Magnolia Showers: porcelain painting design

Janette Graham's portrait
I wrote the following china painting article in early 1998, after winning an Award of Merit for a design I entered in an international ceramics competition. It describes how I created the design on computer, transferred it to paper, and later adapted it for painting three porcelain plates and a coffee pot.

These are the colour illustrations (below). Click on any one to go to a larger image.

Magnolia plate Magnolia coffee pot Magnolia Plates Magnolia Showers plate 27cm

Magnolia Showers

by R. Janette Graham
The Kutani Competition

Early last year I saw a notice for a Japanese ceramics competition with two categories, one of which I could enter — designs on paper.

This was the Kutani International Decorative Ceramics Competition '97, its purpose to add a new beauty to the tradition of Kutani ceramics. Only seven listed colours could be used, plus gold and silver; selected works would be exhibited at an International Ceramics Fair; 60 entrants would be invited to Japan to make a plate from their design on paper — and there were generous prizes.

Entries had to be in by March 5, so I sent out urgent requests for an entry form. I did find one on the Internet but the sample colours didn't view accurately. After I'd faxed a request to Japan, I finally located a copy locally and so ended up with two. I then found that the printed colours on the two forms varied considerably, so I was a little more relaxed about colour matching.

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Designing an Entry

Before starting my design I looked for, but couldn't find, some modern Kutani pieces. I did however find an historical book which said that Kutani ware was noted for its repeat patterns, so I wanted to include at least some repeat work.

I decided on flowers, which stylise readily; and magnolias, which are native to Japan and include some of the listed colours. I drew several stylised magnolias on the computer, referring constantly to my photos, then resized and rearranged them many times to fit into a circle. After further experimenting I decided to leave the petals white, with only occasional touches of red, and to outline them thickly in gold.

I left wide strips of white between the flowers and the deep blue background areas, reshaping the latter until they curved smoothly. I then created a repeat pattern, a block of stamens, including an occasional irregularity so it would not be too geometric. I envisioned them falling across the background in showers — hence the name “Magnolias Showers”. White against the blue background, they suggest the freshness of clouds and spring showers; as falling stamens, they remind us that the beauty of flowers must one day pass.

The stamens cover only part of the background. They are “cut” out of the repeat pattern in smoothly curving areas that echo the curves of the blue background.

Painting the Design

The entry had to be 36 cm in diameter on an A2 sheet of paper — far too large for my printer. I therefore printed it a quarter at a time onto A4 sized sheets of tracing paper, outlined a circle in felt pen on my A2 sheet, and traced the design.

The white stamens were painted with liquid masking fluid and the leaves, stems, centre and red petals outlined in paint. I then placed pieces of frisket over the areas to be painted, cut out masking shapes with a scalpel, and airbrushed the design in gouache. (Despite my lack of experience with gouache, I found it much easier than airbrushing on china!) Finally, I outlined the remaining petals in gold.

Competition Results

In late May I heard that my design would be exhibited at the October fair. I was not invited to Japan to paint a plate, however, so in August I went overseas for two months thinking I was not in the final judging. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to return home and find that I'd won an Award of Merit. So to all fellow china painters I say, there are competitions out there, so why not enter them? Even a shot in the dark has to land somewhere and, as we're often told, You have to be in it to win it.

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Adapting the Design

For the largest plate I simply reduced the design on the computer, printed it out on two pieces of tracing paper, and applied it to the plate. For the other two plates, one medium and one small, I moved the existing flowers around, reversed them, cropped them and moved them again until I had two attractive designs.

The coffee pot was more difficult but basically done in the same way. The main flower, enlarged, fitted well onto one side of the pot; the secondary flower, also enlarged, fitted onto the other side. The calyx, however, then looked wrong so I added another petal to partially hide it. The petals lapped around the pot to link the design, and in three places lapped over onto the lid. Stamens and areas of blue background were added in a similar manner to those on the plates, and including the handle and spout. Only at the bottom did I let the blue area touch the flowers, to cover up the bottom of the stems and balance the blue lid.

Applying the Design to China

Procedures for painting the plates and coffee pot are the same, except that the pot is harder to handle and may need extra firings:

  • apply a thin wash of pale cream or magnolia over the pieces and fire to ca. 860℃
  • sketch or trace the background areas and white stamens; mask around these areas and mask the fat ends of the stamens. (The “stems” of the stamens can be masked with thin strips of tape but it's probably easier to scratch them out later)
  • airbrush, ground or otherwise apply a deep coat of Banding Blue; remove the masking and scratch out the stamens if necessary; and fire to ca. 860℃. If you can airbrush this is the easiest way to paint the coffee pot)
  • sketch or trace the remaining design; paint the thick outlines around the petals with deep yellow (as a base for the gold); pen appropriately coloured outlines around the rest of the flowers, leaves, etc. (use Purple for Grapes on the stems); and fire to ca. 840℃
  • sand gently if necessary, clean and paint all remaining areas as shown in the illustration, using Dresden Mauve for the stems; fire to ca. 830℃
  • mix Base for Raised Gold with Banksia Red (up to ⅓) and cover the red stamens in the centre of the magnolia (do a test fire beforehand to determine the best amount, medium, etc.); paint the yellow petal outlines in gold; and fire to ca. 800℃, or less if indicated by your testfire
  • repeat or retouch any areas as necessary

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Designing on a Computer

My competition entry and all the designs in this article were worked out in colour on computer. A few simple commands to my bubble jet printer then produced:

  • A4 quick-colour copies (the equivalent of an artist's “roughs”) to have by me when painting
  • actual size black outlines on tracing paper ready to apply to paper or china; and
  • A4 size black outlines for this article, should the editor decide to use them

outline of large plate design outline of 24cm. plate design outline on 21cm. plate outline of coffee pot design

A computer, thoughtfully used, can thus save much tedious and repetitive work. By itself it will not make anyone a better designer: it will, however, allow them to make the best use of their talents. Designs and colours can be changed and manipulated indefinitely until the best effect is achieved. “I wonder if it would be better if ?” can now be answered, and before the painting begins.

There are two types of computer graphics programs: those that produce pictures made of coloured dots (pixels), and those producing curves and shapes based on mathematics (vector-based). The former allow detailed “paintings” with the effects of different brushes, pens, etc. on various surfaces, with various mediums and colours. Vector programs by contrast are good at starting sketches from scratch; they are perfect for stylised designs with large areas of plain or variegated shading.

I used a vector program for the magnolia design, initially producing a line on the screen by moving the cursor around (via the mouse) and clicking wherever I wanted to “anchor” it. This at first looked like something out of an etch-a-sketch nightmare, but by adjusting the “anchor” points and reshaping the curves between them, I soon changed it to a stylised petal. You can compare it to drawing a picture by “connecting the dots”, only you get to place the dots.

Once a curve is closed, i.e. one end joined to another, the enclosed area can be coloured with a click or two of the mouse. Such areas can also be placed over/behind others; e.g. the gold outline of the magnolia petals was actually made by placing a white shape over a larger, slightly differently shaped gold area. The entire design was then built up in this way.

This has merely scratched the surface of designing with a computer. For those who haven't tried it, if you have the opportunity, don't hesitate: it's not difficult, it's very rewarding, and it's much more fun than any computer game.


Source: 1998, ‘Magnolia showers’, Australian Porcelain Decorator, 67, cover, pp. 22-24, 26. Republished with permission. (The Australian porcelain decorator has since ceased publication.)

If you would like to see what other china painting articles I've had published, please check out my resume. You can read a brief description of china painting on my Work page.

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