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Art Tiles: Aesthetics of Pleasure
Article by Philip Read

Art tile by Philip ReadArt Tiles are so described as to differentiate the hand-made/hand-painted tiles from the die cast mass-produced tiles. Tiles have had a long history of artistic and creative design. Currently, the social perception of the term ‘tiles’ has relegated the industry to an inexpensive commodity status indicating a separation from the high arts. This has not always been the case, the introduction of the machine produced tiles witnessed the gradual decrease of the hand as playing a major role in the production or painting of the tiles. In the 1840’s the ‘dust-pressing’ a method that consisted of compressing nearly dry clay between two metal dies revolutionized the tile making industry. Dust pressing replaced tile-making by hand with wet clay, and facilitated the mechanization of the tile-making industry.

Today, artisans use the term Art Tiles to identify their tiles as hand-made, hand-prepared and hand painted. This means that all tiles are made from wet clay and are individually prepared for painting by smoothing the surface and edges. The decoration is applied by hand techniques such as brush, scraffito, luster, tube and transfer printing.

Historical Context
The history of tiles is truly a global affair. Tiles can be traced back at least 4000 years into areas of China, Persia, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and Europe through Spain and Italy. They have been excavated at the pyramids, the ruins of Babylon and ruins of the ancient Greek cities. Tiles were originally used to beautify living spaces and were applied on walls and floors. Early designs exhibited decorations of white and blue stripes and later exhibited a wider decoration of patterns and colours. A fine white stoneware with glaze was found from the Shang-Yin Dynasty of China, 1523–1028 BC.

Mesopotamian tilesPersian tilePersian tile

In the 10th and 11th Centuries a process that included a glassy layer over the clay was developed in Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. Families of potters moved to Spain from the Andalusia hub and Mediterranean strip of the Iberian Peninsula. This tile method was introduced to Europe with the Arab invasion of Spain where we still see the architectonic application of tiles on the greater mosque of Seville of the 12th century. Incredible architectural examples of Arab building tiles can still be seen throughout Spain especially at the Alhambra. Spain and Italy were prime markets for the development of tiles in Europe specifically in the 14th and 15th centuries. At this time the hand made production of tiles required an extremely specialized division of labour that involved tile makers and tile decorators.

Alhambra mosaic

Towards the 1500 the cities of Seville and Toledo took over the production of tiles. These cities developed new techniques for the making of tiles; they are credited with the appearance of the first mass production process.

During the 1840’s the tile industry was revolutionized by the ‘dust pressing’ method that consisted of compressing nearly dry clay between two metal dies. Subsequently, in the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th century, the tile industry entered a pre industrial stage that greatly increased the mechanized production and volume of tiles.

Art Nouveau tileArt Nouveau tile

Prior to the 1840’s, tiles were hand-made, that is to say, that each tile was hand-formed and hand-painted making each tile a work of art in its own right. Today, ceramic tile is not hand-made or hand-painted for the most part. Automated manufacturing techniques are used and the human had does not enter into the picture until it is time to install the tile.

The introduction of the term Art Tile in the last 20 years is meant to promote the individual tile artist who still uses the hand to make, form and decorate the tiles. This term distinguishes the small studio tile artist from the mass produced industrial tile and promotes the return of the labour intensive artistic method of making tiles. Some tile artists will purchase standard mass produced bisque or glazed tile and then hand-paint the decoration. Other artists chose to hand-make, prepare and hand-paint the individual tiles. This later choice greatly increases the individual tile labour and dramatically impacts the volume of tiles produced. However, this later method uniquely individualizes each tile as a work of art, thus the Art Tile.

