Sunday, 25 March 2012

Elephant No. 175: Painting on China

I was about to get rid of a trio of mismatched off-white plates, when it occurred to me that I could paint them and give them new life instead.

Although clay bowls, jugs and other types of ware were known in Turkey as early as 7000 B.C., it wasn't until the seventh century A.D. that porcelain was invented. During the T'ang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), the Chinese began making hard porcelain after discovering that white, translucent ceramics could be produced with a combination of kaolin clay and felspar. Because of its origins, porcelain—from the Italian word porcellana ("cowrie shell")—is also known as china.

For hundreds of years, the Chinese kept the porcelain formula to themselves, remaining the world's sole producers of hard-bodied porcelain until the early eighteenth century. Imported into Europe as a luxury item—perhaps by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century—porcelain was found only in the homes of wealthy aristocrats.

As time went on and porcelain continued to gain in popularity, Europeans sought the secrets of producing the delicate ceramic. King Augustus II of Poland literally locked up his alchemist Johann Bottger, threatening him with execution if he didn't come up with the porcelain formula. Bottger eventually succeeded, leading Augustus to found the Meissen factory in 1710.

Conductor from Meissen's famous Monkey Band, 19th century.
Meissen copy of their eighteenth-century original.

For nearly ten years, the recipe for porcelain remained a closely guarded secret. Eventually, however, companies in Germany and France worked out the formula for themselves, and the making of porcelain exploded. The European craze for porcelain led to its being made into vases, snuffboxes, bowls, plates, teapots, figurines, cups and saucers, plaques, jewellery, and tables. Augustus II even considered having a castle made of porcelain.

In time, the painting of porcelain became as important as the object itself. Enamel paints were applied over a glaze, then fired at temperatures of 1300˚C (2372˚F) or higher. Factories had artists on staff who painted in styles that soon became associated with specific companies. Sèvres, for example, became famous for delicate miniatures on vases, cups and boxes. Meissen produced figurines and vases. Italian companies developed elaborate floral designs, animals, fruit and scenes from daily life.

Sèvres bowl, ca. 1773.

Today, fine porcelain is still made by a number of companies around the world, often in patterns and designs very similar to those of eighteenth-century Europe. In addition, contemporary artists produce both painted and unpainted porcelain, ranging from minimalist forms to elaborate room-sized installations.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with some of the 100 million porcelain seeds in his
Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Britain in October 2010. It took 1,600 Chinese
workers to produce the individually handpainted seeds.
Photo: Getty Images

Although the traditional techniques for painting porcelain are similar—paint, let dry, heat to set the paint—the paints I used for today's elephant are quite different. Painting porcelain in the traditional way is somewhat like painting with glass enamels, requiring things like lavender oil and various other types of liquid medium. I already had some oven-firing porcelain paints from a previous attempt at plate-painting, however, so that's what I decided to use.

It had been a couple of years since I'd painting anything with oven-fired paint, so I wasn't sure if the paints would still be good. Although they had thickened a little, they are water-based and can be moderately thinned with water.

This is the little plate I used. It measures about 15 cm (6 inches across) and is made of a fairly thick china—one might even say industrial.

I started by sketching something on the plate with a china marker. The marks dissolve when you paint over them, and if there are still lines after you're finished painting, they can be wiped or washed off after the piece is "fired".

I didn't have any grey, and I didn't think I'd have enough working time if I mixed black and white, so I made the elephant silver.

The paint can be applied as thick or as thin as you like, the only difference being the length of time it needs to dry before firing. I was trying to lay on the colour relatively thickly for this base coat, but it ended up a bit streaky. Still okay, but it wasn't quite what I had intended.

After this, I started colouring in the other areas. The paints dry out quickly, so I worked fast and didn't document much of the process, other than the feather and the polka dots I added to finish off the edge.

This took about an hour from sketch to final. It has to dry for at least 24 hours before I can bake it in the oven, but the colours should remain the same. The only real difference after firing is that the brushstrokes will soften a little and the paint will develop a bit more gloss. This makes it different from painting with pottery glazes, for example, when you're not exactly sure what the final colour will look like until it's fired.

I like the final piece, even though it looks a bit like nursery china. If I'd been thinking of this as a porcelain-painting exercise, rather than simply producing a design on china, I might have tried for a more painterly effect. Then again, I still have two more orphaned off-white plates to play with.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In early June 2010, Sabu the circus elephant went on walkabout through the streets of downtown Zurich, Switzerland.

Frightened by nearby storms, Sabu ran off when her keeper turned away for a moment while loading her into a trailer. After a dip in Lake Zurich around 7:30 p.m., she went for a walk along city streets. She did some window shopping along the Bahnhofstrasse—Zurich's most exclusive shopping street—walked by the city's main railway station, and strolled past banking houses in the Paradeplatz.

Police and handlers from the Zirkus Knie chased Sabu around the city streets for nearly an hour before she was peacefully recaptured. Although her keepers followed her the whole time, calling her name, she didn't respond. While on the lam, Sabu walked slowly, although still too fast for the police to keep up with her. Surprisingly, she caused no damage to property, to herself, or to anyone she encountered along the way.

After she was caught and loaded onto a truck, circus staff took her to rejoin the other circus animals. Sabu was reported as being tired, but "happy to be back." For video of Sabu's adventure, click here.

Sabu taking a bath in Lake Geneva, August 2010.
Photo: Keystone

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