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A Beginner's Lesson in China Painting

Lesson #3: Some Basic Techniques

Author: Marci Blattenberger


Pour a small mound of paint into the middle of a 6" ceramic tile. If you want to pre-mix the entire vial of paint, then pour out nearly all of it, reserving about a sixth of it in case you accidentally add too much oil). Make a small well in the center of the pile and then dribble in a small amount of baby oil.(do this drop by drop as it is easy to add too much oil). Stop adding oil every so often and grind the paint against the tile with a palette knife. You should actually be smashing the paint against the tile with a circular motion, as this ensures that you are thoroughly mixing the paint, leaving no dry lumps that will cause problems later.

Keep adding the baby oil and grinding the paint until it is the consistency of toothpaste - firm but soft. You can then scoop it into a plastic container to save or else lay it out on a palette. Wonderful professional palettes with spring loaded tops can be purchased inexpensively from any of the major china dealers, but all you really need for a palette is a piece of glass with white paper underneath (to be able to view the colors) and some type of lidded container to keep it in to keep it dust free. You can also use a large tile as a palette, but they are generally too small to lay out many colors. If you accidentally add too much oil to the paint (it will be runny), spread the paint out on a piece of newsprint and turn the paint over and over on the newsprint till it becomes the right consistency. The newsprint will absorb the excess oil.

Once you have all your colors mixed, lay them out on your palette in an order that pleases you but take care to lay them out the same way every time - this way, you'll instinctively know where your colors are and wont have to search the palette. I also label my colors on the white paper underneath. It's a good idea to do this since many colors look similar before they're fired.

One good first step to take to familiarize yourself with the paints and what happens when you layer color over color is to first make a test firing chart. It's also a good idea to test fire any new colors you acquire since the ONLY way to truly know what a color will look like is to fire it. Take an inexpensive plate (don't use a tile for this as the glaze is softer and the colors will fire differently) and paint stripes of each color on your palette across the plate, labeling each one. You can mix dark colored china paint with pen oil to the consistency of ink and scoop it up with a crow quill pen to write the names of the colors - then fire it. I fire my colors to 015. Repeat the color stripes going across this time....again labeling them and firing. This will give you a good representation of not only what the colors look like when fired, but also what happens when you fire one color over another and this will free you to experiment with your own color combinations on pieces and not be slavishly tied in to recommended colors on a piece.


China painting brushes come in two types: ferrule and quill. The ferrule brushes generally don't need conditioning...All you need to do with these brushes is, every time you begin to paint (and after you've cleaned the brush in a cleaner), swipe it through a small dish with painting medium in it and wiggle the brush in the medium. Take care to keep the brush as flat as possible, so you are not just loading the tip of the brush. Lay the bristles flat on an absorbent paper towel or a cotton cloth, and gently press on the bristles with your finger to remove the excess oil. Just lay a finger on the flat of the bristles and press down. DON'T scoot your finger along the bristles in a pushing motion as this can pull out the brush hairs.

Conditioning a quill brush is another matter: if you purchase a quill brush that doesn't have the quill already attached to the handle, you must soak the quill part in warm water until it softens enough to get it on the handle..otherwise it will split. Dip the quill brush into a jar of cleaner (turp or whatever you are using) and hold it perpendicular to the jar for a minute and let the solvent drip off the brush. You will notice as you do that, that the hairs will naturally form into a sort of wedge shape and will be flatter on one side. That is the bottom side of the brush. You have to make sure that you are aware of the top and bottom of the brush as you paint, because there is a tendency to roll the brush a little as you work and eventually, you will find yourself painting from what is intended to be the side edge of the brush and will wonder why the brush hairs are splitting and why you aren't able to maintain a sharp edge on the brush. One teacher I know calls this "quacking" and it's very descriptive - because suddenly your brush will start to resemble a duck's open beak! If that does start to happen, simply dip your brush in a jar of solvent as in step one and let the solvent drip off the brush again, and it will reshape itself.

Once you have determined the top and bottom of the brush, lay the brush in a shallow dish of painting medium and keeping the bristles as flat as possible, wiggle the brush in the oil, working the oil up into the heel of the brush....blot gently on a paper towel and repeat the oiling process. Do this once more, then with the brush loaded with oil, lay it flat against a tile and wiggle the brush while pulling it toward you. Do this several times, then blot and gently press the brush with your fingers into a sharp chisel shape. Your brush is now ready to use. When the brush starts to become unruly, repeat the conditioning process.


In china painting, it is essential to apply the paint in thin layers. If it is applied too thickly, it will chip off, leaving an irreparable gouge in the glaze. You should get a good amount of pigment on the brush, but it shouldn't be thicker than a film on the china. It should be like a watercolor wash or an oil painting glaze.

