Culture Mashup Contemporary China Painting
by Melanie Sherman

China painting allows Melanie Sherman to combine multiple images and detailed patterning from various cultures on her work.
Edition: January/February 2016 | Page 39 – 42 |

China painting is an ancient technique for the ornamentation of ceramics. The Chinese started decorating their porcelain wares as early as the Han Dynasty (200BCE–220CE) and mastered the skill of applying overglazes long before this method became popular in Europe in the 18th century and in the US in the 19th century. This traditional approach to surface decoration is still being used by porcelain manufacturers today, such as Villeroy & Boch and Meissen in Germany; Herend Porcelain Manufactory in Hungary; and Sèvres in France; as well as various companies and studios producing porcelain in Jingdezhen, China; and companies and studios in the town of Arita, Japan, which are known for their Imari ware. The processes, materials, application techniques, and imagery used vary from country to country, but the results today are similar to those produced thousands of years ago.

I was introduced to china painting during my residency at the International Ceramics School in Kecskemét, Hungary, in 2013, where I studied with the renowned Latvian artist Ilona Romule and trained to use a metal nib to create detailed line work (see figure 3). Tip: A metal nib is the part of a fountain pen that holds the ink when dipped in an inkwell. You can add a handle to a nib by mounting it on a skewer or a chopstick. I subsequently learned the traditional Chinese method of china painting last year, during my residency at The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China. I was also able to watch the skilled painters at the Herend Porcelain Manufactory and Meissen decorate their traditional porcelain wares. I use a combination of all of these techniques in my own work. My current body of work references 18th-century European porcelain wares and is produced and finished with the cultural exchange between East and West in mind.


I study Japanese full-body tattoos for inspiration and am interested in their symbolic use of imagery. Irezumi, like china painting, is a traditional art form of body art that relies on a process of decorating the body by hand. These tattoos have a spiritual and creative purpose. The animals that I draw in my work have all been derived from such tattoos and indicate a symbolic meaning in Eastern and Western cultures, such as loyalty, wealth, and strength.

My corset platter was inspired by a 19th-century French department-store catalog of corsets. Historically, the corset was worn to change the appearance of women’s bodies, enhancing their breasts while decreasing the size of their waists. The line drawings I make using a metal nib provide me the opportunity to insinuate certain movement in the imagery. I feel that the combination of the Asian patterns and the European imagery creates an interesting cultural interchange. Especially, with the corset series and thoughts about the restrictions placed on women’s bodies.


In Japan and China, I collected patterns incorporating geometric lines, squares, and triangles, which I found on kimonos, pencils, napkins, pottery, paper, wood, and lacquer wares. I use them to frame my subject matter. These patterns are usually a grid made up of squares, diamonds, and triangles. Some patterns are easy to master, while others take longer to learn. To better understand historic patterns, I often look at books about Imari ware, which is covered in simple patterns combined with more organic imagery and shows an abundance of basic design configurations, all based on the square, diamond, or triangle.

“Originally published in Pottery Making Illustrated, Jan/Feb, 2016. Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.”