Inside the Colorful Universe of Mexican Talavera Pottery

By on Sep 21, 2020 in Inspiration
Inside the Colorful Universe of Mexican Talavera Pottery

Mexican Talavera Pottery is famous for its radiance, intriguing textures, and rich history. Also known as Talavera Poblana, this cultural tradition is rooted in Spanish and Mexican heritage going all the way back to the 16th century. A type of tin-glazed earthenware or faience, it features a cornucopia of colors in many of its designs, accounting for its popularity and inspiration for designers the world over.

This tradition was in danger of going extinct by the early 19th century, due to the turmoil of the Mexican War of Independence that saw Mexico gain its independence from Spain. Steadfast campaigns to preserve it as a craft throughout the 20th century have ensured Talavera’s survival, causing it to flourish into the 21st century.

Read on to find out everything about the origins of this very special cultural design pattern.

The History of Mexican Talavera Pottery

For the namesake of Talavera, we look to the Spanish city and municipality of Talavera de le Reina. In the first century of Mexico’s colonial period—which was the Spanish rule in Mexico that lasted from 1521 to 1821—this pottery was introduced. Back in Spain, this city was internationally renowned for its ceramics: King Phillip II used the city’s ceramics in his works, such as El Escorial’s monastery. Fittingly, the city’s nickname was “The City of Pottery.” This reputation would lead to naming the now-famous Mexican Talavera pottery after this Spanish city.

It’s interesting to note that the Moors—the Muslim residents of Sicily, Malta, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Maghreb—brought knowledge of Islamic pottery to Spain by the close of the 12th century. From there, both Spanish and broader European earthenware was influenced by this introduction, and it eventually became known as majolica in Renaissance Italy. Since this refers to tin-glazed pottery, it needs to be said that the Netherlands’ Delft Blue pottery is the Dutch interpretation of this design pattern.

When it comes to Talavera pottery actually becoming a good that was produced in Mexico—we currently only have theories as to how it happened. Yes, the Spanish brought over this craft from Europe, but who among them introduced it to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures?

The most accepted theory is that it was Spanish monks, who were on the hunt for beautiful tiles and other artworks to decorate their new monasteries in the New World. They could either send for artisans from back in Spain to join them in what would become Mexico, or they knew how to make these ceramics themselves already. Either way, it was the Spaniards—the craftsmen from Spain or the monks directly—who shared knowledge with the indigenous artists about how to create this pottery.

During Mexico’s colonial period, there were several centers in the country that became major producers of Talavera pottery:

  • Puebla
  • Tecali
  • Cholula
  • Atlixco
  • San Pablo del Monte

The city that would become the country’s leading producer was Puebla. Puebla was founded in 1531, which was just 10 years after the start of the colonial period. This meant that the city was the scene of many new monasteries and churches being constructed. The natural consequence of that was the massive need for tiles for decorative purposes. The area’s abundance of clay also ensured that this fledgling ceramic industry would flourish quickly.

The cool thing about this period in history was the melting pot of design influences. Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures already had their own tradition of ceramics and pottery, and, together with the Spanish influence from Talavera de la Reina, it led to the development of Mexico’s unique contribution: Talavera Poblana, which is distinct from Spanish pottery.

By 1580, Puebla was the undisputed hub of Mexican Talavera pottery production.

Here’s a look at some decorative designs inspired by this great, cultural tradition:

From 1580 to about 1650, both potters and workshops kept growing in number. The colonial rulers decided to impose guilds and standards for industry regulation around this time. The aim was to increase the standards behind the production of these artworks and produce consistent earthenware.

Things got so prosperous for this craft in colonial Mexico that the years between 1650 and 1750 are legitimately known as The Golden Age of Talavera. Due to this success, exports of these ceramics beyond New Spain’s production centers were shipped all over the country and elsewhere, such as:

  • Colombia
  • Venezuela
  • Guatemala
  • The Dominican Republic
  • Cuba

The ordinances put into place to govern this new industry established critical rules for artisans to follow:

  • Blue cobalt was reserved for just the most high-quality artworks
  • Pieces had to be marked by artisans to battle counterfeiters
  • Master potters had to submit to annual exams and inspections
  • Various categories were established for the majolica, such as daily use, semi-fine, and fine

Notably, blue was the preferred color for Talavera pottery at this time, something that was further reinforced by Chinese ceramics from the Ming Dynasty that found their way to Mexico, too.

There was a turning point during Mexico’s War of Independence—from 1810 to 1821. The standards were removed, so anyone in the country could make this faience any way they wanted, causing a sharp drop in design and aesthetic quality. Since trade with Spain was also disrupted—along with the advent of imports of cheaper English porcelain—the market for this earthenware from Puebla and other production centers crashed. After the War of Independence, only seven workshops producing this pottery remained, a staggering decline from the 46 that were still operating before the war.

