China Painting is an ancient art that is still popular today, thousands of years after it was originated. It is a form of decoration for porcelains and other ceramics that involves multiple layers of special glazes applied to a piece of previously glazed porcelain or ceramic to form a visual design. After each layer is painted, the piece is fired in a “low” temperature kiln to make the glazes permanent. (When talking about firing clays and glazes in kilns, a “low” fire is about 1200 degrees F to about 1600 degrees F.) The result of these multiple layers of paint and firings is a rich, permanent decoration on the piece. The China painting technique is commonly used on previously glazed dishes and wall and floor tiles.
China Painting is also known as Porcelain Art, and porcelain is also known as chinaware. Porcelain is the preferred surface on which to do China painting. It was done as early as 1480 CE, during the Ming Dynasty in China. By the 1600s, the Italians were doing their own form of porcelain work, and began to perfect enamels. Russian porcelain was developed in around 1700. At that time the French began making their own form of porcelain, and developed decals, or transfers, much like those we use today, although hand painting was quite prevalent, too. Germany’s Dresden porcelains appeared around 1730. England developed a “true” porcelain not long afterwards. By 1769 Americans were working in porcelains. The finest porcelain of all is called Limoges (Pronounced Lim-ozh) and showed up in France around 1773. The fine white clay from which it is made can only be found in the region of France.
Porcelain is a highly refined white clay that is filtered to remove impurities. Before it is hard fired in a hot kiln it is very fragile and crumbles easily, but once it is fired at a high temperature it becomes extremely hard, durable and almost transparent. The result is a delicate looking, but hardy piece of ware, usable for many purposes, from wall tiles to dishes. This kind of clay isn’t appropriate for throwing pots, molding, or sculpting as the unfired material is not sufficiently elastic, put liquid porcelain can be poured into molds. China Painting can be done on any fired glazed clay surface that can be fired in a kiln. These surfaces include stoneware, china, ceramic and others.
China paintings are done with the same attention to design, pattern, color and visual texture as other forms of painting (watercolor, oil, acrylic, etc.) are done. The techniques most closely resemble those of the watercolor artist as the china artist relies upon the white of the surface to provide whites in the resulting painting. But the appearance is much like an oil painting- rich and deep. Once fired, the multiple layers will not bleed into each other as watercolors do throughout the painting process. The white background in China painting is on a piece of porcelain or ceramic in any of infinite possible shapes and sizes, from small boxes to large pots, from tiles to dishes.
The final layers on a piece of painted china may be enhanced with real gold or silver hard fired onto the piece, or any of many lusters and opalescent to add particularly spectacular pieces. These last, extremely low fire glazes will not be as durable as the underlaying glazes. White china paints are available for painting surfaces of other colors, but for a clean white the artist usually prefers to use the existing white of her base piece. Using a clean brush, cloth or eraser she can remove paint from areas she accidentally covered but wishes to leave white.
Decorative China painting is done with a paint base made of fine crystals of ground minerals. These are known as overglazes. They are called overglazes because they must be applied and fired on top of other glazes that are used on the piece if those glazes require a higher firing temperature. If China glazes are fired at too high a temperature the color will fade or change and be ruined. Often manufactured tiles that were factory glazed are used as the painting surface.
The powder form of the paint used in china painting is sold in gram vials or paper envelopes in a powder form. The paint can also be purchase in small flats premixed with oil. The powdered paint is mixed with oil to create the painting medium. Many china artists mix their own oils of lavender or eucalyptus oils. Each individual artist tends to prefer a particular kind of mix that may dry more or less quickly and the characteristics of the oil mix determine how quickly the paint dries. A few companies sell special oils mixed especially for china painting. Very few china artists simply mix their powdered glazes with water. Oil is generally preferred because it adheres to a glossy glazed surface better. Water can be used as a paint base if the artist will be working on a matt surface.
Using a white ceramic plate or glazed tile as a palette, a small amount of powder is mixed with the oil using a palette knife or stick until a soft, buttery texture is achieved. Turpentine is used to clean brushes, palettes and to clean messes. Protective clothing is worn because once mixed with the oils the paints may stain. It is important that the artist not inhale any of the fine powder as she mixes it because some colors contain lead and other toxic heavy metals.
Using a previously prepared design, the artist begins to apply the paint thinly, using turpentine or oil to thin her paint. She fires the piece in a 1200 degree kiln after painting each thin layer. The painting develops depth and richness with subsequent layers of paint and firings. She is careful not to let her palette colors run together for the fired result may not be the color on the palette. A common unwanted result is a “muddy” final color.
A China Painting can be completed and fired in one layer, but for the depth and richness usually associated with the technique, multiple firings are usually preferred. In the first layer, the artist puts down the basic pattern, leaving clean the spaces where whites will show in the final portrait. With each subsequent layer of paint and firing the artist deepens shadows and enhances colors until the final firing when they all come together into a satisfying product. It is common to do five to eight layers and firings on an individual piece, although more or fewer are sometimes done.
Today China painting is done primarily in electric and gas kilns. A small cone of clay is put into the kiln with the pieces to be fired. This clay cone is of a type of clay that will bend when it reaches a certain temperature, letting the artist know that it is time to turn off the heat.
If the artist waits too long her piece could be ruined from the excessive heat. Some electric kilns have what is known as a “kiln sitter”, or a small device into which the little clay cone is placed. When the heat reaches a certain temperature, the cone bends and causes a little lever to lower. This turns off the kiln. This makes it much easier for the China artist not to ruin her work. For the hobby china painter, there are ceramic shops that will fire her pieces for her, but she will have less control over how it is done.
Once the piece is cooled, more layers can be painted on it, or it is ready for display or use. It takes as long as 24 hours for the hot kiln to cool sufficiently to check the finished product. The artist must use long tongs with heat resistant handles and protective gloves when opening a kiln that is not yet cooled to protect her skin. If the piece is picked up while it is still too hot, bringing it out into cooler air may crack and ruin it, so patience must be exercised to let it stay in the gradually cooling kiln until it is cool enough. When the kiln has cooled enough that the interior has returned to its normal color from the hot red color it is during the extreme temperatures of firing, the artist can usually carefully lift the lid and take a peek to see if her pieces came out as expected, but if the room is considerably cooler than the kiln, she will be very careful, for even a breeze of cool air could be devastating.
Once the piece is completed it can be considered a permanent piece of art that, sparing accident or disaster, will be around far longer than the artist that created it.note