Working with china paints can be labor intensive, time consuming, and expensive. One fellow ceramic artist tested various mixing mediums to reduce costs and firing times. Here are the results of her experiments.

Defining the Terms 

China Paint: Used on ceramics to create elaborate motifs, they contain flux (oxides) combined with finely powdered pigments. 

Gum Arabic: A natural sap obtained from the acacia tree and commonly used as a binder in watercolor and gouache paints. 

Overglaze: Layer of decoration applied on top of a glaze on ceramic objects. A second firing at a lower temperature is required to set the material. 

Searching for Solutions 

China painting was a big part of my early ceramic career. I painted tiles, plates, bowls, and sinks with china paint suspended in various oils such as pine seed oil or linseed oil. However, due to the high cost of purchasing the various powders, I wanted to experiment with mixing them in different mediums (preferably non-oil based ones), that were less expensive as well as easily accessible, and, most importantly, provided me with the same depth and texture results as my paintings in one firing rather than three. 

A Brief History 

According to Bernard Rackham, the first recorded use of china paint in Europe was in the 14th century in Italy.1 It is an overglaze enamel paint applied on top of the fired glaze of a porcelain or ceramic object before being fired again at a lower temperature to fuse the paint to the surface. China paint can be traced back to the 1700s in Meissen, Germany, when the Royal Porcelain Factory originally invented it. Other European porcelain manufacturers followed suit, including Sèvres in France and Wedgwood in England. As noted by David Whitehouse, the use of china paint declined in popularity during the 18th century in Europe, as new ceramic decorating techniques were developed, such as transfer printing.2 China paint was named for the porcelain pieces to which it was applied, which were commonly referred to as “China” in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a popular method for decorating porcelain and ceramic objects with elaborate motifs and brilliant colors, such as plates, vases, and figurines. 

A Research Project 

To begin my research, I selected six of the most challenging stains to test with: red, blue, green, orange, pink, and purple. Because the compositions of these stains differ, different characteristics are obtained once they are applied and fired. China paint stains are made up of metal oxides and pigments suspended in media, usually an oil-based medium. Metal oxides are the primary component that gives the paint its color, while the pigments contribute to the color’s opacity and brightness. 

Cobalt oxide (blue), copper oxide (yellow/red), iron oxide (yellow/red/brown, black), manganese oxide (black, brown), and titanium dioxide (white) are some of the most popular metal oxides used in china paint. Pigments used in china paint stains can also vary and may include cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide, or different organic colorants. 

China paint has a firing temperature range of cone 021 (1112°F (600°C)) to cone 12 (1566°F (852°C)). I chose to fire my tiles at cone 017 (1301°F (705°C)), which is in the midpoint of the temperature range and is said to be an optimal temperature for preserving the paint’s contour and adding depth to the shape. 

First Round: Applications and Results 

Milk: The first medium I chose to work with was milk, one of the reasons being that it is widely accessible in any region, which is comparable to medieval artwork, as they used to make beautiful pieces of art using resources that were readily available to them. “The first painted surfaces on the planet were colored with a type of milk paint. Cave drawings and paintings from 8000 to 20,000 years ago were created with a simple mixture of milk, lime, and earth pigments.”3 

On a white-glazed ceramic tile, I applied the mixture (powder, stain, and medium milk) in the design of a flower. Although the mixture dried quickly, the application with the brush was smooth. Because the paint dried quickly, I was unable to remove the pigment to achieve intricacy and detail within the flower. “Theophilus, in the only chapter of De Diversis Artibus devoted to the subject, clearly mentions the use of lime milk to paint and the most suited methods to apply pigments on an already dry wall.”4 The qualities following the firing were nice; I got the smoothness and blackness of the paint, as well as flashes of depth inside the flower when needed, with no traces of crawling. 

