Clary Illian, (Illian 2012)







Truth to Process

As an apprentice at the Leach Pottery in 1964 and 1965, I helped produce a line of standard ware shapes. I remember vividly the moment when I realized that I was not learning shapes but processes, and that the way a thing is made and its appearance are one and the same.


The Space Within

The assignment is to make a cylinder, somewhat taller than it is wide, that suggests the greatest possible internal empty space for the given amount of clay. It is the suggestion of space we are concerned with, not the measurable space. The goal is to create an internal space whose lively presence speaks for itself. Slight modulations of the silhouette are permissible, as are variations in treatment of the bottom and top edges of the wall of the pot. Do not think of this as a completed pot, and do avoid bulky rim shapes. If you are doing this assignment in a group, you should all use the same amount of clay.

The task was to make a cylinder. The word “pot” was not used in order to keep the emphasis on the goal of maximum internal space and to avoid the natural desire to make an object that could be judged and found good. Cylinders are often viewed as a sort of warm-up exercise before “real” pots are made, but cylinders are real pots capable of all the complexity of use and aesthetics as other shapes.

Beginnings and Endings

The assignment is rims and bases. Wedge up a few pounds of clay and throw as many different kinds of rims as you can devise. Cut each rim off the cylinder, save it, and then throw another. The term rim can apply to a simple, undifferentiated top edge as well as an articulated or protruded terminating shape. Practice variations of bottom edge shapes with separate lemon-size balls of clay, pulling up just enough of the wall to show how it would grow out of the chosen bottom edge treatment.

The variation in results of this exercise will be greater among people than within the output of any one person. The individual tends to gravitate to similar increments of clay no matter what the shapes. This tendency should be a choice, not an unconscious habit. Remember that just because you are trying to throw thinner and thinner walls does not mean that the top and bottom edges inevitably have to be thin also.

Cylinders as Pots

The third assignment is to throw a cylinder that is not just a throwing exercise but a finished pot—a cylinder with a personality and a story to tell. It can be simple or complex, a bit concave or convex, punctuated with subtle or strong beginnings and endings.

Of particular interest to the beginner is the ability to create a shape in which the clay is well distributed throughout the walls of the pot, not only in fact but in terms of the impression it makes. Remember that in the throwing of a vertical form the right hand is dominant. The inside hand acts only as a firm support to counter the strong inward tapering pull of the outside hand. After the cylinder reaches full height, the inside hand can play more of a part in the shaping.

The cause of round-bottomed pots is a failure to open up a wide enough floor with crisp right-angled corners before pulling up the walls (figure 44).

Figure 44


It is time to move on to a specific utilitarian form. The assignment is to make pitchers. Use at least two pounds of clay or more, and keep it simple. Do not make forms that will require turning or trimming, but think in terms of cylindrically derived shapes. Remember that this is an incomplete form, as it will have a handle and a spout added after it is thrown.

A useful notion for analyzing pitchers comes from Warren MacKenzie. He says pitchers have two parts: a part that contains and a part that delivers the contents.

If you remember the [arm-like] quality of a handle, you will be in no doubt where to attach it. The handle begins at the point corresponding to a shoulder and ends on the part suggesting a hip. The arm spans an arc between shoulder and hip in just the same way it does on our bodies. And so, too, does the handle span the containing and delivering parts of the form.


Bowls require a complete change of tactics, so clear your mind before tackling them. The assignment is to make bowls with simple open curves. Leave about an inch of unformed clay at the bottom of the bowls to allow for choices of height, width, and shape of turned feet. Use about four pounds of clay.

Pots with Lids

Learning to See

Style and Voice

Utility and Tradition




Illian, Clary. 2012. A Potter’s Workbook. Iowa: University of Iowa Press.