The making of tiles and ceramic wares is a way of life in the Spanish town of Talavera de la Reina, about 150 miles southwest of Madrid via Highway N5.
People there say they spent their childhood learning how to shape the bowls and paint the flowers and pretty geometric patterns that have made Talavera's name synonymous with fine ceramics. And, they say, their parents did the same thing before them. And their grandparents, too.
The town's narrow streets are lined with colorful shops whose windows are filled with jugs, plates, cups, figurines and other items.
These include oddly shaped pitchers (from $20), large plates with painted flowers or hunting scenes (from $25), multiarmed candlestick holders (from $30), mugs that stack on tree-like stands (from $13), tile-covered fireplaces (from $800), bird-shaped plaques that hang on the walls and have hooks for hanging coats or hats (from $4), and Miss Piggy statuettes ($36).
There are tiles of every conceivable type and pattern. You can see a fine example of tile work at the entrance to the town, at the Ermita de la Virgin del Prado (Hermitage of the Prado Virgin), built in the 16th Century.
The Ermita is surrounded by a park in which the tile-covered benches look like a catalogue of all the designs produced in Talavera over the last 10 centuries.
The craft was introduced by the Moors, who had moved into this region from the European stronghold they had established in southern Spain. Because the area has excellent clay from the river Tajo two miles away, an industry was born.
The Talavera ceramics process, however, has changed over the centuries. Clay is now refined by machine and kilns are mechanized.
But the clay is still aged in basement caves to remove organic impurities, and the pieces are still shaped and painted by hand in ateliers that employ from 2 to 100 craftsmen. Original patterns were simple blue and white geometric and floral designs.
Talavera became famous during the 15th Century, when a golden yellow was added and patterns became more intricate.
The craft declined drastically because of European industrialization, but in the 1930s it was revived by ceramist Juan Ruiz de Luna, for whom Talavera's small ceramics museum (near the Ermita) is named.
Talavera has dozens of ceramics shops with comparable items and prices.
A good place to begin is Artesania Talavera (Avenida de Portugal 32). Although this is a relatively new company, it is carrying on the Talavera tradition with one of the largest ateliers (15 potters and 70 painters) and a vast shop with a varied selection of tiles ($1 to $35 each), plates (from $3), vases ($4), lamp bases ($30), planters ($8), clocks ($24) and cookie jars ($10).
The shop's gallery exhibits famous paintings that have been copied onto tile. These include "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa," plus El Greco's "El Entierro del Conde Orgaz" and Velasquez's "La Rendition de Breda."
Most popular are religious and historical themes, Don Quixote and bullfights. But Artesania Talavera's painters can copy almost anything, including family photographs.
The prices of tile paintings depend upon the size (number of tiles) and complexity of the work. The complexity factor is determined by the amount of detail and whether detailed areas cross from tile to tile. Borders present technical problems.
Tile paintings should look seamless, but tiles shrink slightly during firing. It requires great skill and some luck to have lines match exactly when the painting comes out of the kiln. Most tile paintings are at least four tiles by six tiles and cost from $500.
Painters Work Freehand
You can observe the painters and potters at work at Artesania Talavera. Painters can work for months on one piece.
Potters hand-shape pieces that dry gradually over 25 days, are fired at 1,000 degrees (they're red and have a bell-like ring), are dipped in white silece de estano glaze and dried, and are turned over to painters who work freehand, with a guide bar to steady their brush strokes.
The shop also has a museum with masterworks, including an eight-foot cross used for Easter processions, a French-style chimney ($3,510) and the world's largest plate (it shrank from 300 to 165 pounds during firing and costs $8,065) with a hunting scene.
Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing .