Lladro Statues Trial By Fire
At the beginning of the nineteen fifties, the three Lladro brothers decided to start their own artisan workshop in their home town Almacera. What they lacked in material resources was compensated for by the application of talent and sheer hard work. In the early days of their careers, a small homemade kiln in the courtyard of the family home became the center of their activities. It was a kiln whose technical limitations obliged them to work with low-temperature ceramic wares, the traditional material used by Valencian artisans, fired at about 1,000 degrees Celsius, and therefore lower in quality than true porcelain. Firing was to limit their creations to a great extent.
The brothers were conscious of the fact that their raw materials were not really conducive to the artistic quality they wished to attain in their creations. The solution was to seek out refractory bricks from a nearby steelworks and make a kiln of their own design which was capable of reaching higher temperatures required for fine porcelain. Their kiln had to be re-built various times, because during the first firing attempts it cracked and broke apart. In those days, the majority of workers in small ceramic workshops in the region would stand by the kilns after they had finished firing and pray. The results of kiln firing were simply unpredictable, and only when the door of the kiln was finally opened - which was two or three days after firing to give the wares a chance to cool - would the potters discover if their prayers had been answered.
This give an idea of the complexity of achieving proper firing and the long road to success before this technique could be properly mastered. Firing is the last step in the process of making porcelain. The most important step perhaps, because everything is decided at this critical moment, like placing all your money on a single bet. If either the temperature or the firing time is below standard, the result is low quality porcelain with a porous texture. If either of the two variables is too high, the pieces come out looking blistered and having lost the right shape. Between these two extremes there are many other kinds of imperfections that lead to pieces being destroyed when they are inspected by quality controllers.
From the beginning, it was Vincente, the youngest Lladro brother, who specialized in firing techniques. The founding brothers first began by painting decorations over the glaze, applying ceramic colors on pieces fired in white, which were to be fired one or more times in the kiln at low temperatures. The results, while good, were far from being innovative. The bright colors produced by this type of firing were not in harmony with the style of the sculpture, so the Lladro family spared no pains to achieve the kind of soft, glowing colors that would highlight their sculptures. Experimentation and research were daily activities during the initial stages of their development. Those were difficult years, as there was much secrecy in the trade, fueled by the belief that revealing techniques handed down from father to son led to a loss of competitive edge that spelled disaster.
Wading against the tide, and without a working knowledge of chemistry, the Lladro brothers and their co-workers doggedly pursued what would eventually be their major achievement: a high temperature single firing procedure. This type of firing involves one major hazard: when pieces finally enter the kiln, they include everything required for their finished form, and they either come out perfect or have to be destroyed. But the results are worth the risk, because the porcelain obtained in this way is of the highest quality. The colors are soft and pleasing to the eye, looking like they have been placed under a glossy yet transparent glaze. In classic firing, done in different stages, this risk is reduced to a minimum, because defective pieces can be withdrawn at each stage of development, the disadvantage being that the quality results of single-firing can never be attained.
At Lladro, however, the kilns act as true "lie detectors." This is the final trial, the trial by fire, and there is no turning back. One difficulty of working with porcelain is that it is practically impossible to detect faults when it is raw; they only become apparent, if present, after the piece has been fired. Far to late to save the statue.
The Lladro brothers became pioneers in a technique whose perfection and mastery took them decades of continual research and teamwork. Even today, the firing section and the laboratory work closely together. It is a question of knowing the right formula for each component, of introducing certain variations which ensure that each piece achieves excellency. Each figurine is different. This is especially true between porcelain and Gres pieces, as Gres requires approximately double the firing time required for porcelain. Cooling time is also slower, to achieve proper crystallization and the development of the semi-matte Lladro figurine Gres finish.
Lladro artists also have to study individual firing times for each piece, and attempt to group pieces together in accordance with the requirements of individual figurines. Structure and size of a piece have to be taken into account. Many Lladro figurines need the help of supports that will prevent them from warping or bending inside the kiln. These supports, fitted by experts, are also made of porcelain, so that they will undergo the same expansions and contractions as the main figurine during firing. Some larger pieces like Cinderella's Arrival take over an hour just to place correctly in the kiln. Coloring is also a differentiating factor. Many Lladro statues have, in addition to their rich ornamentation, a complicated color and glaze combination.
Once the Lladro porcelain figurines are fully loaded, the kiln wagons present a strange-looking sight. Some figures stand upright, others look tilted due to their uneven bases, some face forwards, some backwards. There are even some that need to be held in place using special construction methods to offset subsequent bending or twisting. This is because the porcelain figure will undergo changes at high temperatures as a result of expansions and contractions experienced during firing. It is therefore necessary to know beforehand what porcelain is likely to do, where the center of gravity is, and place pieces in safe positions.
The transformations produced inside the kilns when the heat begins to rise are incredible. During warm up there are certain key moments, such as the moment when the 100 degree Celsius temperature is reached. At this moment, water is freed from the liquid porcelain, and this is signaled by water vapor being ejected from the chimneys of the kiln. The temperature keeps rising slowly until it reaches 1,280 degrees Celsius, and both the outer glaze and porcelain body begin to fuse in a process that stops at 1,330 degrees celsius when true vitrification takes place. In this phase, porcelain becomes completely water proof, in addition to experiencing a substantial (around 15%) reduction in size. True Lladro colors come to the surface of the statue. And the metamorphosis is now complete.
Through the viewing hole on the front of the kiln door observers can see how the figurines reach a state of incandescence. Once the maximum temperature has been reached, the kiln is shut off and the heat curve subsides, first abruptly, and then more and more slowly. No one today really needs to invoke the patron saints, although some continue to do so, and no one gets overly nervous when the kilns are opened. The combined experience of over four decades of hard work and the ongoing search for perfection have bore their fruits at Lladro. And this is the reason why Lladro statues are higher in quality than the porcelain pieces once enjoyed exclusively by kings and nobleman - pieces that can only be seen today in museums. Until Lladro Spanish Porcelain Figurines came and changed everything.
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