Gum Arabic: Gum arabic was my second medium of choice. Gum arabic, like milk, was smooth to paint (save for pink and red) and dried fast, allowing me to paint numerous layers to produce depth without the risk of mixing or muddying the colors. However, when I painted too many layers on top of each other, the paint began to peel off, unlike when I worked with milk, which caused me to lose the shape of the flower. Despite using the same pigments and firing temperature as milk, the characteristics after firing were diametrically opposite. Because of the crawling, tiny crystals had developed, resulting in a loss of shape and a rough texture. “Gum arabic was also used as a binding agent in other forms of medieval painting, such as fresco and tempera.”5 It’s fascinating to learn that easily accessible contemporary mediums were also available to medieval folks. 

Glycerin and Egg Yolk: A pint of glycerin combined with an egg yolk was my third application, which was a common medium throughout the medieval period. To make a more flexible and lasting paint, glycerin, a transparent, odorless liquid, was occasionally blended with egg yolk. According to Ralph Mayer, “The addition of glycerin to egg tempera paint was likely first used in the 14th century in Italy.“6 

The drying rate of this mixture was slower than that of milk and gum arabic, which provided ample time to wipe off the paint and define the form of the flower. However, because it began crawling, I was unable to achieve a smooth finish while painting. The yellow stain was the most straightforward to work with. After firing, I was able to get a flawless finish, which was surprising given how difficult it was to neatly apply using the paintbrush. “Glycerin was not the only substance used to modify egg tempera paint during the medieval period,”Daniel Thompson writes. “Other ingredients, such as honey or vinegar, were also utilized to alter the qualities of the paint.”7 However, there was crawling in the yellow, green, pink, and purple flowers, and I lost color in the purple and pink flowers. 

7UP Carbonated Soda: Finally, 7UP was my final medium; water mixed with sugar was not a common medium for painting during the medieval period. As a result, I decided to explore with a sugary soda to see if its properties were similar to those of other mediums. According to Thompson, “Sugar was sometimes added to oil-based paints to create a more transparent glaze.”8 Sugar would be dissolved in water and then added in little amounts to the paint mixture. When the glaze was applied to the surface, it would have a shiny, translucent appearance. 

The paint was pleasant to work with when applying, but it dried quite quickly, so I was able to paint over the layers as well as wipe off the paint to generate highlights in certain spots inside the flower. The flowers were smooth after firing, but they had come out dim, resulting in speckling and the loss of the original form of the flower. 

Second Round Results 

I decided to mix these mediums together to find a middle range in the drying rate, depth, and texture while also using the same amount of powder for the other tests. After plenty of trial and error, I was happy to achieve depth and a midway based on the drying time. Surprisingly, I also discovered some textural variances. In conclusion, I found that combining 1 drop of glycerin and 2 drops of 7UP carbonated soda produced the greatest results for me. Because it offered distinct depth on the artwork and ample time to remove the paint from the ceramic surface. Furthermore, none of the colors/stains started crawling when fired with the mixture. 

the author Aliza Ladiwala, originally from Mumbai, India, is from a family of fourth-generation traders in ceramics, wall tiles, sanitary ware, and fittings. To learn more, visit

1 Rackham, B. (1972). Porcelain, Its Nature, Art, and Manufacture. New York: Scribner. 
2 Whitehouse, D. (1987). The Potter’s Art in California, 1885-1955. Oakland, CA: Oakland Museum 
3 “A Brief History of Milk Paint.” Accessed May 3, 2023.
4 Murat, Zuleika. “Wall Paintings through the Ages: The Medieval Period (Italy, Twelfth to Fifteenth Century) - Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.” SpringerLink, October 13, 2021.
5 Ashok, V. (2009). Techniques of Medieval Painting. New Delhi: Aryan Books International. 
6 Mayer, R. (1956). The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. New York: Viking Press. 
7 Thompson, D.V. (1956). The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. New York: Dover Publications. 
8 Thompson. 

Topics: Glaze Chemistry