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Ceramics vs pottery? Quick guide to know the basics.

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This guide helps to understand the different types of ceramics and pottery. We generally tend to confuse ceramics vs pottery and often get lost among all existing proposals. Here are the main points to give you some explanations:

  1. Semantics and origin
  2. The manufacturing steps
  3. Different techniques of ceramics
  4. Traditional pottery from Provence 

Semantics and origin

Above all, let’s know the difference between pottery and ceramics. Can one or the other term be used interchangeably in all cases? Actually, the answer isn’t so obvious, because both meanings are mostly confused.

Semantics

The word « ceramics » comes from the Greek "keramos" which means "clay". It’s used for any clay object, or made of mixtures of soils, whatever the technique. But the word also suggests the know-how of crafters who work with clay.

Meanwhile, the word « pottery » probably comes from the Latin "potus" which meant a liquid content, a drink. By extension, the word applied to the container itself. Today pottery refers to both a ceramic material, the manufacturing workshop, and even the object itself. For example, we will say "terracotta pottery".

One could say that pottery and ceramics are synonymous. However, if both concepts are very close, there is a slight difference. Ceramic remains a more general term, including pottery.

Most of the time, it will be associated with other dimensions, such as industrial manufacturing or artistic creation. Pottery is more often associated with an artisanal exercise or a craft.

Origin

The origins of ceramics are very old, they date from prehistory. Men would have begun to fashion clay statuettes in their hands. They would have conceived objects useful to their daily life when noting the solidity brought by fire cooking.

From there were born pots, jars, jugs, amphorae and other containers that can be seen in museums of ancient art nowadays. Ceramic has always been both utilitarian and decorative, linked to the arts and cultures. Ceramics can be considered as an art of fire. 

The manufacturing steps common to any ceramic

The material

Any manufacture needs a material, which is the paste for ceramics: a mixture of grounds, clay, marl, silica added with water and ashes or feldspars. This one has certain characteristics according to the quantity of oxides naturally contained in certain grounds, and the different dosages of added materials.

Shaping

When the dough has rested a few weeks, it’s necessary to give it a shape. The shaping step can be carried out according to several methods that can be combined.

Technically speaking, the « modeling », by pressure of the fingers, can be associated with the assembly of coils, kind of long sausage molded flat with the palms of the hands. « Throwing », the most known method, is used to make cylindrical or round pieces on a potter's wheel.

« Stamping » involves applying the clay inside an object to make it take shape. The « plate assembly » is dedicated to geometric shapes (squares, rectangles). Finally, the molding consists of using a plaster mold to give the dough a specific shape.

In some cases, there is an intermediate stage of decoration between shaping and the next step. Let's give the example of « sgraffito » : it’s done by notching the still malleable clay body with a tool to obtain a drawing as engraved. Example of sgraffiti decor: Vallauris ceramic cookware.

ceramic-cookware-sgraffito

Drying

In the natural state, the clay contains water. Therefore, it’s a very absorbent material. It’s imperative to dry it once shaped and before cooking. The drying step is done without artifice, simply by exposing the pottery in the ambient air to avoid cooking accidents.

The drying time depends essentially on the humidity of the air, which is linked to the weather. The result obtained at this stage is called « greenware ».

ceramics-pottery-drying

Decoration

Several techniques can be used to decorate a pottery. It’s possible to cover the piece with different substances to color it or make it waterproof. The slip or « engobe » is a layer of colored liquid earth, the glaze or enamel is a vitrification bringing brilliance, hardness or decoration. According to the ceramic techniques, the decoration step is made in several times.

Firing

ceramics-pottery-firing

Cooking is essential to make the earth solid and transform it into a ceramic object. In general, two firings are needed in a ceramist's oven.

A first one tends to remove the water contained in the dough, fairly fast. It's the "biscuit firing".

The second, « glaze firing », is longer and between 900 and 1320 °C depending on the technique. High temperatures set everything with the decor. A third cooking is done for a « petit feu » faience or porcelain with decoration. 

What are the different techniques of ceramics?

There are six main categories of techniques that differ from one another in the types of soil used, the coatings or varnishes applied, the cooking time and the number of cooking operations.

Terracotta

If you bake a clay greenware without applying any glaze, you get a "terracotta pottery".

For example: roof tiles, building bricks, Provencal tiles for floors.

Glazed earthenware

It’s worked with clay. It’s covered partially or completely with a slip, either colorless, which reveals the natural tone of the clay.

We can add a layer of enamel on the engobe to get a vitrified aspect. This is called glazed earthenware. They require two firings.

ceramics-pottery-glazed-earthenware

Earthenware

Faience is a technique originating in Italy, which took the name of the city Faenza. The earth used is a mixture of clay, sands, feldspars and potash.

It’s cooked for the first time at more than 1000 °C, then covered with a white opaque tin-based slip.

A second cooking called "big fire" is applied to the enamelled greenware around 1300 ° giving what is called the "biscuit".

Then, the decor will undergo in some cases a third cooking "Petit feu" to fix the details and colors. The earthenware remains, however, like the glazed earthenware, a porous material less hard than sandstone or porcelain.

ceramics-pottery-earthenware-boxes

Sandstone

Sandstone is composed of clay with a large amount of silica called "sandstone clay". The paste is fired at high temperatures and is vitrified at 1280 °C.

It gets waterproof without adding varnish, which is particularly interesting for all liquids. The result is a dark gray or brown color nearly black.

The potter can then play on the cover and add oxides to get colors. For example, this vinegar maker, here colored in brown on the top glazed part, and left in natural tone on the lower part.

vinegar-maker-standstone-vallauris

Porcelain

Originating in China (12th century) and known since the 15th century in Europe, porcelain is worked with feldspar, kaolin and quartz. These materials give a hard and fine consistency, much less porous than faience.

