Terracotta is a material made from clay. It has been used for many centuries by various civilizations and cultures across the globe. Artifacts like tiles, sculptures and pottery from Columbia, Europe, and Africa to India and China stand testimony to its popularity down the ages. Terracotta artifacts have been found by archeologists in their excavations hailing back to more than 2500 B.C. from Mohenjo Daro and Harappa and ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Greek figurines of Tanagra and the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China are two outstanding examples of terracotta art work of the ancient times.
In its website the US General Service Administration gives the typical characteristics of terracotta, its uses and problems. The characteristics of terracotta are as follows
It is fired clay
Usually it is hollow and made by extruding or pressing into a mould
It is fired at low temperature
When unglazed it is a reddish brown color
It is strong and durable
It is fireproof and waterproof
It can be molded into any shape desired
There are four types of terracotta
Fireproof construction terracotta
Ceramic veneer terracotta
Glazed architectural terracotta
Originally terracotta was used for sculpture, to make decorative tiles and for structural purposes. Its modern uses include structural cladding, rain proofing of buildings, decorative artifacts like flower pots and tableware and even jewelry. .
I will discuss today the entire process of making of terracotta with particular reference to the amazing Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang who ruled China around 250 B.C. The Terracotta Army was discovered only very recently when a farmer started to dig a well for water in 1974. Excavation in that area revealed hundreds of life size warriors, chariots and horses made of terracotta and arranged in battle formation.
The process of making terracotta is not really complicated. Since it is essentially made of clay, the first step is to harvest the clay from the ground. The mud has many impurities that need to be removed before the process can begin. This is called refining and begins with initially drying out the clay. Minerals, rocks and other foreign matter have to be then separated by screening and filtering. The clay is thereafter pressed into molds and then fired in a kiln at temperatures lower than that of other ceramics, between 2048 and 2049 Fahrenheit. In the olden days it used to be baked in the sun. It was only in the 15th century in Florence that terracotta started to be glazed. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Glazed terracotta is durable and impervious and therefore ideal for architectural use. Since it can be carved, given different textures and colors it is much more cost effective than stone. It is also a very good option for making tableware.
Terracotta requires a fair amount of physical labor. But if you wish to make terracotta from scratch and if you follow the procedure described by me, let me assure you that you are sure to be successful. Let me first tell you about what you will need: A bucket, a spade or shovel, plaster bats, hammer, sieve, a large serving spoon, plastic wrap and plastic bags and water. To source the clay you have to dig into the ground deep enough to go below the surface layer of mud. Clay has finer grains than the surface mud and may be wet or dry depending on the environmental conditions of the area you are digging. If you do not have a garden you can dig, the areas near lakes and ponds or those dug up for construction are good places to source your clay.
Once you have the required number of buckets of clay, pour it in a thin layer on the plastic bats and allow it to dry completely. Once dried, use the hammer to break up the clay into small pea sized pieces. Then slowly stir the clay into water so that no lumps are formed. Add enough water to make it into a watery consistency and let it sit for a minimum of three to four hours. This mixture can be left as it is for up to three weeks.
Then it is time to strain out the impurities. Stir the mixture well before pouring into a bucket through a sieve. Add more water if required so that the clay pours through the sieve. Discard all the dirt and allow the clay to rest and carefully pour out the excess water till the mixture becomes the texture of mud. Pour this mixture on to plastic bats again and allow it to stiffen. Then knead it well to remove all the air bubbles. It is now ready for use. It can be stored wrapped in several layers of plastic wrap and then in a plastic bag for future use.
Once you have made your terracotta artifacts you will need to fire them till they are hardened. Remember if the temperature is too high the terracotta will crack. You can either ask a friendly potter to allow you to fire your creations in his / her kiln or you can make a fire pit at home. There are various types of fire pits and you can find the knowhow on the internet.
When kneaded well the terracotta is pliable enough to be given any shape you wish. Please ensure that there are no air bubbles in the kneaded clay since that would ruin your final product. I would advise you to start with simple shapes like plates, bowls and pots. Once you find that you have mastered the art of terracotta, especially shaping it, then move on to sculpture, making intricate figures and jewelry. You can even try making copies of the Terracotta Army of China like my grandfather used to.
I am an international student from China and when I was small I remember my grandfather telling me stories about the famous Terracotta Army that had been found buried. I used to watch him making small terracotta soldiers similar to the ones excavated. There was an article in a National Geographic magazine recently that describes the process that was used so many centuries back. In her article Heather Pringle says that by using “new digital technology known as structure-from-motion” the archeologists were able to “create precise, three-dimensional reconstructions of the warriors' ears.” The archeologists could conclude that the faces of the seven thousand and more terracotta warriors found buried in the pit near Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum were individually made, although the legs, arms and bodies were probably produced on an assembly line the same way that drain pipes are made today.
I remember my grandfather first making the molds for the legs and arms and bodies of the soldiers. He used to press the terracotta onto them to shape them and then fire them. Once ready he used to paste them together with glue. For the face he used to first mould the basic structure and then add extra clay on it and with an engraver make the features of the face. The ears were always made separately and later pasted on. Once ready my grandfather used to always paint them to give them a finished look. These terracotta warriors made by my grandfather I treasure even today.
Initially you might find it easier to make pots out of terracotta than figures with features like eyes, mouth, brows and ears that need to be carved. Take it a step at a time.
If you wish to paint your creation remember to always use water based acrylic paint. The terracotta surface must always be clean and dry. You must first wipe the surface with a damp cloth and then allow it to dry. If it is a flower pot that you wish to paint, first spray the inside with a water sealant. Give three coats at least allowing it to dry between coats. Then spray the water based acrylic paint on to a plastic lid or paper plate. Use a brush to paint on the terracotta surface. After the first coat allow the paint to dry thoroughly and then apply another coat. Once the final coat is thoroughly dry, your work of art is ready.
Terracotta is an ancient art that is still continuing. Try mastering this art and let your creativity flow.
US General Services Administration. “Historic Preservation – Technical Procedures”
Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Terracotta – Pottery”
Pringle, Heather. “Ears of Ancient Terracotta Warriors Offers Clues to Their Creation”
National Geographic Magazine. November 2014