From Concept to Reality: Evaluating the Development of Influences and Ideas in Your Ceramic Art

The biggest challenge I face in the studio is focus. Being exposed to a vast array of incredible work and cool techniques day in and day out, as I am here at Ceramic Arts Daily, is both a blessing and a curse. Often times, when I get to the studio I can’t figure out what the heck I want to do because of the cacophony of ideas floating around in my head. This is why, one of my new year’s resolutions this year was to try to keep better track of these many influences by keeping a better sketchbook/notebook/scrapbook of ideas. It can be so helpful to glance over sketches or snapshots of influences before heading into the studio. Then, of course, you need to examine the finished work to see how those inspirations manifested themselves and determine what works and what doesn’t.

In today’s post, I decided to turn to our good friend Robin Hopper for a good example of how to examine one’s work from concept to reality. Robin traces the development of some of his own works, considering the integration of form, development of imagery, and processes of final surface enrichment. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.


The usual way artists develop their work is to find some form of inspiration, concept, vision or idea and proceed through several working stages to realize or resolve the idea in its final, concrete art form. Ideas might come in a sudden blinding flash or, more likely, develop over time from several different sources that might be totally unrelated or mutually interdependent. Sometimes they are slow in coming; occasionally they come in rapid succession. Sometimes they need to be jump-started through playing with the process itself. When ideas are formulated, there is an incredibly wide range of possibilities available to their interpretation before arriving at a final ceramic artwork, possibly as many as all other visual arts combined. Although the form of an object is set after firing, the surface can be further developed and totally altered even hundreds of years after a piece is made. The potential of the ceramic medium is almost infinite.

Over my own ceramic career of close to half a century, several themes have recurred and resolved themselves in different ways, using many variations of the ceramic medium to explore and interpret new ideas. These primarily have revolved around four themes: human cultures and their ceramic history; the landscape; geology; and the garden. Here I am going to analyze a couple of ways the path from concept to reality was followed. What did I want to say, and how did I want to say it? What did I need to know to make it happen? I trace the development of some of my own works with the integration of form, development of imagery and processes of final surface enrichment. This is done with a series of photo montages leading from the inspiration source to the reality of completion and what happens in between. I hopethey help to portray the road followed from vision to object.

Although I have worked in most variations of this medium for nearly 50 years, my preference is to work in cone 10 porcelain. It can be fired in either reduction or oxidation to make the most of the color potential the firing method makes possible. All the work shown here is in variations of porcelain, but if I worked with other clays at other temperatures, the process of “vision-to-object” would remain constant, regardless of changes in technology. I am the type of ceramist who likes to know what might be coming out of a kiln before it goes in. I am not against “happy accidents” and will gladly accept serendipitous occurrences.

With initial art training in painting and printmaking, where layering methods are the norm, I use layering processes in most of my work. I seldom use a simple process; more often it’s multiples. The serendipity, when it happens, is usually from the way that layering transforms in the firing process, building unexpected colorations and subtleties.

The longer you watch the process and analyze results, the better informed you can be in how to plan and coax the maximum out of the medium and realize the initial vision. After a time, you’ll become able to preplan accidents by being aware of what probably caused them to happen and capitalizing on that knowledge.


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Chado Series: Kama Form Lidded Jar

The form of this piece is taken from the traditional forms of bronze or cast iron Japanese kettles, or kama (see sketch below), used for boiling water in the Japanese tea ceremony Cha-No-Yu.

The raised decoration is trailed on using a slip made of the same clay as the form, liquefied with water and a small amount (about 1 percent) of sodium silicate.

After the bisque firing, I glazed the interior with a smooth, serviceable glaze. For the exterior glazed surface I wanted to achieve the look of ancient patinated bronze. I used the same basic clay, powdered and fluxed with barium and lithium carbonates, to develop a dryish, alkaline, matt glaze that would respond well to the colorants of copper and rutile, developing soft broken turquoise and sandy colors. I fired the piece in oxidation to cone 8.

Southwest Series: Trifoot Plate

Many historical cultures and ethnic pottery use the triad of black, red and white pigmentation, which often is symbolic as well as purely decorative.

Prime examples of the use of these colors are found in much pottery made by many of the indigenous people of the American Southwest.

This large plate has a recess in the center and a wide, flat rim for painting in simple, sweeping, calligraphic brush movements. Its trimmed foot is wire cut to form a tripod.

When bone dry, I sprayed the plate with a light ball clay terra sigillata to which I had added 10 percent tin oxide to create a brighter white. I then polished the piece with soft cloth — part of an old sweatshirt — until smooth and glossy.

I painted on the calligraphic brushwork and let it dry, then high fired it to cone 10. When it came from the kiln, I trailed and brushed it with a lead-based chrome red glaze.