When you lay the paints out on your palette, lay down a blob of paint and pull a little bit of it toward you, forming a little valley of paint. To fully load a brush, dip your brush into the painting medium (as if you were conditioning the brush), blot, then wiggle it in the "valley" of paint. Don't just "dab, dab, dab". Do what I laughingly call the "kitty-butt wiggle" (you've all seen the way a cat will crouch down low and wiggle its fanny before it gets ready to pounce). Really wiggle the brush in the paint until you have a nice load of pigment, then test a brushstroke on a tile. You should have a good, solid amount of color without seeing any actual thickness of paint.

You can adjust the actual lightness or darkness of the color by how heavily or sheerly you apply it. You can also shade a brushstroke by working paint into one side of the brush more heavily than the other. DON'T try to lighten a color by adding too much oil - that's a real temptation, but as you can see in the middle illustration, too much oil will make the paint run. Also, if your stroke is mostly oil and not pigment, although it might look good before firing, during the firing, the oil will burn away, and you will wonder what happened to all the color!
Always try to work with a well-loaded brush. You can lighten the color by easing up on the pressure of the brush on the china, or by using a technique called "wiping out". To do this, you paint in the color, forming the leaf (as an example). Then, blot the color out of your brush. It usually isn't necessary to clean the brush in solvent, although sometimes you might want to wiggle it in the painting medium to get most of the paint out (make sure you blot the brush well to take out the oil). Wipe back some of the color where you want to show highlights. These should be pretty light, as you will come back over them on the next fire with a wash of color. Sometimes, if you are using a very dark color, or if you want a very strong highlight (for example, the bowl petal cuts on a rose), you might have to clean the brush in solvent before you do the wipeout. Just make sure that you blot the brush dry before you do the highlights or else the solvent will run into the paint.

To get your initial design onto the china, you can:
  1. sketch freehand, using a scroller brush and paint, making sure that you paint over all of your sketch or your sketch lines will fire onto the china!
  2. Paint directly onto the piece without a sketch.
  3. Sketch on your design with a china marking pencil that will fire away. Waxy china markers will work, but sometimes will leave a ridge of paint if you aren't careful. The best pencil is one called a Schawn All-Stabilo 8008 pencil. The lead looks like pencil lead, but it marks easily on china and fires away completely. This is great for beginners who are afraid to lose the design.

Some painters wipe a thin layer of turpentine over the piece and let it dry. You can then sketch over the dried turp with a regular lead pencil.

The last way to transfer a design to china is to use a sheet of graphite paper to trace the design. Tape your line drawing carefully and firmly in place on the china with masking tape, and then slip a piece of graphite underneath. CAUTION: MAKE SURE THAT YOU USE GRAPHITE PAPER, NOT CARBON PAPER OR DRESSMAKERS CARBON - THESE WILL NOT FIRE OUT COMPLETELY!. Trace over the design accurately (you can also rub the back of the line drawing with a graphite pencil instead of using graphite paper).


The technique that probably most defines the American style of china painting is the way the brushstrokes are blended into one another, leaving mysterious "lost" edges and interesting shadow shapes, while not showing actual brushstrokes. Mastering a "soft hand" takes lots of practice and it's something that, even after 20 years of painting, I still struggle with from time to time. So don't get discouraged!

The best way to practice this soft hand is to gently move the brush across your arm, barely tickling the hairs on your arm. Think about trying to paint a butterfly's wing. The tip of the bristles should just barely touch the surface of the paint. It also helps to hold the brush further back on the handle than when you lay down the stroke.

Using this brush blending technique is the best way to blend strokes. It leaves more paint on the piece, and if properly done, will leave no texture visible in the paint.

You can also use either a fine-pored cosmetic sponge or a piece of silk wrapped around a ball of cotton to "pounce" the paint. Hold the sponge or silk in your hand and sort of bounce it on the paint to soften and blend it. This will take a good amount of paint off of the surface and will usually leave a little texture in the paint, but it is a good alternative to using the brush to soften and blend.

When doing backgrounds, leave some white space between your brushstrokes (see top illustration). This will make nice little "windows" of light, and keep your background from looking too heavy. Then, simply blend the colors together softly. Try not to overwork the colors. If they are starting to look muddy, it is better to wipe them off and begin again. You can also paint areas of color on a piece and blend them together where they meet by blending from the light color into the darker color.

Before you actually tackle a piece, take the time to do the following (somewhat boring) exercise, until you can blend the colors well:

Brush on three different shades of blue (see illustration above), leaving spaces between the strokes, and practice blending the strokes together. Wipe it off completely and do it again, and again. and yet again! (yawn, I know! BORING! But if you can learn to handle the brush properly at this early stage, then half of the battle of china painting is won!).

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].