The Colorful World of Majolica: A Beautiful Low-Fire Pottery Glazing Technique

Tall Ewer: Grey with Fruit, 12 1/4 in. (31 cm) in height, terra cotta with majolica glazes, fired to cone 04, 2010.

Our summer of DVD filming continues and, in a couple of weeks, Linda Arbuckle will be coming to town to share her vast knowledge of the majolica (maiolica) technique on an instructional video. Super excited! If you’re unfamiliar with majolica, it is a type of decoration typically done on terra cotta, with opaque white glaze and colored overglaze decoration.

Linda is an expert on the majolica subject, and shared her knowledge in the  written form in the latest issue of Ceramics Monthly. Today, I am presenting an excerpt from that article and in the next couple of months, her instructional DVD will hit the shelves of the Ceramic Arts Daily Shop. Stay tuned! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

Majolica (or maiolica) in common contemporary parlance is a white, opaque, glossy glaze that is very viscous to the point that it doesn’t move during firing. This allows line quality applied to the raw glaze to be maintained faithfully through the firing process.

The majolica technique is commonly done at low-fire temperatures, although you may work in a similar way on any stiff, opaque glaze at other temperatures with related results. Most of the stain colors used for majolica decorating will fire to mid range (cone 5–6). At cone 10, shino glazes are very viscous and don’t move much, but the available palette of colors is different: many of the purples fire out blue; yellows in reduction are often pale and grayish; most of the pinks burn out; and body stains (e.g. Mason Stain 6020 Pink) may be too refractory even at cone 10. Nevertheless, it maybe worth an experiment or two.


Bowl: Fruits of Our Labor in a Time of Envy, 11 in. (28 cm) in diameter, terra cotta with majolica glazes, fired to cone 04, 2010.

Bowl: Fruits of Our Labor in a Time of Envy, 11 in. (28 cm) in diameter, terra cotta with majolica glazes, fired to cone 04, 2010.

The use of only tin as an opacifier is often modified in contemporary practice. Tin makes a lovely, buttery, very opaque, white glaze. It also increases surface tension in a glaze and may aggravate crawling problems where the glaze is thick (e.g., in corners). Tin in amounts of 5% or above will also cause a color reaction with small amounts of chrome that will cause the tin glaze to turn pink (chrome fuming). This can be delightful if anticipated, but is often not kind to your color plans as a surprise. Many of the green and teal stain colors and some black stains contain chrome, and some rutiles contain small amounts of chrome impurities that can cause chrome-tin pinking in high-tin glazes. For the above reasons, as well as the expense of tin oxide, many artists today use a zirconium opacifier, or a combination of some tin (for denser whiteness) with some zirconium opacifier. This would keep the amount of tin low (say under 4%), yet allow good opacity. Zirconium is weaker than tin in strength, and the usual rule is 1.5% zirconium to replace 1% tin. If chrome-tin pink fuming is a problem, drop the tin a bit, and add that amount multiplied by 1.5 of zirconium opacifier.

Some artists say they enjoy a bit of the terra cotta showing through a translucent white majolica glaze. For me, it darkens the glaze color, damps color response a bit, and makes any thick-thin areas of glaze application more noticeable than a more opaque white. I have always preferred a very white opaque glaze.

Majolica Colorant Suggestions
Gerstley borate production has been erratic, and the material is variable in quality. It pushes decorating colors toward pastel through very fine reticulation (break up) of the glaze surface, and although I used it when I began majolica, I now use frit as a flux (with bentonite added) or commercial majolica decorating colors.

Colorants mixed with only frit settle quickly, have limited brushability, and are very powdery once dry, making wax resist over the color smudge easily. Some artists, like Matthias Ostermann, use this powdery quality to work the movable surface like pastels. The addition of bentonite or CMC gum to the frit and colorant mix aids brushing and hardens the dry surface. Bentonite doesn’t mix easily with water, so be sure to mix dry bentonite, frit, and colorant first, then add water. Some people find an immersion blender handy. I mix small amounts and generally use a tiny whisk. If something is really lumpy, I will use a small test sieve (60 mesh) and screen the mixture.

I use Ferro frit 3124. Others will work, with color reactions influenced by the specific chemistry of each frit. To aid brushability, you may add a small amount of glycerin (drug store item), or a few drops liquid CMC gum to the liquid mix. Too much glycerin or gum can make a very slippery color mix that moves well but doesn’t apply color in an even thickness.

Colors in studio-mixed oxides or stains and commercial majolica decorating colors will generally mix, but some information about ceramic materials helps. I recommend doing line blends of colors to learn more about mixing and relative strength. Copper melts easily, and will color strongly compared to yellow colors. A nice chartreuse may be four parts yellow by volume to one part mixed copper. With paint, yellow + blue = green. In ceramic colors, blue is made with cobalt, a very strong colorant, while yellow may be a stain made with praseodymium or vanadium, which are weaker colorants than cobalt. Equal amounts of mixed yellow and blue decorating colors may still be very blue, due to the strength of cobalt.

