Last year I purchased a USB microscope (see article). It’s pretty fun, but ultimately I was really disappointed by the quality of the images. The 5MP sensor seems pretty cheap and images have a lot of artifacts. Furthermore I was never satisfied with the color.
The best choice would probably be a “real” microscope with a camera adapter. However, this little hobby of mine doesn’t justify spending a lot of cash.
There are a few tutorials online for creating your own phone microscope using the lens of a laser pointer. (I tried this and it worked pretty well, but I never found a way to conveniently attach the lens to the camera.) Wired’s article Turn Your Cellphone Into a High-Powered Scientific Microscope has a good tutorial as well as background on the scientists who are using cellphones as biomedical devices.
Fortunately there are now multiple products for sale that make it easier to attach a lens to the phone.
There’s a former Kickstarter project that looks promising and is shipping, the 15x Micro Phone Lens and 150x Micro Phone Lens. (See my November 2016 update, below.) In China there are a number of cheap alternatives.
Supereyes Smartphone Microscope (Not recommended)
I purchased the Supereyes Smartphone Microscope for about $7USD. The images below were taken with this lens. Unfortunately the top of the plastic lens is not protected and I scratched it after playing with it for less than an hour.
The images from the iPhone with attached lens look much better than my USB microscope. The photos below were taken in natural light.
Microphonelens 8x Macro & 15x Micro Lens
On a recent trip to the US I ordered the Microphonelens 8x Macro lens and 15x Micro lens. These lenses are different than others- they simply stick to the phone’s camera lens and have no outer support column.
In use, I found it more difficult than the other lenses because I could not directly rest the lens at the correct distance against the viewed object, resulting in more blurry photos due to camera shake. Also, while the micro lens is designed to stick on the phone lens it falls off if touched and gets dirty in the process of handling.
These drawbacks are forgivable, though, as the quality of the images seems superior to either of the other lenses I tested. Also, the lens cleans up easily with just a bit of pure or soapy water. The soft material also scratches less easily than hard plastic lenses.
For viewing glazes, both the 8x and 15x lenses are useful. I would recommend the 15x (although of course it has a narrower depth of field).
Spraying glaze is a fairly complicated process. There are craftspeople in Jingdezhen whose only job is going from workshop to workshop spraying glaze. There are so many factors involved with spraying (the type of work, thickness of work, type of glaze, glaze consistency, air pressure, spray head type, even weather) that it requires years of experience to be able to master the art.
I hope to slowly add to this article in the future. For now I will just lay out the basics of how I spray glaze.
The Spraying Booth
My spray booth is made locally in Jingdezhen. It’s a simple stainless steel frame with glass. A large fan is attached to the back, sucking out particles. Water is pumped from a bucket through a hose that leads to the top of the booth interior. The water is channelled along the top of the glass and then exits through small holes, forcing the water to run down the glass, washing away glaze. The water finally exits through a hole in the bottom of the spray booth, pouring back into the water bucket.
The Air Compressor
I have an old, noisy air-tank compressor that I rarely use. I much prefer the Jingdezhen method- a cheap magnetic air compressor used in fish tanks. I’ve used my current compressor for six years and it still runs great, with no need to worry about adding oil or filtering the outgoing air.
I’ve found that a 520W compressor is ideal. In the past I had a smaller compressor that didn’t spray as well.
The sprayer does a great job of mimicking traditional Jingdezhen glaze spraying using just the breath. A normal air compressor using a paint sprayer head will give you a finely atomized cloud of glaze resulting in a powdery glaze application. But a traditional mouth sprayer connected to the fish tank compressor will give you relatively large glaze droplets that soak into the clay, leaving a more compact glaze application.
The fish tank compressor method also sprays less glaze into the air. I often just run the water pump and leave the booth fan off (but of course I wear a good respirator).
Note that this type of spraying results in more water being absorbed into the ware. Especially for thin pieces, care needs to be taken not to overload the ware with water. I usually spray the outsides one day and the insides the next, giving the ware sufficient drying time in-between sprays.
If while spraying you notice the glaze stays wet and shiny on the surface it means you are either spraying too close or have already reached saturation. This is bad. There’s a good chance that the entire glaze layer will separate from the ware.
The glaze sprayers widely used in Jingdezhen were originally meant to be sprayed using only one’s mouth. Since then, the mouth stem has been modified from conical (larger end towards mouth) to tapered at both ends for a tight fit into an air compressor hose.
Making these sprayers is a specialized craft. The sprayers come in dozens of different configurations. The sizes of the container, nozzle, and mouth stem as well as the distances between these parts, all determine the characteristics of the spray pattern. In general, larger containers are used for larger work (e.g. sculpture), while the smallest containers are used for spraying underglazes and details.
