Sharing Art
Western Reserve Public Media
Clay Figures Project


Regional Artists: Joseph Bluesky and Donna Webb, Akron
Featured Museum: Akron Art Museum
Featured Artist: Antoine Bourdelle
Featured Work of Art: "Howling Figures"
Featured Teacher: Karl Martin, Kent City Schools

Lesson Overview:
The experience of forming the plasticity of moist clay is nearly ageless, and many cultures have produced lasting works of art with it. Its three-dimensional qualities and the effects of glaze, color and texture make this medium an extremely appropriate and rich avenue to success.


Video Synopsis

Our clay sculptor, Joseph Bluesky, collaborates with his wife, Donna Webb, to create sculptures of human forms holding pots. He "collaborates with the clay" and incorporates happy accidents while creating his figures from clay. He works with suggested rather than defined shapes and texture.  The school project shows students creating similar clay figures.

Note: You may want to use the video featuring Donna Webb making clay pots in conjunction with this program. She is featured in "Clay Sculpture and Pottery" in this series.



Students will:

  • apply more than one technique to communicate a response to works of art in ceramics and to artists involved with the creation of ceramic figures and pots.

  • evaluate their work using elements of design. They will identify both sculpture and pottery techniques.

  • create projects that apply the techniques and, more importantly, the thought processes that unlock and identify the creative process. This truly is the core of the intrinsic expressiveness of this pliant medium.

  • understand that ceramic art, as evidenced by early cultures, is a process that was critical to the development of mankind.

  • enjoy and appreciate the multiple purposes for creating works of art.

  • identify and appreciate the work of contemporary, local and successful artists, seeing the transformation of wet clay into a fired and finished piece.




Ceramic clay wedges placed inside a kiln before firing. (Bar shapes are also available.) At a certain temperature a cone will bend, so by constant observation it can be determined at what point particular temperatures are reached in the kiln. The E. Orton Jr. Ceramic Foundation advises using a particular set of temperature equivalents for their cones, which melt at 34 different temperatures, each identified with its own cone number: starting at 022 at the lowest temperature (1157 degrees F.), continuing to cone 01, then to cone 1, and to the hottest at cone 12 (about 2420 degrees). Orton cones come in two regular sizes, temperatures varying between them slightly, rarely significantly. Number 06 large regular cones bend at 1830 degrees F., and small regular cones at 1873. Number 04 large regular cones bend at 1940, and small regular cones at 2008.



The form of a human, an animal or a thing; most often referring to an entire human form



Describes artwork representing the form of a human, an animal or a thing; any expression of one thing in terms of another thing



A process of applying heat to make hard pottery in an ovenlike enclosure called a kiln. Also the means of fixing colors to ceramic surfaces



Describes pottery that has been shaped by hand without using a potter’s wheel.



”Gesture is the cement that holds the various elements of the pose together.” Kimon Nicoliades, The Natural Way to Draw, 1941.



A term used in ceramics to describe a thin coating of minerals which produces a glassy transparent or colored coating on bisque ware. Typically applied either by brushing, dipping, or spraying, it is fixed by firing the bisque ware in a kiln. This makes the surface smooth, shiny, and waterproof



A special oven or furnace that can reach very high temperatures and is used to bake, or fire clay. Kilns may be electric, gas, or wood-fired.



Plasticity refers to the quality of a material which can be easily manipulated — modeled, molded or pressed into a desired shape



A three-dimensional work of art, or the art of making it. Such works may be carved, modeled, constructed, or cast.



In pottery, throwing means making a pot from a piece of clay on a potter’s wheel



A revolving horizontal disk, sometimes called a head, on which clay is shaped manually into pottery vessels




  • throwing wheel (or wheels)

  • white sculpture clay, Cone 05

  • kiln

  • clay tools and sponges

  • underglaze

  • glazes

  • containers

  • brushes




Clay pot production:

The pinch method is the easiest way of forming a small bowl, as no special materials are required. A hollow is formed with the thumb in a small ball of clay.  As the wall is thinned, the form develops. The interior is smoothed with the thumb.

A thrown pot may be made on the potter’s wheel, but the clay must first undergo the wedging process. Spiral wedging (push in with left, pull back with right) works out all the air bubbles in a seashell-like fashion. When the clay has consistency, it is moist and plastic with no excessively dry or moist areas.

Throwing off the hump requires that the mass of clay is centered on the wheel.  All the clay must be lined up in the middle, and while the wheel is turning work one’s hands up and down to center. Elbows should rest on knees, and the potter should not move around. A sponge will keep fingers and clay wet to facilitate the throwing process. Thumbs open up the clay, while fingers push from the outside. A wooden knife can help form the vessel, and the vessel is cut off the wheel with a wire tool.


Figures Molded From Clay

The figure or animal is sculpted separately, as in the collaborative efforts of Bluesky and Webb. A torso is begun, and Bluesky recommends “seeing what hands moving clay will give you.” Gestural marks should not be smoothed out, as they might suggest part of the sculpture. You are, essentially, collaborating with a piece of clay. The movement of clay may suggest a change from your original idea, what artists like to call “happy accidents.”

Drawing in clay with tools provides some definition, but a little detail goes a long way. The point here is that it suggests rather than defines the form.

Extra clay is worked in, not to smooth, but to help join. Pieces not joined properly may pop apart in the kiln.

After the figure dries a bit, it may be hollowed out to prevent air bubbles from expanding and ruining the sculpture during the firing process.


Combining the Figure and Pot

The figure and the pot are then placed together to form one piece, with a synergy that goes beyond the qualities each had individually. The clay must be gently molded together in a way that offers new sensibilities and purpose. Bluesky and Webb enjoy illustrating a favorite story, often based on myth or legend. This would open up many opportunities for collaboration with literature and writing teachers.



The color decisions made in this final step will unify and complete the piece. Donna Webb uses an underglaze, bringing the heat up extremely slowly. As the term indicates, they are the colors that will be underneath the glaze.

The pieces are then overglazed and re-fired at the same temperature. For our purposes, all glazes will be applied by brush. Most school kilns are electric and a basic bisque firing and subsequent glazing and re-firing is more than adequate for the middle school.


Lower Grade Level Project

Students may make a pinch pot with an animal form, possibly making the pot into a vessel with a face.


Higher Grade Level Project

Advanced students may be directed to form a collaboration similar to Joseph Bluesky and Donna Webb. One student produces the vessel and the other the figure. The students can also be directed to do some creative writing about their collaborative piece.



  • If the decision is made to throw the pots, a second teacher, parent or friend can make sure the hump stays on center. Since these are small-scale, this resource person could guide the students smoothly through this process.

  • Many cultures have used hand-built pots and other vessels. It is a great opportunity to discuss African, South, Central and North American ceramics.



  • Self-assessment. Learner engages in a systematic review of performance for the purpose of improving that performance or comparing oneself against established criteria.

  • Prepare and share the assessment with the class before the students begin their projects.


Lower Grade Assessment

  • Self-assessment. Learner engages in a systematic review of performance for the purpose of improving that performance or comparing oneself against established criteria.

  • Prepare and share the assessment with the class before the students begin their projects.


Higher Grade Assessment

  • Create an assessment process with the students that incorporates the collaborative process they have devised.