Drawing and Ceramics: Pioneering a Digital Solution

Eugene Hön Ceramics Art + Perception 109 2018 Trending, Technical Home

I am a ceramic artist with a passion for ballpoint pen drawing. In the past, I used my drawing as a design tool to create modelled, press-moulded and fired figurative ceramic sculptures. The renderings were executed on acid free paper in bound books as ballpoint drawings fade with time when exposed to direct light. With the advances in ceramic and digital technology, I am now able to capitalise on my ballpoint drawing skills by creating digitally printed ceramic transfers which can be fired onto a range of ready mades as well as expressive ceramic statements.

This was a real breakthrough for me. When the first batch of digitally printed ceramic transfers was test-fired onto commercially produced ceramic plates, my impermanent ballpoint drawings were instantly immortalised. The intricate crosshatching detail was perfectly visible in the fired transfers, even when the rendered image was radically reduced in size. This article sheds light on the techniques involved in producing digitally printed ceramic transfers, focusing on creative drawing opportunities in the field of ceramics.

I am a lecturer in ceramics to Industrial Design students at the University of Johannesburg. Through my work, I am exposed to the latest 3D printing and manufacturing technology. Although I wholeheartedly embrace the advances in digital technology, I do not lose sight of my creativity which is rooted in ceramic craft traditions. I consider myself a ceramic artist who celebrates the handmade whilst exploring a range of digital creative options, seeking new possibilities for this art form.

My first digital foray featured a projected animation of my ballpoint drawings titled …and the ship sails on. My latest work rises to the challenge voiced by Paul Scott in the ceramic handbook series, Ceramics and Print:

The advent of microprocessors and the dawning of the Computer Age has resulted in new developments industrially, many to do with mechanization, but also to do with image production. Much of the development appears to be heavily based on investment in machinery, hardware and software. How much of it is of use to the small-scale producer, or the artist/ceramist printmaker remains to be seen. (Scott 31, 1994)

I am now able to capitalise on my ballpoint drawing skills by creating digitally printed ceramic transfers which can be fired onto a range of ‘ready mades’ as well as expressive ceramic statements.

My ballpoint drawing technique resembles the etchings and engravings of printmakers, reproducing images and illustrations before the advent of photography (Scott 18, 1994). My greatest inspiration is Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), the ultimate artisan, who was not only a painter, printmaker and engraver but also a mathematician and theorist. It was therefore fitting that my first set of digitally printed ceramic transfer tests was of my detailed drawing of an iris. Rendered in red, orange and pink ballpoint pen ink, it was an interpretation of Dürer’s Iris Troiana (1508), depicting a bruised flower. The drawing was one of three separate components for an artist’s book installation titled Read, Peep, Reap.

When I first mooted the idea of digitally printed ceramic transfers of my ballpoint drawings to colleagues, I had no knowledge of the quality of reproduction of the original rendering. There were no printing machines in the area where I live and work and there was no opportunity to discuss the printing technology or view possible samples. My only option was to consider the printing lab in Cape Town, 1,500 km away. At the time, this was the only local printer in South Africa. Not having access to proper technicians and engineers associated with developing the technology, I started a series of tests based on their recommendations. The first set of tests, completed a year and a half ago, showed enormous promise. The detail of the rendered image was remarkable.

Locally I could get A4 size transfer sheets with a satin or gloss finish. Once the images are printed, the supplier applies a clear or fluxed coat to protect the rendering during the application phase. The gloss gave a better result in terms of image reproduction, however, it required cutting exactly around the image to avoid leaving an unwanted outline after firing. The local printer could not promise an exact colour match and could not print white. The digitally printed transfers render white transparent to reveal the colour of the ceramicware beneath it after firing. These transfers therefore work best on a white surface. At first, I followed the standard firing recommendations that were specified by the agents for the specific digital transfer machines. However, I obtained the best results by firing the gloss-coated transfers to 770 degrees Celsius at 100 degrees per hour.

It is important to note that my first tests were of a ballpoint drawing consisting of warmer colours – pinks, oranges and reds, with small areas of blue and black ink. The original drawing was photographed (due to its size) and the colour was compared and validated before creating the A4 printing layout sheets. The image was copied in various sizes and configurations using Photoshop to alter colour and more importantly, to create elaborate, digitally enhanced floral patterns exploring reflection symmetry. The test results were enormously successful and could finally be applied to a press-molded, ceramic shard in a variety of image sizes to good effect. The beauty of digitally printed ceramic transfers is that it is possible to order one sheet with a bespoke quality for each specific ceramic statement, making it extremely cost-effective.

Most of my drawings are rendered in blue or black ballpoint ink. It was therefore inevitable that I would explore expressive surface development options referencing the blue and white ware of the Ming Dynasty – cobalt brushed on surface decorations, produced for global trade. Digitally printed transfers of my blue ballpoint drawings were applied to shards, ready mades or up-scaled, molded and press-molded expressive ceramic statements. Shards are critical in research into cultural migrations – particularly relevant today in a global society with its problems surrounding the displacement of people (migrants and refugees).

My ballpoint drawing technique resembles the etchings and engravings of printmakers, reproducing images and illustrations before the advent of photography.

I could not match the ballpoint pen blue ink I required locally, I therefore printed the transfers abroad. The results were hugely successful. I was also able to order images in A3 size, increasing the options of the images enormously. However, the best test results were obtained by firing the cold colour, ink-based transfers to 860 degrees Celsius at 150 degrees an hour, with no soak. I was informed by the agents that printers are calibrated to produce transfers for either warm or cold colours. The transfers worked best on vitrified ware (ready mades), fired to stoneware temperatures – above 1,200 degrees Celsius. Applied to ceramics fired below 1,200 degrees Celsius (earthenware), one runs the risk of spit out.

Laser-printed ceramic transfers of my ballpoint drawings — produced in a wide range of colours and sizes, digitally enhanced and applied to ceramics — creates new opportunities. The transfer is able to capture drawing marks like brush strokes, which presents a wide range of decorative and expressive options, with far greater image clarity and detail, hereto unobtainable with a brush. Through my drawing and design, and by referencing ceramic craft tradition, I was able to create a new and tangible interpretation of this art form.

Image Captions

Manufraction IV, 2017, digitally printed ceramic transfers of Barn Swallow drawing on a press-moulded ceramic shard.
Untitled, 2017, digitally printed ceramic transfers of the Barn Swallow drawing on ‘ready mades’.
Manufraction II, 2017, digitally printed ceramic transfers of Iris Troiana drawing on a press-moulded shard.

All images courtesy of the author.

by Eugene Hön

Eugene Hön is a ceramic artist with a passion for drawing and his ceramic statements are a creative response to literary sources. Hon is also an academic, recently appointed Director of the FADA Gallery at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He is an artist who celebrates the handmade, with strong concepts and meaning that straddle the disciplines of ceramics, sculpture, drawing, artist’s books, digital printing, animation, video or digital projection Installation and ultimately design.