Tenmoku: The magical pottery of oriental origin

cuenco esmalte tenmoku

Tenmoku, originating in China in the 10th-13th centuries, is a ceramic technique noted for its high-temperature glazes. It produces iridescent finishes in dark colors, such as brown and black, and unique visual effects, being highly valued in Japan, especially in pieces for the tea ceremony and in the rest of the world.

Tenmoku: A coveted glaze

Tenmoku is a Chinese technique specifically associated with the Song dynasty (960-1279). It is known for its high-temperature glazes that vary in color, usually ranging from dark browns, blacks, and sometimes with hints of blue or green.

What really distinguishes tenmoku pieces is their iridescent finish and visual effects that seem to capture miniature galaxies within the ceramic.

A distinctive feature of tenmoku is its gloss and variations in the glaze surface. These variations are the result of the careful composition of the glaze and the specific atmospheric conditions inside the kiln during firing. The most prized effects on tenmoku pieces include shapes that simulate an eye, hence the nicknames of some effects such as “rabbit eye” and “pheasant eye,” which are circular patterns or spots that emerge on the surface of the glaze.

History of tenmoku ceramics

Tenmoku has its roots in Chinese ceramics of the Song dynasty (960-1279), where it was initially developed for tea bowls. Its name derives from the Tienmu mountain, the place of inspiration for these glazes. This style is known for its luster and variations of dark colors, mainly browns and blacks.

The arrival of tenmoku pottery in Japan

Tenmoku pottery came to this country through trade and sea routes during the 12th and 13th centuries. It was during the period of Zen culture that tenmoku bowls became essential elements in the Japanese tea ceremony. These bowls were considered precious objects and revered for their beauty and simplicity.

Eventually it became popular throughout the territory and this technique was mastered in most of Japan’s pottery workshops, adapting to its culture and evolving into local forms. Over the centuries, tenmoku has remained a cherished art form, attracting both potters and collectors for its unique beauty and historical significance.

The best works in Japanese ceramics

Evolution and popularization in the West

Throughout the 20th century, tenmoku pottery became popular in the West thanks to the influence of the Japanese aesthetic movement known as ‘Japonisme’. Western artists and potters began to adopt its techniques and styles, creating unique pieces that fused Eastern tradition with their own artistic influences.

Tenmoku creation process

This type of ceramic is appreciated for its beauty and uniqueness. In this section we will explore the fascinating process of its creation, from the raw materials used to the cooling and crystal formation.

Raw materials used in their manufacture

A variety of quality raw materials are used to create tenmoku ceramics. These include clay, feldspar and quartz, which are combined in specific proportions. These ingredients provide the texture and strength necessary for the creation of durable and beautiful pieces.

Firing techniques used in tenmoku ceramics

The firing process is crucial in its creation. High temperature firing techniques are used, reaching up to 1300°C in the kiln. This particular firing process allows the fusion of the minerals present in the clay, generating the characteristic colors and effects of these very special pieces.

The role of iron oxide in the creation of the black color

Iron oxide plays a key role in creating the distinctive black color of tenmoku. During firing, this compound reacts with the minerals present in the clay, generating the deep, dark tones that characterize this ceramic.

The amount of iron used can vary depending on the desired result, but is generally in the range of 8% to 12%. This specific amount, combined with the controlled firing conditions, contributes to the formation of the intense black color and crackle effects so appreciated in this ceramic.

Jianzhan tea bowl. This artwork and the cover artwork are by ClayHeatSerendipity.

Cooling and crystal formation

After firing, each piece undergoes a controlled cooling process. During this period, crystals begin to form on the surface, generating subtle and beautiful patterns. Factors such as cooling time and clay composition influence the formation of these crystals and the final appearance of tenmoku ware.

Tenmoku pottery in the tea ceremony

This type of work plays an important role in the Japanese tea tradition. Their presence in this ancient ceremony reflects the close relationship between the art of ceramics and the appreciation of tea as a spiritual experience.

In the tea ceremony, the careful choice of the bowl is fundamental. The Japanese consider the bowl where tea is served to be more than just a vessel, it is a piece of art that symbolizes harmony with nature and mindfulness of the present. Tenmoku pottery, with its unique beauty and ability to enhance the flavor and fragrance of tea, has earned a prominent place in this ancient ceremony.

Jianzhan tenmoku bowls are considered true masterpieces. These pieces, also known as ‘tea bowls’, stand out for their elegant design and the delicacy of their details. Meticulously crafted, these jianzhan bowls are appreciated as much for their aesthetics as for their functionality. Their deep black finish, in conjunction with the subtle crystal reflections, creates a unique visual experience when enjoying a cup of tea.

An outstanding example of this type of tenmoku pottery is the bowl known as ‘gongfu’, used in Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies.

Contemporary works and artists working with tenmoku

Today, numerous contemporary artists and ceramists continue to explore and work with tenmoku ceramics. Their creations range from traditional pieces inspired by the ancient technique to avant-garde works that use tenmoku as a basis for experimenting with innovative forms and designs. Some prominent artists in this field include Tetsuya Ishiyama, who combines tenmoku with other materials, and Fumihiro Toda, known for his minimalist approach to creating tenmoku ceramic pieces.

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