Harry Hugar’s
Porcelain Art Studio

by Rachel Perry

When people look at framed paintings done by Harry Hugar, they often ask, “How did he do that?” Mr. Hugar’s delicate flowers, integrating subtle color transitions and shadows, look fragile enough to nod in a light breeze.

Despite the similarity in appearance, the paintings are not watercolors. Harry Hugar is a “mineral painter,” practicing his craft on framed china tiles (8” X 10”) as well as bowls, dishes and other ceramic vessels. “My first love is Mineral Painting (china painting),” he declares. “I have been in this medium (professionally) since 1974, along with oils, water color and pastels.”

In actuality, Mr. Hugar was exposed to china painting long before, when he was growing up. “My grandma started me out when I was six years old,” he said. “She fired her china in a kerosene kiln. But when she was a young girl, they would use clay pots. They would put all the painted pieces in the clay pots and then put a clay pot over that. They would then stack wood all around the pot and burn it for a week, twenty-four hours a day, to fire the china. They used a cord of wood. When they opened up the pots, after cooling, sometimes they would have a disaster and sometimes they wouldn’t.”

Harry was born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and moved with his family to New York. “I knew I wanted to be a perfumer or an artist,” he said. After earning a Master’s degree in analytical chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, he sent out his resume. “Elizabeth Arden hired me on the spot,” he recalled. He worked for Elizabeth Arden as a Chief Perfumer, creating brand name scents for the company. When Lilly bought Elizabeth Arden in the early 1970s, all of the employees were relocated to Indiana.

“When I came to Indianapolis, I went to a Flower and Patio Show at the fairgrounds. A central Indiana porcelain arts group had a table set up, and they gave me the name of a teacher. And that was it,” Mr. Hugar chuckled. He began painting porcelain in his spare time, and spent vacations traveling to shows throughout the country. Every year each state hosts a porcelain art show, and Indiana’s takes place in late April.

Harry and his wife Jean raised four children. While in Indianapolis, they took a side trip to Brown County and “fell in love with the place.” After the kids were grown and before retiring in the early 1980s, the Hugars purchased land on State Road 135 South where they later built their current home and studio.

With Harry’s experienced perfume-making skills, they decided to open a Nashville shop, The French Connection, to sell scents and soaps. “We’re probably one of six in the United States who use natural oils as much as possible,” he said. Both Harry and Jean manage the Jefferson Street shop, which is open every day from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

In addition to working in the shop, Harry maintains his porcelain arts studio where he steadily creates commissioned and decorative pieces, as well as teaching classes. The intricacies of his art cannot be learned quickly.

There are many variables when painting china. “When doing a piece, I can make the original painting in 35 minutes or so,” Mr. Hugar revealed. “Then the piece is fired in a kiln to the temperature of 1485 degrees. My kiln now is all digital and it takes about three hours. It must never be opened until the next morning when the pieces are cool.

“In order to achieve the desired depth of color, the piece needs to be fired five or six times. It is repainted each time. The first time, everything is essentially there in the subject. But each time I repaint it, the color deepens and shadows are added. It’s just like glazing – you are adding details and shadows.

“If painting on glass, the temperature is reduced to 1075 degrees. Glass also requires multiple fires to achieve the desired depth of color. Our paints are a dry powder metal base such as gold, silver, iron oxide, etc. We use a mixture of mineral oil and anise oil to mix the powder paints. I prefer to use the fast dry medium to paint, as this retains more color during the fire.

“The many shapes and sizes of china that are available lend themselves to any subject we want to paint. If it is an iris, then we look for a tall slender piece of china. If it is grapes, we look for a tankard or round shaped object.”

Although he has traveled in every state except Alaska to attend or teach at seminars and conventions, Mr. Hugar now prefers to teach only two classes per week from his studio in Brown County. Some students start from the very beginning. “They say they can’t even draw a straight line when they start,” he chuckles. “I say, ‘that’s alright. I don’t want you to draw a straight line anyhow.’” Although Mr. Hugar is primarily a floral painter, he teaches portraits, landscapes or any subject the student is interested in.

Harry Hugar’s china paintings can be seen in the French Connection in Nashville and the Southside Art League south of Indianapolis. He can be reached at his studio by calling 812-988-6123 or e-mailing <hhugar@msn.com>. Visit the Hugar studio on the Back Roads of Brown County, a driving tour of artists’ and craftsmen’s studios, during the month of October. The tour’s web site is <www.browncountstudiotour.com>.