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The Fine Art of Painting with Ceramic Glaze

The Artist with a Difference

     True artists in any medium have one thing in common, a finely developed sense of beauty, taste and refinement.  To be a successful painter on clay, the ceramic artist must marry a complex alliance of science and engineering with this artistic vision.

The Artist as Scientist

     What makes ceramic artists different are the pigments they use.   Chemically "alive" and intricate to use, they are natural minerals from the earth.   Used in the raw state, the minerals must be converted by the careful application of heat to reveal their color and bind them to the clay.  This is why ceramic artists must fully understand the chemistry of their materials.

The Artist-Scientist at Work

     The ceramic artist integrates three dimensions while working:  the aesthetics of a painting, the technical chemical knowledge and the groundwork for the firing stage.  The technique is not an obliging one.  On one hand, he has to take a highly disciplined approach and on the other, strive for free expression.  This presents the painter with limitations and physical difficulties at every turn.  For example, there is no immediate way for the artist to see the final color of a natural mineral when it is applied to the clay surface.  A mineral that makes blue may appear a grey-green, while white may look pale aqua.  The ceramist/artist must imagine and calculate how colors will look together when the heat or fire brings out their real tones.  He uses a kind of "technical vision"-developed by experience and years of trial and error-to bring the creative conception about.  And because natural minerals are thick and granular, the ceramic artist is sometimes obligated to invent a new process or tool to attain the desired effect.  Finally,when the meticulous orchestration of picture making is ended, the painting is ready to undergo the next step, trial by fire

The Artist as Kiln Engineer

     Firing the kiln is the third area of expertise required of the ceramic artist.  A very precarious undertaking after all that has been invested!  A painting may be successful when he correctly stacks the kiln, calculates the effects of heat on the pigments, has considered the way the pigments interact with the clay surface, and the way he controls the atmosphere(air)in the kiln.  But, in the end, it is the kiln that is the final judge of talent. The kiln is a hard taskmaster that demands more than knowledge and skill. It requires intimacy from the artist and prayers to the fire god for favor.  And sometimes, even a kiln load of sacrifice.
     And yet...
     Can you imagine Leonardo DaVinci trusting his paintings to a roaring furnace to bring them to life?!   That's the risk the ceramic artist takes everyday.  That risk is the joy, the despair and the siren call of those of us in the profession, and is what makes art on clay a very special accomplishment.

Reprinted with permission from Leo Chen

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