Written and compiled by Gene Patterson

Send email to : egenep@aol.com

Note from Marci Blattenberger

This page on the various mediums used in china painting was compiled by Gene Patterson. We want to thank Gene for a terrific, informative article. He has done a lot of experimentation with various oils to see what the properties of each is...The sole purpose of mediums is to hold the pigment onto the surface of the china until it can be permanently fused by kiln firing.Mediums are a very personal choice. The addition of various oils to a basic mixture affect the "feel" of the brush on the china surface...a little slicker or a little more drag....and different techniques require mediums that either dry or remain open indefinitely. Experiment with as many mediums as you can and then choose the one that best suits your painting style...

Gene has included recipes for many common mediums at the end of this article. IF YOU HAVE ANY MEDIUM RECIPES THAT YOU'D LIKE TO ADD TO THIS LIST, PLEASE CONTACT MYSELF (Marci Blattenberger marci@ppio.com


OK! Let's get on with it!

The medium, or vehicle, used to mix with powdered overglaze colors (china paint) is greatly dependent on the individual artist’s preference and style. Historically, overglaze decoration on Faience, earthenware, and porcelain was painted in a highly controlled style, with designs carefully outlined and filled in with colors. The style of overglaze painting evolved to formal and restrained floral, landscape and portrait paintings, usually with relatively sharp edges to the design, and little or no background color. The newer style depended on controlled single brush strokes with little, if any, painting over or blending of colors.

Within the past hundred years, or so, the style has evolved to a technique more like painting in oils on canvas, with blended colors and greater emphasis on light and modeling of three-dimensional shapes. The more recent past has seen development of a style more similar to watercolor painting, using thin washes of color with wipe-outs and overlay of colors.

Each of these styles of painting is dependent on different mediums; primarily on different qualities of the medium (thickness or viscosity, and speed or drying). Also, the various painting styles require the paint to stay open (wet or fluid) for extended periods of time, or dry to a slightly sticky/tacky state, or to dry hard. The gradient from open (wet) to closed (ability to dry) permits additional techniques associated with painting style. For example, many artists want their mediums to dry to a point where it is slightly sticky, so they can dust additional color onto the surface, enhancing or deepening the design. The surface is just sticky enough to hold a very thin layer of overglaze powder. Others dust on clear or ivory glazes to achieve high gloss or to create slight blurs (flow) of the colors under the glaze. One school of artists prefer a medium which dries hard and allows second and third coats of paint over the design. This style is used to achieve color intensity in one firing or to create unusual depth of color by layering thin washes of color, which then fuse together in one firing.

In addition to style of painting, mediums are chosen for specific techniques such as “grounding” a solid color which is smooth, deep and without brush marks. A grounding medium is usually a fairly heavy or viscous oil which can be padded with silk or sponge to a smooth even coating. The oil is then allowed to dry, dust free, until it is just sticky enough to hold a dusting of powdered color sifted and lightly dusted over its surface.

China paint (and glass paint) unlike water colors and most other stains and paints, does not dissolve in the medium. China paint is a mixture of finely ground metallic oxides and glass (flux). The thickness, or viscosity, of the medium holds these particles in suspension, allowing the artist to brush them onto a surface. Seen through a microscope, unfired china paint on a glazed surface, looks like gravel spread in thin and thick layers. Using a more viscous medium permits the brush to lay down thicker piles of these color particles to yield a deeper, more intense shade of the color.

When the piece is fired, these particles melt and flatten on the glazed surface. The flux acts something like a glue, sticking the melted colors to the surface. If fired hot enough, the underlying glaze begins to soften (opening) to form a strong bond with the color and imparting a gloss to the surface.

Many artists prefer to grind and mix their colors to a thick paste, using an open medium. The artist then uses a second type of medium for painting. A medium, therefore, is any substance (oil, varnish, glycerine, glue, colloid, sugar water, etc.) which binds and carries the overglaze color and meets the artist’s preference for a chosen style of painting. The following discussion of various mediums gives characteristics of the medium, possible uses, and recipes for mixing. Each artist should experiment and find the medium she or he finds most comfortable to use for a chosen style of painting. Some artists want their brush to glide smoothly on the glazed surface (thin medium), while others like the feel of drag as the brush moves on the surface (thick medium).

