Lydgate J&I

Project: Brilliant Hues
Science topic: Working Scientifically
Participants: Year 5 pupils
Artist: Ammie Flexen

Brilliant hues and sparkling whites! Science is so colourful, as we will discover when we explore the scientific and historical connections between Chinese Shang Dynasty ceramics and modern-day engineering. Metals are used as oxides in ceramics for colouring the clay and decorating the surfaces, and are also used in engineering for constructing components. We will be investigating the differences, using microscopes, and recording our findings. We’ll be taking the work of Shang Dynasty potters and the designs they used on their pots to inspire us in the creation of our own clay pieces. We’ll measure our test pieces and record how clay changes when it dries or is fired in the kiln, investigate ways of making patterns and surfaces, and discover exciting patterns by experimenting with brilliant oxides of the kind that were used in the Shang Dynasty. All our creative explorations and scientific recordings will give us the inspiration for our final artwork.


Session 1: 14th February 2017
Today we met with Ammie and Donna. Ammie is an artist working mostly in clay and Donna is a scientist and engineer working at Cummins Turbo Technologies in Huddersfield. We are going to be using clay in lots of different ways, and exploring the different ways that Ammie and Donna use metal in their work. We began our time together by using our imaginations to make vehicles with the clay. Inspired by our Shang Dynasty project, we worked with Ammie to make clay oracle bones. We worked with Donna to think about how we could test the bones to discover the clay properties. We thought about measuring the clay in the length and width to see if it shrinks. We weighed clay balls and then made them into bowls. We are going to test what happens and whether the weight changes as it dries, and Ammie is going to fire some of the clay in the kilns so we can see what happens with heat. Some of our predictions are that it might get crumbly, it might get lighter in colour, it might shrink, the water will go out of it so it will get lighter – we can weigh it.

“I liked designing the oracle bones. My favourite thing was making the vehicles because you could mould the clay to make different shapes”

“I liked making the oracle bones, it’s creative, you could investigate patterns”

“I liked the finger bowls because there are some techniques you can do at home”

“It was really satisfying – using your fingers it goes smooth”

“You had to be gentle with it, it’s cracking because it’s drying out”

Session 2: 7th March 2017

Today we learnt a bit about engineering. Donna told us about her work at Cummins and brought in a turbo casing for us to do some observational drawings of. We discovered that metals have interesting patterns at microscopic level. Inspired by some photographs of microscopic metal surfaces, we tried out some new art techniques using marbling with inks by dripping colours onto liquid size and then laying paper on. The paper soaked up the inks and created colourful ink patterns, made by swishing the ink around. Another technique we tried was dripping and trailing coloured slips onto clay tiles.   Ammie explained that the colours in the slips are made from metal oxides. Finally, we tested the clay from our last session.   We discovered that clay gets lighter as it dries and that is because the water evaporates. We tried adding water to the clay, and noticed that water soaked quickly into the fired clay, but not into the clay that was glazed.

“I enjoyed marbling as I could experiment with lots of colours”

“We didn’t have to be precise with colours”

“I liked making the tiles and using the slips and sponges”

“I liked making the tiles as I could do whatever I wanted to as a pattern”

“I learnt about how the clay changed texture. The bisque fired one absorbed water but the glazed one didn’t”

“I liked drawing the turbo using the different pencils to get different effects”

“I liked being able to draw the turbo from different angles”

Session 3: 14th March 2017
This week we began making our work for the exhibition. We are each making a plate which will become part of a whole collection. Using a slab building and coiling technique, we all made a pattern of our choice. We had to think carefully about how the clay will shrink – we have learnt that as the clay dries and the water evaporates it gets smaller, which meant we had to be very careful that the clay coils overlapped each other so that they don’t come apart when they are dry. Having made our patterns we had to smooth all the coils together to join them – we weren’t sure what to think about the fact that this made all our careful work disappear, but when we turned the clay over, our patterns were there and looked amazing!   We used grey clay for this work, but we also tested out using terracotta clay and made our own miniature terracotta warriors. We noticed that the red clay felt smoother and softer to use than the grey clay. Next week we will be working on our surfaces for the plates.

“I enjoyed making the terracotta soldiers. Because I liked moulding the clay and could make any design”

“I enjoyed making the clay man”

“I liked making the plates best. I enjoyed blending the clay to make sure it didn’t break”

“I enjoyed making the patterns and textures when making the plates”

“I didn’t know what to expect when we turned the plate over”

Session 4: 28th March 2017

In our final session today we used different ways to record and test. We carried out a metal fatigue test with Donna – we had to see how many times we could bend a paper clip before it snapped – and plotted all our results on a chart so we could see how many different answers we got.   We used microscopes to look at some of the metal oxides that Ammie brought in and were able to see the different structures of the materials.   We made a timeline of all our sessions summing up what we have learnt about clay so far. We have discovered how clay works and how we can manipulate it and decorate it with slips and metal oxides. We’ve also discovered that when it is used in the glaze that copper turns green, iron becomes brown and cobalt becomes blue. Next, using our paper marbling pieces from session 2 and some drawings and colour paper, we created collages to make the designs for the centres of our plates. Our designs have been inspired by metal and the different ways that Donna uses metal in engineering and Ammie uses metal oxides to colour her glazes and slips, as well as by the amazing colour photographs that Donna showed us of metal under very powerful microscopes.   Finally, inspired by the Shang Dynasty which is our class topic this term, we chose words related to our science project and a colleague of Donna’s translated them into Chinese for us. We had a go at painting our own signs in the style of Chinese calligraphers and ceramic artists. Our plates are now going into the kiln. Ammie will add a glaze to them and our collage designs will be put on transfers and added to our plates in time for the exhibition.   We all now think that science is much more interesting that we first thought!

“We did marbling to create a metal effect. Most people loved marbling. I love marbling because we get to mix lots of different colours”

“I learnt how to use clay and marbling. The best thing I have done is making the plates and the oracle bones”

“When you add water to the dry clay it goes soft at the bottom”

Some feedback from our Cummins buddy

“I have thoroughly enjoyed helping the children learn how the material properties of clay change as it dries and that this is important to making artwork that doesn’t break.  I have been able to use my specialist area of metallurgy to complement Ammie’s art direction for the project and help the children understand that metals look very different under a microscope and are brightly coloured when they are in oxide form in ceramic glazes.  Encouraging the children to use scientific planning for recording measurement information has shown them that they can use this approach in many ways to understand change.” Donna Skeldon – Cummins Turbo Technologies

A few final words from our teacher…     

“The children were definitely engaged and enthusiastic about the scientific elements of the project, and particularly enjoyed investigating and discussing the change in state of the clay and the micro-structure of metals.  Many of the children believe that they are ‘not good at art’ and so lack confidence in their own ideas and abilities.  However, the nature of the material we were using (clay) gave the children a greater sense of freedom and allowed them to make mistakes, as they could just roll it up and start again.  Even the most reticent children were keen to take part and produce something.  Ammie had some fantastic ideas on how to incorporate the scientific aspects of our project into the artwork.  It was wonderful for the children to have the opportunity to work with materials that we do not have in school and to work with someone so knowledgeable of the medium.”  Danielle Patnelli – Year 5 Teacher