Monday 29 May 2017 News Updated at 09:05 AM IST
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Blue is the artist's colour - Deccan Herald
Blue is the artist's colour
Kalpana Sunder,
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With Precision: An artist engaged in crafting Delft Blue
As a child, a classic cow-shaped Delft milk jug formed an essential part of our home, placed out of reach on the mantelpiece, and an object of unending fascination for me. It was brought back by my father on one of his trips to Holland, and for many years represented the country for me…

Many years later, here I was in Delft, a small town in Holland, situated between Rotterdam and the Hague, where the delicate porcelain that look almost Chinese, were first made. The elegant blue-and-white vases, pots and bowls are a part of Dutch identity as much as windmills and wooden clogs. How did it all begin?


What the trade brought

The Dutch founded the Dutch East India Company in 1602, leading to a booming trade with the Far East and an influx of goods like silks, spices and ceramics. Dutch traders brought floral-patterned, blue-and-white porcelain from China, which became so popular locally that it turned into serious competition for the local potters. In order to save their trade, they imitated the Oriental motifs on porcelain and created Delftware, which resembled Late Ming Dynasty porcelain.

Initially, Dutch potters found it difficult to duplicate the fine Chinese porcelain. The Chinese used white clay and Dutch potters were limited to their native, somewhat sandy earth. After several decades of experimentation, Dutch potters discovered how to decorate their pieces with the extensive detail used by the Chinese.

The technique required that pieces be dipped in a white underglaze before the pattern was painted on it. The resulting Dutch pieces were thicker than Chinese porcelain, and incorporated windmills, hunting scenes, cityscapes and other typical Dutch motifs.

Dutch factories flourished until the mid-18th century, when Germany, England and France developed porcelain industries that challenged Delft’s market dominance. Where once there were 32 factories, De Porceleyne Fles (the name means porcelain bottle), founded in 1653, is the only Delft pottery factory still in business.

At the Royal Delft Factory in Delft, I take a tour, getting a window into how this precious porcelain is made. The tour begins with two videos that explain the history of Delft Blue.
Chinese pottery was captured from Chinese boats by Dutch seamen and brought back to Holland by the Dutch East India Trading Company. Soon, the demand for the blue porcelain dishes was much higher than the supply, and in the early 1600s, shops were set up in Holland that made pottery similar to the Chinese pottery.

We tour the factory and workshops. To begin with, white baking clay is used in order to make the white stone, which is imported from England and Germany, since the Dutch clay is red in colour. The clay is mixed with water and then poured into the porous plaster of Paris moulds. The mould is completely filled up with the liquid clay. The porous moulds absorb the water out of the clay and make the clay dry. The clay dries quicker along the walls as compared to its centre. After half an hour, the clay wall is thick and dry, while the centre still remains liquid, which is poured out by turning the mould upside down, and that’s how they get the hollowness. After an initial firing, the pieces are referred to as bisque, and are ready for painting.

We see the painter as he first makes a preliminary sketch of the decoration. The sketch is done by hand (freestyle) with a pencil. The painters also use stencils where little holes are made with the use of a needle along the lines on the stencil paper. The painter rubs charcoal dust on the stencil sheet so that it goes through them, which provides a basic sketch on the plate.

After the basic outline of the sketch is on the plate, the painter paints the outline. The entire decoration is painted by hand with the help of all kinds of thin squirrel-hair brushes and black paint. Hand-painting is no mean feat; it requires a year’s training and a further 10 years to attain the level of 'master painter’!
Each of the painter’s brushstrokes is final, and even if there is a small mistake, it is sold by the company as seconds!

In the production area of the factory, I see racks of plates, vases, cups and jars ready to go into the kiln, or just out of it. After the design is painted, it is completely covered with a white glaze. The piece of pottery is fired again. This is when the Delft magic happens - the glaze melts and becomes all shiny and transparent; and here is when the black paint changes into the colour blue. "The secret behind black paint turning blue is that black paint is a composition of cobalt oxide and a little bit of copper. There is a chemical reaction with the glaze on the material, which changes the colour from black to blue instantly,” explains our guide.


Technique duo

Today, Delftware is produced by two distinct techniques. One is by hand-painting; the other is an easier method via design transfer with a stencil. "At times it’s difficult for the untrained eye to identify one from the other as both result in the same stunning look,” explains our guide. The difference is in the time and expertise it takes to produce, and therefore the price. The hand-painted versions carry a stamp with the artist’s initials, year code, and has Delft scrawled at the back, whereas the versions made by stencil-transfer mention the words 'Royal Delft’.

The Delft potters also made ceramic tiles in vast numbers over a period of 200 years; many Dutch houses still have tiles that were fixed in the 17th and 18th centuries. We enjoy some downtime in the historic garden - a lush green courtyard with a fountain where the old Delft tiles and architectural details are showcased. This is now a popular place for wedding shoots.

What impresses me the most are the tulip vases, fan-shaped vases that originated during the 17th century when the tulip was an exclusive and expensive flower. By means of these tulip vases wealthy people could show their prosperity. I browse through a gift shop and showroom with an extensive selection of heavy Dutch earthenware, exquisite ceramics and delicate porcelain... I treat myself to a Delft tile of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, my favourite painting - after all, how can anyone visit Delft and not come away with at least one piece of Delft Blue work?
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