Vintage Ceramics Design Patterns

Once upon a time dishes were plain. Made from metal, wood, mud, they were Plain Janes. As time passed and one millennium slid into another, society in general continued to want to improve and beautify their surroundings. Ceramics were no exception.
Keep in mind that only the wealthy were able to afford such fine things. The average person did not own or use decorated dishes nor did they have figurines and vases of fine pottery, earthenware, or porcelain.
Ceramics were carved, painted, etched, inked, and fired with a variety of additives, always with the idea in mind to create a thing of beauty. The process was slow, completely by hand and it was not until the 1700s that progress was made in producing large quantities of ceramics for consumer use.
In today’s world as we deal with ceramics from the past there is often some confusion in understand what it is that we have. Is it hand painted? Transferware? A combination of the two? A decal?
Let’s jump in and look at some close-ups and then identify what we are seeing.

First off, check the backside or bottom of the piece. I find it amazing how many people don’t.  Often the information you are seeking is right there – in plain view.


ceramic decoration 5aMarked: H & C: L, France

This particular piece is a Havilland plate from Limoges, France.  I have dated it between 1888 and 1896. As you can see, it is full color, all the way to the edge.  The left photograph is a blow-up of the plate.

At first you may not feel like you are seeing much, but sometimes it is more of what you don’t see that gives you the clues you need. Notice how ‘smooth’ the artwork and specifically the transition between colors.

You do not see dots of any kind. You do not see ‘edges’. What you do see is a combination of edges and of smooth transition – the blend of colors. This look is unattainable in transferware.  It is only with being hand painted that you can have both edges and blending.

ceramic decoration 2ceramic decoration 2aMarked:  Noritake. Handpainted. Made in Japan.

If you look at a solid demarcation line between two colors such as shown here although the color goes from one to the other, there is no outline.

The demarcation line is soft with the kind of look that a paintbrush would give.

Another point that has to be made about hand painted items is that when painting there are different thicknesses of paint. It’s not solid like a print. When you think about painting a wall with a paintbrush sometimes you have to go back over an area because it is ‘thin’ – it needs more paint.  Same way this hand painted ceramic.

They load their brush and paint, over and over again and although it may be very close to being applied evenly, it’s not a machine and therefore, it is not perfect in its execution. It is what makes hand painted items so desirable for they are truly a creation of the artist.


ceramic decoration 1ceramic decoration 1aMarked: W. Adams & Co. Athens.

Most everyone is familiar with flow blue, or at least the name.  It was transferware where the ink was encouraged to bleed into the surrounding area creating a kind of halo effect. Some of the additions added to the kiln during firing that encouraged the ‘flow’ were lime or ammonia.

This particular piece of flow blue was made by W. Adams and Company in 1891.

When looking at the close-up of the design you can actually see the texture of the ceramic itself. Notice that the print is darker on the raised areas so you get this very uneven textured, kind of dot pattern.  It is important to know that the dots have no organization whatsoever; they are completely random and it is obvious that the dots are caused by the uneven surface of the piece.

Also, with transfer ware, there is color and then there is no color.  With the flow blue, because of the bleed effect, the area around the pattern is not white but a blue tinted white. With transferware there are no outlines nor is there any blending of colors, the color just stops.

ceramic decoration 4ceramic decoration 4aMarked: Johnson Brothers. Made in England. Dishwasher and microwave safe.

Let’s compare this transferware to the one Adams plate above. Though still transferware, it is completely different.

One of the things you notice right away is that the ink is more evenly applied to the surface of the ceramic piece. There is no real dot pattern with this piece caused by the unevenness of the piece. It’s all very flat.

One reason is, is that this plate dates to about 1985. Long past the time of using copper and paper and hand transferring the ink. This example is completely machine made, but still transferware.

One thing that is always consistent with transferware if the amount of ink used. Unlike hand painted, the thickness of the paint is pretty exact all the way across the board.  Remember, color just stops.  There are no outlines and there are no outlines.

Combination Transferware & Hand Painted

ceramic decoration 8ceramic decoration 8aMarked:  Chinese Mark and Made in China

Interesting enough there is a combination of the two techniques above.  It is a two step process which begins with the application of a design via the transferware process.

It is then hand painted and then glazed. This particular vase is from the early 1980s and from more than a foot away it is stunning.  Only on close inspection can you see that whoever painted this vase had a most difficult time staying within the lines.

Because it is a combination, you will see characteristics from both types. The black ink is definite with no blending and distinctive edges.  The paint you can see is not even.  In fact, in the orange area you can see where the paint is thicker in some areas than others.

This process permitted painters that were not as talented to still produce lovely items that were sold on the market. Kind of the best of both worlds.

ceramic decoration 7ceramic decoration 7aMarked:  None

With this particular covered dish, it also is a combination of transferware and being handpainted.

In this instance they did the transferware in pale blue. Not just the outline but everything you see that is that one color of pale blue.

An artist then came in and added texture by using several different colors. It is apparent that the item in handpainted because the darker blue paints are thicker and in some areas you can feel it.

Being that it is a combination, again, it will have traits of both the transferware and hand painting. When comparing this covered dish to the vase above, it is quite obvious that the age and the skill of the craftsman was a much different time period and level of quality.


ceramic decoration 61875 antique lithograph print on ceramicMarks: Sylvan. English date mark. W. B. & Son. The Haunt of the Snipe. Gilman Collamore & Co. 19 Union Sta. New York. Brownfield’s China.

This is an interesting plate. Looking close one realizes that most of it is made up of dots. There there is the solid colors that have not dots at all but are smooth.

It is my opinion that this is an antique lithograph print that was embellished with hand painting. (Note that this is my opinion)

This plate is dated to 1875. If this painting was transferred to a copper block for transferware, it would have been done in strokes, not dots. The dots are what lead me to believe that this plate was not printed as transferware.

The lithograph printing process was invented in the late 1700s so it was certainly around. W.B. & Son was Brownfield & Son out of England. They were very successful and employed over 500 people back in the 1800s.

ceramic decoration 3ceramic decoration 3aMarks: 1988 (then in Russian)

This is a modern day collector’s plate that I believe is a lithograph print. Beautifully done, you can see the perfect pattern.

Still collectible being over 20 years old but the technology used to produce this plate is much different than the prior examples.

More study needs to be done on the different processes used to create these works of art but having a base knowledge of knowing what you are looking at will help you date as well as build value in the item.

The more you know and the more you share with your potential buyers the more they realize that you are not just hawking your wares but that you have researched and you know something about what you are selling.





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