When starting to work with majolica glaze techniques, Jake Allee looked to historical pieces from Iznik, as well as Spain and Italy. He adopted a limited color palette of analogous and complimentary combinations .


  • Study historical styles of Majolica decoration
  • Choose designs and a limited color palette appropriate to your form and based on your research. Test your designs in sketches.
  • Learn to paint on the majolica base glaze in stages, starting with a border or frame, then moving to the background colors and into the foreground.
  • Try variations on your themes and analyze the results to determine which are most successful in terms of composition, balance, application techniques and concept.



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Messing with Majolica

I’ve recently been experimenting with translating my drawings onto ceramic objects using the majolica technique. The direct nature of applying color through this brush technique has a nice appeal because the fired result looks pretty close to the way it was applied. In an effort to get some of my advanced students to expand their experience with different firing ranges, I’ve been introducing majolica as a way to explore what the character and the color palette this technique has to offer. For the type of imagery I’m trying to achieve, I’ve found that simple, refined forms with smooth surfaces are best, but thinking outside of the box might lead you beyond the conventional interpretation of this technique. Consider the variety of textures you can create, combined with alternatives to applying stains using non-traditional techniques. Spattering with a toothbrush, spraying with a squirt bottle, or dabbing with a crumpled rag might be just the beginning.


Applying the Base Glaze


The majolica technique begins with applying an opaque white glaze over your bisque fired clay. I mix my own clay, but also use APS Red from New Mexico Clay. Any cone 04 red clay that works with your glaze base is suitable.
Linda Arbuckle’s majolica glaze base works great (see recipe at the end of the assignment), but pay attention to the thickness of the glaze when applying it. If it’s too thick, it tends to crawl, and if applied too thin it will cause the surface to be dry. For best results, use tongs to dip the pieces and avoid getting finger marks on them, which become very evident when applying the stains. Any drips can be smoothed out with your finger tip after the glaze completely dries on the bisque piece. Use a dust mask when smoothing the dry glaze.


If you don’t want to mix your own glaze, many commercial low-fire white glazes will work just as well including Amaco’s LG-11 white low-fire glaze and Laguna’s EM-2118 Majolica Glaze. Many other stiff white glazes may also work, just do some tests prior to getting started.


Preparing Stains


To prepare the colors, I mix Gerstley borate with commercial stains from Standard Ceramics Supply, including but not limited to K-44 Royal Purple glaze stain, and #496 Christmas Red glaze stain. The Gerstley borate helps the stains to flux and adding 20% of it works great for most stains, although I add 50% to black stain and 40% to chrome green. I measure ingredients by volume using a plastic tablespoon and always run a couple of test tiles through a glaze firing before committing to mixing large amounts.


Note: if you prefer not to use Gerstley borate, you can use a frit as the flux instead. The following comes from Linda Arbuckle:

  • for non-refractory colorants use 1 part colorant, 1 part frit, ½–1 part bentonite: copper (blue-green), cobalt (blue), manganese (brown to plum with Ferro frit 3110), iron (brown)
  • for refractory colorants use 1 part colorant, 3–4 parts frit, ½–1 part bentonite: chrome (grass green), rutile (rusty orange), titanium dioxide (ivory). Most stains are refractory enough to require this ratio. Make test tiles and run tests with each ratio on the stains you wish to use to determine what is appropriate.Adding CMC gum or bentonite improves brushability, and makes the stains less powdery once they dry on the glaze surface. If you’re planning to use wax or latex resist over the colors, adding one of the two is advisable as the resist does not stick well to powdery surfaces.

Adding CMC gum or bentonite improves brushability, and makes the stains less powdery once they dry on the glaze surface. If you’re planning to use wax or latex resist over the colors, adding one of the two is advisable as the resist does not stick well to powdery surfaces.


Commercially available stain mixes, such as Amaco’s Gloss Decorating Color series (GDC) and Duncan’s Concepts Underglazes are listed as suitable for use with majolica. Linda Arbuckle mentions that some Amaco Velvet Underglazes also work, and many other underglazes may as well. Note: Be sure to test any product you plan to use with your clay and glaze, and under your firing conditions before committing to it fully.




For this technique, I’ve been using several sizes of bamboo brushes and small watercolor brushes. One that’s long and thin, called an “ex liner” (or “rigger” brush as it’s used by watercolor artists to paint the detailed rigging on sailboat images) and another called a “script liner” also used for fine lines and details.


You may wish to consider different marks made by brushes such as the flats and fans. Pay attention to possibilities in the types of mark each type of brush can make, and develop your skill with brushes using India ink on paper before committing to the ceramic material.


Applying Stain


I’ve been playing with decorating plates lately because they have a nice flat surface that can be treated like a canvas or piece of paper. My watercolor training in school has proved quite effective in approaching composition as well as color. A landscape-style composition is a great place to start.


My first attempts at multi-colored brush decoration turned out pretty disastrous. After looking at what I liked in many different historical styles, I discovered I was using too many colors. Much of the historical work that appealed to me had a stripped down color scheme and relied on white background to create contrast. Even the math-based Della-Robbia compositions of Italy generally used blue, yellow, and green. Thinking about the color wheel and applying design concepts, I decided to go back to square one and use complimentary and analogous combinations and added black for emphasis. Gradations in wash were used for variation within this limited palette.

Tips for designing and creating your composition:


Start with sketches. This way, you have most of the composition worked out before you commit.


Simplify your color palette. Too many colors can confuse the eye. Consider using one color with varying degrees of intensity along with black as a good place to start. If you are interested in becoming more elaborate with color, use a complimentary or analogous color scheme.


Define the borders of your image area. Use a banding wheel to define the image area on plates (figure 1). For other forms, use a light wash to define your boundaries.

Figure 1

Always work light to dark. Use light washes first and create depth by gradually using more intense application of stain. Use yellow first and black last for the final emphasis of critical points in the composition. Don’t forget to use the white of the glaze as your lightest value.


Work background to foreground. Apply background colors first (figure 2).

Figure 2

 As you work with each color, move through the composition, filling in areas in the midground and foreground that have the same color (figure 3).

Figure 3

Remember to block out areas, leaving them white where light colored foreground imagery overlaps the background. The colored stains are like watercolors. Any marks you make continue to be visible even under layers of other colors. If you plan well, darker lines in the foreground used to develop details and that overlap lighter ones enhance the idea of perspective, as the foreground lines will appear closer (figure 4).

Figure 4

The darkest lines, in black are used for the foreground only (figure 5).

Figure 5

Work from the top of the form to the bottom. This helps to avoid smearing your previous work. If you are decorating a plate, work on the outside edges last (figure 6).

Figure 6

Always remember! If you view your efforts as an experiment and work within the context of learning, you won’t set yourself up for failure. Consider a range of outcomes as successful. If you are shooting for something too specific, you probably won’t get what you are looking for. The challenge of improvement will ultimately drive you to continue to make work.


Jake Allee is an assistant professor of art at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. To see his work or for comments, visit www.jakeallee.com




Linda Arbuckle’s Majolica
Glaze Base

Cone 04-03 Oxidation
Kona F-4 Feldspar (Minspar 200)

17.2 %


Nepheline Syenite



Ferro Frit 3124



EPK Kaolin




100.0 %


Add: Tin Oxide

4.0 %



9.0 %



2.0 %



This recipe is for the stiff base glaze, over which stains are applied. Add between 1/2 and 3+ tbsp Epsom salts to 5 gallons of glaze (flocculates the glaze for less settling and better application)

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