Pots and Patina

One of the really cool things I get to see here at Aichien are the very old pots and the patina they’ve developed over time.  Good patina on a pot is very desirable because they give the pot such an aged look.  If you have two pots that are identical where one has patina and the other doesn’t, the one with patina will always be more valuable.  We all want our bonsai to look old and ancient, so why wouldn’t we want the same for the pots.  In this post, I will be talk about what patina is, the different patinas that I’ve seen on different types of pots (i.e. porcelain, glazes, clay), and about the differences between real patina and fake patina.  Let’s get started!

What is patina?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines patina as:

1. (a): a usually green film formed naturally on copper and bronze by long exposure or artificially (as by acids) and often valued aesthetically for it color, (b): a surface appearance of something grown beautiful especially with age or use

2. an appearance or aura that is derived from association, habit, or established character

3. a superficial covering or exterior

In Bonsai pottery terms, it’s pretty much dirt that starts to stick onto pots over long periods of use or exposure.
Patina on pots doesn’t happen over night or over  the course of a year.  Pots sometimes take decades of use before they develop good patina.  The key word there is, “use.”  If you store a pot in a box inside the house, it will never develop patina.
Some characteristics of good real patina
Here’s one of the pots in the yard that is being used at the moment.  The patina is the black parts of the pot where as the lighter areas are more of the original color of the pot.
Here is a cheap terracota pot that is used for training.  They especially have patina on them because they are used so often.  Unfortunately  patina on a terracota pot isn’t worth very much.  I wonder why?  ;o)
Here is an antique porcelain suiban that has some great patina on it.  You can see that the original color is white but the exterior is so dark.  Porcelain’s surface is very smooth so patina doesn’t develop on them quickly.  It takes about 60 or more years of exposure to get this kind of patina on porcelain.
Here is a Chinese Antique drum pot with good patina on it.
Here’s a close up of the patina.  Note that patina always develops on the high points of the pot and not the low points.  Do you see how the raised dots on the pots are dark but the base is lighter in color?  Think about how water would flow over the pot surface.  The areas that have resistance to water flow will develop patina first.
Here is another example of the high points developing patina first.  The crevasses next to ridges often are the last places to develop patina.   This Chinese Antique rough style clay pot develops patina faster because the rough surface quickly catches all the debris and dirt.
Here is another Chinese Antique pot with an example of patina.  Patina always seem to form at the lowest part of the pot first.  It makes sense since that area is closes to the dirt and water tends to sit there the longest.
Here is a small Chinese Antique pot. The patina on it makes it look old and experienced.  The smaller pots tend to be more difficult to find with good patina on them.  When small pots are valued, they tend to be more protected so patina doesn’t develop on them.  I’ve seen antique shohin pots that looked brand new because they were protected so well.
I fell in love with this Chinese pot when I first saw it.  The refinement of the pot and the patina reminded me of an experienced scholar.
Here is another example of patina on porcelain.
Here is a side picture of the same pot.
Here is a Chinese Antique glazed pot.  What color would you say that is?
Here’s a close up of the side of the pot.  Another example of how patina starts on the lower parts of the pot first.  Do you still know what color the pot is?
Here is a picture of the glaze that dripped onto the inside of the pot.  The color of the pot brand new is actually white!  There is so much patina on this pot that you almost can’t tell it was a white pot.  Mr. Tanaka says that this is the ultimate example of patina on a glazed pot.  It took at least 60 years of constant use to obtain this kind of patina.  The pot is so dark, I think I can get away with putting a conifer in it.
Patina on darker glazes
On this Antique Chinese glazed pot, the glaze is dark so any kind of patina can be difficult to see.  In this case, the dullness of the glaze is what tells people that the patina is there.  When good patina develops on dark glazes, the luster of the glaze will disappear because the patina is covering it.  This pot is still fairly shiny so it will still take many more years of usage to develop better patina.
Characteristics of fake patina
This Antique Chinese pot at one point was painted to make it look like it had patina.  Most of the pain has been scrubbed off since but there is still residue of the paint.  When Patina is faked, it always seem to have this painted on look.  If you look very closely at some of them, you can see the paint brush strokes.
Note how the crevasses have a black color in them.  This is a sign that is inconsistant with true patina.  These areas tend to be the most protected and the last areas to develop patina.  This is one of the main things I look for when examining the patina on a pot.
Here is the dead give away on this pot.  When patina develops on the chop mark, the raised areas will develop patina first, then the low areas.  The patina on this chop mark is reversed of what it should look like.

As I see more and more pots everyday, I am starting to develop a better eye for quality and type.  Patina is just a small part of the overall pot picture.  I thought this post would be a great start to sharing what I’ve learned about pots so far and that you too can appreciate some of the age and beauty that they posses.  It goes without saying that the patina should never be scrubbed off the pot because the value will only go down and you loose all that feeling of age.
In the future I will be posting more topics about specific types of pots so stay tuned!
1. Get good information on pots – check!
2. Get your hands on them (it’s all up to me and you)
Thanks for reading.
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16 thoughts on “Pots and Patina

  1. japanesepots says:

    I was looking back through some of the pics and comments and thought I’d add a little tip I use for building patina. Rather than store the ones I want to age under the benches, I mesh em up and fill them with used soil and repotting debris. Stuff that would have gone in the trash. I water this dirt along with everything else. If you do not have a bunch of seedlings lying around, it’s a no fuss(except for weeding!) way to build patina.
    At the same time too though, I’ve noticed that I pay way More attention to 50$ trees, making them better, when they’re in 400$ pots that need some age!

