The Colorful World of Majolica

Majolica in common contemporary parlance is a white, opaque, glossy glaze that is very viscous to the point that it doesn’t move during firing. This allows line quality applied to the raw glaze to be maintained faithfully through the firing process.

Majolica is Italian tin-glazed pottery dating from the Renaissance period. It is decorated in colours on a white background, sometimes depicting historical and mythical scenes, these works are known as istoriato wares ("painted with stories"). By the late 15th century, several places, mainly small cities in northern and central Italy, were producing sophisticated pieces for a luxury market in Italy and beyond.

Tin glazing creates a brilliant white, opaque surface for painting. The colours are applied as metallic oxides or as fritted underglazes to the unfired glaze, which absorbs pigment like fresco, making errors impossible to fix, but preserving the brilliant colors. Sometimes the surface is covered with a second glaze (called coperta by the Italians) that lends greater shine and brilliance to the wares. In the case of lustred wares, a further firing at a lower temperature is required. Glaze was made from sand, wine lees, lead compounds and tin compounds.

The majolica technique is commonly done at low-fire temperatures, although you may work in a similar way on any stiff, opaque glaze at other temperatures with related results. Most of the stain colors used for majolica decorating will fire to mid-range (cone 5–6). At cone 10, shino glazes are very viscous and don’t move much, but the available palette of colors is different: many of the purples fire out blue; yellows in reduction are often pale and grayish; most of the pinks burn out; and body stains (e.g. Mason Stain 6020 Pink) may be too refractory even at cone 10. Nevertheless, it maybe worth an experiment or two.

Tips for decorating majolica pieces

  • Begin by using a soft pencil to lightly draw out the decoration. Using the pencil first allows you to run through ideas before committing fully with the brush and stains.Decoration can be as minimal as a few dots of color or as elaborate as an overall pattern covering the piece. The choice is up to you. If you make a mistake, it can be gently ‘erased’ with a finger.

  • The majolica technique begins with painting the foreground using a stain paste and working backward toward the background so that colors are always painted onto a white ground.

  • Mix the stain paste to a thinned glaze consistency. If it’s too watery, it may drip or run down the side of your pot.

  • To create an added layer of interest to your decoration, load your brush by first dipping it into one color and then dabbing a second color onto the tip. When the brush moves across the surface of the pot, the colors gracefully blend together. Loading the brush can add an element of depth and interest to your brushwork.

  • After finishing all the foreground decoration, it’s time to start working toward the background. The entire surface can be colored or the decoration can be painted in any manner or pattern to design the background.

  • For errors in glazing (and there are bound to be some) 400-grit wet-dry sandpaper will sand down lumps, or they may be gently scraped down with a sharp knife. When sanding or shaving glaze, do it over a container of water to trap the dust and prevent it from circulating in your studio environment.

Countries using this technique

Majolica, often called tin-glazed earthenware today, can be found in colonial archaeological sites stretching from Canada to Argentina.

The Majolica method started to be produced in Italy in the 15th century in the towns of Deruta and Gubbio and it became known as Maiolica; this change in spelling came about because “j” did not exist in the Italian language. To start with, it was greatly influenced by the Valencia style, leaving the background white, using similar figures, animals and borders, but they gradually developed it, creating beautifully different designs and colors. Using a dark background and the colors in a much more subtle way, the Italians became perfectionists in their work, in contrast to the more free and liberal brush-strokes used in Spain. It spread to other parts of Europe in the 16th century: Holland where it was known as Delft, France as Faience and then to England in the 17th century, where it lasted about one hundred and fifty years and was known by the name of Lambeth and now is known as Majolica.

Majolica in Spain

Ceramics have always been popular in Spain and earthenware pottery has existed for thousands of years. First Iberian pottery; later Greek and Roman; then, with the conquest of the Arabs came the methods of Luster and Majolica.

In locations where the earth was suitable for making clay, many ceramic firms became established. In the past each firm went through the whole process, from taking the clay out of the ground to decorating and firing the finished pieces.

In Spain, the kilns used for firing were known as Arab Kilns and they created the heat by wood firing. They were large brick structures with two floors. The bottom floor of the kiln was for the wood-fire and the top for the objects going to be fired. The firing time depended on the size of the kiln and could take up to 24 hours.

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