February 12, 2021

Centering Made Simple

By Peter Wakefield Jackson
1 Comment
Centering Made Simple

"Keep your hands in the same place and make the clay move".

Potters have a saying, "The first thousand are hard, but then they get easier..." 

If you've ever tried to center a lump of clay on a spinning potter's wheel, then you probably know the helpless feeling that the clay has a mind of its own, and is just taking your slippery hands for a ride. Some people get put off by that first experience, and think that throwing pots on the wheel is impossible, even though the potter they just watched made it look easy.

But if you were someone who was determined to get the clay centered, and you weren't discouraged by the idea that "the first thousand are hard", then you probably have felt the "eureka" moment when everything lined up, and the clay was actually centered.


Learning to throw is very much like learning a new language. At first, you learn some very simple words, that will allow you to say "hello" or "how are you" but not express anything natural or complex. But as you gain a little bit more vocabulary, you can communicate on a rudimentary level. Once you know some vocabulary, and figure out how to conjugate a verb or two, you can actually speak in sentences that allow you to communicate with native speakers..

I had my own "eureka" moment in centering clay back in 7th grade, taking a pottery course at Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, OK, where I grew up. My teacher, Marcia Manhart, had told me something maddeningly simple about how to center, "...just keep your hands in the same place, and make the clay move". For pottery beginners, this simple concept is definitely easier said than done. But I was determined, and began to figure out that if I wanted to keep my hands in the same place, I needed to tuck my elbows in to my body, and lean into the clay. If I was just holding my hands out if front of me, there was no leverage, and my hands would just ride around on top of the uncentered clay lump.

Of course, over the years, I've developed a lot of techniques for centering, and developed the muscle control to have my hands out in front of me, but still keep them in the same place, making the clay move. But today was a little bit different. We're in the middle of a very cold winter here in Wisconsin, and the other day I was headed out to the studio, and managed to slip and fall on some icy steps, banging up my left shoulder. I'm very thankful that I didn't break anything, but my shoulder has been very sore, and my normal centering moves are now painful. So, in looking for a way to adapt to the situation, I remembered that simple concept of keeping my hands in the same place and making the clay move. I tucked my elbows in to my body, and leaned into the clay. That allowed me to get the clay centered, without pain shooting from my shoulder. I had to adapt a few of my other techniques to throw the pots I needed to make, and that made me think again about pottery as a language that I've learned.


Thankfully, with a wide vocabulary, there are many different ways to say the same thing!


Check out the video below of my making #12 Bartram pots today, and explaining the process.


One of the ten #12 Bartram pots I made this morning.