Chatter fills the room as half a dozen women huddle around a small table, at work on their projects. Sugar-dusted lemon bars on a paper doily and the aroma of slightly burnt coffee add to the sewing-circle atmosphere.
But this is no quilting bee.
These are china painters, porcelain artists. Orange County is said to have the greatest concentration of them in the country. Some have been at it for decades; others are just starting.
It is, say the dedicated, a quietly flourishing medium. Its intricacies are passed from person to person, generation to generation.
“I’m always learning,” said one painter who has been at work on a vase for months. “It’s relaxing, but I’m very serious about it.”
The artists--primarily women--meet about once a week in small studios, china shops and living rooms. Though the medium is recognized internationally, veterans behind the brushes say they’ve worked long and hard to see porcelain painting gain more recognition in this country.
“They used to put us in the craft area of the fairs,” says Irene Graham, 52, a china painting teacher from Fountain Valley.
Today, china art is featured in the Smithsonian Institution and the Getty Museum, which displays the largest collection of china painting in the world.
Just as their art form is more than a craft, Graham says, the women who wield brushes in her living room and places such as Hulda’s Studio in Orange are more than students; they are dear friends. She says they’ve supported each other through devastating illness, financial crisis and other challenges.
“It’s an extended family of sorts,” says Graham, who teaches some of the same students who started with her 15 years ago. “It’s an intimate art form. In other classes, you look at the backs of other students, and the teacher is at the front of the room. With porcelain art, you sit around a table. There’s a support network, and the deep friendships are wonderful.”
Hulda Stoppelmann of Hulda’s Studio is president of the 165-member California China Painting Teachers Assn. While it is impossible to know how many people consider themselves china painters, Stoppelmann, 74, says they are out there, and they all seem to know one another. There’s the feisty, 96-year-old artist from Downey and the Santa Ana woman in her 80s known internationally for painting flowers mentioned in the Bible.
It’s taken decades for some of the artists to perfect their techniques, skills they often teach.
“We want to make sure that we keep the art going,” Graham says. “That’s why the clubs are so important. There’s a real solid core of people who are dedicated.”
Like most organized groups, they have trade magazines--the China Decorator, the Porcelain Artist and the China Painter, published by the World Organization of China Painters.
Although women now dominate the art form, china painting was brought to the United States by three men in the late 1800s.
Franz Aulich, F.A. Bischoff and George Leykauf came to this country from Europe, starting schools in china painting in Cincinnati, Chicago and New York, according to Betty Kumler, a teacher and china painting historian. Bischoff came to California in 1906 and became well-known for his oils.
China painting takes many forms--there are more than 20 recognized categories, from florals, scenes and portraiture to gold and raised paste. Most of the paint and special oils used are imported from Europe, their exact ingredients kept a trade secret.
The painting is done on the surface of a finished porcelain piece--often a plate or vase.
Sometimes the artist will add a fine wash glaze to remove the shine on the piece. Many artists sketch their design in pencil onto the china before they start to paint; some draw on paper and transfer the design onto the piece.
The paint is prepared from semitranslucent pigment mixed with glass and ground into a fine powder. Small amounts are placed on a piece of glass for mixing. Methods vary, but artists using the European approach add a few drops of painting oil to the pigment and work it with a palette knife to the consistency of toothpaste. The paint is thinned with turpentine before it is applied to the porcelain surface, a painstaking process done with tiny brushes.
When the painting is complete, the piece is fired in a kiln at high temperatures and cooled slowly.
Just about anyone can paint on a piece of china, porcelain artists will tell you, but it takes a long time to master the process.
“I tell people that you don’t have to be an artist, but you have to set the time aside, and you have to have the desire,” Stoppelmann says.
In addition to the weekly classes, china painters get together occasionally at county fairs and national and international exhibitions.
“The first show I went to, there had to be thousands of people there,” recalled one china painter. “I couldn’t believe it; it was at the Disneyland Hotel, and it was packed to the gills. You can’t believe how many china painters there are out there.”
Leading artists usually give demonstrations at the shows. The women credited with establishing the china painting community in Orange County are among them. They’re the respected veterans of the medium--women in their 80s and 90s who paint, teach and say they still have a lot to learn.
“I like to go to the shows to see anything new, anything I haven’t tried,” says Florabelle Provost, 86, who has taught china painting in Orange County for 45 years. “I have learned so much from other artists.”
Provost, a great-grandmother of six, still teaches classes once a week. Some of her students have been with her for 35 years, although “a lot of the younger girls have gone to work,” she adds.
Provost, who has one student older than she is, has taught for the city of Santa Ana and at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa “before lugging around all that china became too much of a hassle.”
“I always have wanted to china paint, but I used to live in Minnesota, and no one would teach it there, or they didn’t want to sell any of their trade secrets,” she said. “I love to teach, and I love to paint.”
Mildred Noah, 86, says that although she was introduced to china painting in the early 1940s, she feels she “got a late start.”
“I worked on a farm and had a family, so I didn’t get started until 1951,” said Noah, an active member of four china-painting clubs.
“Now I have friends all over the state and all over the country, " she said. “It’s practically my life.”