Several firings are necessary to get the porcelain biscuit at first. The glaze is done by dipping or spraying. The decorations are hand painted or silkscreened.

The last firing at very high temperature (up to 1400 °) has the effect of mixing the enamel with the support material to obtain a hard porcelain. Fine China is widely used in the art de la table.

The raku

The raku is an oriental technique used by the Japanese in the tea ceremony. The peculiarity is at the time of enamelling, where firing must slowly increase in temperature.

When the glaze is fired, the ceramics are taken out of the oven in the incandescent state and are immediately covered with straw or sawdust to stop the combustion. We call it « fumigation ». Smoke is fixed on the surface by creating cracked patterns.

The colors are a function of the oxides added according to the result desired by the craftsman. Each result is unique and random. 

Traditional Provencal pottery

In Provence, some techniques have been practiced for a long time and their productions are part of everyday life.

Glazed earthenware and white earthenware are the most represented crafts in the region.

The sandstone joined them when its technical qualities were more appropriate (ex: for liquids), but does not have the same footprint in the culture and the life of the country.

Without going back to Antiquity, here are the main places of production since at least the 18th century, from east to west.

Vallauris (Alpes Maritimes)

The clay of Vallauris was abundant and provided the raw material to hundreds of family or larger factories for centuries.

The pottery business had been in full production in the nineteenth century for a very long time, in particular thanks to the famous glazed ceramic pottery and culinary pottery that was exported by the sea. The jaspé decor was a specialty of Vallauris.

Then it declined as everywhere else because of progress and industrialization. The revival of Vallauris pottery took place in the 60s thanks to Picasso, who attracted other artists to the city. From this moment on, the pottery of Vallauris took on an artistic dimension very fashionable at the time.

Today, real potters are rare, and traditional pottery has almost disappeared. Art ceramists are still present.

french-ceramic-cookware

Faience of Moustiers, Varages and « Vieux Marseille »

In the 17th century, an ecclesiastic from Faenza introduced the art of faience to Moustiers Sainte Marie: its geographical location was compatible with the use of water and wood in large quantities.

Dishes, pots, urns and vases, finely decorated on a white glazed base, were produced for the nobility. The places of the faience of Provence were mainly centered on Marseille, Moustiers and Varages, another village of Haut Var, then extended to Apt.

Today, Moustiers still has many earthenware workshops and craftsmen who perpetuate this activity of tradition. Varages, less known to the general public, still attracts a clientele of connoisseurs.

The « faienceries of Marseille » have unfortunately disappeared after the French Revolution.

ashtrays-tidy-trays-earthenware

The faience of Apt (Vaucluse)

Apt is also a major city of pottery tradition in Provence. We know that this town of Vaucluse enjoyed the presence of clay and ocher exploited since ancient times.

The eighteenth century saw the development of the technique of faience (Moustiers and Marseille), when the gold and silverware of the nobility had been melted to finance the wars.

The newly discovered technique dazzled the royal court with ornamental Baroque pottery.

The particularity lies in the mixing of the land in the mass during shaping. This technique gives different colors superimposed creating an original decor. They are called the « mixed clays ».

ceramics-pottery-mixed-clays

The glazed clays of Aubagne (Bouches du Rhône)

Aubagne, east of Marseille, is a hotbed of pottery, thanks to the presence of the river Huveaune. Some large family factories still exist, such as the Ravel pottery jars specialist, or Sicard establishments, creator of the famous cicada. Many santonniers are also settled in Marcel Pagnol’s birthplace town. Every summer, a giant market on the theme of ceramics is organized.

There are fabrications of terracotta (for example, true santons of Provence) and glazed earthenware. But nowadays there are few potters who still make « taraiettes » (provencal tarraieto) small miniature cooking pottery that was given to children as toys. They inspired the oldest fair in Marseille, the fair of Saint Jean, where taraiettes are associated with garlic braids.

ceramics-pottery-crib-santons-of-provence

Dieulefit (Drôme)

In Drôme Provençale, Dieulefit also has been a pottery city for centuries. Its geographical location probably favored the development of this craft with the forest and the Rhone nearby. There was indeed water for mixing the earth, and wood for firing pottery.

The production is centered on the glazed pottery of daily utility, as in Saint Quentin, or more recently the ceramics of art. The pottery activity is based on a few dozen craftsmen who make the reputation of the city.

Saint Quentin la Poterie (Gard)

This village of Gard located between Alès, Orange and Nîmes has a long history with the craft of pottery. It goes back to the Middle Ages, and lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. The fabrications were made for everyday use: containers and pottery, pots, « toupins », glazed earth simply colored yellow, without more decor. This craft was sold in the markets of southern France.

Then ceramic activity will decline as many pottery villages, following the technical evolution. Then the first vocation of the village begins to be reborn in the 1980s. The potters are gradually relocating to Saint Quentin and are now a few dozen to re-explore this originally popular art, which tends to become an artistic activity.

The famous vases of Anduze (Gard)

Not far from the Cevennes, Anduze has housed a rather unusual craft from the eighteenth century, since it is ornamental pottery, not utilitarian. The vases of Anduze were born thanks to a family of potters who had found the way to protect the very fashionable orange trees under Louis XIV reign.

The giant-sized, glazed earthen vases, which were made in Anduze for the first time, offered the opportunity to move the shrubs into an orangery covered and frost sheltered. Their characteristic shape with « foot » still pleases today.



We can see that Provençal ceramics is based on two techniques: glazed terracotta and earthenware. The former, more popular, had a utilitarian destination until the twentieth century, then became a source of creation. The latter, more refined, was addressed to the nobility. It democratized, and still comes in the art de la table and decoration.

Posted in: Provence Crafts

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