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Pinch me, I must be dreaming.

Little Jack Horner Sat in a corner, Rolling a ball of clay: He stuck in his thumb, Pinched it around a little, And came up with an interesting piece of sculpture.

Well, that's not exactly how the nursery rhyme goes, but then that's not exactly how to make a pinch-formed sculpture either.

Pinch forming was the first method ancient people used to make clay objects by hand. To date, archaeologists have found only a few fired clay pieces made during these earliest times. However, from these examples, we can assume that most prehistoric clayworks were small, solid shapes which were probably used as fetishes to aid with hunting, fertility or health.

Because big lumps of clay will explode when fired, the size of these archaic solid objects was limited. Certainly the artists/shamans of those times wished to make larger works. It was soon discovered that if large clay forms were hollowed out they would not disintegrate in the flames. Over time, other ways to construct larger clay forms, such as coil building and slab construction, were developed and pinch forming was relegated mostly to making small pots. Today--thousands of years later--every time we use the pinch method, we still end up with little half grapefruits. Let's see if we can get beyond the apparent confines of this very simple way of manipulating clay, and turn the results into an exciting sculptural form.

The Necessities

All that is really needed to make simple sculptural forms is a pair of hands and some clay. The work space need not he large, just a clean desktop will do. A damp sponge nearby would be helpful. The clay can be of any kind--low fire, stoneware or porcelain--as long as it's not too sticky or too stiff.

Making a Pinch Form

Take a wad of clay and pat it firmly into a ball. Hold this ball in the palm on one hand. Push the thumb of the other hand into the clay almost to the bottom. Lightly squeeze the clay between the thumb and fingers and slowly rotate the ball. With little effort a simple pinch form will soon appear.

Keep the ball of clay rotating in the hand. This will assure that the bottom of the form stays rounded. Working the clay on a table will flatten the bottom and also lead to wide, truncated shapes instead of fully curved objects.

If the clay starts to get little cracks because the pinching action is making it too dry, just moisten the fingertips on the damp sponge once in a while, and continue to pinch lightly. Avoid the temptation to put water on the clay; this will only turn the project into a soggy mess. If the clay does get too wet, simply put the piece aside until it has stiffened.


Try to develop a series of different shapes. Let the size of the ball dictate the size of the piece. Try starting with an egg-like ball or some more organic form to see where the clay will lead. Make several forms that are tall and thin. Try to make others short and wide. In each case, concentrate on getting an even wall thickness on all sides of the form.

As each form is completed, set it aside to stiffen. If a form is considered complete, place it upside down so that it will dry more evenly.

Multiple Forms

Make several open forms, let them stiffen, and then assemble them into a larger free-standing object. Attach the pinch forms together in a way that accents the concave aspect inherent in the forms. At this point, a small wooden tool could be used instead of a finger to weld good joints between each part.

With a little effort, two hemispheres can be joined lip to lip to make a hollow spheroid. A group of enclosed forms like this could then be joined together to create a larger work that features the convex qualities of pinch forms. Be certain that there is a small hole in each of the closed forms to guard against explosion in the kiln.

Large Possibilities

As the ability to make basic pinch forms increases, so do possibilities of larger, more inventive sculptures. It is always helpful to make a few sketches of the intended sculpture first. Not only can the composition of the sculpture be fully developed, but any problems that might occur during joining can be anticipated and resolved before the work actually begins.

Removable exterior supports or interior armatures may sometimes be needed to aid in assembling, drying and even firing a particular work. Include this information in preliminary sketches.

Retain the integrity of each pinch form in a larger sculpture by joining each unit in a manner similar to the work pictured. Using the same concept, design something that could be hung on a wall.

Try creating even more fanciful creatures by joining several pinch forms and adding a few details.

Making sculpture from pinch forms is easy and simple. It can bring out creativity and be enjoyable at the same time. Let's show those ancient folks how far we've really come.

Leon Nigrosh is a ceramist and writer in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has taught ceramics at Clark University and The Worcester Center for Crafts.
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Title Annotation:pinch forming in clay sculpture
Author:Nigrosh, Leon
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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