The Art of Painting on Porcelain
The practice of painting on porcelain with minerals and then firing in a kiln is as old as the creation of porcelain itself. We all have seen examples of fine porcelain from the old Chinese dynasties. We paint on porcelain with practically the same process today. The only thing that is really changed dramatically is the technology of the electric kiln. Many areas of the world have a rich history in the creation of fine porcelain. These regions were based on the availability and type of clay deposits in the area. It was a natural evolution that these regions began to not only produce white porcelain but to decorate it with fine hand painted designs. Most people recognize the names of Limoges and Dresden as being synonymous with beautiful painted porcelain. These regions not only had factories to produce the white wear but employed staffs of full time artists to paint the pieces.
In the United States the industry of hand painted porcelain was based around the Cincinnati and Chicago area with Rockwood Pottery and Pickard China respectively. The pieces created by the artists of the two companies are highly collectible. The factory recognized the level of artistic endeavor by allowing their pieces to be signed by the artist. Pickard China is also known for producing several patterns of White House china. These American companies are also known for their fine staff of artists. These companies allowed their artists to sign their work. This was seldom allowed in the European factories. During the Victorian era it was popular for ladies of means to paint porcelain. Indiana has a rich history in this in first lady Caroline Harrison. She was a fine watercolor artist and china painter. When President Harrison was elected she was said to specify that her china painting teacher would be going to Washington with her and she would have access to a kiln in Washington. We all know that ladies usually get their way and she continued to practice her art in the White House along with her teacher. Examples of her work are on display at the Benjamin Harrison House in Indianapolis.
With the changes in the world scene in the early to mid 1900’s the life of painting porcelain in Victorian parlors gave way first to the effects of the depression and then to the role of women in a World War II effort. It was also a time of setback for the European porcelain industry. Some of the factories were converted over to war production while others were devastated in the bombings. A rediscovery of the art has slowly continued to where it currently is today. The art of painting on porcelain is practiced today all over the world. There are 2 worldwide organizations of membership dedicated to the education and furthering of this art. In Indiana we have a collection of regional guilds that meet monthly and paint and study the art. These guilds belong to the Indiana World Organization of China Painters (IWOCP) that in turn is a state member of the World Organization of China Painters based in Oklahoma City. The other world organization is based in Grapevine Texas and is the International Porcelain Artists and Teachers. Many artists belong to both organizations as one has emphasis on local clubs while the other has more focus on an international base. Both organizations have museums of fine examples of hand painted porcelain in their base cities. Each organization holds biennial world conventions that gather artists together for and exhibit and exchange. Both organizations also publish a magazine. Every year the Indiana WOCP holds a convention and exhibit. The show has an exhibit of fine examples of hand painted porcelain by the member artists in Indiana. There are always visiting artists from all over the US displaying their work. There are instructional demonstrations and classes. All these shows and conventions are open to the public. At the Indiana show, pieces are chosen to represent our state in the WOCP museum in Oklahoma City for one year.
The Indiana WOCP undertook a project a few years ago. To preserve the rich history of painting porcelain the Indiana artists painted a set of 30 place settings of china along with 30 serving pieces for the Indiana governor’s mansion. These pieces were painted with designs of Indiana wildflowers. Mrs. O’Bannon received the gift at the state convention. The artists were then invited to a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to see the china on display. It was a memorable event for the Indiana painters.
We are also fortunate in Indiana that we have the Porcelain Art School of Indiana a 5 day school each year to study porcelain art with teachers from all over the world. A student signs up to paint a particular subject with a particular teacher and they study that subject and technique painting 8 hours a day. In addition to fine artists from all over the U.S. we have had teachers from Canada, Mexico, Brazil as well as other countries. The firing of the pieces is done on the premises. We also have a china painting vendor that comes from Denver and literally brings the whole store of supplies for purchase. The school holds an open house for the public on the Wednesday from 1:00 – 3:00 P.M. The public is free to visit the classrooms and see the students at work creating fine pieces. They can also meet the artists. We are very proud of our staff of teachers each year. We vary teachers from year to year to provide the students with a wide array of exposure to some of the finest artists practicing the art today.
The Indiana painters have a fine display of their work in the Home and Family Arts Building at the Indiana State Fair. We are very proud to be recognized with the fine arts. In addition to the exhibit the artists set up and do painting demonstrations during the course of the fair to educate the public on the history and execution of what is still thought to be a lost or dying art.
