The Magic of Majolica/Maiolica: How to Create Vibrant Painterly Decoration on Pottery


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Majolica glazing techniques allow Posey Bacopoulos to create both bold lines and areas of bright color, as in the oil and vinegar ewer set shown here, without the fear of having them run or blur during the firing.

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 post to share.- Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


Jazz Up Your Surfaces with Colorful Majolica Glaze Accents

By Clay Cunningham

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.


This article is included in Three Great Ceramic Glazing Techniques: How to Formulate Successful Crystalline Glazes, add Depth Through Carving and Layering, and Glaze in the Majolica (Maiolica) Style, which is free to Ceramic Arts Daily Subscribers.


Fig.1 Apply terra sigillata to the lid of the bone dry piece.

Fig.1  Apply terra sigillata to the lid of the bone dry piece.

Applying the 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, it fire it to cone 05½ on a slow cycle.


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Fig.2 Dip the exterior. Smooth out any overlaps with a finger.

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.


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Fig.3   Clean the lip, lid, and foot with a sponge.

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.


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Fig.4  Draw on the design over the glaze with a pencil first.

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.


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Fig.5  Outline the floral foreground with black stain.

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.


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Fig.6  Use a stylus for creating sgraffito decoration.

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.


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Fig.7  Coat the foreground with wax resist.

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.


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Fig.8  Designing a ‘blossom’ with a finger.

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).


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Fig.9  Add a middle ground around the waxed foreground.

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.


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Fig.10  Wax over the decoration and brush on the background.

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.


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Fig.11  Spray the lid using an atomizer for additional texture.

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.


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Fig.12  Add pattern and line work with black stain or paste.

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.


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Fig.13 Add sgraffito work on the lid to match the jar.

Finishing and Firing

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.


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Fig.14 Drawings included on the bottom 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.

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.


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Applying terra sigillata to foot of the bone dry pot.

Terra Sigillata

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.


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Add stain paste base to the colorant, 3½ parts paste to 1 part colorant by volume.


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Mix the stain paste to the consistency of peanut butter.


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Prepared stain pastes. Consistency remains the same with each batch.
Recipes
Toasty Red Brown Terra Sigillata  Cone 05
Water 14 cups
Red Art Clay  1,500 grams
Sodium Silicate  1 tsp.

Mix thoroughly and allow to settle into three distinct parts. Pour off the top, thinnest layer. Pour the remaining liquid (middle layer) into a lidded container to use as your terra sigillata. Discard the bottom sludge. Use on leather-hard or bone dry ware.


PB Matte Majolica  Cone 05

Ferro Frit 3124 65%
EPK Kaolin 20
Dolomite 10
Silica 5
Total 100%
Add:
Zircopax 10%
Epsom salts solution

Put water into a mixing container and add dry ingredients. Once settled, stir vigorously while adding a saturated Epsom salt solution (approximately 1 tsp. per 1000 gram batch). Add water to achieve a thick, creamy consistency slightly thicker than a typical glaze. To make a saturated Epsom salt solution, mix Epsom salts into a cup of water until no more will dissolve.


Stain Paste Base  Cone 05

Ferro Frit 3124 50%
Gerstley Borate 50
Total 100%
Mix by volume. This is the base recipe for making colors to paint on over the base glaze. 

Stain and Oxide Colorants
For commercial stains, the ratio should be 3½ parts Stain Paste Base to 1 part colorant by volume. (Most commercial stains will work, but test first.)
Green: Mason Florentine Green 6202
Mason Bermuda Green 6242
Blue: Mason Navy Blue 6386
Yellow:  Mason Vanadium Yellow 6404
Purple:  Mason Pansy Purple 6385
Chartreuse:  Mason Chartreuse 6236
Brown:  Mason Chocolate Brown 6124
Gray:  Mason Charcoal Grey 6528
Black:  Duncan EZ Stroke Black EZ012
For oxides, mix 1 part Stain Paste Base to 1 part oxide by volume.
Brown:  Red Iron Oxide
Turquoise: Copper Carbonate
For all Stain Pastes, mix to the consistency of creamy peanut butter and thin as needed for brushing.

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.


Comments
  • 4/26/2010 Can’t wait to try this technique. Have experimented before to my failure.Thank you. Ms Bobbie Clark. Kennewick WA. 99338

  • Posey is a great workshop presenter and I love her work. She is always generous with her information and this download will be a keeper. My majolica pieces are small since mixing a large quantity of base glaze for dipping is not practical in my studio. Thanks for all the information.