While this symbolized the low point for Talavera in Mexico, a turnaround was just around the corner. As the 19th century was about to begin, Enrique Luis Ventosa, a Catalan, came to Puebla, the former powerhouse of ceramic production. He was instantly captivated by the history of Mexican Talavera pottery, realizing how unique it was compared even to Mexico’s other spectacular design trends, like muralism.

Ventosa would go on to study the ins and outs of this tin-glazed majolica and publish analysis and information about its history. By 1922, he began collaborating with Ysauro Uriarte Martinez, a potter whose grandfather had left him his faience shop. Now this is where things get really interesting. Their collaboration produced unorthodox designs on Talavera earthenware since they included various influences, such as:

  • Art Nouveau flourishes
  • Pre-Columbian touches
  • Spanish influences
  • Chinese decorations
  • Islamic designs
  • Italian traditions

While this cultural tradition flourished once more throughout the 20th century, by the 1980s, though, it faced another downturn, so that only four workshops remained in Mexico. This was due to cheap ceramic imports flooding Mexico, competition from Talavera produced in other Mexican states (apart from the original locations in the 16th century), and unoriginal designs in the market.

In the 21st century, the industry has recovered but still faces some challenges.

Today, only those artworks created by certified workshops are allowed to call their pieces “Talavera.” A specific regulatory body issues these certifications, and there is currently a total of nine certified workshops. Each of these workshops is subjected to a twice-annual inspection of its production processes, while each ceramic gets a total of 16 tests from internationally verified labs.

Here’s another look at digital designs inspired by this amazing cultural tradition:

The Characteristics of Talavera Pottery

This style of earthenware displays the rich traditions of Spain and Mexico. It’s colorful, intricately detailed, and festive. It’s also crafted in a way that has barely changed throughout its long history.

Here are some things to look out for the next time you’re lucky enough to turn over an authentic piece of this majolica in your hands:

  • Tin glaze
  • Made of clay
  • White bases (made of terra cotta, without glaze)
  • Emphasis on blue (especially cobalt blue), but multiple colors (green, black, yellow, mauve, and orange) are used as well
  • All-natural pigments
  • Visual textures
  • Somewhat distorted designs (due to paints mixing into the glaze)
  • Inscription bearing name of manufacturer, artist initials, and the site of manufacture in Puebla
  • Intricate illustrations
  • Geometrical shapes
  • Visual balance
  • Floral patterns
  • Bold, striking colors

Now that you can easily identify one of these masterpieces when you see one, let’s take a look at the process of production.

How Mexican Talavera Pottery Is Made

One of the remarkable aspects of this tin-glazed pottery is the artisans’ dedication to authenticity. The way it’s made today is largely the same as during the colonial period of the 16th century. Only natural clays are allowed in the production process, as opposed to dyed or chemically treated ones. Overall, it’s a complex process that takes skill and patience.

Here’s what it takes:

1) A potter combines black sand from Amozoc (a city in the state of Puebla) with Tecali’s white sand.

2) This mixture is cleaned and filtered, so only the finest particles remain.

3) On a potter’s wheel, the artwork is shaped by hand and then left to dry for several days.

4) Now, the piece is fired for the first time at a temperature of 1560 degrees Fahrenheit.

5) The potter checks the piece for any cracks.

6) The earthenware receives its first glazing, which is what gives it the white background.

7) Paint is applied to the piece by hand.

8) The majolica receives its second firing so that its glaze can harden.

Overall, this can take between three and six months to complete for just one piece. In colonial times, it was common for the craftsmen to offer special prayers during the firing process to ensure success.

Where You Can See Talavera Pottery in Action

When you travel to Mexico, you’ll see this faience used primarily in two ways: for everyday uses and for more elaborate purposes.

The more mundane uses of this pottery are strictly utilitarian:

  • Bowls
  • Plates
  • Flowerpots
  • Jars
  • Figurines
  • Religious artifacts
  • Sinks

Now, the other significant use is in tiles. In Mexico, particularly in Puebla, you’ll see this ceramic used quite abundantly both inside and outside buildings and other structures.

For example, in a Talavera kitchen, which is designed in a very distinct style, you’ll find all sorts of displays of this cultural tradition. Naturally, you’ll see this ceramic’s colors on the kitchen tiles and walls, but also on any food containers and dishes lining the kitchen counters.

Another form of traditional kitchen is the monastery kitchen. As the name implies, you’ll get to see numerous religious emblems and signs in the kitchen design.

Puebla’s historic center features many of these remarkable tiles. You’ll encounter many buildings whose facades have these tiles (homes and churches), along with fountains and patios. There are also numerous, well-known buildings that feature these tiles, such as The Cathedral of Our Lady of Valvanera and the even aptly named House of Tiles or Casa de los Azulejos.

