Published Feb 11, 2022
Majolica, also referred to as maiolica, is a fabulous decorative technique for potters who wish to treat their surfaces like canvas–especially if they wish to maintain crisp line work in the finished product. And, as Clay Cunningham explains in today's post about Posey Bacopoulos, majolica is the perfect technique for potters with small studios because it requires only one glaze, a few overglazes, and an electric kiln.
I am sure many of you can relate to the small studio factor, so I thought this would be a helpful post to share.- Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
In her numerous workshops, Posey Bacopoulos shares with her students the historically rich and colorfully beautiful process of majolica glazing, a decorative process where colorful imagery is painted over a white glaze. This wonderful technique allows her to create vibrant imagery on pottery without fear of the colors running or blending together as many glazes do when they accidentally overlap. Posey creates and fires her work in her small New York City studio. Majolica is the perfect technique for her as it requires only one glaze, a few overglazes, and an electric kiln. Here’s how she does it.
Applying the Majolica Base Glaze
The process begins with any leather-hard or bone dry pot made from earthenware clay; Posey uses Stan’s Red from Highwater Clay. Before bisque firing, paint a thin layer of red terra sigillata onto the foot of the pot, as well as any places that are to remain unglazed (figure 1). This gives a nice, rich shine to the exposed clay, and also helps to create a water-tight surface on the pot. When the pot is bone dry, fire it to cone 05½ on a slow cycle
Glaze the bisqued pot with the PB Matte Majolica Glaze. Mix the glaze to a consistency slightly thicker than ‘normal’ glaze thickness. Smaller forms can be dipped using glazing tongs while for larger forms such as the one in this demonstration, the glaze needs to be poured and dipped. Pour the glaze into the pot’s interior and dip it onto the exterior (figure 2). Take care to keep the glaze from overlapping too excessively. Heavily overlapped majolica glaze shows the discrepancies of thickness after firing and could crawl or pinhole if too thick
With a sponge, wipe the foot of the pot thoroughly clean. If making a lidded vessel, remove the glaze on the rim of the pot and the underside of the lid with a sponge to avoid the lid sticking to the pot in the kiln (figure 3). After the glaze dries, smooth out any air bubbles, drips, or pinholes by gently rubbing the surface and dusting off the loosened material. Use a mask or respirator when rubbing or blowing the glaze dust.
Majolica Inglaze Decoration
Once the piece has ‘cured’ for a day, it is time to decorate! Begin by using a soft #2 pencil to lightly draw out the decoration (figure 4). Using the pencil first allows you to run through ideas before committing fully with the brush and stains. Decoration can be as minimal as a few dots of color or as elaborate as an overall pattern covering the piece. The choice is up to you. If you make a mistake, it can be gently ‘erased’ with a finger.
Unlike painting, where the background is usually painted on first, the majolica technique begins with painting the foreground using a stain paste and working backward toward the background so that colors are always painted onto a white ground. For her decoration, Posey often chooses floral motifs. However, the motifs that adorn her work are patterns, rather than actual representations of nature, that she uses to divide and define the space of the pottery in interesting ways
Mix the stain paste to a thinned glaze consistency. If it’s too watery, it may drip or run down the side of your pot. Too thick, and the brush will not glide easily across the raw glaze surface. (To learn how to create your own stain pastes, see below). Starting with the foreground, apply the stain pastes with a brush. Posey uses a Marx 5 Long Dagger brush which is perfect for long, flowing lines with varied thickness. To create an added layer of interest to your decoration, load your brush by first dipping it into one color and then dabbing a second color onto the tip. When the brush moves across the surface of the pot, the colors gracefully blend together. Loading the brush can add an element of depth and interest to your brushwork.
To boldly outline your shapes, apply a smooth coat of black stain or paste with a Marx Dagger 636 brush (figure 5). Deemed by Posey as the “Magic Brush,” this brush is angled at the tip which allows for great line variance as you move it. With practice, beautiful flowing lines are possible. The black lining around the shapes helps to define it from the rest of the pot, as well as creating a dark color on which to carve back through. Known as sgraffito, the process of scratching through the black outline to the white glaze underneath is a great technique to help define a shape or to add a little extra decoration (figure 6). Though any semi-sharp object can be used for sgraffito, avoid using objects that are very sharp or thin, such as a needle tool, as they make lines that are too skinny and offer very little line variance. Posey recommends and uses a Kemper Wire Stylus WS.
After finishing all the foreground decoration, it’s time to start working toward the background. Instead of painting the middle ground and background color around the shapes painted on the pot, which can hinder the fluidity and evenness of your background, Posey prefers to wax resist her foreground decoration. Apply a thin coat of wax resist directly over the decoration (figure 7).
Once dry, the middle ground and then the background color can be applied directly onto the entire pot and voila, the wax prevents the new stain from absorbing into the glazed pot. If the wax goes outside of the decoration’s border, don’t worry. A thin white line surrounding the decoration can add a loose, gestural quality to the piece.
