Hot colors, cool porcelain

Maraz Studios
A brief history of china painting
I call my technique of firing lusters onto glazed china or porcelain and then outlining or embellishing them with gold, "cloisonné lusters". People often ask when they see my pieces for the first time, “Are these those cloisonné things?” Real cloisonné pieces are created by fusing enamels to metal with metal strips defining the design. I use gold instead of metal to define the luster designs on the porcelain. The gold, usually at least 22K,  is applied as the last stage and on the last fire. Not too many china painters use lusters in this manner and my art work is fairly distinctive.

History of China Painting

I will be adding to the content of this page monthly. Consider it a serial murder mystery,  for the history of china painting is filled with intrigue, murder and mystery. I have used artisitic license for the short story presented here.

The art of china painting, referenced in many works as porcelain art or china decoration, has its roots in the history of early China. It is documented that cave dwellers in Turkey as early as 7000 BC began making bowls, jugs, and utensils out of clay. Egyptians built ovens to harden their clay pieces in 5000 BC. However, over glazing was not discovered until around 3000 BC and decoration of the clayware came much later. It wasn’t until the T’ang Dynasty in 618 AD that the Chinese began making what is known today as hard porcelain. They discovered that combinations of kaoline clay and felspar resulted in the most beautiful ceramics. This porcelain ware is distinguished from other ceramics by possessing excellent qualities of hardness, translucency, and whiteness of body or paste. Any ceramic piece that possesses all of these qualities may be classified as porcelain, and, from a practical point of view, the more it excels under these characteristics, the better the specimen of porcelain it is. The Chinese, being supreme secret keepers, remained the masters and sole producers of hard-bodied porcelain until the middle of the 1700s.

Yang Sing was feeling his age.  Arthritic and achy, he could feel all of his 35 years.  Yang had been working as the emperor's Master of Pottery for almost 20 years.  He and his brothers had been his father's apprentices.  His father had started in the pottery works under his father.  As a matter of fact, Yang didn't know of any other family that had been in service to the emperors in this capacity ever.  It was indeed a family matter. The title, "Master Potter" was passed down generation to generation,  from father to eldest son.  All of the Sing family worked in the pottery "factory".  Uncles, brothers, cousins, were all part of the "family business".  It was a matter of honor and of money.  Yang and his extended family were considered wealthy and  they were all part of the royal entourage.  They had a hugh house on the grounds of the emperor's estate and had chickens and livestock and many servants.

But it was hard work.  Yang spent the better part of 12 hours each day in his "studio" , a cavernous room filled with vessels of minerals and clay.  Considered by most who knew him to be a wizard, he was in actuality a scientist.  He would mix clays with ground minerals and throw them in the kiln to see what would happen.  He would try various glaze receipes and discard those that did not please him.  But he kept no journals.  Everything must remain in his head, secrets only he would know and would eventually hand down to his eldest son, the next Master Potter.

It was by accident that he discovered the white clay that today we know as porcelain and that made his future secure and that of all his descendents.  Yang had decided that he needed to get out of his studio and go with his sons and nephews to oversee the gathering of the clay for the day's work.  They were going to be making the bowls and cups for the emperor's birthday celebration. An awesome feat, since this gala event, lasted a week. And while it was three months away, they would have to work very hard to make at least eight times the number of items as there were guests.  While the actual celebration of the Emperor's birthday, culminating the festivities, was quite solemn and regal, what went on before was anything but, and many utensils would be lost in the celebration.

And so it was that Yang and his sons and nephews went to the clay field and started gathering the gray clay that they used when making the vessels.  Yang watched as his eldest son dug down barely six inches when the clay vein turned startling white.  "What is this?" he exclaimed,  Look at this clay.  It is white!"  "Yes father", said his son, hanging back a bit.  "It is all over the place.  We were going to tell you but I thought I would try to find another clay field first.  I don't know if this is a clay that is as good as the other".  Yang looked at all of them gravely.  "Do not tell anyone about this", he instructed.  "It is our secret"  "Noone!"

The scientist in Yang had him experimenting with the clay and other minerals that he had gathered from the local fields and mountains.  He added crushed rock.  He added powdered minerals.  And eventually, he took out of the kiln, a vessel of extraordinary beauty. He could hold it up to the light and see the shadow of his fingers.  He glazed it with a clear glaze and decorated it with the Emperor's mark.  He and his sons made all of the utensils and vessels for the Emperor's celebration from this new white clay.  And when the cups and bowls and other vessels were unveiled at the party, there was a gasp from all assembled and the Emperor took off his giant ruby necklace and gave it to Yang.

While the Chinese were excellent at keeping a secret, Marco Polo was a wonderful story teller and his “Adventures of Marco Polo” suggest that he was the first one to bring back an example of the Chinese hard paste porcelain in the shape of a small white vase on his return to Italy in 1295. But it wasn’t until trade with the Far East had really been established at the beginning of the 15th century that the white translucent ceramic was considered a valuable and luxurious material by the nobility and wealthy patrons from France, Italy, Venice and Portugal. Of course the secret of its manufacture made the porcelain even more desirable.
While variations of porcelain were produced in the late 1500’s it wasn’t until 1710 that a porcelain comparable to the Chinese hard bodied paste was developed. Augustus II, King of Poland literally locked his alchemist Johann Bottger away and under threat of death he did come up with the formula for the ceramic. The King founded the Meissen Factory in 1710 and for almost ten years the formula for this porcelain remained a closely guarded secret. However, the appetite and desire for this porcelain by the wealthy and royalty fanned the flames of multiple kilns in other countries and eventually, France and Germany also discovered the formula.

Porcelain vessels included vases, figurines, plates, bowls, snuff boxes, jewelry boxes, small and large jugs, tea caddies, teapots, tables, cups and saucers. Augustus II actually wanted to have an all porcelain castle. The decoration of the porcelain became almost as important as the item itself and each factory had a staff of artists who painted first in the style of the Chinese, monochromatically, one color scenes or flowers, fish or birds, and then specific to the actual factory. The French artists painted portraits and scenes on miniature boxes and cups, the Italians painted figurines, flowers and landscapes, animals and battle scenes, fruit and village scenes. Porcelain sculpture became important. In the latter part of the 18th century, porcelain production became so expensive that all porcelain production was destined either for the Court or visiting royalty or nobility. But of course, porcelain production was interrupted by various revolutions and invasions. Factories were looted and destroyed and had to be rebuilt. While porcelain remained desirable among the wealthy, costs of wars and rebuilding put a crimp in its production.