The Paasche L Sprayer #4
Like Jingdezhen glaze canisters, the Paasche allows you to make fine adjustments in distance between the nozzle and container tube. Along with adjusting air pressure and glaze thickness, a number of different spray patterns can be achieved.
It’s difficult to write about actually spraying glaze, because each session is different. The basic process is:
- Spray outsides. Do not rest ware directly on turntable or plaster disc, but rather elevate it with a stable item such as a smaller plaster column. If the inside is already glazed, on top of the support you can add a sponge disk.
- After spraying the bottom, you can scrape glaze off of the feet.
- Ideally, wait one day while the bottoms dry completely. If in a rush, blow air over the ware with a fan.
- Spray insides. Take care that feet are not resting on a surface that will become wet during glazing. The dry plaster turntable disk helps with this issue.
- Clean glaze off the feet by trimming or with a sponge.
- Using a notch in the turntable disk as a guide, keep a mental note of how many revolutions you make and the resulting thickness of the glaze (checked by scraping). The number of revolutions will vary each glaze session, and is influenced by the glaze canister, air pressure, glaze consistency, size of ware, etc.
- Keep the glaze canister in constant, steady motion- up & down, side to side, or circular. You may need to vary the motion to get consistent application.
It’s important to wear a NIOSH certified mask whenever using dry glaze materials.
I guess mixing up glazes isn’t that big of a deal, but I’m sharing my technique just in case there are some absolute beginners out there.
I find it easier to use a digital scale, see my article here.
Glazes “don’t travel well”, in other words materials, application, and firings vary from studio to studio. Even for well-known glazes, it’s important to first make a small tests. For these tests, I use 50g or 100g of material and apply the test glaze to a number of different clay bodies.
I use the Glazy Batch Calculator on my phone which will show you the subtotals for arbitrary amounts of total glaze materials.
Once I’m happy with a test, I mix up a larger batch of 1-2Kg. 1Kg is enough material to glaze small cups, 2Kg is a good amount for small bowls. These larger tests should reveal any problems with glaze suspension (is bentonite required?), application (cracking, peeling, etc.), and fired glaze defects. Once you have some nice results with 1Kg, you can finally move on to a big bucket of 5-10Kg.
Mixing up a test
Flat test tiles require the least amount of glaze for application. Here’s my article about how I make test tiles.
Sieve Mesh Size
For “natural” glazes containing large-grained materials or ashes, or in cases where homogeneity is not a concern, it’s fine to use a larger screen of 60-80 mesh. But in all other cases I use 120 mesh or smaller. Small mesh size is very important for glazes that contain small amounts of very important materials such as coloring oxides (e.g. cobalt and iron). But it’s also important to ensure that materials are adequately broken up and mixed (such as clays).
Below you can see two tests of the same batch of glaze fired in the same kiln. The glaze on the left was applied after passing the materials three times through an 80 mesh screen. The glaze on the right is the result of passing that same glaze once more through a 120 mesh screen.
Poorly dispersed colorants like iron are easy to see in fired glazes. But keep in mind that other “invisible” glaze ingredients like clays, feldspar, etc. also need to be well-dispersed and mixed in order to ensure the glaze melts properly. If you use a 60-mesh screen for tests and then a 120-mesh screen for large glaze batches, there will be differences between the fired results.
I’ve seen a few techniques for seeing into the kiln at high temperature. An old friend of mine still prefers blowing into the peephole, unfortunately on more than one occasion it has resulted in the particles resting in the peephole to be blown in as well, settling on the ware. The Jingdezhen firing masters I’ve met just put on an old pair of sunglasses and squint (on the rare occasions they actually need to look at a cone).
I’m currently using #5 welding goggles, the only pair I could find for sale here but they work really well. If you have a choice, go for IR rated lenses which protect from harmful infrared light. Here’s a really good article about eyeware for potters.
Combined with the goggles, a strong flashlight will give you a really good view inside the kiln. This year, my old LED flashlight finally gave out, and at around 400 lumens it was still a little difficult to see in the kiln. The LED flashlight I purchased as a replacement was on sale for about $40USD, a little expensive but to be honest I just wanted to know what 2000 lumens would look like. It’s blinding! But using this flashlight I can see all the way to the back of the kiln even in reduction at 1300° C (my kiln is only 1 meter long). You can even see glazes start to glisten in the light of the flashlight as they begin to melt..
So if you’re getting a new flashlight for the kiln, I think you should go for at least 1000 lumens.