  2. japanesepots says:

    Very nice post Peter! I have several pots with great patina and age, some Japanese and some Chinese, and discuss the subject often on my own blog, it’s nice to see someone else putting better terminology and classification out there. Thoroughly enjoy the blog, keep it up!

  3. Lonnie says:

    I wonder how much the sun plays in developing a patina? intuitively, I think the more sun the better, but that is really just a guess. Also, if the pot is upside down under a table I would think the patina may not develop as nicely as if it had a tree in it. That areas you see (sides and top) would get more exposure to the elements that way. Thanks for all the information Peter, I can see a book in your future!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Lonnie,

      I believe the sun does play a part in it or at least accelerates patina. I would think that the sun in a way would bake the patina in. It’s a good idea to keep the pots on it’s feet so that you can get the desired patina on the lip of the pot. It seems that using the pot definitely gets the patina to develop faster then a pot stored under the bench. The more exposure you give the pot, the better the patina. Thanks for reading the blog Lonnie!

  4. Jeff Lahr says:

    Great post, Peter. I have kept my pots underneath my benches trying to encourage a patina on them but all that get is a mineral build up.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Jeff, that is a big problem in my area too(San Jose). That kind of mineral build up is not too great to look at. There’s a lot of areas in California where the water contains huge amounts of minerals so it is a challenge to get the patina we want on the pots. I had to use RO water to water my trees and help build the patina on the pots that way. I asked Mr. Tanaka and he says the only way to get good patina to develop on a pot is to use the pot. There are a few pots in the yard where he has put a tree in it just because he wants to build the patina. I’m sure under the bench will work too, but it sounds like it takes a lot longer then if you actually use the pot.

      My suggestion Jeff would be to get some kind of water filtration unit and water that way. That and a combination of rain and dirt should do the trick. Good question! Thanks

  5. Sam Edge says:

    Excellent post Peter. I find that some of the less expensive Chinese pots often have this “accelerated patina” on them.

    I hope we can do a better job in the U.S. educating people on the value of these older pots with real patina. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people reject the pot because it is “dirty.”

    Reminds me of the Antiques Roadshow some years ago. A lady brought in a Tiffany lamp that she has purchased at a store. She was proud of how she had cleaned it and “returned” it to its original state.

    The expert at the Roadshow said: “Well would you like to hear the good news first or the bad news?” She said “the good and then the bad.” He replied “well the good news is that the lamp is worth $35,000. The bad news is if you hadn’t cleaned the lamp it would have been worth $75,000.” She almost cried…

    Keep up the great posts.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Sam,

      The antique roadshow is a great example of not to mess with the patina on things. The accelerated patina on the new chinese pots are all painted on, but some of them actually look pretty good. I still prefer the real thing of course. LOL I’ll be posting some more specific pot topics in the future to get the word out.

      If anybody has a pot that’s old with patina on and it doesn’t like, they can send them my way. LOL Thanks Sam.

  6. Ah ha! I saw some faking of patina in Tokonoma. Brand new pots had a darker lip that faded down the pot. i asked how they accomplished that. The reply was that they put a manganese wash on the lips of unglazed pots. I was never able to duplicate that look. My brush marks always showed. I think they must have sprayed the manganese somehow.

    Does cleaning the pots with oil before a show contribute or prevent patina from forming??

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Sandy,

      Yes, there are makes in Tokoname that will add that look of patina to them. When the maker does it, it’s not too bad especially when it’s done well. It’s still looks fake to me because the patina looks too perfect. LOL There are some new cheap chinese pots that are doing the same but it’s pretty obvious that they use a brush and you can totally tell that they are fake. Jim Gremel has some examples of those pots at his nursery. Some of them actually aren’t that bad.

      Clean the pot with oil (natural oil) will not affect the patina because it’ll come off within a week or so. I usually use cooking oil myself and Mr. Tanaka actually used the same. Good question! Thanks

  7. David says:

    Very interesting post to read Peter!
    Is it a problem in Japan when there are cracks or bits are out of pots? Even in the very old pots? Are they put aside or do they still use them for ten’s?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi David,

      It depends on the pot sometimes. If the pot is very old and rare and has some chips in it, they will still use it. Sometimes the small defects add to the value of the pot because now it looks older. I’m not sure if they use fully repaired broken pots in shows, but I have a feeling that they do. Mr. Tanaka has a big green pot that was used in the second or third kokufu show. At one point it was broken and repaired. It’s a beauty and I can see the pot being used in the show today. If it’s fixed well, sometimes you can’t tell it broke.

  8. John Kirby says:

    Love the thread, great stuff. I find the whole pot thing to be a conundrum, I love the chinese antiques, though it is not something that I deal with unless I have input from someone more knowledgeable than I. Thanks for the effort- good lessons. John

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi John,

      I plan on putting out some post in the future about specific antique chinese pots so that people back in the US and other countries can have a better understanding of them. There are some amazing makers back in the days. Thanks

  9. I never heard of patina before, it sure gives it an older look, isn’t it more difficult too match a pot with patina with a tree because of the patina areas that are darker and the other areas that are the original color?

    Thank you for posting!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Youri,

      I would say for the most part, matching the pot to the tree would be about the same. I’m sure there are instances where it would be more difficult, so I guess the answer to your question is yes. Patina would add another layer of difficulty to matching a tree to a pot, but when done well, the combination is fantastic!

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