Thursday, August 12, 2010

So the long awaited answer to my question on July 21. What collapsed the pottery industry in the late 1700's?

Well, let me try and give you a visual reference. Pretend it's 1725. You're in the local public house drinking posset with your business associates. Posset was a mixed drink made of milk, egg, wine (usually sack), and spices. You are drinking out of small clay cups and the posset is being served out of a punch bowl.

Pretend it's 1825. You're in the same public house drinking with your business associates, but there is more agriculture now in the USA, so there is more beer, ale, and whiskey. What are you drinking out of? Glass mugs, and you are being served out of glass pitchers.

Glass was cheaper to produce and did not require as much skilled labor. Glass bottles and jars ended the neighborhood potter. Potter then turned more and more to decorative ware. It was more about style than function.

Pottery has continued alternating between style and function. In the pottery world, potters often will define themselves as either functional potters or art potters. Functional potters specialize in mugs, plates, bowls, and tableware. Art potters make scultpture and are more interested in surface decoration. Art potters, in the last twenty years or so, are much more interested china painting than functional potters. One of the great books out there right now that blends the pottery world and the china painting world is China Paint and Overglaze by Paul Lewing. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

So I have a question for you, my readers. I will answer in a day or two but if you have the answer, then post it.

Here is the question. What industry wiped out pottery as a cottage industry? In the mid-1700's there were small local potteries in every town and city on the Eastern seaboard. Why did most of them disappear?

I am looking forward to class tomorrow night. I am hoping we won't have wild weather again. Last Wednesday, the rain came down in buckets. It was a wild night. My students are truly an intrepid lot and very faithful.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I am back from my trip to Virginia, where I visited the DC area and Williamsburg. In colonial Williamsburg, there is a great museum dedicated to decorative arts. Of course, pottery and ceramics is a large part of the museum. They had a great collection of earthenware pots and jugs. Also, great educational displays on the differences between earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.

Earthenware is porous, fired at low temps, needs a glaze to be impervious to liquids and is opaque. Earthenware can be yellow, red, brown or black.

Stoneware is fired in the mid-range temperatures, does not need a glaze to be impervious to liquids, is good at withstanding thermal shock, and can be slightly translucent if thinly potted. Stoneware can range from white to gray, tan, borwn, and red.

Porcelain is fired at high temperatures, it does not need a glaze to be impervious to liquids, is great at withstanding thermal schock (they use porcelain for those space shuttle tiles), and is translucent if thinly potted. Porcelain is always white.

Porcelain or china is made of kaolin or china clay, which is a refractory white clay or pure alumina silicate. It is usually glazed with powdered petuntse or feldspathic rock (volcanic rock). The great stumbling block to creating china in Europe was not the ingredients but creating a kiln that could fire hot enough. They figured it out in Meissen, Germany around 1710. The first porcelain, or China, was developed in China around 610-907 AD.

Personally, a display explaining transfer ware, porcelain decorated with designs created originally on copper engraving plates, was a highlight. This has always been a minor mystery to me. How did they do that? Copper plates are flat and cups and bowls are not. Remember they came up with this process in the mid-1700s. No plastic or rubber was available to them. So how did they transfer those designs?

The answer was linen. They printed the design onto linen fabric and then wrapped the linen around the object. They left the linen on the porcelain and then it fired off in the kiln leaving the design. Cool, huh?

The summer classes at Irving are going great. We were joined last week by Skylar and her grandmother, Carol, for this session. Skylar will be an eigth grader next year; she has been working on a scene featuring a wagon train. Last night, four students started on a Santa Claus plate. Also, one of my students is doing a portrait of her mom in a black monochrome.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Still up for trivia? I promised you information on celery dishes. They are about eight to ten inches long with sides that curved up from a flat bottom about three inches across. Celery dishes were popular in the late 1800's and the early part of the 20th Century. Celery was a novelty then, a fresh crunchy texture in the fall or winter. Hello, Califoria. Refrigerated cars made celery a possibility for upper middle class hostesses; so you had to have a special dish. Those celery sticks at Thanksgiving have a history going back at least a hundred years. Who new? Your mom was being upscale.

The class is still busy working on painting in their decals on their tea cups. It will take us two or three more weeks to finish this project. One of the two kilns at Irving is filled with cups and saucers so it has proved to be a successful project. We are lucky at Irving, we have two large kilns. One has an electronic touchpad and the other has an old-fashioned cone-sitter.

