Kick Your Work Up a Notch: Announcing the Ceramics Monthly Master Class!

Today I wanted to point out a new feature on Ceramic Arts Daily: the Ceramics Monthly Master Class section. If you haven’t noticed already, you’ll find a link to the master class section on the right side navigation on CAD. The articles in this section contain advanced technical and critical content from the pages of Ceramics Monthly magazine. Topics can range from glaze chemistry and kiln construction, to firing techniques and aesthetic criticism, and all come from the top experts in the field.

Today I thought I would share an excerpt to give you an example of the types of articles you’ll find here. It is from a great article by Simon Levin on critiquing your work, a skill that is often stressed at the college level, but is good to learn and practice at any stage of the game. In this excerpt, Simon explains his “Suck Factor” method of gauging a piece’s success and gives some sample critiques on his own work. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

I use one tool everyday, on every pot or sculpture, whether I made it or not. This pervasive tool is critical analysis, and I use it to assess the pot I am currently throwing, the work I made yesterday and the work I made years ago. Like a bite of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, having an understanding with which to assess pottery cast me out of the garden of blissfully bad pots into the struggle of evolving a voice in clay. My work and view of pottery has never been the same.

In a hotel room one night preparing to give a slide lecture, I decided to graph my pottery career. On first glance, it looks as though my career has been one of steady decline, but let me explain. I needed a unit of measurement to plot. I thought back to my early pots-the ones that were trying to be novel for the sake of originality-and how much those pots sucked. It seemed natural to graph the amount my pots have sucked over time. Hence, the birth of the Suck Factor Unit or SFU.

The next decision was to set the parameters of the suck factor, how much, or how little, can a pot actually suck? It occurred to me that a pot can suck all the way around; therefore the maximum is 360°.

The graph then charts milestones where the suck factor changes course. Starting around 350°, the pots started to become better in 1991 with my introduction to wood firing. This is not to say that wood firing makes pots suck less, but my being connected to the process of making helped to reduce the SFU in my pots. Looking at the chart, you can see the SFU plummet when Linda Christianson and Michael Simon became my teachers. My understanding of clay as a form of communication, my own critical analysis and attention to detail are all due to their teachings. You can see a rise in suck factor during graduate school. Trying new things, the influences of many voices and outside pressures all served to make my pots suck more. This continued for the year after grad school when I didn’t have access to a kiln. Since building my own kilns in 1999 and trusting my graduate training and self assessments, the pots have become more my own and the SFU has decreased to around 80°.

This article first appeared in the pages of Ceramics Monthly.
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A Sampling of Simon’s Self Critique

Blowfish Pitcher, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, fired in an anagama with sand, 2004.

Blowfish Pitcher, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, fired in an anagama with sand, 2004.

I love how fat and full this pitcher is. It swells so generously with lift and heft from a small base. It has an almost comical austerity. I also enjoy the puckered liplike quality of the spout; it reinforces the humor of this swollen birdlike form. Looking at the detail below, I really respond to the roundness of the handle. I like the relationships created between the width of the handle and the width of the spout. The curve of the handle connections beautifully mimic the opening of the pitcher. But the side of the handle creates an edge that is unlike anything else on the pot. It is a clean sharp line that distracts from all the other things this pitcher communicates.

Combed Jar, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, with dry slip, fired in an anagama, 2006, $350.

Combed Jar, 14 in. (36 cm) in height, thrown and plumped stoneware, with dry slip, fired in an anagama, 2006, $350.

I have been making these large thrown jars for several years now and they have evolved nicely. I am drawn to how the swelling surface is accented by lines that broaden and flatten toward the widest point and narrow at the neck and foot. I use a dry slip technique to soften the effects of shiny ash and I love the misty movements of flame path across the side of this jar. The suggestion of symmetry in the form gives the vessel breath and life, and makes me want to take the journey around it. The weak point for me is the lip. The edge of the lip is a nice echo of the wandering edge on the foot, but the point at which the texture ends is muddy and unclear. I need to find a clear way to think about the rims of these jars, but because they are an anachronistic form I struggle to justify direction.

Swiss Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005, by Simon Levin.

Swiss Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005, by Simon Levin.

I am disappointed with the edge of the lip of the cup to the left. The handle is full, the belly swells nicely but the lip is so sharp. The handle also fails to continue the line created by the belly.

The mug to the right offers a much better relationship between handle and lip treatments. The wad mark on the side is a nice echo of the negative space of the handle. The soft flashing is like the wandering lines of lip and foot, yet the bottom half of the handle feels thin and rigid. Imagine if it were more plump.

Lush Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005.

Lush Mug, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, fired in an anagama, 2005.

