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Published Sep 11, 2017

A lovely example of Jake Allee's experimentations with the Majolica/Maiolica technique

As I continue to incorporate more imagery into the surfaces of my work, I have often considered taking a whirl at the majolica technique but haven't yet done it. Majolica, also referred to as maiolica, is a wonderful way to create imagery on your work. In this technique, earthenware, generally terracotta, is coated with opaque white glaze (traditionally a lead glaze made opaque white with the addition of tin oxide; now there are lead-free options) and then colored overglaze decoration is applied.

In this post, an excerpt from the Pottery Making Illustrated archives, Jake Allee shares what he learned when he recently delved into the majolica technique. He also shares a majolica base glaze recipe. I really like the advice he gives on experimenting in your work. This may be just the impetus I needed to start some majolica experiments myself. - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

I’ve recently been experimenting with translating my drawings onto ceramic objects using the majolica technique. The direct nature of applying color through this brush technique has a nice appeal because the fired result looks pretty close to way it was applied. In an effort to get some of my advanced students to expand their experience with different firing ranges, I’ve been introducing majolica as a way to explore what the character and color palette of this technique has to offer.

For the type of imagery I’m trying to achieve, I’ve found that simple, refined forms with smooth surfaces are best, but thinking outside of the box might lead you beyond the conventional interpretation of this technique. Consider the variety of textures you can create, combined with alternatives to applying stains using nontraditional techniques. Spattering with a toothbrush, spraying with a squirt bottle, or dabbing with a crumpled rag might be just the beginning.

Get tons of ideas for great ceramic surfaces in Surface Decoration Techniques!


Applying the Base Glaze

fig. 1 Using the banding wheel, bands of stain are applied on the plate to define the edge of the composition.

The majolica technique begins with applying an opaque white glaze over your bisque-fired clay. I mix my own clay, but also use APS Red from New Mexico Clay. Any cone 04 redware clay that works with your glaze base is suitable.

Linda Arbuckle’s majolica glaze base works great (see recipe below), but pay attention to the thickness of the glaze when applying it. If it’s too thick, it tends to crawl, and if applied too thin it will cause the surface to be dry. For best results, use tongs to dip pieces to avoid getting finger marks, which become very evident when applying the stains. Any drips can be smoothed out with your finger tip after the glaze completely dries on the bisque piece.

If you don’t want to mix your own glaze, many commercial low-fire white glazes will work just as well.

Preparing Stains

A light wash is applied to the background with a larger brush establishing the upper area of the composition.

To prepare the colors, I mix Gerstley borate with commercial stains from Standard Ceramics Supply, including but not limited to K-44 Royal Purple Glaze Stain, and #496 Christmas Red glaze stain. The Gerstley borate help the stains to flux and adding 20% Gerstley borate works great for most stains although I use 50% for black stain and 40% for chrome green. I measure ingredients by volume using a plastic tablespoon and always run a couple of test tiles through a glaze firing before committing to mixing large amounts.Commercially available stain mixes, such as AMACO’s Gloss Decorating Color series (GDC) and Duncan’s Concepts Underglazes are listed as suitable for use with majolica. Linda Arbuckle mentions that some AMACO Velvet underglazes also work, and many other underglazes may as well.

 The same color is established in the mid ground and foreground working towards a sense of unity through color choice. At this point a horizon line becomes evident.

Note: Be sure to test any product you plan to use before committing to it fully, to be sure that it gives the desired results with your clay and glaze, and under your firing conditions.


For this technique, I’ve been using several sizes of bamboo brushes and small watercolor brushes, one that’s long and thin, called an ex liner (or “rigger” brush as it’s used by water color artists to paint the detailed rigging on sailboat images) and another called a script liner also used for fine lines and details. You may wish to consider different marks made by brushes such as the flats and fans. Pay attention to possibilitie s in the types of mark each type of brush can make, and develop your skill with brushes using India ink on paper before committing to the ceramic material.

Applying Stain

Fig. 4 Starting back at the top, a contrasting color is used to develop detail by using a fine brush.

I’ve been playing with decorating plates lately because they have a nice flat surface that can be treated like a canvas or piece of paper. My watercolor training in school has proved quite effective in approaching composition as well as color. A landscape style composition is a great place to start.

My first attempts at multi-colored brush decoration turned out pretty disastrous. After looking at what I liked in many different historical styles, I discovered I was using too many colors. Much of the historical work that appealed to me had a stripped down color scheme and relied on white background to create contrast. Even the math-based Della-Robbia compositions of Italy generally used blue, yellow, and green. Thinking about the color wheel and applying design concepts created the solution for me. I decided to go back to square one and use complimentary and analogous combinations with the addition of black for emphasis. Gradations in wash were used for variation within this limited palette.

Here are a few tips for designing and executing your composition:

Fig. 5 The details of the mid and foreground are addressed with the addition of black to “punch in” ore create areas of emphasis.
  • Start with sketches. This way, you have most of the composition worked out before you commit.
  • Simplify your color palette. Too many colors appear “over the top” and can confuse the eye. Consider using one color with varying degrees of intensity along with black as a good place to start. If you are interested in becoming more elaborate with color, use a complimentary or analogous color scheme.
  • Define the borders of your image area. Use a banding wheel to define the image area on plates (figure 1). For other forms, first use a light wash to define your boundaries.
  • Always work light to dark. Use light washes first and created depth by gradually using more intense application of stain. Use yellow first and black last for the final emphasis of critical points in the composition. Don’t forget to use the white of the glaze as your lightest value.
  • Work background to foreground. Apply background colors first (figure 2). As you work with each color, move through the composition, filling in areas in the midground and foreground that have the same color (figure 3). Remember to block out areas, leaving them white where light colored foreground imagery overlaps the background. The colored stains are like watercolors; they’re not opaque. Any marks you make continue to be visible even under layers of other colors. If you plan well, darker lines in the foreground used to develop details and that overlap lighter ones in the background enhance the idea of perspective, as the foreground lines will appear closer (figures 4 and 5).
  • Fig. 6 A design relating to the rest of the composition is repeated using black in the banded areasWork from the top of the form to the bottom. This helps to avoid smearing your previous work. If you are decorating a plate, work on the outside edges last (figure 6)

Always remember! If you view your efforts as an experiment and work within the context of learning, you won’t set yourself up for failure. Consider a range for what you consider successful. If you are shooting for something too specific, you probably won’t get what you are looking for. The challenge of improvement will ultimately drive you to continue to make work.

To learn more about Jake Allee or to see more images of his work, please visit

**First published in 2011