The Magic of Terracotta: A Key Element in Craftsmanship

Since our origins, we have worked and used fired clay for an infinite number of purposes. Terracotta has been one of the most widely used materials for millennia. What makes it so characteristic? What is it used for today? How does it differ from other types of ceramics?

Find out why it is still irreplaceable even today and why it is still so widely used.

Maceteas rústicas de terracota
Flowerpots, from FyneFindsUK

History and Origin of Terracotta

Terracotta, whose name comes from the Italian ‘terra cotta’, which translates as ‘fired clay’, is one of the oldest materials used by humans in the creation of ceramic objects.

Its origin dates back to prehistoric times, where the first civilisations discovered that by moulding clay and subjecting it to the heat of fire, they obtained a hard and resistant material. This discovery was essential for the advancement of societies, providing containers for storing food, water and in the creation of building elements such as bricks and tiles.

This fired clay evolved along with humanity itself, and many works of our ancestors are still preserved today. The terracotta figures of ancient Mesopotamia, the warriors of Xian in China, and the vast ranges of decorated vessels of ancient Greece are examples that have survived millennia to tell stories of past civilisations.

Features

Terracotta is known for its distinctive characteristics that have made it popular in various applications throughout our history:

  • Porosity: It has a high water absorption capacity unless sealed or glazed. This property also allows for good air breathability in applications such as plant pots.
  • Colouring: Its characteristic colour varies from shades of orange-red to brown, depending on the composition of iron and other minerals in the clay and the firing conditions.
  • Durability: Once fired, it becomes strong and durable, although it is still more fragile compared to other ceramic materials such as stoneware or porcelain.
  • Workability: It is easy to shape and work when wet, making it ideal for crafting and sculpting.
  • Thermal and Acoustic: It has insulating properties, both thermal and acoustic, which makes it useful in construction applications.
  • Ecological: It is a natural and ecological material, which can be recycled and does not emit toxic substances during its manufacture or use.
Jarrones de terracota
Handmade terracotta pots by VillageVintageUA

These properties make terracotta a versatile material used in a variety of fields, from crafts and art to architecture, construction and engineering. We tell you about it.

What it is used for

This excellent material is much more than just clay; it is the elegant result of the combination of earth and fire that offers us infinite possibilities. Let’s discover together some of its most common uses and some more surprising ones.

Terracotta in architecture

It probably comes as no surprise to many that this splendid material is commonly used in different constructions. For millennia, it has been the ideal resource for creating the roof tiles that protect our homes. But not only that, it is also used to make those bricks that, naked and honest, give a rustic charm to facades. And, as if that were not enough, terracotta has also been used to create ornamental elements of all kinds.

Small oases for your plants

Have you noticed those cute clay-coloured garden pots? Not only are they pleasing to the eye, but also, thanks to the porosity of the material, they allow plant roots to breathe and moisture to be better managed.

Stone sculptures

Sculptors have been using this noble material since ancient times to give life to figures and all kinds of works of art. Do you remember the impressive Terracotta Army in China? They are sculptures that accompany the emperor Qin Shi Huang in his tomb – a marvel!

The warmth of home in kitchen utensils

Clay pots are a classic in our kitchens. Not only do they give a special flavour to our stews, but they also achieve a unique texture thanks to the material’s ability to distribute the heat evenly.

Decorative objects

And of course, we could not fail to mention the versatility of this material in the creation of decorative objects. Its malleable character allows artists and craftsmen to express themselves without limits, creating unique pieces to embellish our spaces.

And before I finish, let me share a curiosity. Terracotta can have different colours, from pale yellows to deep blacks, depending on the composition of the clay and the temperature at which it is fired. Sometimes, nature surprises us by painting our works with its own wonderful palette of colours.

Baldosas de terracota par suelo y paredes
Tiles from 212Dimensions

Terracotta on our floors

When I talk about terracotta floors, you probably think of those warm rooms with warm, robust, orange floors under our feet. A beautiful image, isn’t it? This earthy material is, in fact, a great flooring element, very valuable both for indoor tiles and for the exterior of our homes.

This type of flooring conveys a cosy, rustic feel that few other materials can emulate. If you have ever had the pleasure of walking on these floors, you will probably remember their special feel and warmth. This is due to the thermal properties of the material, which allow it to retain and slowly release heat, contributing to an unparalleled feeling of comfort.

Moreover, because it is a very resistant and durable material, it stands the test of time perfectly. It is not uncommon to find old houses with original floorings that, despite the years, still look fantastic.

But that’s not all. Did you know that terracotta is one of the most sustainable building materials? Its manufacture requires a low environmental impact process, making it an environmentally friendly as well as aesthetically appealing option.

And we cannot overlook the versatility of this material. Whether large rustic tiles for a more country style, or small hexagonal pieces for a more contemporary touch, it adapts elegantly to all styles of decoration.