Click here to read the rest of this article. Or browse through more advanced technical and critical content, in the Ceramics Monthly Master Class section!


  • Subscriber M.

    When I first learned to make pots some 30 yrs ago my criterion for what “sucked”
    was different than it is now. Over the years my pots have “sucked” in different ways as I progressed along the learning curve. Now I weed out the pots that suck “way before”they hit the glaze bucket, and I’ve used a hammer generously along the path.

    I’ve recently decided to bite the bullet and take some fine arts training …… my pots “suck” all over again when they are thrown into the complex milieu of “contemporary ceramic art”.

    I have many skills that beginning ceramists don’t have,but I have to master the thinking required to learn about (and in some cases) appreciate the newer more contemporary forms of ceramic art.

  • Sheila T.

    That was the best. I never thought of the word “suck factor” but I certainly qualify at times, but never laughed so much! Plenty of hammering has helped.
    Thank you for the “suk” factor….It will now be my reference…strictly for me.

  • Melissa M.

    Okay- To recap SFU. All pots start off sucking. We potters are a bunch of masochists that spend our lives trying to create something worthy. We fail-most the time or at least a good percentage of the time.

    Keep your chin up Simon! Maybe your not fighting “sucking” just mediocrity! (Your well past sucking)

  • I was looking at the graph you presented. Do you perform your suck analysis on only the finished product…or at several intervals throughout the process?

  • Ben R.

    Perhaps there is an additional area of critique here that we naturally miss when we are not able to experience pots intended for use as they play their intended role in our lives. Visual balance and strength of form needs to be there, but it is the unique and complicated aesthetic of utensil art that only has its final critique at the table in use.

  • Chris S.

    This was terrific! The concept of SFU is both hilarious and illuminating. I can certainly incorporate it into my own work. What I personally found most useful, though, was Simon’s descriptions of his own critiques. Reading through them and studying the accompanying photos, I could see what he saw i.e. the flaws for what they were and the strong points for what they were, too.

    This has given me a better vocabulary with which to critique my own work. For too long now I have either simply “liked” a pot or “not liked” it, without delving further into what specifically it was I liked or didn’t liked. Simon’s self-critiques have given me some wonderful examples of what to look for such as the interplay between positive and negative space, the impact of the sharpness or softness of lips on bowls, cups and pitchers, the size, shape and mass of handles and the relationship of the foot to the body of the vessel.

    I will most definitely be looking at pots from a new point of view from now on!

    Thanks so much for an entertaining and very useful article!

  • High school and college painting and drawing classes practice this exercise on a regular basis. The lag time is shorter with those processes because of the medium. They can go back within minutes and make corrections. I keep a ‘hall of suck’ group of pots just to remind me of what not to repeat. There are always a few that do not make even that group. That is why a potter’s best friend is a hammer.


    I,too, have judged my work by what sells,and been dissatisfied.Maybe thought on design principles and the coherence of the pots would be a better approach. Great article!

  • Sheena B.

    I really found this useful, given that I am studying for a BA in Ceramics, and constantly needing to re-evaluate work, it really helps to know how to do it! The positive/neutral descriptive text, followed by the suck factor, just great!!

  • Interesting, and you were right, my eye was drawn to the parts that were weak, the suck factor is good, but I struggle more with the boring factor, what if it is not interesting enough to stand out as different from all the others, even from my own work. I have seen potters work that was perfect in form and design but unchanged for ever, how can they not fall asleep at the wheel? I loved the plump fullness of your pots like they had air pushing from the inside, I think that makes them different from most. Sadly I let money be the final measure of the suck factor of my own work, if it doesn’t sell, then it sucks. got to pay for the clay addiction.

  • Darrel P.

    Most of my work sucks. But I’ve learned to look at what makes it suck and move on. Pottery is always a learning experiance no matter how good you are at it. Ceramic is like water you must let it flow into shape not force it.

  • Daniel R.

    As a college instructor, I certainly use critiques with my students. I love the concept of the SFU! It’s a nice humorous way of approaching a critique. One thing…I want to know what the SFU was for the pieces in your self-critique.

  • Steven S.

    hilarious.. I teach HS pottery besides running my own professional studio.. and I tell the kids, it takes awhile to not suck. It sometimes takes many years to realize how really bad your first pots were, but you know you are getting somewhere when you begin to understand why something is good/bad.

  • Jennifer H.

    Robin – image problem has been corrected! Sorry about that! -ed.

  • Robin T.

    Difficult to understand as NONE of the photos in the sampling have come up- perhaps try to reload this please?? I will immediatly begin to put the SFU measurement into my vocabulary,and rating my own progress. A unit of measurement usefull in so many ways!!

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