Learn About Ceramics and Porcelain

As pottery is one of the earliest inventions of mankind, with some objects dating back to 29,000 BCE, it is no surprise that its enduring influence, functionality, and value as an art form has permeated throughout millennia.

Ceramics & Porcelain

Perhaps one of the most highly regarded forms of pottery is ceramic porcelain. Since its initial creation, porcelain has remained consistently impressive with audiences for its variety of functions, durability, and aesthetic beauty. From pots to vases to figurines to contemporary works of art, the porcelain ceramics category is a broad one. With such a rich history, it is no wonder that even today ceramics continue to thrive as an artform.

What is porcelain?

Porcelain is created by heating non-metal materials, typically kaolin, in a kiln at high temperatures. It earns its name from the Italian word porcellana, coined by Marco Polo on his time in China, meaning cowrie shell, for its resemblance of a shell. Alternately, it is often called ‘china’ due to its initial introduction to European countries from Chinese imports. Its manufacturing process is much more difficult than other types of pottery, and is thus widely regarded as the most prestigious form of pottery. It is admired for its white pigmentation, translucence, and impermeability. Its ability to be modeled with relative ease and compatibility with paints and glazes allows for a great variety of decorative uses.

"Since its initial creation, porcelain has remained consistently impressive with audiences for its variety of functions, durability, and aesthetic beauty."

Origin

Porcelain was originally invented in China between 2000 and 1200 years ago. Its creation was a slow, eventual process, and so it is difficult to narrow down to a precise date of introduction. The Tang Dynasty, from 618-907 AD, saw the introduction of primitive forms of porcelain, while porcelain in the form it is most widely known for today came about some time during the Yuan Dynasty, from 1279-1368 AD. By this time, porcelain wares had already been exported to the Islamic word, where they were greatly admired and valued.  

Porcelain ceramics started being exported to Europe, Asia, and Africa via the Silk Road by the time of the Ming Dynasty, which took place from 1368-1644 AD. Immediately the material became highly prized and coveted amongst Europe’s elite, imbedding itself permanently into European art and culture.

Japanese Porcelain

Although Chinese porcelain ceramics were consistently popular amongst the Japanese upper classes, Japan would also come to form its own porcelain tradition. The Japanese Invasions of Korea that took place from 1592-1598 brought over captive Korean potters who introduced a new type of kiln. Soon thereafter porcelain clay was discovered near Arita and the subsequent production of porcelain in Japan began. With one of the world’s longest standing ceramic traditions, Japanese potters were able to combine their own knowledge and techniques with the Chinese in order to create a great range of porcelain ceramic styles.

Types

There are three different main types of porcelain called soft paste, hard paste, and bone china. Hard paste porcelains were created in China and are the earliest of forms of porcelain. It was made from petuntse, or china stone, mixed with kaolin, and ground into a fine powder. The kaolin made it able for the ceramic piece to maintain its shape while the petuntse vitrified.

The introduction of soft paste porcelains was a result of Europeans attempting to mimic the Chinese porcelain effect. They used mixtures of clay, and frit, sometimes including sandstone and lime. This is typically considered a lesser type of porcelain due to its tendency to slump in the kiln, difficulty of which to remove dirt from, and relative fragility.

Bone china was first created in order to compete with Chinese porcelain products in England in 1748. Its composition consists of bone ashes, kaolin, and petuntse, and it chips far less easily compared to hard paste porcelain. Bone china tends to be preferred in the UK and United States, while hard paste china remains most favorable on the European continent. 

Why it matters

With pottery having existed since the earliest of societies, it has evolved and developed alongside civilization and mankind. Porcelain ceramics are an example of this, showcasing how one medium spread from one country across the whole world, becoming integrated in the visual culture of multiple nations across the globe. Its hardness of composition contrasted with its delicate beauty has proven the material as a high form of art, striking awe in audiences for centuries. It is no wonder that people today remain fascinated by the medium and artform; Thus it is without a doubt ceramic porcelain will remain to be one of the most highly prized and admirable categories in pottery and art.

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