As I mentioned before, it has a wide range of natural colours, you can choose the exact shade you want, from soft yellowish to intense copper, so that your floors match perfectly with the rest of your decoration.

Differences with other types of ceramics

Difference between Porcelain and Terracotta

Porcelain, known for its fineness and translucency, differs from terracotta in its composition and firing. While the latter is made from iron-rich clay that gives it its characteristic reddish colour and is fired at lower temperatures, porcelain is made from a type of mineral called kaolin and fired at very high temperatures, resulting in a vitrified product with superior strength and an almost impermeable quality.

Difference between Stoneware and Terracotta

Stoneware is a type of ceramic that is fired at higher temperatures, which gives it greater durability and makes it waterproof even when unglazed. Terracotta, on the other hand, is more porous and its unglazed finish is more susceptible to water absorption. In terms of texture, stoneware tends to be denser and heavier.

Difference between earthenware and terracotta

Earthenware is a ceramic that is fired at intermediate temperatures between terracotta and stoneware. Unlike terracotta, which has a more rustic finish and porous texture, earthenware is characterised by a smoother, more uniform surface that is generally finished with a glossy glaze, making it waterproof and suitable for tableware and everyday objects.

Difference between Majolica and Terracotta

Majolica is a form of earthenware covered with an opaque white tin glaze which is then decorated with metallic colours. Unglazed terracotta does not have this glaze layer and therefore does not have the same shiny, decorative surface. Majolica is usually less resistant and is mainly used for decorative purposes.

What is terracotta painted and decorated with?

To paint terracotta, it is essential to choose paints that are compatible with the porosity and composition of the material. I list some options, some are to be added before firing and others to decorate the piece once it is finished, some require knowledge of some of the ceramic decoration techniques.

  1. Engobes: These are liquid clays coloured with metallic oxides or ceramic pigments that are applied to the terracotta before firing, giving a very natural matt and textured finish.
  2. Underglazes: These are similar to engobes but are formulated not to run off during firing, allowing for more detailed and precise work. They can be used to create designs under a transparent glaze.
  3. Glazes or Ceramic Glazes: These are applied after the first firing (biscuit) and require a second firing. They come in a variety of finishes, from matt to high gloss, and can be transparent or opaque.
  4. Acrylic paints are a popular choice due to their ease of use, fast drying and water resistance once dry. Acrylics offer a wide range of colours and can be thinned with water for wash effects or applied in thick coats for solid coverage.
  5. Oil paints: Although not the most common, they can be used by artists seeking a deeper, richer finish. They must be applied to a sealed surface and may require a protective varnish.
terracotta 4
Terracotta figure from VintagegiftsIreland

It is important to prepare the terracotta with a coat of sealer or a suitable primer before painting, especially if water-based techniques are to be used. This will help the paint to adhere better and provide a more uniform surface to work on. In addition, if the piece will be exposed to the outdoors or in damp environments, it is recommended that a final sealer be applied to protect the paint from the elements.

Contemporary Uses of Terracotta in Design and Decoration

This type of ceramic is not just a vestige of the past; it is a living material that continues to evolve in the modern world. I will explore with you how this noble material has reinvented itself in contemporary decoration and sustainable design, proving that it can be both functional and aesthetically revolutionary. I’ll tell you that the versatility of terracotta is astonishing and will encourage you to contemplate its use in ways you had never imagined.

  • Vessels and Containers: Used to create jars, pots, plates and other containers for storing food and liquids, taking advantage of their ability to preserve freshness.
  • Architectural Elements: Used in the manufacture of tiles, bricks and ornamental details such as tiles and reliefs for façades.
  • Sculpture: A favourite medium for sculptors to create everything from statuettes to large works, allowing for detailed modelling work.
  • Decorative Art: Used in the creation of a wide range of decorative objects, including figurines and vases.
  • Cooking Utensils: Prized for its ability to cook food evenly, it is used to make casseroles and tajines.
  • Functional Art: Creates utilitarian objects such as pots and planters that combine utility and aesthetics.
  • Restoration and Reproduction: Used to restore or reproduce pieces of ancient art and elements of historic buildings.
  • Education and Practice: Ideal for teaching and learning pottery due to its malleability and ease of use.
  • Innovation in Design: Contemporary designers explore new applications, mixing terracotta with modern materials to create innovative objects.

Conclusions

This material, with its rich palette of earthy tones and remarkable history, is a testament to the human connection to earth and fire. Unlike porcelain, stoneware, earthenware, majolica or faience, it offers a uniqueness that goes beyond its aesthetics: it is an amalgam of simplicity, history and functionality.

Its ability to be moulded by the craftsman’s hands and its transformation through heat make it unique in the world of pottery.

Terracotta, then, is not simply a type of pottery; it is a link to our past and a bridge to sustainability in our future, remaining a relevant and respected choice in both traditional craftsmanship and contemporary innovation.



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