I invite all of you to join Glazy, a ceramics recipe library that allows anyone to browse and add pottery recipes for free.
Glazy was built using the latest open source tools, including Laravel and Bootstrap. The database of ceramic recipes was originally seeded with data from Linda Arbuckle’s GlazeChem database and John Sankey’s glaze database. John Britt, Alisa Liskin Clausen, Terry Rorison and Tara Hagen have also included their glaze tests with images.
Since it’s release, many new features have been added to Glazy, including improved charts and color search. More information can be found on the Glazy help page.
If you have ceramics recipes that you would like to add, or if you would like to help organize the recipes already in the database, please contact us.
Glazy is constantly improving and evolving. I hope you will join us!
With the data stored in Glazy it is possible to visualize recipes using graphs and charts.
In the future, these visualizations and more will be added to Glazy at http://glazy.org/graphs
Below are simple pie charts showing the most commonly used glaze materials for both Mid-Fire and High-Fire glazes.
For those who are just starting out with glazes, these charts could be a useful guide when stocking glaze materials.
The charts on the left are for “base” materials, the materials that form the actual glaze. On the right are charted the “additional” materials- typically colorants and opacifiers- that are added to the base glaze materials.
There are still some strange and untrustworthy recipes in the Glazy database that may have skewed the results somewhat.
Below are the charts for High-Fire glazes.
Yaoli Ancient Village (瑶里古镇) is a fairly well-known tourist destination located about 1 1/2 hours by car from Jingdezhen.
During the past few years I have visited the village a handful of times, and each time I’m even more disappointed by the continuous development, poor management, and flocks of tourists.
But the countryside around Yaoli is beautiful. If you continue driving past the ancient village you will find numerous small villages with restaurants offering local cuisine. Drive up the mountain and you should come across wonderful views of the valleys as well as waterfalls.
Yaoli is also the home of a type of porcelain stone known as “glaze stone”. This stone is a major component of traditional Jingdezhen glazes.
There is a very nice outdoor museum in Yaoli called Raonan (绕南陶瓷主题园区) which runs along a small river. The river powers hammer mills that continuously crush Yaoli porcelain stone. There are also ancient dragon kilns and even pottery wheels where you can try throwing Jingdezhen porcelain.
After years of using simple balance scales to measure out glazes, I finally decided to invest in a better setup. I couldn’t find any triple-beam scales for sale in Jingdezhen, so instead I purchased a cheap 200-gram digital scale from a local shop. I was delighted at how much simpler and faster it was to mix up tests with the digital scale. It was only a few months later when I compared the digital scale to my old balance scales and discovered that the digital scale was consistently inaccurate, even just after calibration.
After having wasted 600RMB, I decided to just buy the best reasonably priced scales I could find. The only imported brand in my price range and available in China was the Ohaus Scout Pro line. I purchased two- one for tests and measuring colorants (model SP202, up to 200 grams with 0.01 gram readability) and one for mixing up bigger batches of glaze (model SP4001, up to 4000 grams with 0.1 gram readability).
The SP202 is very accurate, great for when you are making very small test batches. The scale can also be used to measure colorants for big batches of glaze.
I use the SP4001 to directly measure out 1-3kg batches of glaze, or for measuring out each ingredient in larger glaze batches.
After a couple years, the Ohaus scales are still performing very well, especially considering that they are stored on the glazing patio and subjected to the weather. The scales cost me much more than I wanted to spend, but they are well worth the money.
- If you’re looking to purchase scales for small glaze batches but don’t have a lot of money to spend, go for a triple-beam scale. A good triple-beam will be much more trustworthy than a cheap digital scale.
- If you only have enough money to buy one digital scale, get a 200-gram scale, preferably with .01 readability. This will allow you to make accurate test glazes, as well as accurate colorant additions to larger batches of glazes.
- If you do buy a digital scale, don’t forget you will need to calibrate it from time to time. (I do so each glaze-making session.) You will need accurate calibration weights in order to so, adding to the final cost.
Note: In the following photographs I only used the most basic lighting setups. Even using natural light, you can take advantage of reflectors to highlight shadows and produce fill light. Try searching “product photography lighting” if you are looking for information about advanced lighting.
The PBS Art21 documentary episode “Memory” contains a segment about Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. Sugimoto gives a tour of his photography studio which is surprisingly simple. No fancy lights. Just a camera, table, and backdrop placed near his studio window. Sugimoto controls the lighting simply by rolling the window shade up and down.
If you are not worried about lighting consistency from photograph to photograph, taking pictures of your artwork using natural light is the simplest approach. You can wait for a cloudy day and shoot outside for diffuse, cool light, or use window light. If you do not want a color cast, simply use a grey card.
