Betty Gerstner

     Artist in Paradise
China Painting - A Long History

General Introduction

The term "Porcelain Painting" or, as it is also called, "China Painting", usually refers to the method of painting on white glazed porcelain objects. The paint used is an overglaze paint. This means it is designed to be used on top of already glazed porcelain. (as opposed to underglazes, which are generally painted on the greenware and fired, after which a glaze is applied.)

Porcelain or china painting is an ancient art, the process which was developed over hundreds of years ago. I'm not sure just where it originated; it may have been in China or the Near East, but don't quote me on that.


The general method Porcelain Painters use is to paint a light coat of paint on the porcelain piece. This may involve one or more colors, after which the piece is fired. Then more paint is applied and the piece is fired again. This goes on, painting and firing, until the artist feels the painting is complete. The reason for the multiple layers, (called "fires" because of the firing operation between each) is because of the possibility that the paint may blister or "pop" off if too much paint is applied at once. Even so, there are some "one fire" artists. I am not one of these, although I try to accomplish my paintings in as few fires as is possible, for me.

One of the things that attracted me to Porcelain Painting is its smoothness, permanency and translucence. It is not meant to be an opaque paint. It is ideal to portray the smoothness of the human skin, the delicacy of the human eye, and hair and animal fur can be made to appear very realistic. I am a realistic painter. Although I appreciate the abstract, I prefer to paint what I see. The subjects of choice for the majority of China Painters are probably flowers and fruit. The smoothness of the China paint also lends itself very well to these subjects.

One mistake many first-time China Painters make (and I am not the exception) is to think that they can correct a wrong stroke in a later fire. China Paint has a semi-transparent appearance. Strokes, even if covered by other strokes after the firing, are still visible. Corrections can usually be made before the layer has been fired, but once the layer has been fired, unless the covering paint is very much darker than the layer below, the earlier painting will show through. This means that, unlike oils or acrylics, you must plan your light areas ahead of time. Now that I have also started to paint watercolor, I find that the planning of a China Painting seems similar to that of a watercolor, since both are transparent painting mediums.


Most of the China Paints are a dry powder and must be mixed with some type of oil. There are generally two types of oils which can be purchased in a China Painting studio or from suppliers to porcelain painters. The "open" or slow drying (sometimes even never drying) medium and the fast drying medium which usually dries within about 2-3 hours of painting. Many China Studios sell their own versions of these two categories of China Painting oil.  Some China Painters still use mineral oil. I used it years ago but have since changed to various Studio blends. The problem with mineral oil is that it attracts a lot of lint, and new students who use mineral or baby oil, tend to use too much oil in their paintings. This can result in running of the paint and lighter colors after the firing..

Sometimes, even glycerin is used to mix the paints, when the paint medium is to be water-based. This is not the usual practice, though. There are other special oils for special paint projects, such as enameling and raised paste for gold. I won't go into them here as I do not have a lot of first-hand knowledge in this area. I have done very little raised paste for gold and only anticipated experimenting with enamels.

Turpentine is used to thin the paint and to clean brushes. Until recently, I used Turpenoid, since turpentine for me has such an irritating smell. But the turpenoid doesn't clean the brushes as well as the turpentine. Also, the turpentine, seems to cut a cleaner line when the cleaned brush tip is used to "wipe out" an area.

The painted item is usually sanded between paintings to remove any residue of color which has not blended within the porcelain and to smooth the surface. I use Denatured alcohol to wipe the sanding dust off and further clean the painted item prior to painting the next layer. It is a procedure I was taught, and I think it is done by many China Painters.

The powdered paints usually have a flux in them and if not, must have a flux added. Flux is a fusible substance that causes other substances to melt. Its presence in the paint allows the paint to "melt" into the glazed surface of the porcelain piece during the firing. Since the pigments of China Painting are all mineral, they fuse at different temperatures. The flux is combined in each of the colors in such proportions so that they will melt uniformly when exposed to the fire of the kiln.

Gold, Platinum and lusters, also used in china painting, do not melt into the glaze. They adhere to the top surface of the porcelain. That is why you often see an old plate where the gold rim has "rubbed off". It is because it did not fuse into the porcelain. These "metallics" are generally fired at a lower temperature than most regular china paints.

