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Published Nov 10, 2008

One of the best ways to make a large, complex piece of work is to break it down into its component parts and tackle them one by one. Suddenly, it's not one big project, but several smaller projects that are not quite as daunting.

In this first of a two-part series, Colorado ceramic artist Donna Rozman shows us a variation on this approach: how to start simple and end up with a complex result. Her technique for ceramic tile design is both simple and effective, and it's a great exercise in generating new ideas.—Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

Maiolica decoration is a very old folk pottery tradition in which earthenware clay was coated with a tin based glaze, which made it white and opaque. Then oxides were brushed on the unfired surface. Today, with the help of zirconium as the opacifier in the glaze, and the broader range of color available in commercial stains, you can really push the limits of this traditional design.

Maiolica glaze is rather unforgiving, as it doesn’t move in the firing. Drips, pinholes and other imperfections that occur during application will not repair themselves during the firing. This makes working on this flat tile project a wise choice for a classroom environment or a person new to this technique. Glaze is easily applied to the tiles and their flat surfaces are easy to paint. As colorants are applied to this raw glaze surface, they are absorbed quickly. This quality can make applying the colorants rather difficult, and some practice and experimentation is necessary. For this reason, I glaze extra tiles to use for mark making practice and for testing absorption and consistency of the colorants. This also can be done on newspaper if no extra tiles are available.

Creating an Abstract Design for Ceramic Tile

Select a random 2-inch square from any interesting line drawing to create a motif or create your own pattern. Make a 2-inch-square paper window to explore possible abstract patterns (figure 1). After you have decided on the design you want to use, trace it onto a 2-inch square of tracing paper with a soft lead (6B or 8B) pencil (figure 2). Divide a 4-inch square of paper into fourths, creating four 2-inch squares. Use the tracing paper transfer technique (explained below) to trace the motif into each square, rotating or reversing the image as desired (figure 3). Copy the chosen design to visualize the effect when repeated. A copier can be used to reduce, enlarge or reverse designs as needed (figure 4). Once you have chosen a final design pattern, the size and how many tiles you will need, you can begin planning the mural design.

Tracing Paper Transfer Technique

On the backside of your traced design, draw over the lines a couple of times with a soft lead pencil. Turn the design back over and place it where you want to transfer the design. Retrace the design so the lead from the reverse side will be transferred to the surface. This technique can be used to reverse an image as well.

Glazing and Applying Colorant to the Tiles

You can order a variety of bisque-fired tiles from your local tile or ceramics supply store or make your own from a low-fire earthenware clay. I like to use commercial tiles for the body of the mural and make my own border and/or accent tiles. For best results, pour the glaze onto the tiles (figure 1). Remember, maiolica glaze does not run during firing so an even glaze surface is desired. Clean excess glaze from the backs of tiles with a sponge. Sides of the tile may remain covered in glaze.

Lay out the tiles and use the tracing paper transfer technique (link to previous feature) to transfer the design to each tile (figure 2). This way, you can see the design and make any necessary changes needed to correct or improve the pattern. TIP: Pencil marks will burn out during the firing so you can draw directly onto the glaze surface in pencil if you wish. Just be careful to apply light pressure so as not to scar the glaze surface.

Prepare maiolica colorants, then begin to paint the design on the surface of the glaze (figure 3). Handle tiles carefully to avoid scarring or chipping off the glaze. Practice on an extra tile to test fluidity of the colorant and quality of the brushstroke.

TIP: To fill in a space with even color use a large brush and brush evenly in one direction with a thin coat of colorant. Allow to dry, and then apply a second coat with brushstrokes going in the opposite direction. Another method, which creates interesting results, is to let the brushstrokes be a part of the design.

Lay out tiles on a large table in the manner in which they will be placed for the mural. Number and letter the tiles with an underglaze pencil or pen to eliminate solving a jigsaw puzzle after firing (figure 4). Fire tiles to Cone 04 on a flat shelf in an electric kiln.

The maiolica recipe I use is a slight variation of Linda Arbuckle's maiolica glaze. When the design requires leaving a lot of the white glaze showing, I add 2% rutile to soften the whiteness of the glaze for a creamier look. CMC Gum should be measured out, put in hot water and mixed in a blender, then added to the glaze. Sodium hexametaphosphate was the ingredient found in the retired version of Calgon and is a deflocculant.

TIP: Using small plastic cups, add all three dry ingredients, mix thoroughly, add water and mix again. Ice cube trays work well as inexpensive and convenient palettes.

I use a variety of commercial stains mixed with frit and/or Gerstley borate for my colorants. I find the colors are brighter when mixed with 100% frit, but are less brushable and smudge easily. When mixed 100% with Gerstley borate, brushability improves but the colors are less brilliant. I have used a variety of ratios of frit to Gerstley to colorant with excellent results. For these tiles, I used the this recipe.


Stay tuned for the next feature where Donna shows how to mount the tiles on a board and install the mural. Donna Rozman received her M.F.A. in ceramics from Kansas State University. She is currently working as a studio artist in Crested Butte, Colorado. To see more of her work visit