Ceramic stains and underglazes mixed with water painted on unfired white-glazed bisque is pretty similar to watercolor painting on paper. The main difference is that the glazed bisque surface absorbs the color and water mixture more quickly. But once you get used to that, you can create beautiful watercolor-like surfaces. In this post, an excerpt from the Pottery Making Illustrated archives, Laurie Curtis shares her simple technique.- Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
I usually fill up two or three palettes with different colors, all Mason stain, Italian underglaze, and water mixtures, one with greens and yellow and the others with orange, red, and yellow or blues and reds to make purple. I use white plates for mixing my washes and little separate bowls for brown, pink, manganese, and dark blue.
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I then fill my round, natural-hair quill brush with the watered down stain/underglaze mixtures (no added frit), working from light to dark to create a transparent layered look (see section 1 images). The amount of stain and underglaze mixed with water varies based on the intensity desired.
Start with around 1 part stain/underglaze mixture to 20 parts water. I create the colors by sight and feel. The more water you use, the lighter and more transparent the color will be. You can tell you need to add more water if your brush starts to skip or drag across the surface of your piece. Your brushstroke should glide across the top of the unfired white glaze.
Learning the best speed and pressure of your brush stroke is important. There are many Chinese brush-stroke books available with great exercises that are helpful, and I recommend Chinese Brush Painting by Pauline Cherrett and The Art of Chinese Brush Painting by Lucy Wang.
After I have painted all the colors of the design and have added shading and accents like sun spots for depth, brown for the stems, and blue hues for shadows on the bottom of the lemons, I’m ready to add outlines. I follow the traditional Italian majolica technique of outlining everything with a manganese dioxide wash. Some artists use black Mason stain, but I love the grainy texture and softer color of manganese. I use a very fine liner brush, dipping it often into water first, then into the manganese and water wash when creating the lines.
As I load the brush, I’m constantly stirring the colorant up in the bowl of wash because manganese dioxide doesn’t stay mixed with water. I like that quality about it because it fires looking slightly grainy. Once outlines are finished, I paint the back and the rim of the piece.
Handling and Firing
I carry pieces to the electric kiln using my fingertips, usually holding onto an edge where the glaze has worn off during the painting process and the clay is showing along the rim. I don’t usually touch up that edge because it adds to the character of the piece, but you can do this once its in the kiln. I then fire my pieces to cone 06 (see Section 2 images).
Troubleshooting and Experimenting
Watercolor painting on an unfired glazed surface isn’t always easy. Over time I’ve learned the power of improvisation by transforming a mistake, drip, or a smudge into an extra leaf, flower, or stem rather than trying to remove it. You can’t brush over one area more than once or twice without picking up the white glaze underneath, especially when using so much water. This muddies the color and takes away from the transparent quality of the painting. No matter how hard the limitations seem when you’re learning the process, you’ll be rewarded when you open the kiln and see the beautiful luminosity of layered, transparent colors sealed in glaze.
I have been painting watercolor maiolica for almost eighteen years now. It came together after studying fabric design, traditional watercolor painting and drawing, Chinese brush painting, and basic ceramic handbuilding techniques using slabs and molds. None of these practices would have come together if it weren’t for an Italian friend introducing me to Italian maiolica ceramic products. I fell in love with the materials and the process instantly and spent many hours exploring the different personalities of each color (mostly made from mineral oxides) and how easily they could be mixed and applied like traditional watercolors. There were many trials and errors but eventually I came to know which ones needed more dilution etc. Eventually, I decided to add Mason stains to the colorful liquid underglazes I was using. The stains are less expensive and can be bought locally in loose bulk. So I now use a mixture of liquid underglaze colors along with the Mason stains using them alone or mixed together on my palette. Sometimes using analogous colors on my palette, I double and triple load my brush to create more interesting brushstrokes. Along with omitting the frit, I realized I didn’t have to follow the traditional method of maiolica painting by finishing my piece with a layer of clear glaze. My tested watercolor palette was diluted enough to allow the base white glaze to absorb it all and seal it into a smooth gloss finish.
Inspiration and Sources
The inspiration for all my shapes and designs comes from my long-time obsession with vintage pottery and fabric design mostly decorated with beautiful common fruits and flowers. A weekly visit to my local Farmer’s Market also inspires me. I especially love looking at all the colors on the apricots, plums, peaches, and the different kinds of apples. While driving I make an effort to stop when I come upon an orchard or a vineyard and check out how the fruit, blossoms, and leaves are attached to the branches. I don’t try to replicate them exactly but it helps to have some mental reference. After years of selling pottery I have discovered that people are more likely to buy a piece if they recognize and can name the fruit or flowers they see in my designs.
Laurie Curtis is an exhibiting member of ACGA and participates twice yearly in Pt. Reyes Open Studios. She teaches watercolor majolica workshops in her studio. Her work is sold on Etsy and in various retail shops. For more information, visit www.lauriecurtis.net, www.pointreyesart.com, and www.acga.net.