What is China Painting?

Information about a 1st fire, 2nd fire and 3rd fire using the china painting technique.

Above is an example of a 1st, 2nd and 3rd fire China Painting.


When I teach new students the china painting technique, they usually ask why china painting is fired in an electric kiln more than once? Instructions for the china painting technique often refer to a first fire, second fire, third fire and fourth fire. This article explains why a first, second and third fire is used in the china painting technique.

First of all, an electric kiln is used to fire china paint onto a porcelain blank. A porcelain blank is usually a piece of china or ceramic, such as, a vase, plate or tile with a white glaze. Basically, the china paint is painted onto the glazed porcelain blank. The painted porcelain blank is placed into an electric kiln and the temperature is set to reach anywhere between 1300 degrees to 1480 degrees. Some china painters fire their artwork as high as 1500 degrees. The temperature used, depends on the colors, technique and the desired outcome for the china painting. This technique is also used on unglazed ceramic bisque. When the porcelain is removed from the kiln, the china paint is bonded into the surface or glaze.

Many instructions for china painting can be found across the world wide web. There are as many techniques as there are artists. One thing that china painters have in common is the use of the kiln to build up layers of china paint on glazed porcelain or ceramic blanks.

The china painting technique can be completed in one firing or multiple firings in an electric kiln. The number of firings required on any china painted artwork depends on the art style, subject and whether the painting is simple or complex. The general idea is to build up the paint gradually. The reason for building up the paint gradually using the china paint technique, is to keep from injuring the glaze on the porcelain. If the paint is too heavy the glaze might chip and if the paint is too oily the paint might run. The best results are achieved by building up the paint slowly in light layers and fire more than once.

First Fire Description

A first fire china painting has a light coverage of paint with very little detail. It could be described as a base coat of color very similar to other techniques like acrylic painting or watercolor or color pencil.

The purpose of the first fire, is to paint on a light layer of color that will be bonded to the glaze on the ceramic or porcelain blank by using the heat inside of an electric kiln. This layer of china paint is important because it lays the foundation for applications of china paint on future firing sessions.

Often, after a first fire layer is finished firing in the kiln, the result is china paint coverage that is lighter as it fires into the glaze leaving a soft image like the first fire in the example photo above. The first fire can appear even lighter than the above example.

Second Fire Description

When a layer of wet china paint is painted over the first fire application of paint it is called a second fire. Usually the second fire application enhances or darkens areas on the painting. For instance, if a leaf was painted a light coat of green on the first fire, then shadow areas and medium tone areas are enhanced on the second fire. Also, the background might need more color and this is a good time to enhance the color on a background. In the example above, the center of the rose, the edges of the petals, the spaces between and on the leaves and background were painted with highlights and low lights. When this layer of paint is completed, the artwork is returned to the kiln and fired a second time. When it is removed from the kiln, the second layer of paint will be bonded to the first layer of paint.

Third Fire Description

After a second fire, additional china paint is added resulting in a third fire. A third fire application of paint can enhance shadow areas and shading which creates more visual depth to the look of the artwork.

In the above example, the shadow areas around the rose background, petals, leaves and water drop were all enhanced with china paint. Also, details were added to the center of the rose. Notice how the visual depth changed from the first fire in relationship to the third fire which resulted in a more complete painting.

On the third fire, combinations of colors like, blue and green or pansy and green were combined together on a brush and painted in areas that had the deepest shadows. Placing the same color each time over the same color only darkens the color, however, the combination of colors creates greater visual depth on a painting.

Fourth Fire and Beyond

Often china painters will fire their artwork a fourth and even more times. This all depends on the subject, the detail, shadow areas, value and tone on the painting and what the artist is trying to achieve.

Additional firings might be required for the application of gold. Or perhaps an artist might add some pen or enamel work. Some artists fire fiberglass onto porcelain blanks first and then begin painting their artwork. These are just a few techniques that might require additional firings.

Firing Temperatures for First, Second and Third Fire

I tend to fire the gold and iron colors in the range of Cone 015 to Cone 014 or (1480 Degrees) Cadmium colors need to be fired cooler in the range of Cone 019, 018 or 017. Test firing these colors in your kiln will acquaint you with the proper temperature range for your paint.

In summary, paint with your gold and iron colors early in the painting process. Often a china painter will paint with the gold colors first and then add the reds later in the painting process so that the final painting can be fired at a lower temperature to set the red. Cadmium based china paint would be added last and not as an overlapping color onto a gold based or iron oxide color so that it doesn’t cause colors to disappear or burn out. More information about cadmium, iron and gold china paint can be found at the Information about China Paint Colors link.

With practice, the china painting technique can be mastered easily and offers many options for creating one of a kind heirloom paintings.

E-mail: 💌 marylou@maryloulaberge.com

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