Arbuckle Majolica
Cone 03
Ferro Frit 3124 65.8 %
F-4 Feldspar (sub Minspar 200) 17.2
Nepheline Syenite 6.2
EPK Kaolin 10.8
100.0 %
Tin Oxide 4.0 %
Zircopax 9.0 %
Bentonite 2.0 %
Cone 05
Ferro Frit 3124 66.6 %
F-4 Feldspar (sub Minspar 200) 23.0
Nepheline Syenite 8.1
EPK Kaolin 2.3
100.0 %
Tin Oxide 4.0 %
Zircopax 9.0 %
Bentonite 2.0 %
This is a smooth, white, opaque glaze that does not move during firing. It may crawl if thick in corners or pinhole over rough-trimmed surfaces. Add ½–3 tsp. Epsom salts to 5 gallons of glaze to flocculate if needed (for less settling and better application). Colorants with flux are usually applied in a thin wash to the raw glaze surface. Fire with a small 03 cone in the sitter to give a large cone 04 tipped to about 2–3 o’clock in front of the peep hole.

Non-refractory Colorants
1 part colorant, 1 part frit, ½–1 part bentonite:
copper (blue-green), cobalt (blue), manganese (brown to plum with Ferro frit 3110), iron (brown)

Refractory Colorants
1 part colorant, 3–4 parts frit, ½–1 part bentonite:
chrome (grass green), rutile (rusty orange), titanium dioxide (ivory). Most stains are refractory enough to require this ratio.
Note that body stains, like Mason 6020 manganese-alumina pink and Mason 6485 titanium yellow are too refractory for use on top of majolica, even with flux added. Refractory colorants that are not adequately fluxed will result in matte surfaces that are bumpy and/or pig-skinned (crinkled). Testing is the only way to really know.

Soluble colorants
Cobalt sulfate (blue), copper sulfate (turquoise), manganese chloride (plummy brown), and chrome chloride (green). All are toxic raw. Do not inhale or ingest. They are also absorption hazards: do not handle these without gloves. Soluble colorants are dissolved, rather than suspended, in water, so they wick into the surface of the ware with the water, making a very uniform ground color with a soft edge. If you want any white areas, or to retain clean edges, areas must be waxed before applying soluble colorants. Over-wetting the glaze when applying solubles may move raw glaze and cause color to migrate through the pot wall and/or cause crawling. Too much water on the raw glaze may also cause crawling in the fired glaze.

Commercial Colorants
Some single-coat commercial underglazes work for decorating on top of a majolica base glaze, while others are too refractory. Testing is the only way to determine which ones work. Several companies now make very nice pre-mixed majolica decorating colors. These colors are generally a combination of stains, flux, and vehicles, and they brush well. I suspect that, unlike underglaze colors, the clay content is kept low for more supple brushability.


Small Pour: Sunflowers with Black Band, 5 in. (13 cm) in length, terra cotta with majolica glazes, fired to cone 04, 2010.

Small Pour: Sunflowers with Black Band, 5 in. (13 cm) in length, terra cotta with majolica glazes, fired to cone 04, 2010.

Clay Body, Off-Gassing, and Firing Rates
I am still experimenting with firing rates. Several years ago something in clay materials changed and caused gassing in my clay, resulting in many white gas dots in the fired majolica surface, where the base glaze might seal over, but the colorant layer is so thin that it can’t seal and leaves a white spot. Many people maintain that firing slowly is the way to go, and it seems logical that any gas release would be more gentle the slower the firing. On the other hand, I fire many pieces in a small, oval, doll-body test kiln, which cools quickly, and these generally turn out less dotted. The same shapes fired about 200°F per hour in my regular kiln may be more dotted. It’s been an infuriating problem that I continue to research. If you have dotting, try bisque firing as high as you can without making the work too dense to accept glaze. This may drive off gassy materials before glaze application and firing. Bisque at a slower rate, vent your kiln, and glaze thinner if possible. Thinner glaze is less likely to trap the gas bubbles and cause dotting.


