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A Beginner's Lesson in China Painting

Lesson #2: Basic Materials

Author: Marci Blattenberger


China paints are formed from ground mineral compounds and flux. The minerals vary according to the color of the paint, but most of the ruby and purples contain gold which makes them a bit pricey but the results they produce are worth it.China paints are used in very thin washes, so a vial of china paint will last a very long time.

The second component of the paint is flux which is essentially a very finely ground glass which is very similar to the composition of porcelain glaze. When the paints are fired in a kiln, the flux melts and fuses the paint permanently to the glaze. This makes china pigment the only truly permanent pigment in existence. Once fired and fused to the glaze, it wont fade or discolor.

China paints are generally sold in powder form and the artist mixes them with various mediums to a paintable consistency.


Good china painting brushes, as with any high-quality brushes, are expensive. However, it is an exercise in frustration to try to paint on porcelain with cheap brushes. Good brushes, when properly cared for, will last a very long time.

There are several different types of brushes used in china painting. The one used most often in what is called "American-style painting" (which means a generally impressionistic style with a softly blended background) is a Kazan squirrel square shader. The brush is flat and square across the top, and is used to shape and form shadows and lights. The reason for the Kazan squirrel is that the squirrel hair brushes are as soft as sable, which allows you to softly blend the paint on the china without the brush marks that a stiffer, fibered brush would leave - and it retains a wonderful liveliness and spring that you don't find with some of the lower-end sable brushes.

Soft synthetic bristle brushes are fine for "wiping out" - a process that will be explained in detail later, but which consists of applying a layer of paint to the porcelain, and then wiping back the highlights in the piece using the white of the porcelain to create and maintain your lights. This works in much the same way that a watercolorist uses the white of the paper to maintain lights.

Scroll brushes are long, thin brushes that come to a fine point. They can be made from synthetic or natural hair. They are used for detail work on portraits, animals, scenes, and florals, as well as decorative scrolling and cartouching. A fairly long bristle of about an inch or so is preferred over a shorter detail brush. It is a bit more difficult to control at first, but when properly loaded with paint, it can make a continuous line of paint that is worth overcoming any initial difficulties - and it can do as fine a line, if not finer, than 10-0 brushes.

It is also helpful to have a small "round" brush (commonly referred to as a "berry brush" in china painting, as it is often used to "wipe out" berries). This can also be made of soft synthetic bristles or natural hairs.


The list of mediums available for china painting can be daunting to even an experienced painter...but it is easy to clarify the "medium confusion" if you remember one simple thing:


There is a wonderful page on the PPIO library page written by Gene Patterson that breaks down the properties of the most common oils used in china painting.

There are oils that will never air dry (open mediums), oils that will air dry (closed mediums) and all sorts in between.There are also water based mediums available for those with allergies to solvents or oil or who just prefer a water soluble medium...Gene even experimented with the use of liquid soap and was quite pleased with the result.

I will tell you which mediums I prefer, but my suggestion is to possibly start with the oils I use and then from time to time, purchase different oils or commercially mixed mediums and try them. The painting mediums will all "set up" at different rates, allowing you more or less time to play around with your painting and all of the mediums have a somewhat different brush feel or drag. That feel is a matter of
personal preference.Because of the slickness of the surface of the china, I prefer a medium with a slight bit of brush drag that doesn't dry completely but does set up somewhat after a while.

Again, after you've been painting a little bit, I do suggest you buy small bottles of several different mediums and experiment to see what works the best for you. Some painters like a brush that glides across the china, others (myself included) like a little bit of a brush drag on the surface - still others like to use a medium that is thick, dries quickly and forces you to paint in tole-like brushtrokes with no blending. There is no right or wrong answer here.

My personal preferences about oils are as follows:

I like to MIX my paint with baby oil....any brand....store generic label is just fine...I don't enjoy mixing paint and as a result , I mix a large batch at one time, storing it in small covered plastic jars. Baby oil is refined mineral oil. Mineral oil is an open medium which means that it wont dry so the paints stay soft and pliable. Also, baby oil wont separate to the top of the jar like some mixing mediums do. I don't paint with baby oil, although some painters love it. It seems to attract too much lint for me and also tends to be a little too oily for my style of painting...so I generally paint with pen oil (any brand) or PINE oil which is makes a wonderful , all-purpose medium. I like using pen oil because it is formulated to let you thin down china paint to the consistency of pen ink without running or spreading. It also helps me to load my brush with a large amount of color that is still thin enough to work fine detail. I also like the painting mediums by San Do and Jane Marcks and the motor oil recipe (This can be found on the PPIO oils and mediums page).


There are many different solvents available to clean brushes and as we are becoming more educated in the areas of toxicity, we are using less solvents and tending toward safer ones. I have found one I'm very pleased with called Turpenoid Natural made by the Martin F.Weber company.It is reputed to be non-toxic. It has a weird smell but it is a terrific brush cleaner (its the only thing I've found that completely softens turp-hardened brushes) and some painters have even begun to use it as a painting medium. (I've tried it and like it for some things but it is a little slick ).

Another common solvent is turpentine (make sure it is fresh and not yellowed...yellowed turp has already begun to turn to fat oil and will not work well as a cleaner. It will leave your brushes very stiff....however, you can leave old turp uncovered (put a layer of cheesecloth over the top to keep out dust) and let it sit out until it becomes as thick as honey. This is FAT OIL and makes a wonderful mixing medium for European style painting ( tole painting-like brushstrokes and white backgrounds). Yet another solvent is alcohol. This is also used a lot for doing wipe out work since it evaporates quickly and lets you remove the paint without danger of running. And if you mix your paints with glycerin or a water-based mixing medium, then the solvent choice is water.

Marci Blattenberger is co-president of Porcelain Painters International Online (PPIO). She is available for seminars on a variety of subjects including portraits, special techniques, barns, cats, florals, thatched roof cottages and other subjects.

Marci is a contributing editor to WetCanvas! For more information on Marci and Porcelain Painters International Online, be sure to visit their official web site at www.porcelainpainters.com. She can be reached via email at [email protected].