Abstract Expression in Clay 
An Art Lesson by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.
Emeritus Professor of Art, Ceramics and Art Education Instructor
Goshen College
Goshen, Indiana 46526
Lesson Objectives
  • Students learn to actively assert physical marks on the clay. 
  • Students learn to find the natural marks and texture produced only by clay.
  • Students learn to think creativily about the quality of the processes they use as artists.
  • Build a frame of reference for the artwork by accomplished artists who used similar approaches.
Age   This lesson is appropriate from grade 10 to adult.

The teacher does not show any examples or pictures of expressionistic clay work before this assignment. To do so defeats the objectives of the assignment. This is not an assignment in "learning by imitation." It is an assignment in learning how to creatively search one's materials, actions, and ideas for expressive potential artwork.

Stuff Needed
Each student needs two pieces of canvas, heavy denim, or Tyvek paper about 18 inches square and some fairly soft workable pottery clay. Tyvek can be picked up at construction sites when they cut the house wrap out of window and door openings after wrapping a house with it.

Acting on the Clay
  • Start with a grapefruit sized lump of soft plastic clay. Wedging it is a waste of time and effort for this project. 
  • Place the clay a piece of canvas or heavy denim on the sidewalk (or on the floor if it is bad weather). Put a second piece of similar cloth on top of it.
  • With their feet (no shoes - socks optional) students flatten the clay until it is about 3/8ths of an inch thick overall. Music optional, but may add spirit. Use thinner clay for smaller pieces.
  • Remove the top cloth by rolling it back along the surface so it doesn't pull clay off with it.
  • Keeping the clay stuck to the bottom cloth, bring it to the table or sit on the ground. Don't trim the edges. Using the bottom cloth bend the sides up (keeping it stuck to the bottom cloth) and straighten the slab until it begins to get lots of serious cracks half way through the clay.
  • Stop and study the results. You'll need a bit more clay so tear off about 20 percent of the slab from the edge you think is least interesting. Make this into a small ball of clay to use as a supply source for the next step.
  • Stand next to the slab while the slab is at your feet. Make small shapes (worms, cubes, etc.) and throw them down with as much force as possible. Continue until the clay has an interesting variety of 'splats' on it.
  • Bring the cloth and slab to the table. Consider adding some linear marks. One inch square sticks about 2 feet long can be used to hit the clay, creating a small series of linear indentations.
  • Flip it over onto another cloth and peel the cloth off the clay . 
click on image for a larger view
Clay Dog

Combine this textured clay with some smooth clay or with a clay form made by another method. Make a sculptural form, a vessel, an imaginary animal, a plant holder to hang on the wall, or something else. 
Something supportive of the main idea must be incorporated in the decoration. Requiring decoration is a good way to encourage more creative problem solving experience. There are many ways to decorate, including: 

  • Colored slip and glazes - do something to strengthen whatever already exists on the work
  • Words relating to the user, the contents, felling or meaning intended or discovered
  • Coloring oxides or glazes brushed on the textured bisque ware - sponge off the highlights

Why Make Requirements?
Art teachers are often tempted to say, "On this project you can do whatever you want to do." A very small percentage of the students are naturally inclined to take the risk and the effort to be truly creative when given this option. In a few situations, advanced students have been well conditioned not to get by with clichÈ work. 

Typically, students are apt to do the safe thing. They will make another one of whatever they have made in the past that was passing. This is not a way to achieve growth. It encourages mediocrity. 

    Some students do not like the requirements and request to be excused from the requirements. The teacher must ask for the student's proposal. If the proposal actually shows creative problem solving for that student, the teacher can feel justified in allowing an exception. Other students will less likely complain if they know they have to come up with a better and more risky alternative in order to be excused from the assigned limitations.

Connections to Art History and Other Art
After they have made their work, assign videos, some slides, books, journals, and/or web pages that have expressive work and or work that has special meaning. Peter Voulko's ceramics comes to mind. He had a group of students in the 50's including Soldner, Mason, and others whose work is very expressive. Painters like Pollack, Hartigan, Hoffman, and Frankenthaler come to mind. 
    Having students bring research about other artists to class is a good way for them to make connections with professional work. Have a discussion in class and test the students on these presentations. Asking students to write critiques of work by professionals will help them reach the stage of critical and reflective thinking. 
Other Lessons and Teaching Ideas
Art Lessons Page
Creativity Killers
  Goshen College Art Department Teaching Creativity
Marvin Bartel Courses   Marvin Bartel Home
 Marvin Bartel Artwork Conducting a Critique

Note: If you are reading a paper copy of this page, using this Internet URL gives you live links to related resources. http://www.goshen.edu/~marvinpb/lessons/express.html
© Marvin Bartel 1999, all rights reserved - For permission or copy or publish contact the author.
updated November, 2005