Centre for Fine Print Research University of the West of England Centre for Fine Print Research
  The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs (detail) 1871

Reappraising the creative potential of underglaze ceramic transfer printing in the light of new technology

Awarding body: AHRB
Awarded to: Stephen Hoskins
Project duration: 01.03.2000 - 31.08. 2000

Project details:

In 2000 Steve Hoskins undertook a pilot study to re-assess the creative potential of early methods of under-glaze ceramic transfer printing for the contemporary practioner combining the use of digital technology and Photopolymer printing (Flexography).
Underglaze tissue ceramic transfer printing was first developed in the mid 18th Century and involved the use of engraved or etched metal plates, from which the tissue was printed with a cobalt blue or manganese ceramic ink (an oxide with a printing vehicle) the famous ‘Willow Pattern’ being perhaps the best known example.

Underglaze tissue has a very distinctive, subtle quality, due to the oxide blending with the glaze. It is an integral part of English ceramic history, which cannot be replicated by any other means. The process lost favour because it was slow and required skilled artisans to apply the transfers. This 18th Century process continued to be used in the UK ceramics industry up until the 1980s.

However from the 1950s it began to be replaced, first by lithography, then by screen-printing. Screen-print remains the most common printed decorative technique for complex shapes, supplemented by Pad printing for hollow ware.

Screenprinting is cheaper, quicker, multi-coloured and photographic imagery can be printed. However because it is on-glaze (on the glaze itself) it will wear and fade in a dishwasher and has none of the subtleties and delicate qualities of underglaze.

Underglaze is far more permanent because it is literally 'under the glaze'. Pad printing (both onglaze and underglaze) is very quick and produces a very similar result to screenprint, however it can only be used on flat and gentle concave surfaces. Technological change is never an even process and a few companies continued to hold onto the original tissue process, Spode alongside Burgess and Leigh (Burleigh) were the last tissue printers to continue the process into the 21st Century.

Due to the complex nature of this process its use in the industry was short lived, lasting perhaps only ten years.  However in under-glaze ceramic printing the fineness of detail and subtle quality of colour have rarely been surpassed.
This project aimed to develop, demonstrate and access the creative potential of the combination of early ceramic transfer printing methods, digital media, and photopolymer printing for the contemporary practioner, in order to expand aesthetic possibilities and increase the ease of production for under-glaze ceramic transfer printing.


1.       To produce an overview of the development, techniques and aesthetic characteristics of early under-glaze transfer printing from metal plates including bat printing, tissue printing, multi-colour single plate printing and multi-plate colour printing.

2.       To use this overview to re-establish and access practical working procedures for the production of artworks using these methods in a modern context.

3.       To explore and asses the creative potential of the combination of practical aspects of bat printing, tissue printing, multi-colour single plate printing and multi-plate colour printing with the use of digital media and photopolymer printing through the making of artworks.

4.       To evaluate the outcomes of the research through a comparison of aesthetic and practical aspects of examples of early transfer printed ceramics and those produced as part of this research and to disseminate the results to appropriate parties.

Outcomes of the project:

Initial trials were conducted to re-establish the parameters for underglaze tissue printing using copper plates.  A set of test tiles were produced to establish depth of colour, intensity and quality of mark. A series of photopolymer plates were then made to establish their ability to hold and print underglaze oxides and stains. Trials were undertaken to develop suitable printing vehicles to replace the traditional copper plate linseed used in the past.  These traditional vehicles were found to be poor carriers of the oxide.  A new formula based on rubber based printing media was developed in conjunction with Cranfield Colours.  Initial trials of Bat printing, though feasible, proved unwieldy in a practical situation for the transfer of imagery from photopolymer plates so was not pursued as a viable part of this project.

A method of printing underglaze tissue from photopolymer plates was successfully demonstrated.  The research exceeded expectations and developed a methods of 4 colour separation intaglio printing from photopolymer plate using underglaze stains.  This method drastically reduces the time needed to make the plates and opens new opportunities for artists.  In the past it was only feasible if you were a skilled plate engraver, which takes many years, now a plate can be exposed and developed ready for printing in 20 minutes.
A workshop and seminar were held at the International Print on Enamel Symposium, UWE , Bristol 25-29 July 2000 – reported in Findings, the quarterly newsletter of the Association of Contemporary Jewellers, issue 13, autumn 2000.

Catalogue published:

‘A Survey of Mechanical Prints’ ISBN 0953607615 available via the UWE online store

Artefacts exhibited in: ‘Print and Enamel’, Kent State University Gallery, Ohio and Fusion Gallery, Oxo Tower, London, March and April 2001.

Article in Ceramics Technical


Seminar and workshops at Reikks Akedemie, Amsterdam & AKI, Enschede Holland May 2001



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