Personal Style and Technique
Art tile by Philip ReadI chose to work only in ceramic porcelain clay; it is the smoothest of clay bodies and is excellent for painting. This choice started for me in 1995 when I went to the ancient city Jingdezhen, China to study painting and tile making with the many studio artists who still use the hands to make and decorate tiles. Jingdezhen has been the center of porcelain clay production for the past 1000years due to the abundant supply of Kaolin clay which is unique to the production of the white clay body. I was especially interested in the large tiles of 20” to 24” which offered a large smooth surface to paint on. All of my large tiles are hand made and hand prepared. I do not use a slab roller and maintain the thickness around one centimeter or 3/8” to ½”. Although this is a labour intensive process and fragile method I have been able to develop a success rate above 90% after firing.

The drying process takes up to three weeks and is a critical stage in the survival of the tile. During this drying period I have developed a series of coverings to slow down the dry rate that can lead to cracking and warping. After the tile has dried completely I can then start the painting process. I only work with Green Ware, no pre firing bisque because I have found that the dry clay has absorbency similar to paper. My painting technique is a combination of Eastern and Western brush applications. These brush techniques often require a series of dabs rather than a drawing stroke, the difference develops a layering process that will not smear or create smudge appearances. Of course, the detail work requires the delicate brush stroke application. I have found that this combination of dabs and drawing strokes gives me the maximum freedom of expression over a broad range of composition. My palette includes cobalt blue, under glaze colours, and glazes in combinations that enrich the aesthetic beauty of the artwork.

Once the tile painting is complete I apply a clear glaze over the top and move to the kiln stage. The Kiln stage is a very critical stage for the success of the large 24” green ware tiles. Moving the large green ware tiles to the kiln shelves is a very delicate and cautious stage, they can break very easy.

My firing process involves both vertical and horizontal firings. I use a gas fired reduction firing and/or an electric oxidation firing. Typically, I once fire up to 1350’c and then may have 2-4 subsequent firings including vertical firings.

I chose to hand-form, prepare and hand paint all of my porcelain tiles. As a small studio artisan I can never compete with the large mass-producing tile companies. Art Tiles currently have a niche market and serves customers who wish to have a unique one of a kind artwork to decorate their home.

Art tile by Philip ReadI often describe my art making as painting with powdered glass suspended in water. My painting style is somewhat unorthodox and took me over 5years to develop. It is a brush application technique of dabbing and layering that results in the glaze melting and fusing into unexpected and exciting pools of liquid glass. These translucent layers of glass fuse onto the white porcelain clay and result in images of soft and strong colour compositions. My paintings are the influence of Western techniques (watercolours, oil, acrylic painting techniques) and Eastern techniques (ink and wash paintings on rice paper) combined with the aesthetics and philosophies of cross culture studies.

Aesthetics of Pleasure
The aesthetics of our personal environment is an important issue in the emergence and continuing development of Art Tiles. The aesthetics or beauty of an artwork responds to the individual’s pleasure principle and an emotion is evoked. An emotional relationship is formed, a bond of pleasure. Works of art provokes emotion and all of us react accordingly to specific compositions. However, when works of art are perceived to be commodity the relationship changes to one of decorative function the emotion is removed from the observation and the relationship remains formal.

Craft is often described as the production of a thing having characteristics that could be shared by other things. This sharing evokes a general emotion and not a specific emotion as evoked by an individual work of art like a painting or sculpture. Art Tiles have a limited niche market primarily due to cost. The Art Tiles are sold as works of art and are priced accordingly. They are not made to compete directly with the mass produced tiles but are sold to accent living spaces surrounded by inexpensive mass produced tiles. As such, someone will purchase individual tiles because of there beauty and aesthetic appeal but that is the beauty of Art Tiles; affordable, beautiful, archival (another loaded word), and durable.

Article courtesy Philip Read, Mountain Path Studio. ©

Philip Read has an MFA in Studio Art and Critical Theory and a BA in
Interdisciplinary Arts. He studied Eastern art (Sumi-e, Chinese Ink and Wash painting) for over 21yrs; and independant studied at Jingdezhen Ceramic University in Jingdezhen, Jiangxu, South China.

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