Grey cards provide you with a reference neutral grey. This grey can be used in photo editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom to correct for color temperature casts. The grey card I use is X-rite ColorChecker Grayscale because it also provides a white and black reference which helps adjusting exposure and black/white levels.
You might be tempted to use a sheet of paper, piece of styrofoam, or other object as a cheap reference with which to set white balance. But in my experience, it’s much better to buy a professional grey scale card. Even with something as “standard” as a piece of paper, the color differs between brands and thicknesses.
Below are three photos taken with the same lens, ISO, white balance setting (Auto), shutter, and speed. In Lightroom I only adjusted the white balance.
Remember there is no “correct” color temperature. You may prefer the cool window light, or the golden tones of late afternoon light. The grey card is simply a reference.
Color Calibration Target
Much like a grey card provides an accurate grey, a color calibration target provides an accurate reference for colors. I use the X-Rite ColorChecker and ColorChecker Passport. Unfortunately, I’m not professional enough to give you a detailed explanation of exactly how it works. All I know is that it standardizes colors in an image profile, compensating for differences in color between camera manufacturers and lighting conditions, resulting in a more accurate photograph.
I’ve made the ColorChecker part of my workflow. Every time I shoot, I include the ColorChecker in at least one of the photos, so that later I can use that image as a reference. The ColorChecker software creates a DNG profile that can be used with Lightroom and Photoshop, simplifying the workflow considerably.
Even if you are just an amateur photographer like me, I highly recommend getting a color calibration target and including it in your photos. The ColorChecker includes grey patches, so you can use it for simple white balancing as well.
There are times when you require lighting consistency (for instance when publishing a book or website) or a specific lighting setup. As most of us are not professional photographers, the simplest lighting solution in this case is continuous lighting. Just like normal room lighting, continuous lighting is simply switched on. The lights can then be easily positioned for the lighting you prefer. The most affordable continuous lighting consists of fluorescent lightbulbs mounted in a fixture that is usually surrounded by a softbox.
Below is one of my softboxes which I purchased from a cheap Chinese manufacturer.
As a beginning photographer, I was very concerned about color temperature, purchasing only light bulbs which were 5500K. (See Color Temperature.) Somehow I came under the impression that a specific Kelvin temperature rating was the sign of quality. So I was always puzzled when the colors in my photographs weren’t as rich and vibrant as the artworks themselves.
I later came to realize that the Kelvin temperature is perhaps the least important of factors to consider when purchasing lights. Just as with natural lighting, color temperature can be easily adjusted in software like Photoshop and Lightroom. And using a grey card it’s very simple to achieve a neutral white balance.
In China, restaurants are often lit with cheap, bright fluorescent tubes. It’s possible people here are not very concerned with lighting, but I find it unappetizing and unromantic to see food and people lit like this. It’s not just the brightness, it’s also the quality of the light.
My cheap photography softboxes put out a similar kind of ghostly light. Sure, they are 5500K, similar to noon daylight. But just like in a typical Chinese restaurant, colors look lifeless.
Color Rendering Index (CRI)
When I finally learned about Color Rendering Index, everything made sense. From the Wikipedia article:
A color rendering index (CRI) is a quantitative measure of the ability of a light source to reveal the colors of various objects faithfully in comparison with an ideal or natural light source.
Where I had been looking for light sources with a specific Kelvin rating, I should have been much more concerned with their CRI rating.
Searching through the Chinese commerce site Taobao, while almost all of the cheaper photography lighting companies tout their bulb’s color temperature, none of them even mentioned CRI. So I decided to find a bulb with a high CRI in order to compare.
Philips Master Graphica 36W/950
The only affordable high-CRI light source I could find in China is the Philips Master Graphica 36W/950. This tube is frequently used in painter’s studios to provide conditions similar to true daylight. This tube’s color temperature is 5300K (a little warmer than the typical photography light) and the CRI is 97 (very high).
As a first test, I used a Philips double light fixture and placed it above my work desk and used it at night. (Up until then I had only used cheap fluorescent bulbs in my studio.) The difference was startling. Working at night has always been a bit depressing, but the Graphica light changed the entire atmosphere of the room. It’s a really beautiful light.
Convinced that I was on the right track, I next tried taking some photographs with my old lights and then the Graphica as the light source. With the exact same shooting conditions there were still subtle differences in the final photograph. The colors under Graphica lighting just seemed richer.
Below you can see a comparison of my regular, cheap fluorescent lights with the Graphica tubes. (The large image can be rolled over to switch between the two images.) Apart from the lighting, both photos were taken using the exact same conditions. In Lightroom, I only set the ColorChecker profile and adjusted white balance.