This glaze is not suitable for functional objects designed for storing acidic foods or liquids, but it is perfectly fine for a decorative piece. It is the only way this vibrancy of red can be achieved using ceramic materials.

I did the glaze firing to cone 06. During the firing, chromium also had a chemical reaction with the tin in the sigillata and developed a hazing and smoky halo around the areas where the scarlet glaze occurred. After firing, I sanded the piece with wet and dry silicon carbide paper to a smooth, satiny surface.

  • Sue T.

    Wow, thanks to Robin and every else who commented above. Focus has always been difficult for me regardless of the medium, be it clay, fabric, music, education, you get the drift! Jack of all trades, master of none.

    Nikki, I will tack your comments to our studio bulletin board. Thanks for sharing. I have never been a sketchbook person, preferring to shoot from the hip, so to speak. I will try using one to help reign in my thoughts.

    “Making Marks” just moved up to the top of my wishlist!

  • Robin H.

    Hi again Emilie,

    The last four words of my first book “The Ceramic Spectrum” are TRY IT AND SEE. There is not much that can go wrong when learning about materials, and you will be surprised how much you will learn. Stick to one thing at a time is good advice. Learning about this medium is a little like learning a language, the more practice you get the easier it becomes! Best wishes, Robin

  • Siobhan O.

    I find it interesting reading the blogs, that there is quite a lot of emphasis on techniques and that exploring technique can be a basis for developing ideas/concepts. Working as a Ceramic Artist,stimulating places and objects have been starting points for me for developing concepts and ideas. It has often been the case that new techniques or handbuilding process have evolved by working through the ideas/concepts. More recently I completed a research degree where my starting point was theoretically based requiring far greater depth through an analytical approach. I believe this has stretch me considerably.

  • Emilie P.

    Thank you so much, Robin for answering my question and giving so much more of you illuminating thoughts. I may try this using a non-porcelain clay body, Huckelberry, that we get here in Denver area. I do have a good procelain clay but I don’t prefer to work with it these days maybe I should make the glaze with porcelain and use it on my non-porcelain bisque … I wonder how that would work on non-porcelain clay body.

    Kindest regards, Emilie

  • Sandra W.

    I completly get this. I have been doing studio pottery for over 10 years and I can’t stick to one idea and develop it. However I think I have one of the solutions to this, which relates to Sue’s response above, is have a limited budget as I have. Limiting ones self to only a few materials eg 1 or 2 clay bodies, 2 or 3 glaze types and a few oxides etc you can develop and explore using your creativity to make fantastic works.

    Re interpreting works and styles of other artist potters helps youto find your own style.

    Thats what I think and I am sticking to it.

  • Robin H.

    Hi Emilie, Very simply, the answer is yes! Porcelain is already almost a form of glass. If you add extra fluxing material to it it will turn into a glaze. How much additional fluxing material to use depends on what result you wish to achieve. What surface texture and color you want will determine the best additions to use. Learning about all of the properties of the materials we use will suggest unusual approaches to glaze and color development. This will then lead to an enriched understanding that opens the doors to real understanding of the creative act of glazemaking, thus eliminating dependency on often overused recipes that are handed down. Developing a personal idiom in this medium is largely about NOT being the same as everyone else. It takes time, study and effort, but the satisfaction and results are worth far more than the challenge. In the words of Frank Sinatra – “I did it my way!” When thinking of personal growth and development in this complex medium, I always remember something I read on a church notice board – “We are all born individuals; how come so many of us die as clones?” Explore, enrich, imagine, keep an open mind and determine your own path. Robin

  • Emilie P.

    Robin, I’m wondering about how to make the glazes you use on the outside of the Chado Series. You say, “I used the same basic clay, powdered and fluxed with barium and lithium carbonates, to develop a dryish, alkaline, matt glaze that would respond well to the colorants of copper and rutile, developing soft broken turquoise and sandy colors.” Does that mean you took powdered clay and added barium and lithium carbonates and then added copper to one batch and rutile to the other?

  • Penny B.

    Wow, it is so nice to hear that a lot of us deal with this syndrome! This year I have vowed to create one body of work and try to keep gravitating back to it. To do this I have created two lines of work, one is a consistent body of work that has taken several years to come full circle, with is own name “Penelope”, ( and for the random things that creep in between I stick with my orignal name, This Muds For You. ( It forces me to feed both desires without beating myself up, so far, so good. Keep up the great articles! Penny.

  • great article,Thank you.
    I remember my first ceramic Uni lecturer telling me I was like a shotgun going off in too many directions at once!! LOL He softened it a bit by adding that he was the same when he first began using clay.