China paints, properly fired should never rub off. They also may be the only thing left should you be unfortunate enough to have a fire consume your home, since the heat of the kiln is usually hotter than that of a home fire.

Firing the China Pieces

Kilns can be purchased for use in firing at home. I used to have two older heptagonal (7 sided) kilns, a medium size and a larger size. I sold these when I moved to Hawaii and, shortly after my move, I bought a new electronic Cress Kiln. It has push button controls similar to a microwave and does not use the ceramic cones the way that manual kilns do.

The complete firing time can take about three or more hours but, because of the intense heat, the kiln should not be opened right after it shuts off. A few hours are required for the kiln and the piece(s) inside to cool off enough to be removed.

Pyrometric cones are used to indicate when the porcelain ware has reached the proper temperature to "fuse" the china paint to the piece. These cones, which are numbered based on the temperature at which they will melt, are placed inside the kiln. As I mentioned earlier, the new electronic kilns do not require the use of cones to determine when the proper temperature has been reached.


Kiln Sitter Kiln Sitter

If a kiln has what is referred to as a Kiln Sitter (a device which will automatically shut the kiln off when the desired cone temperature is reached - see illustrations above), then a smaller kiln sitter cone (about 1 inch long) is placed in a special rod assembly extending from the Kiln Sitter into the kiln.

This assembly is composed of two parallel lower rods, on which the cone rests across, and an upper rod which rests on the top of the cone. This upper rod is attached to a clamp on the outside of the Kiln Sitter which holds a latch which controls whether the kiln is on or off. When the melting of the small cone causes it to bend sufficiently, it tips the upper rod which, in turn, releases the clamp from the latch, causing it to fall and the kiln is shut off.

The first illustration is of the kilnsitter assembly as seen from the outside of the kiln. The second illustration shows the way the rods look as they protrude into the inside of the kiln. A cone (triangular shaped) is shown resting on the lower two rods. These cones are numbered based on the temperature at which they will melt. Using a specifically numbered cone in the kiln sitter, causes the kiln to stay on long enough for the peices inside to reach the desired temperature.

Most China Painting is fired in the temperature range of 1112 degrees Fahrenheit to 1566 degrees Fahrenheit. These temperatures, as indicated earlier, are expressed in cone numbers. The actual range of cones for all ceramics (including other clays) is 1112 - 2305 degrees Fahrenheit. The higher temperatures are for the unglazed pieces, using underglazes. I have tried my hand at painting some underglazes, but not with as much success as the China Painting.

In the China Painting range of cone numbers, the numbers all start with a leading zero (022 through 014). There are other leading zero cone numbers (013 through 01), but these are generally too hot for overglaze China Paints and are for Ceramic Bisque and applied glaze. In these cone numbers with leading zeros, the higher the number, the lower the temperature. The China Painter generally uses cones 019 through 016 and sometimes even cones 014 and 015. The outer ranges are for specialized items. Glass, for instance, is fired at cone 022; gold and lusters are generally fired at cone 018. But these numbers are not set in stone. I know of other porcelain painters who fire these items at higher than normal cone settings.

There is another set of cone numbers, without leading zeros, for the very high heat range (2088 - 2305 degrees). In these cone numbers ranges (1 through 10), the higher the number, the higher the heat. These cones are used to fire Stoneware and Porcelain glaze.

Subjects to Paint

There are a multitude of porcelain items to which China Paint can be applied; plates, bowls, cups, whole dish sets, dresser & trinket boxes, vases, lamps, handled mirror holders, teabag trays, ash trays, spoon holders, electrical switch plates (porcelain of course, not plastic), candy dishes and on and on the list goes. In the jewelry line there are porcelain blanks for pendants, earrings, pins, hair barrettes, belt buckles, tie tacks, money clips, collar tips, bola ties and an endless variety of other items too numerous to mention.

As I mentioned in my biography, I started out doing the jewelry items. I still do these items from time to time. But my eyes are not as sharp as they were 20 years ago, so most of my painting is on larger objects.


Well, that's my version of the China Painting scene. Hope you learned something you didn't know before. Whether you needed or wanted to know it, well that's another story.

One caveat, the opinions expressed above are my own. They are based on the knowledge I have gained in my 30 year experience with China Painting. There are many, more experienced and knowledgeable than I, who may differ with some of these statements. I have endeavored though, not to pass on bad information.

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