Thursday, January 20, 2011

the difference between: wheel-throwing verses slip-casting

So I have a 'confession' to make.  It's the kind of dilemma that's been running through my head since I first embarked on making ceramics full-time.  It's the whole wheel-thrown verses slip-casting debate.  It's a discussion I've had with numerous ceramic people and I thought I would bring it up on my blog. To get started, my mugs in question.  The two images, one slip-cast, one wheel-thrown.  Photographed at different times so the lighting in one is darker than the lighting in the other.  Although the clay is slightly different so my glazes are a little brighter on the porcelain than 'porcelaineous' clay body.  You be the judge- is one 'better' than the other?  Can you tell the difference in how they were made?

About 2 years ago now I embarked on my first slip-cast project.  I had a wheel-thrown and altered bottle vase form that I wanted to make multiples of.  The drying time on this form, being altered with a new bottom being put on to oval it off, was taking way too long and I really wanted a 'blank canvas' to put glaze designs on.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to look into making a mold out of it.  So I got in touch with Russell Hackney, a master mold-maker who's worked on making prototypes of intricate clocks for the Queen, no less.  It was a pricey venture to get it the master and molds made, but I didn't want to fuss with my own lack of skill in the mold-making category- I wanted to put my best foot forward and come out with a near exact replica of my original design. 

In 2010 I decided, after much deliberation and months and months of sitting down with each little wedged 1 lb ball of clay, making hundreds of mugs with the same 2 basic forms, not ever quite keeping up with my orders because I didn't have time to make other things, to make my 2 mug designs into molds.  This was the hardest decision for me yet.  I really love looking inside a wheel-thrown mug and seeing throwing lines on the inside.  My outsides are pretty void of throwing lines because I use a rib to smooth them out since my glazing method works a lot easier if I have a smooth surface, so the outsides would generally be the same.  But the insides would be, different.  Perhaps a little too manufactured.  Regardless, I needed a break.  I was beginning to dread making mugs all the time. My body was telling me it needed a break from throwing, and my head was saying it didn't make financial sense for me to wheel-throw each and every piece that I make.  So I took the plunge and made my mug designs into a mold and have been slip-casting them since last spring.  Just the tall mugs, not the little latte mugs, or my cups, or my bowls, or my platters, or my teapots, or my espresso cups, or my plates.  
Now slip-casting itself was no small leap for me to make.  I had to find a good slip recipe and mix slip by hand (measure out dry materials, sieve it, mix with a drill mixer for 2 hours, allow for air bubbles to settle for a few days before mixing for another hour).  The trial and error of this process ruined a lot of work before I started to see results.  The molds themselves are not a cheap investment to make.  And I still pour them, pull them out of the mold, clean up the seams, put handles on them before they can be bisqued and glazed by hand.  But the big advantage is the drying time.  They don't need take nearly as long to dry out as wheel-thrown work does.  And they are all the same size so if someone orders multiples or comes back for a second mug, it will be the same size.  The handles always feel great and are big enough for different hands to hold it.  The whole process has freed up some of my time to work on new designs and new glazing patterns.  In the end I feel like it was the right decision to make, but sometimes with a twinge of guilt.  I know there are some amazing ceramic artists out there who make their work exclusively with molds.  I also know die-hard wheel-throwers/hand-builders that wouldn't touch a mold and put down the process as being too 'manufactured'.  In general the work I see coming out of undergraduate schools these days is all slip-cast.  Generally people don't seem to have the time to invest in throwing on the wheel to make a form they have in their head, so they become mold-makers and slip-cast.  And in the world of design, it's a widely accepted practice.  But I still sense a stigma attached to slip-casting as though it's a cop-out, or easier somehow than wheel-throwing. 
In the studio the other day, putting on handles...
So I'm curious what your impressions of slip-casting are.  Do you place value on slip-casting verses wheel-throwing?  If you make ceramics, have you tried both wheel-throwing or slip-casting and do you choose one over the other? 


Laura said...

Oh I feel the same way you do! I remember in college thinking that slip casting was a cop out and would wrinkle my nose whenever I saw someone selling slipcast wares at a show. But recently my curiosity has gotten the best of me and I have considered making it a part of the ceramics curriculum at the school I teach at. I have never done any slip casting myself however. I have to say though if I were a production potter like you the possibilities that slip casting would open up are definitely appealing. I don't think you should feel is after all your own design. Compare it to silkscreen printing many copies of your artwork. It's not like you are purchasing prefab molds of kittens and fairies to cast. I swear that is why the word "craft" is not held in the same prestige as fine art!
I love your work!

Anne Magee said...

As a consumer, I would still respect an artist who threw the first piece, then had it casted. Having thrown before myself, I understand what an arduous task it is to throw each individual piece, not to mention make each one as identical as possible if you want to sell multiples. That frees you to do the fun stuff (make them pretty with slips and glazes!)and allows you to sell sets that are uniform in shape, size, and weight. It's like selling a hand-colored block print. I think it's a testament to your success that you are reaching this decision, and it will allow more people to appreciate your art in their homes. Kudos! Your work is beautiful!