DIY Fluorescent Photography Light Fixture
I discovered that many photographers are already using fluorescent lights for photography. In particular, this tutorial by Joe Edelman shows how to make your own fluorescent light tube fixtures for photography. I made a similar version using parts that I could find on Taobao. Because I could not find 4 or 6-tube light fixtures, I mounted two 2-tube fixtures onto a sheet metal corrugated shelving. The corrugated sheet is light, sturdy, and convenient.
In total I made four of these four-tube fixtures. This is because I also help friends photograph their large ceramic paintings, and we need lighting longer than the 1.2 meters of the 36W tubes.
For the photo of ceramics below, I used two four-tube fixtures as the side lighting. In front of the fixtures I hung a sheet of translucent softbox fabric.
Ideally, each light fixture should have six 36W tubes. Four tubes still seems a little dark for studio photography.
Scroll over the image to switch between my regular photography lights and the Graphica tube lights.
Photographing Paintings and Porcelain Tiles
Part of the reason for building the DIY fluorescent lights is to help my porcelain painter friends photograph their work. In the past they used natural light on cloudy days or my cheap softboxes. But with either of these methods it is very difficult to get consistent light over the entire length of a porcelain tile. A one meter square softbox will not illuminate a one meter long painting evenly, as the light intensity of the softbox decreases toward the edges.
The best way to photograph a flat reflective surface is to position two lights at either side, hitting the target at an angle of 45 degrees. The lights are moved away from the painting until the lights’ reflections are no longer visible through the camera.
In the session below, the lights were placed about 1.5 meters away from the subject.
High-dynamic-range (HDR) Test
You might have seen HDR images before on the internet, they were very popular for a time. Often, HDR images appear gaudy, ghostly and surreal. But HDR doesn’t have to look like that!
All digital cameras have limited dynamic range. That is, they can only record a certain range of light to dark in a photograph. HDR is simply taking multiple exposures of the same scene and combining them in order to get greater dynamic range.
For example, looking at the group of ceramics I photographed above you will notice that some details are lost in the shadows. Normally I would use Photoshop to manually lighten up areas like the inside of the oilspot teabowl. But with HDR I can capture those details using information in the overexposed shot. This technique works even better with very light objects (like porcelain vases) on a dark background or vice versa.
It might seem daunting for the amateur photographer, but HDR only requires an extra press or two of the shutter. Most cameras offer a multiple exposure setting. If you prefer to shoot manual, remember that you only need to adjust the speed, not the aperture. (Adjusting aperture would result in varying depths of field.) Image processing software like Photoshop and Lightroom 6 include HDR functions, all you need to do is select the files and the software does the rest.
The large photo below is an HDR composite of the four smaller images above it. They were combined in Lighroom 6.
HDR can produce some interesting effects, but when photographing artwork I still haven’t come across a situation in which HDR beats a correctly exposed single shot.
You can scroll over the image above to switch between the HDR and single-exposure photos.
It’s surprising to me how often archaeological discoveries seem to be made in Jingdezhen, but then I remember that wherever I walk in this place there are deep layers of shards beneath my feet.
A friend of mine was given samples from a recently found porcelain stone mine dating from the Five Dynasties Period. Apparently the find has not gone unnoticed- professional antique makers have been secretly mining the site. Luckily we have the chance to acquire some of this porcelain stone.
I’m often dealing with unfamiliar, traditional materials of which chemical analyses are lacking or unreliable. In these cases, I usually create a series of line blends to get a basic idea of what I’m working with. From those first tests, one can further refine glazes using more line blends and triaxials.
For this porcelain stone I created the following initial tests:
- Pure porcelain stone, crushed, milled and sieved.
- Porcelain body using porcelain stone and kaolin at 15-45%.
- Lime-fluxed celadon glazes:
- Porcelain stone and 10-20% Er Hui (Glaze Ash)
- Porcelain stone and 10-20% Wollastonite
- Porcelain stone and 10-20% Whiting
Idealized “traditional” recipes are also based on two-component mixtures. For glazes, porcelain stone was mixed with a flux like glaze ash. For porcelain bodies, porcelain stone was simply mixed with a proportion of kaolin.
Usually a single line blend of either Whiting or Wollastonite could tell you a lot about a porcelain stone. However, porcelain stone mixed with Glaze Ash or Whiting often results in fuming/carbon trapping, so I wanted to test each flux separately. I usually also create Dolomite or Talc tests.
I also prepared two sets of test tiles for cone 10 and 12 firings.