Cone-sitters have two prongs or stilts that a pyrotechnic (heat sensitive) cone rests on and then a bar that rests on top of the cone. The bar is levered or caught by a lead weight. The cone will start to slump or bend at set temperature, which lowers the bar and causes the lead weight to fall, which trips a stitch to turn off the kiln. It's really an elegant little device.

The temperature range for china painting is from around 1350F to around 1550F: or cone 018 to around cone 013. For ceramics, these are low temperatures. Typically, our kilns take three to three and half hours to reach the temperature range for china painting and about six to seven hours to cool enough to remove the china.

More about firing later...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Last week, we welcomed a new student to the class, her name is Dee Broz. Welcome, Dee! We are always looking for new recruits. As I have mentioned before, the number of china painters has been on a steady decline since the 1970's. In January of 2010, Vicki Vickers joined us and has turned into a nice painter and a friendly presence in the classroom. Over the last nineteen years, I probably have started or taught over 200 painters at Irving Rec. But it never gets old, I am always excited to introduce new students to china painting and make new friends. Also, last week Barb Ellison, a student that has been with the class for seventeen years, brought us all pumpkin bars. Yum!

Well, gluing glass beads to our tea cups has proved to be a problem. About one third to one half of them fall off when they are applied to a vertical surface. On a flat or horizontal surface the glass beads have near one hundred percent success rate. This week I did some experimenting with alternate glues. Hot glue, glues that use acetone as a solvent, and white glue all have about the same failure rate. Any ideas out there?

Here is more trivia, have you ever noticed that porcelain tea, coffee, and chocolate pots resemble silver tea, coffee, and chocolate pots? Well, they were copies of silver sets. One of the reasons porcelain became the dining room standard of the 1700's, was its inability to be melted down. Silver was often confiscated by the state and melted down for ready coin. Going to war? Grab the silver. Talk about taxation.

Porcelain was also valued in the 1700's and 1800's because it didn't tarnish or change color. It was seen as pure and healthier alternative to wood trenchers, earthenware, and pewter. Given the levels of lead in pewter and earthenware glazes plus the levels of bacteria on porous surfaces, they were right. If you could afford it, you ate off porcelain!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I have been working on designs for the July session at Irving. It is always exciting to plan and create new projects for my students.

First up is a new Santa plate for 2010. My students and I have worked on a new Santa plate every year. We have about thirteen different Santa designs now. In the early years, I used different sizes and shapes of plates. After 2001 or so, we have stayed with an eight inch coupe plate. The uniform plates make them easier to display. This year's plate is a nocturne, a night view. Santa will have a black background and strong shadows across his face with some golden highlights to reflect firelight.

Santa is a good image to work with when beginning portraiture. Our eye is so accurate when we are looking at the faces of the people we love. A portrait of relatives is very hard. We can see the slightest inaccuracy. Be just a sixteenth of an inch off and the likeness is ruined. Often it is not the placement of the features that ruinds a portrait, but the tonality. What makes a cheek curve softly into the ear is gradual change of color. It takes good brush control and a good eye for tones to create that change of color. So Santa is perfect, since no one knows exactly what he looks like. Also, wrinkles are easier than a smooth cheek.

I am also working on a twelve inch plate with an image of a young woman. She has the look of a Russian princess with heaps of curly blonde hair, and I am working on a long narrow tray as well with a female figure holding a rose. With a bit of luck, all three projects will be ready for the session starting on July 7. Also, we have a Portrait Workshop on Saturday, July 17.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

So what is the difference between a tea cup, a coffee cup, and a chocolate cup? Mostly it is the shape.

Tea cups have a wide open rim that tapers down to a small base and the handles are designed to hook a single finger. Porcelain is a great conductor of heat. So it is the perfect material for boiling water and tea leaves. Tea cups were designed to coll quickly and not burn the fingers of the tea drinkers. They average 4-6 ounces.

High tea, by the way, is a supper or meal served in the late afternoon or early evening. It was served at a high table or regular dinner table. Low tea is the fancy tea served from about two to four o'clock in the afternoon in the parlor. It was served on low tables or tea tables and was considered a snack to tide you over until a late dinner around eight or nine o'clock.

