Fact Check: Transfer Print or Hand Painted?

A common error made by individuals new to handling decorated porcelain is mistaking transfer printing for hand painting. A transfer print can fool the untrained eye, mistaking it for hand painting. Mistakes occur because the lovely portrait or floral image under examination is either well made or because the bottom of the piece is stamped, 'Hand Painted' when it is not, or when it is only partially hand painted.

Why is it important to have the ability to differentiate between a transfer print and hand painted ware? Two reasons: collectors want accurate representation, and hand painted porcelain generally, goes for a higher price than transfer print porcelain. You would not want to mistake a hand painted porcelain piece painted by a gifted artist for a mass-produced transfer print, which affects the asking price (too low and a loss) and online search results enticing collectors to visit your website only to find what you offer is ‘not’ what they want.

Long time collectors and dealers of decorated porcelain know there are methods for distinguishing one type of decorative application from another. Dealers and collectors use common sense tips for identification purposes to prevent their appreciation for the beauty of a piece from influencing their objectivity.

Magnify it
The first thing to learn is, do not rely on the unaided eye. Use a good magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe to get a close-up look of decorative areas where evidence of hand painting is easy to detect, even when the painter uses a technique similar to waters colors – diluted glaze applied with a soft brush and light of hand. No artist's hand is steady and true 100% of the time, which results in tiny irregularities. An artist's touch referred to as the ‘makers mark’, is most noticeable in areas of subtle shading, for example where a flower petal goes from light pink to darker pink.

If the decoration is a transfer print, the pattern will be very regular. Compare the same aspect of the same pattern on two different pieces of the same type and style dinnerware set and you will discover they are identical. This is because the transfer print on both plates is the same exact pattern. Irregularities occur in transfer printed designs due to improper application of the print resulting in buckled or wrinkled paper and imperfectly joined seams. Most often, this is noticeable on border decorations, which are commonly applied by apprentices or inexperienced workers.

On close inspection of a transfer decoration, you will find stippling, or a pattern of raised dots, rather than brush strokes and cross-hatching – a painting technique used to create tonal effects on hand painted porcelain. An obvious outline, with no irregularities around the elements of a design indicates the use of both hand painting and transfer prints, a mixed technique used to achieve the desired decorative result. Keep in mind designs rendered using a mix of techniques is evidence the piece is less valuable than an all over hand painted only piece of decorative porcelain. A semi-skilled worker that applies glaze over a transfer print by simply ‘coloring’ within the design lines is economically cheaper because the skill required to do so is less than that required of an artisan painting a detailed design. 

Touch it
Most hand painted porcelain, depending on where it is produced use a technique called overglaze to add decorative painted elements to porcelain. Overglaze is decoration applied (painted) over the top layer of glaze. If decorative elements are applied, using a glaze then the surface of the porcelain is slick with an all-over glassy look and smooth to the touch. Painted decorative elements, using enamels or metals such as gold create a raised surface and the porcelain is no longer smooth to the touch when you run your fingers across the design surface. Compare different areas of the porcelain by first running your finger across an area free of decoration and then run your finger across an area with enamel or metal decorations. In most cases, you will feel where the decoration begins and ends.

Some porcelain items have transfer prints applied over the glaze and can be felt, however, this type of application is not as durable as transfer prints applied under the glaze and is used less often.

A decorative element applied under the glaze on porcelain is an underglaze. The artisan or factory employee applies paint or a transfer print to the surface of greenware (unfired porcelain or clay) or bisque fired (previously fired porcelain or clay) followed by a layer of glaze – usually transparent. Glazes fired over decorative elements are visible when viewed from a side angle and appear to ‘float’ over the decorative element. Decorative elements fuse with the porcelain during firing. The mixed technique using paint and a transfer print are generally under the glaze. Do not judge an element as consisting of only a transfer print when applied under the glaze without careful examination.

Define it
Some manufacturers stamped the bottom of decorative porcelain ‘hand painted’ even when the decoration consists of a transfer print with very little painting or enamel or metal embellishment. If an item is marked, ‘hand painted’ and the buyer is expecting a well executed over all hand painted design but receives an item consisting of a transfer print accented with small amounts of painted color, the buyer is sure to be seriously disappointed. For example, some porcelain items marked “Hand Painted” may consist of rudimentary highlights added in white enamel, or small amounts of color enamel or gold embellishments added as an accent. It is wise to clarify in each case what the term ‘Hand Painted’ stamped on the bottom of the porcelain piece means to avoid a misunderstanding and disappointment for the buyer.

It is never a good idea to take a decorated porcelain piece at face value or to make hasty assumptions about it based on what you think you see with the unaided eye. Use the tips above to correctly identify the type of decoration used on your porcelain wares to avoid mistakes in identification, which leads to misrepresentation and a disappointed customer.


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