Probably by now every potter in the world is familiar with Chinese rice-paper transfers. They come in various colors, and there are many beautiful designs available, from flowers to insects to abstract patterns. You transfer them onto your ware just like a temporary tattoo, dip the pot in clear glaze, and presto, you have a beautifully decorated pot. I became aware of them a few years ago, bought some and tried them out, and found that my students love them. But, I never really wanted to incorporate them into my work for a couple of reasons. First, they get pricey—you can easily put a whole sheet of designs onto one mug. But more importantly, I don’t want to use somebody else’s artwork on my pots and I don’t want to have the exact same designs on my pots that everybody else has.
So, I decided I needed to make my own transfers, but I didn’t want to use (and store) bulky traditional silk screens. Using EZScreen stencils was the answer. EZScreen stencils were originally made for printing t-shirts, but the company also markets to potters for use with underglazes. The screens are pieces of silk that have been coated with a photosensitive emulsion. When exposed to the sun, the emulsion hardens, but any areas that are covered and protected from sun exposure do not harden or set and the emulsion in these areas can be washed off with water.
To create a stencil for printing, a black-and-white design is printed onto a transparency and placed over the blank stencil, which is then exposed to the sun. Note: It must be a transparency. Thin printing and photocopy paper will not work. The emulsion will wash out where the design protected it, and ink or underglaze can then be used to print the design onto paper or clay.
EZScreen stencils can be ordered from the EZScreenPrint website (ezscreenprint.com). The easiest way to get started is to buy a kit that includes instructions, two blank stencils, two transparency sheets, and an exposure board with a sheet of acrylic and clips. This allows you to clamp the stencil and transparency tightly together during exposure.
When you start out, you can use Clipart, being careful to select copyright-free images. Eventually you’ll want to use your own designs. Whichever you choose, all the designs must be black and white, with no gray areas. Thin lines can easily get lost as the sun burns around them when the stencil is exposed. I’ve found that I want most of the lines to be at least 0.5 mm thick. Make sure that your lines are solid. If you are hand drawing a design with pen, be aware that some pens leave a slightly translucent line. If you’re printing out designs from your computer, you can increase the contrast if necessary.
Print your design onto the transparency. Then, in dim light, place the transparency onto the acrylic cover, and place the unexposed stencil face down over the transparency. Next, place the black exposure board over the stencil and clamp it all together into a sandwich. Wrap the sandwich in an opaque cloth such as a towel and take it out into the sun. Expose it for one minute (1), then wrap it up again. Remove the exposed stencil and place it in water for 20 minutes. At this point you can easily wash off the emulsion where the design covered it, scrubbing gently with your fingers or a soft paint brush (2). Expose the stencil to sunlight again to dry and set it fully. Your stencil is now ready for use (3).
Transferring the Stencils to Rice Paper
I use Amaco Velvet underglaze with my stencils. Thicken the underglaze either by leaving it out so that water evaporates or by using Mayco Silkscreen Medium, which is sprinkled a bit at a time over the underglaze and stirred until it’s the right consistency. It should resemble thick pudding (4), and if it’s a bit lumpy, that’s okay.
Tape one edge of the stencil face down onto a flat surface, place a sheet of rice paper under it, and spoon a line of thickened underglaze along the tape (5). Using a squeegee, or a long, flexible straight-edge rib, draw the underglaze from the top of the stencil to the bottom, forcing it through the stencil onto the paper (6). Lift the stencil away carefully without removing the tape, checking the print without moving the paper (7); if the print isn’t good, you can carefully place the stencil back down and squeegee again. Once you’re satisfied with the print, pull the paper out, put another sheet under the stencil, and repeat the process. If the underglaze smears or bleeds, add more silkscreen medium. Clean the stencil screen immediately after finishing your prints.
Using the Rice Paper Transfer
You can transfer the print onto clay at any stage, from a fresh slab to bisqueware. I usually work on bisqueware so I don’t break the pot as I work on it. However, a design with large areas of solid color often transfers better onto a damp pot. If you’re working on bisqueware, it’s fine to glaze right over the transferred underglaze, but I often bisque fire again just to make sure I won’t smear the design in the glazing process.
Place the rice-paper transfer face down on your ware and dab it with a wet sponge (8). As the paper gets wet, it will cling to the surface of the ware, and when you peel the paper away, the underglaze will stick to the pot (9). Peel slowly—if the design didn’t transfer well, you can put the paper back down and press firmly with the sponge or your fingertips to make sure all of the underglaze gets transferred.
Finding Rice Paper
The hardest part of this process for me was finding paper I liked. Many people use newsprint for underglaze transfers and if you want to print onto a wet to leather-hard slab or a flat surface, newsprint, which is relatively thick, works okay. The rice paper used for the commercial transfers is very thin and conforms readily to any form. Another consideration is that as soon as newsprint gets wet, it stretches and wrinkles; rice paper doesn’t do that.
So, I started trying rice papers. I quickly learned there are hundreds of different kinds of rice paper and most of them don’t work well for this process. They are either too flimsy and shred like tissue paper when they get wet; or the underglaze doesn’t stick; or water won’t go through the paper so the design won’t transfer. Don’t simply order rice paper from Amazon! You can get what’s called raw paper from Sanbao (www.chinaclayart.com), the company that sells the commercial transfers. This is great paper, but a bit expensive. A good second choice is available online from The Ceramic Shop (www.theceramicshop.com), and is simply called Rice Paper on the website.
I also tested several dozen kinds of rice paper from specialty retailers, purchasing sample packs from anyone who offered them. I found two papers I like quite well from Blue Heron Arts (https://blueheronarts.com), a small online catalog that carries rice papers and Chinese calligraphy paint brushes. Two that worked well and are not too pricey are Wenzhou Chinese Mulberry Rice Paper and Yuanshu Bamboo Fiber Rice Paper.
Rice paper is a generic name for papers made in Asia, but the name is misleading. In fact, they are not made from rice, but from a variety of plants, including mulberry and bamboo.
If you are interested in trying out rice papers, look for unsized papers. Sizing is added to make paper less absorbent, which you don’t want. You need a paper that will let water through so the underglaze will transfer to your ware. Some sized papers won’t even pick up the underglaze at all.
When I received a commission to make six pots as volunteer awards, I was given carte blanche to design any kind of pot; the only requirement was to put the volunteers’ names and the titles of the awards on them. I immediately realized the EZScreen transfers would be ideal for the project. After throwing six cylindrical lidded canisters (to make it easy to wrap designs around them), I designed six symmetrical patterns so each pot would be unique, measuring them to fit the canisters. I created a stencil for each one, then did the same with the names, award titles, and the logo for the city agency involved. I applied all my transfers and added a little bit of hand-painted detail work (10). Although the stencil with the awards and the awardees names will never be used again, the patterns I designed can be used on many other projects. I’m sure the awardees will get more lasting pleasure from my pots than they would from a plaque or certificate.
For additional information on using EZScreen stencils, visit the Pottery Making Illustrated archives to read Paul Wandless’ how-to article “Sun Screen” in the May/June 2009 issue (https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/toc/pottery-making-illustrated-mayjune-2009).
Sumi von Dassow is an artist, instructor, and regular contributor to Pottery Making Illustrated. She lives in Golden, Colorado. Check out Sumi’s book, In the Potter’s Kitchen, published by The American Ceramic Society and available in the Ceramic Arts Network Shop, http://ceramicartsnetwork.org/store/in-the-potters-kitchen.