    As Robin has so generously shared with us, To focus on a full body of work is not easy, and takes a lot of research, thinking, exploration and experimentation.
    To have a theme to work to and to focus on, is perhaps the most helpful thing.
    So my suggestion is to find a theme you are interested in, research it, experiment and explore different ways of expressing that theme ,until you have a cohesive body of work that relates to that theme ( the successes) — when you have done that – surprise!— you are ready for an exhibition.
    Cheers from Sue

  • Nikki, thank u for taking the time to respond! I guess it is like u said, there r just so many ways of using clay that I just want to try it all and I have loved every bit that I have done. I love to throw, or try to anyway and when I get tired of throwing I love to handbuild. So I don’t know if I will ever discover my body of work cause I like so many different things! Oh well at least I have a better understanding now. Any tips or suggestions r always Welcome! Thanks Again…PJS

  • Jean B.

    This is an excellent post that addressed the most challenging problem for me. I am not afraid to tackle any project or technique–I love it all–therein lies the dilemma!

    Nikki did an excellent job of defining the term “body of work”. I intend to print that out and clip it into my notebook, as I often get that question.

    I am a recent subscriber to this website and it has proved invaluable to me.


  • Mofeda M.

    thank you very match
    I nedd ceramic raku (body clay)

  • Nikki J.

    A ‘body of work’ refers to a group of pieces that explore a particular idea, and/or focus on a specific technique, etc.
    Can you see in Robin’s article the headings refer to different series? That means the examples shown aren’t the only pieces that Robin made that reference the traditional tools of the Japanese tea ceremony, or the traditional pottery of the Southwest.
    A body of work develops when we stick with an idea/technique long enough to come up with multiple ways of thinking about/using it; variations on a theme, if you like. It’s how we grow to mastery of an area, whether that’s throwing or handbuilding a particular form, exploring a concept, or using a tool. One of the problems we all experience when we begin walking the mud path is that there’s soooo much we could explore, soooo many juicy and enticing areas, and more and more and more …… it all gets a bit overwhelming and our attention tends to go ‘splat’ while we bounce from one thing to another! Nice problem, huh? The downside is that we never really begin to suck the marrow from an area, or discover our own relationship with it and what it can teach us, if we keep getting distracted by the next ‘new’ idea.
    Keeping a journal and a sketchbook gives us a place to store all those new ideas that erupt in our heads, so we can be happy sticking with an idea long enough to really get to know it, without being afraid of forgetting a brilliant idea, or losing the thread of the current one. They are fundamental supporters of our sanity!
    (And one of the things I have always loved about clay people, is how open and excited to share they are. Questions are great!)

  • Hi All, I am just a baby in learning and making pottery. Please tell me what everyone means by “a body of work” and how do u create it?
    I know this is probably silly to u all but if I don’t ask questions, I won’t learn, right? Thanks for taking time to help me out here. PJS

  • I personally try to work within a few restrictions. I have three general ideas or bodies of work going on at any given time. That way you don’t get bored or fall into some sort of formula,don’t be too predictable=(risk).I explore within those general ideas varing the scale,form and color=(freedom). I do much more thinking and drawing before any building ever take place(concept is everything).If Knowledge is power and time is short you must use your mind first. Most importantly if your work is to be considered great,you need to say something unique or why bother? Unless you only want some type of practice,therpy or are striving to rip off someone elses genius. It takes discipline,curiosity,intelligence,guts and a unique twist upon life to be an authentic artist and not a fraud copy cat.Think,Draw,Look,Risk.

  • Deborah G.

    I keep wondering why I don’t have a “body of work”! I keep trying new techniques & shapes. Guess I need to be more focused!

  • Robin’s glaze method is my favorite. My students and I have had the greatest success using his method of color development, referenced in the image in this article. Since my time at MISSA in 2005, my passion for glazes has grown and we have consistent successes. If you can’t go to Canada (I am truly sorry for you) to take the course, buy the book. Again and again..Thanks Robin! Mary Cay

  • Daphne A.

    Maureen I couldnt agree more – sometimes I think I have multiple potter personaly syndrome! This is especially true because I like several very differetn clay bodies. I too have to concentrate on maintaining my focus. But really, its only a concern when I’m tryin to get a show together and want a coherent look. Otherwise, I think its clothes – bluejeans and tees are just as much me as a black dress and hose — just differnt environments. And I wouldnt want to wear the same thing EVERY day!

  • Boy, this article is the absolute truth. It is so hard to focus on one particular technique, glaze, etc….my ability to be able to do just about anything is sometimes a curse. My brain tells me to stick with one idea and emulate or expand on it. But just when I try to do that, another potters ideas, or another article sends me in another direction. Don’t get me wrong, I love the exploration, love seeing the results, but sometimes defining exactely what kind of potter I am, is well impossible. I have to back off, and start focusing. Pottery to me is like being at the most fun amusement park in the world…:)
    Maureen Johnson

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