Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why Decals?

The test tiles came out of the kiln this morning, and the color from our new ceramic decal printer is amazing. Check out these photos of real fired-on ceramic overglaze. This lead-free color system is fired onto the pots to 1500 F. I'll be writing more about this journey in the coming days but wanted to start with a post adressing the question....Why switch to decals?

For years I have been drawing little critters and captions on my pots using a range of high-fire overglazes I developed. I initially used a calligraphy pen but switched more and more to a slip trailer. I've always enjoyed doodling on paper and this was the closest technique I could make work in ceramics. I had experimented previously with mishima, sgraffito, maijolica painting, and straight up glaze brushwork. Both the process and quality of line for the overglaze drawings were very liberating and exciting and special, and worked great for quick, black & white drawings.

Over time I began experimenting with color overglazes, drawing overglaze around glazed colour swatches, and achieving a different feel using varied line weight. I was happy with a lot of the results, but my overglaze drawing technique did feel like it was limiting. The color pallete felt constrained because I was firing high (cone 6), base glaze requirements and likely because of chemical interactions with the frits and ceramic stains in the overglaze.

 While I love the pots and will continue working in this manner, I was eager to try new things.

I had several goals when I decided to evaluate and test the use of decals...

A) Speed. The drawing was the longest part of the process and I had a backlog of pots piling up to draw on. If I spent too much time drawing I would yearn for some wheel time, go throw some, and then realize I now had an even bigger backlog to decorate. Also, if I drew for more than a few hours, my slip trailer hand would cramp up. By drawing once on paper, scanning, and printing limited editions, I am hoping to speed up the decorating phase and keep up with my throwing.

B) Varied Line Weight. I wanted to experiment with varied line weight to achieve a slightly more sophisticated or accomplished drawing.

C) Wider color range. The combination of my base glaze, firing temperature, and frits really limited the colored overglaze "inks" to a handful of colors I liked. Perhaps more testing was in order, but I tested A LOT of options to arrive at that handful.

D) Multi-media. I am interested in lavishing attention on my original drawings on paper, using fine line, colored pencil, watercolor, pastels, etc. Then I can scan these and create decals for my pots. I can also sell the original drawings and/or editions of giclee prints.

E) Base glaze options. With the process I developed, I really only had one base glaze that worked well. Luckily it was the first one I tested because it was my most favorite glaze. However, feeling constrained chafed a bit. I'm sure I could have tested other glazes with other overglaze options using the same application method, but... I'm a dork. I like technology.

In the meantime, here are my first quick tests, using scanned drawings and Photoshop to add color...

I'll post more results as the experiment progresses. You can also read more about the printer evaluation and purchase on the MudFire blog, where I've got a parallel post with a different focus.


  1. I love to doodle and draw and love fine line pen and ink sketches. This technology sounds really exciting and I can't wait to see how you
    grow into this! thanks for sharing!

  2. Oh how very, very cool. I could see so many options for myself with decals.

  3. @Alorinna...I never even thought of putting the decals on myself! Genius!


  4. ...fired-on temporary tattoos! Sticker boy!

  5. I'm so happy to have found your post. I purchased a ceramic decal printer (a different system than yours) about a year and a half ago, for many of the same reasons you mentioned. I was curious whether you have to do a lot of manipulations to get colors that you're happy with. I draw my images in Photoshop too, and color in using a watercolor technique (in Photoshop) I learned. The challenge is, my fired images are always slightly duller, grayer, than what I would like. They look good just not great. Just wondering if you've run into that and if you have any tips. Also, I notice that I can't see the outline of the decal edge, where on my decals there's a slightly noticeable edge - is it the glaze you use or the decal backing paper that accounts for the seamless look? Thanks and keep up the great work :)

    1. Hiya,
      I printed a Pantone chart onto about 15 tiles then use that as a color reference to see how colors translate from the digital to ceramic world. I didn't go into it with an expectation that things would look the same on screen and on clay. On the outline, we have found you can use the decals in different ways with different coatings and application methods and firing temperatures. Our vendor offers a spray covercoat for instance, so you can feather the covercoat edge or even spray the whole piece.