The literature on china painting contains various warnings and advice about specific oils. Tests of the many different mediums have not always confirmed these warnings and effects. For example, some authorities have noted that “adding too much oil to the color can result in chipping or blistering of the color when fired.” Certainly, too much oil will result in a thin diluted color, but tests have not confirmed it to cause either chipping or blistering if fired properly. That is, fired slowly and well vented in the first one and one-half hours, to burn away the oil. Blistering can occur with oils which dry on the surface and remain fluid under the surface film. A quick hot fire will sometimes cause the oil to boil and can result in blistering. On the other hand, using a thick viscous medium can hold substantially more powder and thus result in a heavy layer of paint on the glazed surface. Certain colors (reds, black and some browns) do not fuse well to a hard glaze surface and the thick layer results in a significant difference in the normal contraction and expansion which occurs with even small temperature changes, between color and glaze. These heavy applications of color then tend to chip off. The problem lies with the thickness of the color and the fusing temperature at which it was fired, not with the medium per se. This problem is related to the COE (Coefficient Of Expansion) of the surface glaze and the applied fused color. The type of glaze on the porcelain and the type of flux used in manufacture of the china paint, are not always compatible. Since china painters rarely have access to this information about their colors or the glazes, they must experiment and find what works best for them on their chosen porcelains, glass or earthenware pieces.

Finally, there are some comments by early china painters which indicate that fluxes were actually dissolved in a medium, thus giving the colors more gloss and greater adhesion to the hard glazed surface. There are certain fluxing agents such as lead oxide, boric acid and borax which can be dissolved in water-based mediums, or ground finely enough to remain suspended in the oil mediums. However, tests have shown them to be unpredictable in effect. Those with lead oxide pose a particular health hazard and they all tend to dilute the colors. Admittedly, in some tests, lead oxide mixed with balsam of copaiba resulted in remarkably beautiful colors. The same was true with boron compounds under certain conditions. However, in many tests, the boric acid and borax mixtures boiled at high temperatures, creating micro explosions, spattering paint up to several inches on the surfaces. Also, lead can significantly alter the color of some yellows, reds, browns and greens. It is not a recommended practice for china painters to add flux to their mixing or painting mediums unless they fully appreciate the risks involved.


There are literally dozens of substances used as media for mixing and applying china paints. Only the more common media will be discussed here. The reader is referred to Betty Turner’s book as well as the other references at the end of the Recipe section, for a larger listing of the various media available.

For ease of use, the following list is organized in a sequence from Open (never dries) to Closed (dries completely). In the middle are those media that dry slowly.

Mineral Oil

A heavy clear oil which is often used to mix paints to a thick consistence of toothpaste. The colors are then stored in airtight containers. Small amounts are removed and mixed with other types of media for painting. Baby Oil is a more highly refined version of mineral oil.

Motor Oil (non-detergent)

Can be used to mix paints the same as mineral oil, although some complain that the paint tends to separate from the oil over time and must be remixed. Motor oil is also used as a painting medium by mixing with other oils such as Copaiba and turpentine (see recipes). Motor oil and turpentine can be used to clean brushes.

Castor Oil, Olive Oil, Peanut Oil

These oils can be used for mixing colors and stored for later use. They are also used as painting media, often with the addition of Copaiba and/or Fat Oil. Castor, Olive and Peanut oils dry very slowly and as they age they tend to become gummy. Castor oil can be thinned with alcohol for special needs painting.

Stand Oil & Damar Varnish

Both of these oils are often used for grounding. They both dry slowly to a hard finish. Some artists are very fond of the “feel” of painting with Stand Oil, thinned with Lavender oil and turpentine.

Linseed Oil

Dries slowly and becomes a hard finish. May be used to mix paint and is also used for grounding, dusting and padding techniques. Thin with Lavender oil or turpentine.

Anise Oil

A thin slow drying oil, often used for pen work. The oil tends to run if too much is used, and must be stirred frequently to keep the paint mixed.

Clove Oil

A thin slow drying oil that dries hard. Clove oil is frequently mixed with other oils as a painting medium.

Fat Oil

Also known as Dresden thick oil, French Fat Oil, and Thick Oil. Fat oil of turpentine is made by evaporating pure spirits of turpentine until it is a thick amber oil. Fat oil is one of the oldest and most commonly used media for china painting. It is used for mixing colors and thinned with turpentine or other media for painting.

Lavender Oil

There are three varieties of Lavender oil. Pure Lavender oil is used with lusters and golds, as a thinner with other oils and as a brush cleaner.
Spike oil is slightly different variety of Lavender oil and is used as a drying agent with other media. Can also be used with lusters and gold.
Artificial Lavender oil dries a bit more slowly than the other Lavender oils but is used in much the same manner, except it is not recommended for use with lusters and gold.