Advantages and Disadvantages of Majolica-type Glazes
Advantages Disadvantages
The viscous glaze does not move when fired. The brushwork stays crisp, with no runny glaze to chip off shelves. Dry-footed areas need less margin on pot bottoms or lid seats. The viscous glaze does not move when fired, which means any lumps, drips, or pinholes from application remain and do not heal over or smooth out in firing. Thick glaze may crawl.
Because the raw glaze absorbs the color from the brush readily and does not move in the firing, the direction of brush marks, speed of the brush, and loading of the brush show in the fired decoration, adding painterly, expressive qualities to the marks. Because the raw glaze absorbs the color from the brush readily and does not move in firing, direction of brush marks, speed of the brush, and loading of the brush show in the fired decoration, and may reveal hesitancies, touch-ups, and direction of background when painting around motifs, etc., which may distract from the aesthetic impact.
Thick glaze blankets the piece, which may forgive small handling errors like finger smudges in the surface. Thick glaze blankets the piece, which may cover small details in clay handling. like carving or incised decoration.
The kiln is a passive tool, resulting in more predictable results from firing to firing. Someone else could fire your work and achieve the same results (easier to share kilns). The kiln is a passive tool, resulting in uniform color that may look flat or does not describe the form. There are no gifts from the kiln gods.
A bright palette of commercial stains gives easy access to a range of pinks, oranges, yellows, and purples that work well with the blue, green, and rust that are available with oxides. The bright color may look garish, or the entire palette may look too pastel and therefore lose impact.
Inexpensive color, because it takes less colorant to put a thin wash on the glaze surface than to color a slip or a glaze.

the author Linda Arbuckle is a member of the CM Editorial Advisory Board, and is a professor of art at the University of Florida, Gainesville. For more majolica glaze recipes, including a cone 6 version, and additional resources, see her handouts page on her website at

  • Christy C.

    I have fired my Standard 417 to 04 then used an 06 Amaco white, with Amaco GDC’s with success. I was having issues with pinholing in my glazes, so it was suggested to fire hire, slower to burn out impurities. 04 is hotter, so I’d test your glazes for running or burnout.

  • Odd question? I fired a 417 Low Red Earthenware clay body to cone 04 with the intention of applying a majolica 06 base for hand painting. All the recipes I am familiar with and others I am researching are placing the second firing I mention at cone 04. Would it do fine if I simply ran this second firing at 04 as well? I think it should be but I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to ask ‘the community’. lol

  • A very good source of BRUSHES is OAS. THey are quite expensive, so I would read the price list carefully.

  • Rereading this post, I am again impressed with Ms. Arbuckle’s experience in the medium. Also worthy of respect is her generosity and willingness to share. In my humble opinion, this happens when the artist is secure in their own work, and has no issues of anyone “copying” their techniques. Clearly, the Arbuckle designs are completely original, and the brushwork, thumbwork, and other application techniques are Linda’s own. The creativity and pleasingness of design is a delight for me to behold. I hope you all agree.

    Thank you, Linda; you are one of a kind!

  • Sharon B.

    I would also love a source for brushes for the fine/linear brushwork.

  • Pauline P.

    Anyone try the Amaco regular F series glazes on Amaco LG11, or on Linda Arbuckle’s base glaze?

  • Christy C.

    I use Amaco Lg 11 as a base, two good coats in opposite directions with a soft fluffy flat fan brush. Amaco Majolica Gloss Decorating Colors have a nice variety in the pallette and mix well. They also cover each other well.THe reds are bright and the chartreuse is great. I use them in heavy layers, but they also water down very nicely.

  • Jane B.

    I cannot wait to try this

  • Suzi C.

    Good column with lots of information. I particularly liked the comparison charts.I have used both Spectrum and Amaco base glazes. They cover well, but tend to be shinier and whiter than Linda’s glaze. I generally add a *very small* (start with 1/4 tsp. per gal.) amount of milled rutile to tone down the whiteness. I used both when I was working with special needs students, so I can say that they brush on easily and cover well.

    I like Yasutomo sumi brushes for most of my work. Rich Art used to make a nice line of natural liner brushes; I don’t know if they still do. For the most part I like natural bristles as opposed to synthetic. They seem to have better feel and response. Majolica is hard on brushes, so I plan on replacing them often.

    I remember with great fondness doing a workshop with Linda at Haystack many years ago. If anyone has such a chance she should grab it with both hands.

  • Lisa C.

    i use Mayco’s Stroke and Coats

  • Katherine B.

    Amaco carries a base glaze as well as colors. I have not used it but looked it up in Dick Blick. It is LG-11 opaque white.

  • Carolyn E.

    Can anyone recommend a commercial glaze tha twill work as a base glaze?

  • Dot R.

    I have always loved your work and now I find that your web site is fantastic!

  • Bonnie S.

    Always lovely work. I have used the majolica method of decorating only on ^9 stoneware. I am looking for a source of good brushes which will give nice fine to thick lines. My oriental brushes have worked beautifully over the years but have worn them out and I need new ones now. The quality is just not as good as back in my earlier days as a potter when I purchased them. It would be nice to have this problem addressed or a good suggestion as to what to choose from the catalogs.

  • Pauline H.

    This work is beautiful and really inspires me. I would love to have a go, but being ceramics is a hobby for me, having all these raw materials becomes an issue. If I can source a commercial base glaze, I will certainly try it. It seems the majolica-type colours can be bought.

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