  • Thank you for all this ! I can use all this with my caligraphic brush work ! What a great tool this knowlege is !

  • Good, hope to repeat it in India (Gurgaon). Material availablity is a constraint. Any help from known in India.

  • Thanks for this very detailed article. My favourite clay work is tile mosaics, plaques and other forms of “wall art”. Can’t wait to apply this technique – my head is already filling with ideas.

    P.S. Love those jaunty little spouts!

  • Great article. I do mostly ceramic sculpture with coil costruction and have been anxious to try some more interesting surface decoration. This detailed and easy-to-follow post has really inspired me to try it. Thanks so much again for sharing your techniques and recipes.

  • Just wonderful, I love her style! It’s so nice to see this article, I attended a workshop led by Posey about 8 years ago (I was pregnant with my first daughter), and it was so great to learn this technique, she’s a wonderful teacher. I was trying to push myself outside of my “comfort zone” with surface decoration and wanted to delve into some low fire work. I haven’t really done much with it since then, but I’m now in the process of setting up a home studio w/an electric kiln, and this just took me right back! Timing couldn’t have been more perfect as I’m adapting to these new firing circumstances and trying to expolre new options again. I’ll have to dig out my majolica notebook and give it a go again.

  • Thank you for the inspiration and information..it opens a new range of of options,especialy for those with a painterly style,a head full of colors and ideas and the limitations of an electric kiln.

  • Beautiful work!
    Do any of the ceramic supply stores sell terra sigilata already mixed and colored?

  • While ferro frits are good glazes and melt at low temperature – maybe a word of advice about using this recipe for utilitarian ware – eating vessels etc, does the lead leach out ?
    i usually avaoid ferro frits for this reason . Any other good majolica recipes out there ?

  • HI – I feel pretty dumb because I can’t understand this. Are you putting on grey first, then outlining it with black stain? Then are you scratching (sgrafitto) through the black and through the white glaze. Then what? How is it that you “start with the foreground”? I am really confused and it looks like a wonderful technique. Is there a video of this?

  • where can i purchase large quantity of base glaze . i want to dip my pieces not to have to brush it on. thanks soraya burg

  • I have some stains and oxides from years ago. Can I just mix them with water and decorate as mojolica ? Can I use them as design on clay and glaze over them?
    Ruth Lastuvka

  • My work is very detailed. What I need (and can’t yet achieve) is: sharpness of details, consistently opaque coverage and high gloss.
    With majolica I do get sharpness of lines but gloss is spotty at best. Consistency of coverage spotty too. I’m using AMACO underglazes. Fire at cone 0.4 – 0.2.
    Do I need to add some opacifiers into underglazes to increase opacity?
    What do I do about high gloss? Clear glaze on top of underglaze is out of question because lines start “swimming” out of sharpness.
    Please help!

  • Wow, the PB Matte Majolica glaze… for some reason I guess they were out of Frit 3124 so they gave me P-311 but still…, This processes seems somewhat convoluted and ALL of the oxide ratios are outside the normal thresholds of most low fire gazes. In hindsight, I would not have use this if I wanted to make a Majolica glaze, there are a lot of recipes out there. I spent five days and 4 firings correcting this glaze for my class.

  • I am interested in trying a cone 4 Majolica, but I am not sure how to mix up the stains. Would I just use a frit like Ferro 3124 and add stain or does anyone have any better ideas?

    I would really appreciate some info about this. Thanks, Cyd

  • How to replace Frit 3124 for 3134.
    I am in Colombia, make pottery since 1983. Used to fire to Cone 6, commercial white or buff Clay and developed my own beautifuñ glazes. But theclay is no longer available. It seems that earthenware clay is in. And is available in my back yard!
    Now I am working my own clay, firing Terracotta techniques, relearning about glazes. Test, test,test
    I don’ have Frit 3124, I am using 3134. Not always successful. I blame the Frit.
    Is here a way to substiture 3124 for 3134, adding some flux or any other material?
    I wish to try your Maiolica, have researched but all Maio recipes ask for Frit 3124…
    i have tried Arbuckle’s maio but does not work with 3134.
    It will be of great help an answer to my problem. Thank you for any answer, Rosario
    Rosario.umana@gmail.com

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