When you start learning how to throw on the potters’ wheel you have to be taught how to centre the mound of clay. This is the most challenging skill to learn for some people and it’s also a tough one to teach, but it’s the foundation of making your pot – you have to centre the clay (or, at the very least, get it really close to being centred).
Centering involves more strength than you think you need. It also requires more focus and energy than you think it does, and it’ll make parts of your hands incredibly smooth and other parts calloused.
To centre my mounds of clay I hunch my upper body over the wheel, elbows braced against either my waist or my thigh, my head is usually directly above the clay, looking down, with my hands on the mound, pressing, pushing, squeezing it into a round, smooth – centred – hunk of potential.
If the clay is not centred before you proceed with opening and pulling, then the walls of your pot will be uneven and as the piece gets taller a wonk will start and it will throw you even further off centre – and if that’s the kind of pot you want, then great! But it still takes a lot of practice and skill to throw with a wonk. I tell students to just throw through it, throw as if it is centred and ignore the wonk, which usually works for me.
Now after years of practice, I still have days when I just cannot centre anything on the wheel.
The tricky thing about finding the centre is it can also be elusive. One thing I’ve heard again and again from a lot of potters is that if you’re not centred yourself, then you won’t be able to centre the clay. And, yeah, that’s totally true. If you can’t focus on centering – if your mind is full of chatter or if you keep getting distracted by a wee, wet dog nose on your ankle – then chances are that clay is going to stay lumpy and wonky on the wheel.
That’s one of the things I love about throwing pottery, it either forces me to quiet my mind or it shows me that That Thing I didn’t think was bothering me that much, well it is and I should go deal with it then get back to the clay. Thankfully the days of not being centred don’t happen that often, and sometimes just getting up and changing the playlist is all I really need to do.