Stones of all types can be used in glazes. Joseph Grebanier’s Chinese Stoneware Glazes lists many recipes that use locally sourced granite. And Brian Sutherland’s Glazes from Natural Sources contains a wealth of information on the subject.
A lot of potters in China still seem to mix glazes the old-school way- one cup of this, two cups of that. And strangely enough this technique seems to work pretty well for complex traditional materials. Being a foreigner I tend to make things overly complicated. I am also terrified of mixing up a great glaze but not remembering the exact composition or, even worse, not knowing how to adjust it if it doesn’t come out right. So I rely on a lot of line blend and triaxial glaze testing.
Line blends are a useful tool for comparing two different recipes. Commonly, the two recipes are different glazes. For instance, you can blend two different celadon glazes in different proportions to create a new celadon recipe. Line blends are also commonly used for testing additions of coloring oxides, for instance the effect of incrementally adding iron oxide to a clear glaze.
The range of the line blend is arbitrary- you can start each variable from 0% and go up to 100% or you could choose any range in-between.
For example, when adding red iron oxide to a reduction-fired clear glaze like Leach 4321, a line blend from 0% to 10% in 1% increments is sufficient to see the gradual transition from clear to blue celadon (1%), light green celadon (2%), dark green celadon (3-4%), brown, and tenmoku (7-10%).
To illustrate a line blend, here is a sample using two RGB colors blending by opacity. If you already know the result of the outlying 100% blends, you could remove them from the test. However, each firing is different and I usually leave in the 100% blends regardless.
You could mix each test in a line blend individually, but a much less time-consuming method is to only make the left and right-most 100% solutions. Using a syringe, you can easily create each mixed blend.
Ian Currie popularized volumetric blending. (See his article here.) First, mix the same weight of each glaze you will be blending. Second, add some water to the glazes and sieve thoroughly. Third, add water to each glaze so that their volumes are equal. Now the two glazes are ready for blending.
Below is an illustration of the blends in a 20ml syringe. For my test tiles, 20ml is the minimum volume I need in order to completely cover a test tile (including a second dip). See here for more information on how I make test tiles.
As you can see, for 10% increments using a 20ml syringe we need at least 20+18+16+14+12+10+8+6+4+2 = 110ml of each 100% recipe. Preparing 100 grams of glaze material for each glaze should be sufficient.
Each time before you take glaze into the syringe, be sure to re-mix the glaze and confirm it has not settled.
Although I use 20ml test batches, it’s easier to use a 30ml syringe so there is extra room for drawing in air, making it easier to mix the glazes.
Here is a line blend of Dolomite added in 2% increments to a Chinese porcelain stone. Normally, I would test from 4-14% Dolomite, as I know from experience that this is the most useful range. Below are the tests from 4-12% Dolomite in which the porcelain stone turns from a satin-matte to light celadon glaze.
However, it’s often good to test beyond the limits. We might expect that even more Dolomite added to this glaze stone will result in a runnier, more transparent celadon/clear glaze. But ceramics is much more complicated than simply mixing two colors together.
Here is the same test carried further, from 16% to 20% Dolomite. We’ve gone from a creamy satin-matte to celadon and now to Dolomite matte with crystals.
This test also shows the importance of making small increments when doing line blends.
Ceramics recipes are a complex interaction of multiple variables. Triaxial blends involve three variables, making them more useful for exploring ceramic glazes and bodies.
Below is a four-row opacity triaxial blend of three colors (red, green, and blue) in RGB with a range of 0%-100% for each color. The outer edges of the blend are simply line blends of two colors, while the middle area of the blend contains mixes of all three variables.
The size, variables, and ranges of a triaxial are completely up to you. A four-row triaxial with ranges starting at 0% is of limited use in testing mixes of all three variables. You could adjust the four-row triaxial for ranges of 20%-80% so that each test includes at least some percentage of each variable. Or, you could move up to a five-row triaxial for even more results.
Below is a five-row opacity triaxial blend of three colors (red, green, and blue) in RGB with a range of 20%-100% for each color. Because the range starts at 20%, each test includes all three variables. If you instead wanted the outer blends to represent line blends, the ranges would start at 0%.
Moving up to six and eleven-row triaxials you will notice that the number of tests we are creating is growing very quickly. Because the range is from 0%-100%, the outer edges of the triaxial represent simple two-variable line blends.
Based on these simple RGB color-blend triaxials, it might seem as if larger numbers of rows are unnecessary since we can easily infer the range of colors from a smaller four or five-row triaxial. However, as mentioned before, ceramics recipes are a complicated mix of ingredients and sometimes results do not transition gradually from one test to the next. Using too small of a triaxial with too large of an increment might miss important changes in glazes. For instance, if Whiting were one of our variables in an eleven-row triaxial, the difference between each Whiting increment would be drastic.
