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The Craft of Ceramic Painting

The Craft of Ceramic PaintingIntroduction to Ceramic Painting

There are endless possibilities for the design and decoration of ceramic objects. Experiment with the wide range of methods, materials and colours available to transform everyday objects into designer ceramics. Add an individual touch to a piece of pottery or use manufactured ‘blanks’; These can be bought directly from pottery suppliers.

Origins of Ceramic Painting

In the 19th and 20th centuries many ceramic artists rose to prominence and the interest in decoration spread. This enthusiasm came from England through the influence of John Ruskin and William Morris and their reaction against Industrialisation. Pablo Picasso turned to decorating ceramic forms that he made himself and a great deal of interest grew as a result of his creations. Modern decorative ceramics are still greatly influenced by these early innovators.

Basic techniques of Ceramic Painting

The decoration of ceramics is the application of a design to a ceramic object that has already been glaze fired. 
There are three main techniques in this process that are commonly used by today’s decorative artists; enamel firing, transfer firing, lusterware and precious metal application.  

All of these processes require the application of a design and a kiln firing up to temperatures of 830°F. The design is applied to the smooth glazed surface of a pot that has been hardened in a previous firing. During the decoration firing the enamels, transfers, lustres or metals become part of the surface of the pot and become permanent.  

A smooth, unpitted glaze is the best surface to begin practise on. Perfect for use are ceramic tiles or china ‘blanks’.  
This is the term to describe an earthenware or porcelain pot that is covered with a plain white glaze. These are available from pottery suppliers or production potteries as ‘firsts’ or ‘seconds’. The latter have small faults which are not often very noticeable and can be used to practise on. In most cases they can also be used as a medium for a final design.  


A kiln is essential for a ceramic artist and there are a number of types and sizes available to suit individual needs.  
Small, enamelling or test kilns are sold for firing enamels onto metals for jewellery but these are also adequate for firing samples or small ceramic pieces. Kiln size will limit what you can achieve.  

Recent developments in kiln technology have produced lightweight, efficient ceramic fibre electric kilns that are ideal for the ceramic artist. They can be wired into a cooker point on a 30amp fuse and used I a space where there is adequate ventilation. This is important because the vapours produced by the enamel, transfer and metal firings can be quite overpowering.  

It is also necessary to have a range of kiln furniture to load your work into the kiln. Shelves divide the depth of the kiln and these are separated by props.  
Blanks are usually glazed all over and if they are not separated from each other and the kiln shelves, they will stick because the glaze softens. Stilts, spurs and saddles are the small ceramic carriers that are used to prevent this happening.  


Enamel paints are sold in various forms; as a powder, in ready to apply liquid form and as pastilles. It is even possible to buy them in the form of felt or fibre tipped pens, which are easy to use.  

You can prepare your own paints for application by mixing the powder with a solvent and grinding it between a glass palette and glass surface. Turpentine is the usual solvent for these enamels and essential oils such as aspic or clove oil can also be added to prevent them from drying too slowly.  

The paints can be blended or superimposed according to style and taste. They are applied with a brush, pen or palette knife but thinner application creates a smoother finish and if the application is too thick this can lead to bubbling or blistering during the firing. There is a wide range of colours available but some are quite expensive because of the ingredients. Colouring agents are oxides of metals which increase in brilliance during firing. The oxide chromium, for example, produces green and cobalt blue.  

Ceramic Transfers

A very popular technique for ceramic decoration is the use of ceramic transfers. These are enamel paints screen printed onto paper in a transparent waxy medium. The paper can be cut into shapes and designs and when the paper is immersed in water the transfer falls away from its carrier and it can then be gently sponged onto the tile or pot. It is very important to ensure all air bubbles are removed as they will cause the transfer to blister during the firing process.  

The transfers are sold in a variety of colours and you can have photographs, drawings or designs specially screen printed for decoration this way.  
This is the technique used to make commemorative plates and mass produced items of pottery such as mugs. However, transfers can be adapted to make very interesting ‘one-off’ designs by an individual ceramic artist.  

Lustre and metals

Lustres and precious metals are not easy to use; they are expensive and as such should be tried only after reasonable skill has been achieved with enamel decoration. Lustres are metals in a resin solution. After the firing the area decorated has a thin film of metal over it, giving a beautiful decorative effect.

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