This unusual substance has the properties of both water and oil and can be mixed with either. Some artists mix paints with glycerin and use water as the painting medium while others mix their colors with glycerin and use an oil as the painting medium. Glycerin, thinned slightly with water, can also be used for pen work. There are some references in the old literature of mixing glycerin with egg yolk as the painting medium for holding large quantities of color for single brush stroke painting styles.


Lepages’ or craft mucilage is the most popular type of glue medium, but other glues can also be used. The mucilage is thinned slightly with water for pen work and dries to a hard surface which can be painted over. Drying can be retarded by adding small quantities of glycerin. The glue can also be mixed with gum solutions such as Arabic or Tragacanth for painting. These mixtures should be mixed fresh for each use since they spoil readily.

Gum Arabic & Gum Tragacanth

The powder of either of these gums must be dissolved in water before use. They form a colloidal type solution which can be used for pen work as well as painting. A stable form of Gum Arabic solution can be purchased at an art supply store as “Water Color Gum Arabic” under a brand such as Winsor & Newton.

Acrylic Medium

Almost any of the regular Acrylic polymers used for acrylic painting can be used to mix paints. Water, additional polymer, or glycerin can be used as the painting medium. As with any water based medium, the porcelain surface must be clean and free of any oils. The acrylics dry to a hard finish and are difficult to remove once they dry. Other water based or oil based media can be used over the dried painting.


There are numerous recipes for sugar solutions to be used for pen work and for painting. The most common and easy medium is regular 7-Up. Everyone who paints or draws with sugar solutions seem to have their favorite mixture. The most common recipe is made by boiling 2 parts water with 1 part sugar, and using the syrup as a painting medium or thinned for pen work. It dries quickly and requires practice to gain consistency in brush work.


There are literally hundreds of different recipes for china painting media. It seems more useful to provide several versions with different oils to illustrate how the mixtures work. The artist can then augment her or his favorite medium to achieve a different purpose. If, for example, the artist wants a thin medium to do a wash of thin color, adding a drop or two of Lavender oil to the regular mixture might give just the right feel. Or, if a deep color is wanted in one fire, the use of thick copaiba or other heavy oils might be the answer. The artist needs to experiment with several different types of media to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each. Only a few of the dozens of recipes are included here. In testing them, the following are those which gave distinctive differences in how the painting felt as it was applied.

Motor Oil Medium

Basic Painting Media

These recipes use basically the same oils with variation in the amount of each oil. Increasing the amount of Clove Oil will result in a slower drying medium. Increasing the amount of Lavender Oil will speed up the drying time.





This recipe is recommended as a painting medium for paint first mixed to a paste with Fat Oil.

Mixing Media





(Added by Marci Blattenberger) I mix my dry paint with baby oil, which is a refined version of mineral oil. It keeps the paint open indefinitely and doesnt separate out. I store the mixed paints in small plastic jars

There are endless variations in amounts and combinations of these oils. The rule of thumb is a mixing oil stays open longer than a painting medium and should be more viscous (thick or heavy) than painting medium. Experiment and find your own favorite combinations.

Pen Work Media

There are many versions of pen oil. It is a common practice to use your favorite mixing medium and add Clove Oil or Anise Oil until the paint is thin enough to drip slowly from your mixing knife.






PEN MEDIUM 6 (added by Marci Blattenberger)

Plain Pine oil is a wonderful pen medium...


For more information on various china painting mediums and other useful information, see "Dictionary of Terms,Tools, Techniques and Materials Used in Overglaze Painting....(or ...everything you always wanted to know about overglaze painting your teacher would never tell you and then some..)" by Betty J. Turner (1997)
( this book can be ordered through Betty Turner at BettyTBoop@aol.com )

Other References

Campana, D.M. The Teacher of China Painting. Chicago, (undated)

Dodd, Marjorie. The Bald Cat Sails at Midnight: A Presentation of Pen Work on Porcelain, 1983

McCarthy, Jessie S. The Art of China Painting. Story Book Press, Dallas, 1952.

Nelson, Gladys B. The Anthology of a Porcelain Artist. (undated)

Salyer, Pauline A. The Great Artists of China Decoration. Oklahoma City, 1964.

Southwell, Sheila. Painting China and Porcelain. Blandford Press: Dorset, England, 1980.

Weston, Shirley Dyer. Mediums--Oils? World Organization of China Painters, March/April 1998.


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