceramics community how absolutely universal the experience is for new potters," says Talmey-Lennon. "When we take that very first pottery class, we're just blown away by how challenging it really is."

Once newbies are comfortable with the medium, however, they always face another hard lesson. "The biggest challenge, and it's an emotional one, is being too precious," says Talmey-Lennon. Ceramics are fragile, and hours or days of work can disappear in an instant. So if you're going to keep your pottery passion alive, you've got to learn to be chill. "If you're not willing to ruin [what you're working on], then it'll never become a pot. You have to risk destroying things — you have to learn to let go of things — before you can actually make something nice," she says.

What's the biggest misconception about pottery? | The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down

3 months ago
Duration 0:53
Canada's newest pottery show competitors share their thoughts.

What's the best advice for new potters?

Just keep making stuff! 

"I tell my students, I don't care what you make. Like, I'm not worried about how it looks," says Mathew, because ultimately, the most important thing a beginner potter can do is keep practicing. Be prepared to lose a few pots and bowls and ashtrays, but if you can stick with it, it won't be long before you're the one on Instagram who makes it all look so damned easy.

"With anything in ceramics, just know that you're going to make mistakes," says Floreal. But when you finally finish a project, it'll all just click, he says: "You'll just keep going back to do it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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