Since the foremost decoration is already painted and now waxed, any new overglaze colors brushed over will appear to be directly behind the initial drawings, thus creating a middle ground. Posey uses her finger to dab additional color, for example, creating the center of a ‘blossom’ (figure 8).
The blossoms are then elaborated upon with brushwork (figure 9)
Once this decoration has been applied, coat it with wax resist. Depending on the number of layers desired in the drawing, this could be done in one or two steps, or may require multiple sessions of applying decorative elements and waxing.
Once all individual objects of decoration are painted on and protected with wax resist, it’s time to give the rest of the piece an overall hue. Though it can be left white, Posey prefers to liven up the surface with a uniting color. To apply the background color, Posey uses a Loew-Cornell 275 brush as it can hold a large amount of stain paste and creates a nice, wide swath of color (figure 10). Here she brushes vanadium stain paste onto the piece directly over her previous decoration. The entire surface can be colored or the decoration can be painted in any manner or pattern to design the background.
To add variety to the surface, a small atomizer filled with rutile stain paste can be sprayed onto the surface (figure 11). This allows for a varied and mildly textured surface similar to pottery fired in atmospheric kilns. After applying the background, use a small damp sponge and carefully wipe over the waxed decoration to remove any beads of residual glaze.
With the entire piece colored, any additional decoration can be added on top of the background color using the black stain or paste (figure 12).
NOTE: Even though the wax is dry, allow it to cure for twenty-four hours before touching it with your hands. If it is still damp, it may stick to your fingers and thus pull the stain decoration off. However, the sponge is safe to use on the waxed areas.
Here Posey paints on a grid design which adds additional patterning as well as helping to compose the space within the form of the pot. As before, sgraffito can be used to add variety to lines or for further decoration (figure 13). Don’t forget the foot and the inside of the pot.
Adding small, yet similar, decoration to the inside of your pottery helps relate all the parts of the work to one another, and gives the viewer an additional ‘surprise’ to find later (figure 14).
Load the glazed piece into the electric kiln and fire to cone 05. Fire the kiln slowly, particularly in the latter stage of the firing, for a total time of no less than twelve hours. This allows the glaze to even out and allows any additional gasses in the clay to burn off slowly, ensuring that your colors are even and free from pinholes. The good news is that majolica glazes are typically very stable, meaning they won’t run. Not only does that mean that you won’t have any glaze to grind off the bottom of your pot, your decoration won’t run either.
Majolica Glaze Materials
Though most surface treatments can be adapted to work in more than one firing range, terra sigillata and majolica techniques are primarily intended only for low-fire. The article on Posey Bacopoulos’ work discusses using terra sigillata to create a satiny smooth and more water tight surface and the majolica decorating technique.
Terra sigillata is an ultra-refined slip that can be applied to bone dry (or bisque fired) clay. When brushed onto bone-dry wares, the extreme fineness of the platelets in the terra sig causes them to naturally lay flat on the surface, resulting in a smooth, satiny coating, even with just a very thin translucent layer. If the terra sig is polished when still slightly damp with a soft cloth, the pad of your finger, or a thin piece plastic, it will give a high gloss without heavy burnishing. Terra sig will not run or stick to other pieces in the kiln or to a kiln shelf. It works best at low temperatures including pit and barrel firing, but can be fired higher with adjustments to the mix.
Making Terra Sigillata
Terra sig can be made from any clay, though some have a smaller particle size and will have a greater yield. No matter what clay you use, in order for terra sig to settle properly, it must be deflocculated, which makes the particles repel one another and keeps the finest particles in suspension. To achieve the best results, use a combination of 1 part sodium silicate and 1part soda ash, based on the dry weight of clay. Weigh out the deflocculant and dissolve thoroughly in hot water (already measured into a larger container). Slowly add the desired clay and blend thoroughly with a mixer or a large wire whisk. (Red or white earthenware can be used and colorants can be added to both after the middle layer is extracted).
Allow the terra sig to sit undisturbed for several days or until three distinct layers become visible. Delicately remove the middle layer using a ball syringe or similar device, being careful not to overly disturb the mixture as a whole. This middle layer is the terra sig. Put it in a separate container for use. The top layer will be mostly water and the bottom layer will essentially be sludge, both can be discarded. The sig layer is now ready for use or can be colored if desired, generally 1 cup of sig to 1 tbsp. of stain.
Majolica Stain Pastes
Majolica stains are made with frits and/or Gerstley borate, which are fluxes and glass formers. They allow the stain pastes to melt into the white base majolica glaze they are layered on top of and add to an overall and consistent glossy finish. Majolica is a low-fire technique, you can use any commercial stain or coloring oxide to achieve the color you want.
Always test your recipes first before using them on finished work. And always wear a respirator or similar safety equipment when handling dry materials.
Amaco Majolica Decorating Colors (GDC series )
- GDC Red #54
- GDC Purple #55
- GDC Royal Blue #21
- GDC Avocado #47
- GDC Real Orange #65
- GDC Rose #38
These work great right out of the jar to be brushed onto the Majolica Glaze. For other colors, see the Amaco catalog.