Coffee cups have a more vertical side and a bigger handle for two or three fingers. Coffee is usually not brewed at such a high temp., it is brewed around 180 F. Burning your fingers and your tongue is not such a risk. Also, the vertical shape helps settle the sediment or grounds. Coffee cups with a saucer average 4-6 ounces.

Modern coffee cups with saucers often have a tea cup shape, but this is a relatively new design, dating from the mid-twentieth century. I think of them as dinner cups or cups used on trains or in diners. Dinner cups were a commercial shape for restaurants, and were not used in homes until the 1940's or 1950's.

Mugs are a whole new story.

Chocolate cups have a narrow vertical shape. They are smaller and around 4 ounces. Chocolate in the 1800's was served as syrup made of sugar, water, and cocoa. Milk or cream was then carefully poured on top. So the shape of the chocolate cups kept the milk or cream from cooking or curdling. The drinker sipped the chocolate syrup through the cream to enjoy their drink. We do the same sort of thing with our hot chocolate and whipped cream.

More than you wanted to know? Get me started on casseroles versus tureens. Or do you know what a celery dish looks like? Ok, ok. Another day.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Next Wednesday is the beginning of our summer sessions at Irving. The summer day camps will be starting at the rec. center, so the building will be a lively place with 135 grade school students.

So we will show up in the cool of the evening, Wednesdays, and paint from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., which gets everyone home before dark. We have three sessions of four weeks each; one in June, one in July and one in August. Our daytime sessions will start again on September 1.

In June, we will be using decals on tea and coffee cups. I have piles of decals; everything from windmills to kittens. I also have lots of different flower decals. Then we will paint over the decals and glue glass seed beads on them to accent them. And with the addition of a little potting soil and plant, or with a candle, or with silk flowers, they should make charming little gifts.

Decals can be fired anywhere from 018 to 014. Decals can be full color or just monochromatic. The monochromatic ones can be painted over with regular china paint. We are going to adhere the decals to the china and then we are going to paint on them all in one fire.

The glass beads are glued on with Elmer's glue or any white water-based glue and fired at 016. The little holes disappear at that temperature and adhere to the glaze. The glass beads look like perfect round dots. They can handle being re-fired as well. The beads have to be colored glass, not painted glass beads. So no metallic, opulence or glittery beads. If you glue them in a straight line, then they turn into a solid line of color. Fun!

Decals have been and stilll are considered "cheating" in china painting. It's NOT your own work! But they have a certain place and are fun for these more crafty projects. It is fun to lighten up for summer and to try our hand at something a little different. Come July we will be working on portraits and doing some serious painting.

Last year we slumped wine bottles and made chees trays, also a crafty sort of project, but more on that later.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This is going to be a far-ranging and loose account of my china painting class and the nature of china painting in the early part of the 21st Century. In other words, not very formal and I hope with lots of input from my readers.

I have been teaching a china painting class for Lincoln Parks and Recreation since fall of 1991. It has been an on-going class with occasional breaks for summer vacation or Christmas holidays.

I was not the first china painting teacher for Parks and Rec. Dee Myers taught a class from around 1971 to 1973 at a recreation center on "O" Street. Dee went on to teach china painting lessons in her home for many years. I learned to china paint from her in 1976.

There have been a few other teachers here in Lincoln. Jane McKlem taught a class in her home from around 1979 to 199-something. Back in the 1970's, Doris Botts taught a class, and so did Mary Halverson at the Cotner Center. Who am I forgetting? If you know, then drop me a line or place a comment on this blog.

My students and I are a small group of about twelve. We meet on Wednesdays. Class cycles are four to six weeks. There is usually a subject like roses, or birds, or scenes, etc., selected, but during any one session only about half of my students will be painting the selected subject. We also host an annual open house in the spring, a potluck at Christmas time and intermittent Saturday seminars.

The only other china painting class in town is offered through Southeast Community College and is taught by Darlene Jansen.

There are not many china painters around anymore; we are a small shrinking group. In the state of Nebraska, maybe a hundred to two hundred people china paint. There never have been lots of china painters, it is time-consuming art and it has a long learning curve. But we are ALWAYS LOOKING FOR RECRUITS!

In June, my students and I will be working with decals, but more about that later...

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Greetings from Irving Recreation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, home to some of the finest china painters around. Lincoln Parks and Recreation has offered china painting classes for both beginning and experienced artists at Irving Recreation Center since 1991. Stay tuned for regular blogs from our instructor, Peg Pelter.