Being a professional ceramicist in France

Crafts in focus: a ceramicist or céramiste needs art and technical skill to transform clay into a beautiful object

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Being a professional ceramicist or potter means knowing every stage in the transformation of clay into a solid object, which could be a day-to-day plate, a tile or a piece of artwork such as a sculpture.

There are five stages.

First the preparation and choice of clay, which will play a big role in the way it can be used. The humidity must be just right as too dry is unworkable and too wet will not hold its shape. It must be worked so there are no pockets of air which could make the piece explode in the kiln.

It then has to be shaped on the potter’s wheel, or using techniques such as hand building, sculpting, or in moulds.

The finished shape must then dry in the correct conditions and for the right time to reduce risk of cracks during firing.

The firing process itself requires a great deal of technical knowledge as temperature and length of time in the kiln are vital to the end result which will vary according to type of clay and structure of the piece.

Finally, decoration requires both artistic ability and technical knowledge of the different glazes and the way they react to the clay and to heat when the item goes for final firing.

A qualified ceramicist can work for themselves or for someone else. There are also openings in industry; in mass produced tableware; tiling, sanitary ware and roofing in the building industry; ceramic parts for the medical world and in electronics.

Most work as craftsmen and women but the Institut National des Métiers d’Art says that due to the diversity of available jobs it is difficult to know how many ceramicists there are. A 2009 estimate said 1,689 craft ceramicists plus 2,000 in ceramics industries.

There are several possibilities for studying ceramics to become a céramiste in France from the most basic which is a CAP lasting either two or three years in either decoration or creating pots to a three-year Diplôme Universitaire des Métiers d’Art option céramique at the Ecole Supérieure des Métiers d’Art d’Arras.

Several private schools also offer diploma courses. You can find details of 340 courses for adults and 62 for young students at

We spoke to Patricia Neal, who has been a ceramicist for 40 years and has her own business, Faïences Patricia H, at Souillac in Lot, which she runs with her husband Bob, a British potter who has been in France for several years.

They work as a team. He throws the pots, which range from plates, cups, bowls and other tableware and she decorates them with a range of different designs.

Mrs Neal knew as a child that she wanted to spend her life as an artist, but it was not until she visited the pottery workshops at her first art school in Paris, aged 16, that she discovered ceramics. “It was love at first sight from the moment I stepped into the workshop.

“I had never seen pottery being created before and I loved everything about it, the atmosphere, the clay, the firing, the decoration. From then on I went to the workshop whenever I could and I was given a place on the three-year ceramics course where you learned every aspect of being a potter.”

She went on to study drawing and painting at the Beaux-Arts de Paris and afterwards her ceramics professor found her a job decorating pottery in Dordogne: “It was different then,” she says. “There were workshops everywhere which would employ up to 10 ceramists at a time.

“We mostly made terrine dishes and other tableware for the foie gras producers. I was employed there for four years and afterwards decided to set up my own business, but I could always find work to supplement my income from other workshops in the area.

“It is much harder now for people setting out as the opportunities for salaried work have nearly all disappeared because of competition from overseas with lower prices.”

Now she mostly works on decoration. “I spend a long time creating each design, as afterwards I will have to repeat it over and over again on several different forms.

“First I dip the pot into the glaze. When that is dry I take off any imperfections and then I paint on my design.

“I always say each item takes four minutes and 40 years’ experience in the job. I work towards filling the kiln which is fired twice a week.”

About half their sales come from tourists and they send their work abroad: “The furthest has been to Russia. A woman visited the workshop, saw a small dish she liked and once she was back home she sent an order for a whole dinner service.”

Business has, however, slowed down. “Up to 2005 we could make a decent living, fairly easily. Up to 2014 it was more difficult but stable, but it has become worse since 2015.”

In the future she and her husband hope to diversify by giving pottery courses and selling their beautiful pottery online.