China painting is more than simply decorating dinnerware with floral motifs. Granted this is still practiced but many of the artists today are expanding the perception of porcelain art by painting portraits, wildlife, landscapes, and still life just like any other medium. Many artists are now painting on porcelain tiles and framing these pieces just as a canvas. The porcelain is a blank canvas and the possibilities are endless. When it comes to painting pieces such as vases etc. the artist gets an added challenge in design in composing the piece to flow and compliment the piece. The process of painting involves using a dry mineral paint that is mixed with usually an oil of some kind to allow it to be applied to the porcelain. When fired in a kiln to around 1400 degrees the mineral color permeates the glaze and becomes permanent. The colors are translucent like watercolor so colors are layered over each other in multiple firings. Some pieces can have a least 5 firings and with added embellishments of raised pasted and gold even more. Since the paint is much like watercolor the subject is worked from light to dark. In saying, if you have a highlight in the subject that highlight must be preserved from the first fire on. There is no going back and throwing in a white highlight like one can in oil painting.
Because of the progression of fires to achieve the end result it is not always as easy to be spontaneous with some subjects. Portraits are one subject where a misplaced shadow that is fired in can ruin a piece. Most artists paint with what is called an open medium. This means that their paints never dry. The paint will remain wet on the palette as well as on the piece until it is fired. This enables the artist to smooth and wipe out paint indefinitely until they achieve the result they want. The paint is not permanent until it is fired. Artists that use a closed (or drying medium) many times use it in a one-fire technique. The technique for creating the Meissen style pieces from Dresden normally uses a closed medium approach. The work is permanent. Unlike other painting mediums, china painting is not affected by light, moisture or heat. You can hang a framed tile next to a sunny window and the colors will never fade. You can’t do that with a watercolor. You don’t have to frame a tile with archival materials. The painting is not affected. You won’t have cracking and checking overtime like an oil painting. The painting will be a pristine 500 years from now as the day it was finished. That is one of the things that drew me personally to the art. The vanity in creating a work that will last long after I have gone can be pretty heady stuff. To this day there is nothing for me like a portrait that has been well done on porcelain. The heads of state has recognized the medium as well. We have two artists teaching at the Indiana porcelain school, one was commissioned to paint the King and Queen of Thailand on porcelain and the other was commissioned to paint Pope John Paul II on porcelain as well. I think that is a testament to quality and the permanence of the art.
Porcelain artists deal with some artistic prejudice towards their art. Many times artists of more conventional mediums tend to dismiss porcelain painters are mere “decorators”. It is true that the art has been practiced as a cottage industry and done as entertainment by little ladies but today many of the artists are exhibiting pieces of original work to stand up in any convention show. The problem is being allowed to exhibit in the first place. The most common “excuse” to be denied entry into a show is that we do not make the porcelain ourselves. I would like to get a count on how many oil painters weave their own canvas or are all watercolorists paper makers too? There are works that were done by famous porcelain artists such as Wagner, Bishoff and Aulich that command high prices. Occasionally one can even see examples come up at programs such as “Antiques Roadshow”. Many people do not know that Renoir began his career studying as china painter. This was much the custom in those days to study as an apprentice under a master artist. We are trying to replicate the same by holding seminars and schools across the world to allow the porcelain artists to study with the masters of today. In 2009 the Indiana General Assembly enacted House Resolution 0024 that specifically recognized china painting… “The fine art of porcelain painting deserves to be restored to its original place of honor in the artistic world and all prejudices removed regarding this ancient art form”.
Public television’s WFYI “Across Indiana” did a feature on the Indiana WOCP and the prejudices the porcelain painter has to contend with. This program “Pride, Prejudice and Porcelain” can be viewed on the media page of this website.
Many of the porcelain artists have also picked up the torch to try and educate the public in the history and execution of the art; hopefully in doing so increase the respect and appreciation for it. These efforts have not gone unrewarded. The Indiana Hoosier Salon Art show had always been out of the reach of porcelain artists. They were prohibited from entering. In 2010 the Indiana WOCP appealed to the Hoosier Salon to allow hand painted porcelain to be allowed to enter. The Hoosier Salon said “Yes” and painted porcelain was permitted and accepted into the Hoosier Salon for the first time in its 86 year history! If hand painted porcelain can be exhibited in The Hoosier Salon why should it be denied access to other venues? We commend The Hoosier Salon for being forward thinking and willing to update old and antiquated policies. It is our hope in educating the public more about this art form it will also increase appreciation for it.