I am an English potter who spent part of my childhood in Rome in the early 1960s, where a traditional way of life still existed alongside the emerging post-war economic miracle. Everyone still enjoyed long lunches either at home or in the local trattoria and ate off of hand-painted majolica plates.
This life experience has influenced my current ceramics practice. I integrate the vibrancy of majolica ceramics in my work, making use of its wonderful qualities of translucent color integrated into the surface of the glaze.
What is Majolica?
Also called tin-glazed earthenware, the basic majolica technique consists of painting oxides and stains onto an unfired piece coated with white glaze and then firing the piece to glaze temperature. Majolica was originally developed to imitate imported Chinese ceramics in the 1500s CE, when the secret of porcelain was still unknown in the West. The older majolica examples used lead glazes, which gave very bright colors. Today, the white coloring agent can be either tin or zirconium, both of which give a very brilliant white without the toxicity, and the base colors are derived from a fritted or lead-free glaze. I use a leadless white zirconium glaze supplied to me by Scarva in Northern Ireland that has a firing range of 1832–2084°F (1000–1140°C), but any opaque white glaze will do.
My vases are slip cast and bisque fired to 2066°F (1130°C). Following the bisque firing, I spray on the white glaze, which provides an even surface to work on. Before I start painting, however, I fire the vase again to 1292°F (700°C) in what is known as a sinter firing. This adheres the glaze to the surface of the pot but does not melt it; without this firing, using multiple layers of color and latex resist would result in the glaze flaking off. Note: For this technique to be successful, it is important to understand your glaze and make multiple tests to gauge the temperature sweet spot, where the glaze affixes to the surface but does not melt.
Organize and Plan
Prior to painting on the sintered pot, I lay out my colors (1). I use powdered stains (from a variety of suppliers in the UK, such as Potterycrafts), which I mix with a small amount of clear glaze and water The clear glaze acts as a flux, which helps the color to melt into the white glaze.
I begin by drawing a rough design on the pot with a graphite pencil (the lines burn out in the final firing) (2). This gets the placement right, since once the process of painting begins, you can’t erase anything.
I have always been interested in wild plants; I like to smother the vase with tangled vine designs that emphasize the shape of the pot. In the color palette for my nasturtium vase, I use a variety of greens mixed from my stains to produce new colors such as yellow with a touch of green to make yellow-green and blue with green for a teal color.
Beginning the Color Layering Process
When the drawing is finished, I start to paint using a small brush for the flowers of the nasturtium plant (3). When painting larger areas, such as a leaf, I use a small hake brush, as I find it applies a more even color (4). After I paint a leaf, I then apply a coat of latex resist over the dry color (5) so as not cover the previous leaf with the next color when I paint the leaf adjacent to it (6).
I use a small brush for the finer details such as a stem (7), then apply latex resist once again. With the leaves and flowers completed (8), I can now move on to the background.
Painting the Background
The next step is painting the background. First, turn the vase upside down and paint the base using a hake brush to apply a thin layer of color (9). The color dries instantly since it sinks into the powdered surface. When finished, turn the piece right side up.
Next, I start with a lighter color first, in this case, yellow (10). I then paint a darker color (here a dark purple) on top of the yellow, leaving streaks where the underpainting shows through (11). There is no resist applied over the background colors.
Carving Detail Lines
With the background colors applied and dry, begin to scratch thin lines into the design (12). I use the tip of a Stanley blade, simply because they are cheap (I buy them in packs of 100). Since they blunt quite quickly, I have to replace them frequently; one blade can be used for about two vases before it is too dull.
Next, use a small brush to inlay a black oxide wash (a blend of black stain, manganese dioxide, a small part of cobalt, and Cornwall stone) into the scratched lines (13). Allow the wash to fully dry (14).
After the lines are completed, the excess oxide outside the lines will be picked up with a paper towel. To do this, place a sheet of paper towel over the painted design, then rub it with the handle of a bamboo brush (it can be anything as long as it’s smooth) (15). Slowly pull away the paper towel (16) to remove the excess color, making the black lines neater and crisper
Then touch up some of the lines (17), being careful not to do too much, since you want to keep a rough, etched look to the lines, as if they have been burned into the surface. The resist, together with some of the oxide left on it will form a nice visual texture on the fired vase.
Finally, I fire the piece to 1886°F (1030°C) and keep it at top temperature for 1 hour and 10 minutes. This ensures that all the layers of painting melt into each other, and it also increases the transparency of the colors (18).
All process images: Geoff Stocker.
Lisa Katzenstein lives in Hastings (East Sussex), on the south coast of England, where she has a workshop in her garden. She is a member of the Sussex Guild of Crafts as well as the Rye Society of Artists and the Craft Potters Association in London. She has a ceramics BA from the Central School of Art & Design, London, and a ceramics MA from the Royal College of Art, London. To learn more, visit www.lisakatzenstein.com or find her on Instagram @lisakatzenstein.