Brushwork on Ceramics: A Multitude of Decorative Possibilities for Pottery

A Primer on Brushes for Ceramics, Plus a Brushwork Technique

Brushwork on Ceramics

In today’s post, an excerpt from his popular book Making Marks, the late Robin Hopper talks about the importance of a good brush and demonstrates one type of maiolica-style on-glaze decoration that can be created on pottery using different colored glazes, a brush and a slip trailer. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

The enormous variety of commercially available brushes is bewildering, and you really need to try many of them out with ink or water to get a feeling for their potential and how they feel in the hand. The type of brushes you need depends on the work you plan to do with them. For broad expanses, house-painting brushes from 2 inches and larger do a great job. For calligraphy (from the Greek words “kalos” and “graphein,” meaning “beautiful writing”), specialized animal hair or hair from a particular part of the animal most commonly is used. Perhaps some of the most exciting and vital calligraphic marks on American ceramics of the 20th century were made by Paul Soldner, who used the severed tail of a roadkill raccoon!

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Decorating your pots has never been easier with the helpful tips, tricks, and techniques when you download this freebieCeramic Decorating Tool Techniques.


Ultimately it isn’t the type of brush or slip trailer you have, but how you use it that matters. It would be impossible to write in a single chapter a total view of all the variations and qualities that brushes embody, as it would about any single group of tools in the ceramist’s tool kit. The photograph at left shows a few common brush variations and the type of marks they make. Every brush has three essential methods of use: the tip, or point; the side, or drag; and the full-bodied stroke.

In bristle brushes, there is little absorbency in the coarse hair that takes up a charge of ink or color, so the marks from these brushes usually will be short, staccato or stippled. In long, fine-hair brushes, the mark may be long and sinuous from a single charge of ink or paint. A charge is the amount of ink, paint, pigment or glaze that may be held by the brush as a sort of reservoir that is released gradually as the tip, side or full brush moves across the paper or ceramic surface.

Many brushes now are made using synthetic materials, like nylon. Though not as good in use as many varieties of natural hair brushes made from sable, elk, goat, dog, deer, camel and even horse hair, synthetic hair brushes usually are a perfectly serviceable and less-expensive alternative. Synthetic brushes also are slightly more resistant to the abrasive qualities that are a natural part of all ceramic pigments, surfaces and glazes. Unfortunately, brushes do wear out over time, usually at the most inopportune time. If you have a favorite brush, especially of a particular make and number (usually branded into the shaft), keep careful note of the information. It might be a good idea to always keep a second one in stock in case of loss or damage. Favorite brushes tend to become like extensions of your hand. If the company that makes them suddenly ceases production, it can be a major trauma. A few years ago, a brush I had used for years suddenly died of old age and overuse. It was a fude, wonderful for big, floppy marks. The center fell out without warning. The company that made it had sold out to another company and discontinued the line. After diligent research and testing many look-alikes, I finally found that the new company had a small stock of these brushes left, so I bought the whole lot to keep me covered for the rest of my life as a good insurance policy. A good brush can be that important!

Maiolica-Style Onglaze Painting and Glaze Trailing

The base glaze coat with the first brush mark of a different glaze.

Iron brush decoration.

Continuing the iron brush decoration.

Trailing white glaze over.

More glaze trailing. The fired and completed teapot is shown at the top of the page.

**First published in 2011.
  • Love the idea of this, shall definitely have a go.

  • Cammy K.

    I love the glazing lesson and plan to try one of my own soon.

  • Darlene M.

    red iron glaze brushed on, not an “iron brush”
    Iron Red Glaze
    (Cone 10)
    Bone Ash . . . . . . . . .. 2 .91 %
    Pearl Ash (Potassium Carbonate) . 10 .68
    Whiting . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 .24
    Custer Feldspar . . . . . . . 6 .80
    Grolleg Kaolin . . . . . . 35 .92
    Silica . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 .45
    100 .00 %
    Add: Red Iron Oxide (Spanish) . . . 9 .71 %

  • Lucille O.

    I fully understand the “pet” brush scenario. When you find a good one you can work it to death. Robin Hopper never disappoints.

  • Ginny C.

    What do you mean by “iron brush?” Iron oxide on a brush?? I love the finished look and plan to try this. Thanks!
    Ginny Clark

  • quiet nice and easy to understand.

  • Victoria D.

    Thank you SO much for showing the finished product!

  • Andrew S.

    These demos from Robin are absolutely great! Thanks

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