When to Use Each Term: Pottery versus Ceramics

It’s crucial to understand when to appropriately use the terms “pottery” and “ceramics.” Here’s my detailed guide:

ContextAppropriate Term
Functional itemsPottery
Handmade qualityPottery
Clay as primary materialPottery
Traditional techniquesPottery
Broad range of materialsCeramics
Artistic and industrial useCeramics
High-temperature firingCeramics
Modern applicationsCeramics
Composite materialsCeramics


When to Use “Pottery”

  1. Functional Items: If you’re talking about objects like bowls, mugs, or plates that are made from clay and are intended for everyday use, “pottery” is the correct term.
  2. Handmade Quality: When discussing items that have a rustic, handmade feel, often crafted on a potter’s wheel, “pottery” is more fitting.
  3. Clay as the Primary Material: If the item is made exclusively from clay, “pottery” is the appropriate term.
  4. Traditional Techniques: When referring to objects made using traditional methods, such as coiling or pinching, “pottery” is the term to use.
  5. Earthenware, Stoneware, and Porcelain: These are specific types of pottery, so if you’re discussing them, “pottery” is the correct term.


When to Use “Ceramics”

  1. Broad Range of Materials: If the object is made from inorganic, non-metallic materials other than clay, such as porcelain or bone china, “ceramics” is the term to use.
  2. Artistic and Industrial Use: When discussing items that are either artistic sculptures or industrial products like tiles or even car parts, “ceramics” is more appropriate.
  3. High-Temperature Firing: Items that have been fired at high temperatures, often to achieve certain properties like increased strength or electrical resistance, are generally referred to as “ceramics.”
  4. Modern Applications: For objects that are used in modern technological applications, such as in electronics or aerospace, “ceramics” is the correct term.
  5. Composite Materials: If the object is made from a composite of materials, like clay mixed with other minerals, “ceramics” is the term to use.

Deeper Dive: How do the terms “pottery” and “ceramics” serve to delineate or blur the lines between craft, art, and science, and what implications does this have for the perception and valuation of works created in these mediums?

The usage of the terms “pottery” and “ceramics” can be both nuanced and context-dependent.

My question invites exploration into the cultural, artistic, and scientific dimensions of the terminology, probing how the words we use shape our understanding and appreciation of the craft/art/science continuum in this field.

Over the years talking to customers and artists I have found the terms “pottery” and “ceramics” carry nuanced meanings that influence how we categorize and value the work involved, often serving to both delineate and blur the lines between craft, art, and science. Here’s what I’ve found:

Delineating Boundaries

  1. Craft vs. Art: “Pottery” is often associated more with craft and functionality, think pots, dishes, and other utilitarian objects. “Ceramics,” on the other hand, is a term that can encompass both functional and purely artistic works, allowing for a broader range of expression.
  2. Material Science: “Ceramics” is also a term used in material science to describe a broad category of heat-resistant and non-metallic materials, thus lending a more scientific connotation to the term.
  3. Historical Context: In historical or anthropological contexts, the term “pottery” is often used to describe artifacts that had a utilitarian function in ancient societies, whereas “ceramics” might be used more broadly to include decorative or ritualistic items.

Blurring Boundaries

  1. Interdisciplinary Nature: Both pottery and ceramics require a blend of artistic vision, craftsmanship, and scientific understanding (e.g., chemistry of glazes, physics of the wheel, thermodynamics of firing). Therefore, neither term is exclusively in the domain of art, craft, or science.
  2. Artistic Evolution: Artists working in these mediums often transition from making functional items to creating purely artistic works, complicating the categorization of their practice as either “pottery” or “ceramics.”
  3. Innovation: Advances in ceramic engineering can directly influence artistic possibilities in pottery and vice versa. For instance, new types of clay or glazes developed through scientific research can open up new avenues for artistic expression.

Implications for Perception and Valuation

  1. Market Value: Works labeled as “ceramic art” may command higher prices in the art market than those categorized as “pottery,” reflecting a bias towards “art” over “craft.”
  2. Cultural Capital: The terminology can affect how the work is received in different settings—museums, galleries, craft fairs, scientific institutions, etc.
  3. Identity: For creators, the choice between identifying as a “potter” or a “ceramic artist” can influence how they perceive their own work and how they are perceived by others.
  4. Educational Focus: The terms can also guide educational programs, with “ceramics” courses often offering a broader curriculum that includes both hand-building and wheel techniques, as well as a deeper dive into the science of materials.

After reading my explanation I’m sure you’ll agree, the terms “pottery” and “ceramics” serve to both separate and unite various aspects of art, craft, and science. The choice of term can have significant implications, shaping perceptions and valuations in complex ways.

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