From brush to robot: Ceramic painting through the ages

4 July 2024

Traditional Delft blue pottery has become a staple in our interiors, and contemporary designers also enjoy working with this traditional material. However, the craft of ceramic painting faces challenges. Skilled artisans are difficult to find, as mastering the intricacies of painting takes considerable time. The exhibition ‘Delftware: an ode to craftsmanship. Creating and Innovating’ explores the production of Delft blue at De Porceleyne Fles or Royal Delft and its relevance to today’s makers. What does it mean to produce artisanal goods for over 370 years? This blog briefly explores the art of painting Delft blue.


First source of inspiration

Painting Delft earthenware requires extensive practice and experience. Artists undergo internal training to master the typical Delft blue decorations. Many of these traditional designs date back to the seventeenth century, inspired by paintings on Chinese porcelain. During the 17th century, Chinese porcelain was highly popular and imported by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) via Indonesia from Chinese merchants. The Delft ceramics industry adopted these decorations as inspiration for its own vases, plates, and objects, a legacy still visible in today’s decorations.


How it works

Special thin brushes are used to apply liquid cobalt paint onto the once-fired ceramic (biscuit). Mistakes cannot be erased and thus present two options: a creative solution or starting over. This process demands intense concentration. Delft blue is painted using cobalt as the raw material. When applied as paint, cobalt appears black; however, heating during firing, along with increased oxygen, transforms the color to blue. An advantage of cobalt is its ability to withstand the high temperatures required for ceramic firing.


The future

Efforts are ongoing to find alternatives to human labor. Robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are examples of this endeavor. A prototype painter robot has been developed by a Royal Delft employee in collaboration with TU Delft, experimenting with various AI technologies. Currently, the painter robot is not yet in use at Royal Delft, and no items are in production solely designed by a computer program rather than a human. Today, individuals continue to be trained as traditional painters, akin to the 17th century, and we admire their small masterpieces on beautiful Delft earthenware.