The number of tests required for a given triaxial size can be determined by the triangular number sequence. For a triaxial with only one row we of course need only one test. But the number goes up very quickly as we add rows: 2 rows has 3 tests, 5 rows has 15 tests, 11 rows has 66 tests, and so on.
If we want to create a triaxial where each variable is in the range of 0%-100% and tests are in 10% increments, we will need an 11-row triaxial with 66 tests. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time to create so many test tiles! It would be nice if we could create meaningful tests while at the same time reducing the size of the triaxial.
Reducing Triaxial Size
Often we already have idea of the ranges we want for each variable in a triaxial.
For example, say we’d like to find a nice Chinese blue & white qinghua underglaze. Nigel Wood’s Chinese Glazes shows that qinghua is not simply cobalt blue but rather a complicated mix of oxides. We decide upon three basic variables for our triaxial: cobalt (top), iron (left), and manganese (right). In order to do a comprehensive test, we decide to use steps of 10% for each variable. Usually we would need a full 11-row triaxial for this type of test, necessitating 66 tests. However, we decide that the left side (a line blend of cobalt and manganese) and the bottom side (a line blend of iron and manganese) are not interesting to us, so we can leave those out. Now we are left with only 45 tests, in other words a 9-row triaxial.
Volumetric Blending for Triaxials
In our blue & white (qinghua) underglaze triaxial we still have 45 tests to make. But instead of mixing each test individually, we can use Ian Currie’s volumetric blending to create intermediate tests.
Starting at the top of the triaxial pyramid, remove each adjacent glaze. Now we are left with only 15 glazes to mix. To produce the intermediate glazes, simply mix the two glazes in a 1-to-1 relationship by volume.
Note that the more times you need to mix a glaze, the more total glaze material you will require. For the type of triaxial below I usually mix 200 gram batches in order to ensure that I have enough glaze. My test tiles only require 20ml of glaze each.
We can further reduce the number of glazes to prepare, with the trade-off of more numerous and more complicated volumetric blends. In the example below, we are only left with 6 glazes to make.
The actual fired result of this triaxial is much less balanced than the computer-generated RGB diagrams. It’s apparent that cobalt oxide is a much stronger colorant than both iron oxide and manganese. It seems the most interesting results are in the bottom two rows of the triaxial. It might be interesting to “zoom in” on the bottom portion of the triaxial to refine the color even further.
In designing the tests, we also take into consideration that the glaze that covers an underglaze will affect the resulting color. So for each test tile, the top half is covered with a basic transparent glaze (Limestone), while the bottom half is covered in a traditional chinese glaze (灰釉). The narrow unglazed band in the middle gives us further information.
The changes in coloring oxide triaxials are usually straightforward- colors gradually shift. Results are not so certain, though, when performing triaxial tests on other glaze components such as glass formers, melters, stabilizers and opacifiers. Sometimes huge changes in a glaze can occur within only one or two-percent changes of the recipe. So ideally, for each glaze test we would create a 51-row (range of 0%-100% in 2% increments) or 101-row (range of 0%-100% in 1% increments) triaxial. But a 51-row triaxial needs 1,326 tests, while a 101-row triaxial needs 5,151 tests!
So in designing triaxials with small percentage increments it is often necessary to eliminate vast swaths of the triaxial.
For example, in the partial triaxial below I am searching for a nice teadust glaze. The triaxial is based on 2% increments of Chinese glaze stone, whiting, and silica. From experience and prior testing, I have already determined fixed percentages for ingredients not included in the test (red iron oxide and talc), and I have set fixed ranges for the three variables. For instance, from past tests I know that I do not want too much or too little whiting- a range of 10%-16% is enough. In this manner I have pared down a 1,326 test triaxial to only 13 tests.
As you can see in the results below, there is indeed a great range of glazes even within 2% increments. If I had created a smaller triaxial with larger 10% increments I might have entirely missed the teadust crystal effect.
Further reducing size
By plotting out all of the tests (or even just the extremities) in the large triaxial above on a Silica/Alumina chart, we can further reduce the number of glaze tests. From experience, it’s obvious that a cone 10 glaze with 60% Whiting and no Feldspar or Silica won’t work out very well. But by looking at the chart, we can see entire areas of the test triaxial that are “out of bounds” for a good glaze and thus probably don’t need to be included.
Having said that, there are some interesting glazes (like Shinos) out of the ranges of commonly accepted glaze limits. And in my example above, the tests that look most to me like teadust are quite high in silica and fall just inside the blue “underfired” zone.