Examples of Talavera Pottery

We’ve scoured everywhere to find you some of the most dazzling and memorable interpretations and expressions of this form of clay art.

Ceramics

The main attraction here is all the forms of interesting pottery that this cultural tradition has produced over the centuries. Here are some of our favorites.

Classic Talavera Bowl

Just like going straight back in time, this classic bowl is well-preserved and dates from the 16th or 17th century, when this cultural tradition was still in its infancy. Notice how well-preserved the actual glaze is, too. It’s a simple, but powerful illustration of this style.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What should jump out at you is, conspicuous by its absence, the missing combination of the colors blue and white. Normally a mainstay in ceramics of this type, blue and white are found in most earthenware from this period. Instead, you see a mix of blacks, greens, yellows, and oranges in this piece.

Chautla Hacienda’s Talavera Plate

For a piece that prominently uses this style’s trademark colors, we head to Chautla Hacienda in Puebla. Today, this tourist attraction and cultural center also serves as a recreational facility, run by the state.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This specific example of Mexican Talavera pottery is found on the courtyard fountain of the property, where it is bordered by traditional tiles, also in the same style. An eye-catching presentation, the contrast of geometric shapes between the plate itself and the surrounding tiles is striking, and the theme of nature and flowers is prominent as well.

Chapel of the Rosario’s Talavera Azulejos

In Puebla, the Chapel of the Rosario is connected to the Church of Santo Domingo. Built in the 17th century, the chapel boasts its fair share of beautiful tiles that capture the essence of this majolica. Inside the chapel, you’ll see many fine examples on the walls.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here, the tiles are almost like an entire mosaic, decorating one side of the interior of the chapel with their trademark cornucopia of colors. The textures here are highly detailed, and the usual tints and shades of blue, orange, green, yellow, and white make their presence felt.

Architecture

All over Mexico, there are structures that feature specific components that are decked out with this ceramic. Here are a few of the most notable ones.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Valvanera

Located in Mexico City’s historic center, The Cathedral of Our Lady of Valvanera was constructed in 1667. If you look at the cupola—the tall, dome-like protrusion on top of the church—you can’t miss Talavera tiles adorning its exterior. Their colorful, vibrant display stands in great contrast to the more conservative, neutral colors that epitomize the façade of the rest of the church.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Note how blue is the prominent color on this cupola, while different patterning and textures (like squares and zigzags) make up the entirety of the design. As with the actual pottery itself, there’s also a good amount of white in the background, to balance the richer colors on display.

The House of Tiles (Casa de los Azulejos)

Head to Mexico City, and you’ll get pointed to The House of Tiles, perhaps the most resplendent example of Talavera pottery in the country’s capital. Constructed in the distinct Baroque style of architecture, The House of Tiles jumps out at you due to its stunning façade of tilework. You’ll notice that the tiles are the blue-and-white state tiles of Puebla.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The tiles are extremely intricate and speak to the level of skill and importance of this expression of cultural heritage. Once again, blue is very prominently featured, along with white and orange, some of the other accepted colors of this style. There’s also a slew of geometrical shapes tucked in among the colors, as part of the detailed visual texture that this building boasts.

Web Design

Though this style originated in 16th-century Spain and Mexico, it’s since expanded into the Internet, where people can admire it nonstop.

Handmade Talavera

This website dedicated to chronicling the history of this pottery and where you can buy it shows off a clean, white space-dominant design. That’s a smart design choice because this also ensures that the site’s colors mimic those of this Mexican earthenware, which displays white in its base glaze.

Other smart design choices include the use of blue for all the headings, ensuring that the color most associated with Talavera pottery is prominently featured on many webpages. Of note, too, is the site’s logo or brand identifier above the fold, which shows a Talavera-inspired icon.

Google Arts & Culture – Talavera de la Reina Pottery

Google’s website for everything related to the visual arts and cultural traditions explores this style from its origins in Spain. To efficiently communicate this information to visitors, the site uses a grid layout for easy reading and content absorption. From the main focal point on the page—which is an image of a plate that dates from the late 17th century to the early 18th century—users simply have to follow the F-shaped reading pattern to scroll down and get a good understanding of this artwork.

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Image Credit: Google Arts & Culture

The plate’s vivid, piercing colors—the usual blues, whites, greens, mauves, yellows, and oranges—and its central position make an immediate impression, instantly drawing the eye to what’s important.

A Cultural Tradition to Inspire Design

For half a millennium, this decorative art has been going strong. Its longevity has survived colonialism, wars of independence, and the onset of technology. Brought over initially from Spain, this tin-glazed faience has come to be associated with Mexico the world over.

It’s striking, colorful, and highly textured, also making Talavera pottery a source of inspiration for designers of all backgrounds.


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