For more information, see R.T. Stull’s original article in Transactions of the American Ceramic Society, Volume 14, pages 62-70. Also see Matt Katz’s Introduction to Glaze Formulation Online
Tests build upon each other. Coarse triaxials can be later refined, and specific glazes targeted within smaller ranges. The more experience you have, the more you know where to look. If you’re just starting out, I recommend a large, 11-row triaxial of Potash Felsdpar, Silica, and Whiting which will reveal a range of glaze types, from celadons to mattes. Once you have a good feldspar/silica/whiting glaze you could try adding coloring oxides, stabilizers like ball clay or kaolin, opacifiers, etc.
Triaxial Worksheets Download (PDF)
Tea Dust Recipes on Glazy
The following glazes and more can be found on my new website, Glazy:
The Complete Guide to High Fire Glazes Tea Dust Recipes
Some tea dust glazes from The Complete Guide to High Fire Glazes. I fired these glazes according to my usual firing schedule, probably too hot and not ideal for the development of crystals necessary for good tea dust glazes. I crash cool to 1000C and then completely shut up the kiln.
Currie 10 Tea Dust
Currie 11 Tea Dust
Coleman Tea Dust
Tea Dust Black
Tessha Tea Dust
Chinese Traditional Tea Dust Glaze
Although the glazes above call all be considered tea dust, in China teadust glaze usually refers to Qing dynasty wares like the ones below. Although tea dust can result in a range of colors and with varying crystal sizes, usually the crystals are very evenly dispersed. (The example below is a Qianlong vase sold through Sotheby’s.)
Qianlong Teadust Vase
Various Teadust Colors
Chinese Traditional Tea Dust Glaze Recipes
The recipe above comes from 颜色釉 (Colored Glazes), published in 1978 by the Jingdezhen Ceramics Company. The components of the recipe can be difficult to find today, even in Jingdezhen. Those materials that are still produced probably have different compositions than in 1978. For instance, I’ve noticed differences in Glaze Stone (釉果) and Zijin Stone (紫金石) from year to year. What this recipe has in common with the Western tea dust glazes above is the addition of magnesium oxide in the form of talc, which helps form the tea dust crystals.
The glaze preparation is quite interesting. The ingredients (excluding the white clay (白土)) is ball milled for 30 hours, then white clay is added and the full glaze is milled for another four hours. After adding water, the glaze is sprayed approximately 1mm thick. Firing is to 1250°C in a weak reduction atmosphere.
Tea Dust Triaxial - First Attempt
In part because I’ve had a difficult time finding a reliable chemical analysis for the glaze stone I use, but mostly because I often don’t have much clue what I’m doing, I often use triaxial blends to find interesting glazes. I’m also interested in making glazes for my normal firing schedule, rather than changing my firing for a single type of glaze (like the recipe above that fires to 1240°C).
Because triaxials are limited to three variables, the following tests make some assumptions about tea dust glazes. The top axis of the triaxial will be glaze stone (the “unknown” ingredient), the left axis whiting (the flux), and the right axis silica. I’m certain I need magnesium in the form of talc, dolomite, or magnesium carbonate- I choose 8% talc. I also need some iron, based on past experience and other glaze recipes I choose red iron oxide at 8%.
From the resulting triaxial it seems that crystal growth improves as silica is increased while glaze stone and whiting are decreased.
Tea Dust Triaxial - Second Attempt
For each row of the first triaxial, I like what’s happening in the third column. For the next test, I extend this third column down a few rows to see what happens.
It’s nice to see my educated guesses are working out. Beginning from the fourth row of this second test, it seems like I’m coming close to a glaze that I like.
You’ll notice that the glazes look completely different on the two types of test tiles (porcelain on the left and stoneware on the right).
Just to check that my initial amounts for Iron and Talc are in the right ballpark, I choose the fourth row of this test and make some adjustments. It seems that Red Iron Oxide at 8% additional and Talc at 10% are ideal.
After a few more tests further adjusting the silica, iron, and talc I ended up with the glaze at the left. While it’s not an ideal tea dust glaze by Qianlong standards, what’s important is that I like it and I can fire it using my usual temperature and schedule.
August 2015 Update
Just to see what would happen if I continued adding silica to the recipe, I extended the bottom-right corner of the original triaxials. As you can see below, incrementally replacing glaze stone with silica leads to an increasingly uniform crystal distribution more closely approximating Chinese teadust glazes. (A feldspar/whiting/silica triaxial for some of the High-Fire Glazes recipes above may have similar results.) Note that in the following tests I increased Red Iron Oxide to 9% (additional).