1 Luis and Irma Cortez, pictured in their studio.

Located in the bustling town of Tonalá, Mexico, just outside the large metropolis of Guadalajara, are an abundance of clay artists creating beautiful ceramics in humble conditions, many carrying on the traditions brought to Mexico centuries ago. For nearly 3000 years, potters in Tonalá have produced burnished clay, dating back to a time when pre-Hispanic artists worked with great skills. While the Spanish later introduced the potter’s wheel in Mexico, much of the work made today remains handbuilt, using both coil and slab techniques, along with the use of molds. A variety of forming and firing styles, ranging from bruñido (burnished), bandera (flag-colored),1 canelo (cinnamon-colored burnished ware), 2 petate (light yellow background with crosshatching),3 and betus (vibrant, non-fired painted colors),4 make up a wide array of techniques that further define the rich clay traditions found in Tonalá and the nearby town of Tlaquepaque. 

2 Plate, 12 in. (30 cm) in diameter, local clay and slip, colorants, stains, burnishing. 3 Black vase with burnished fish design, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, local clay and slip, colorants, stains, burnishing. Photos: Richard Burkett and Joe Molinaro.

Barro Bruñido

Within this broad range of clay work is the commonly known process of barro bruñido, or burnished clay, also sometimes referred to as aroma clay because of the smell it gives off when wet. These pieces are not glazed, but instead are first burnished with a smooth stone, while subsequently having a carefully applied decoration of fine slip similar to terra sigillata, and finally are highly burnished with a polished piece of pyrite. A technique common with potters worldwide, burnished clay has been perfected in the Tonalá area for generations, and now defines some of the finest work produced both in the Mexican state of Jalisco and beyond. Since the burnished surface often remains slightly porous, the work produced today by the barro bruñido potters is often more decorative than utilitarian.

4 Large pedestal covered jar with Mexican eagle and snake figures (Nahuals on the reverse), 27 in. (69 cm) in height, local clay and slip, colorants, stains, burnishing. 5 Large pedestal covered jar with three-dimensional fish imagery, 27 in. (69 cm) in height, local clay and slip, colorants, stains, burnishing.

The ceramic works produced in the suburbs of Guadalajara carry great cultural significance both through technique and design. And while there are still several accomplished potters working in the old tradition of barro bruñido, the ceramic works of the husband-and-wife team of Luis and Irma Cortez (www.barrocortez.com/en) are some of the finest. Working together in their Tonalá house and studio, they produce intricately formed and decorated ware that continues to evolve through their exploration of new shapes, designs, and decorations.

6 Vase form with three-dimensional fish imagery, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, local clay and slip, colorants, stains, burnishing. Photos: Richard Burkett and Joe Molinaro. 7 Luis Cortez with his wood-fired kiln.

Developing and Beginning a Career

Luis Cortez is a master ceramic artist and recipient of many awards, including the National Grand Prize in Ceramics in 2013. He was also the winner in the national contest of Grand Masters of Artisanal Heritage of Mexico in 2017. Luis began an apprenticeship in 1983 with local renowned Tonalá potter Salvador Vazquez Carmona, a recognized master of the barro bruñido process.5 After a seven-year apprenticeship, and then later searching out other local potters to gather even more information from those working in a similar tradition, Luis subsequently opened his own clay studio and began producing works in the bruñido style. Later, after marrying Irma in 2005, they began working together to develop a clay studio where they could perfect their process and begin their careers as clay artists. Luis is primarily responsible for both the making and decorating of pieces. Irma’s ceramics vocation began after their marriage, since she had no prior experience, but now she is an integral part of their studio work—supervising each finished piece in the decoration and burnishing stages, as well as carrying out other tasks such as communicating about their work to potential clients and collectors.

8 Luis Cortez’ mentor Salvador Vazquez Carmona in his studio with finished pieces. Photo: Richard Burkett and Joe Molinaro.

Bringing a Fresh Look to Tradition

Using a local clay found in the nearby community of Coyula, Luis deftly creates forms representing a wide array of images that provide the smooth surfaces needed for the detailed painting and burnishing. Mostly working with plaster molds to initiate the shapes, Luis carefully completes each piece by adding feet, extensions, and other components that bring a greater three-dimensional aspect to the work. Simple shapes are made multi-dimensional through this process, adding a fresh look into how traditional forms can be extended visually into another realm of creativity. Once each piece is completely shaped, and after they are partially dried, a fine clay with the working properties similar to porcelain is added, helping to create a very smooth surface for the detailed brushwork painting and burnishing later applied to the forms. For Luis, it is important to explore new shapes that help him depict the traditional iconography through a complexity of brushwork and design. He adds, “I get to feel the shapes while I’m working with the clay.” 

A Luis Cortez adding a coil to the edge of a slab-molded form before joining the two halves. B Adding tripod feet to the churumbela (a disk-shaped Mexican spinning toy top) form.

C Demonstrating traditional brushwork patterns. D Painting the intricate patterning on an armadillo churumbela form.

The pigments most commonly used by Luis and Irma are derived from natural earth minerals and mixed with fine-grained liquid clays. Brushes used to apply the various colors are typically handmade from the hair of different animals, most often from a dog, cat, squirrel, or fox. These same brushes, all varying in different lengths and girths, allow for some of the most detailed lines imaginable, each contributing to the overall sophistication of brushwork onto the forms. After the intricate painting is complete, the surface of the form is carefully dampened in small sections and then burnished to a high shine before firing. 

When the pieces are fully dry, they are placed in a cylindrical, brick, wood-fired kiln and slowly heated to approximately cone 018, which preserves the radiant shine achieved through the burnishing process. Smaller works are once-fired for about 5 hours, while the larger works, also once-fired, are in the kiln for at least 9 hours. Carefully stacking the pieces in the kiln so they do not touch one another allows the brilliance of the shine to come through, leaving forms that exhibit both the detailed painting along with the glass-like surface that is most prominent among the many bruñido ceramics produced in Tonalá. The fired pieces are quite durable, but are not for utilitarian purposes. 

E Burnishing the surface of a churumbela armadillo with a polished piece of iron pyrite. F Cortez holding a partially burnished piece to demonstrate the effect that burnishing has on the surface. G Cortez holding one of his fired churumbela vase forms with traditional Tonalá imagery. Photos: Richard Burkett and Joe Molinaro.

Melding the Past with the Present

The iconography of images originating in Tonalá, many of which date back to pre-Hispanic times, is still in play today among the potters working in the bruñido style. The traditional images used now, ranging from animals and people to floral designs, help define the work of the Tonalá potters. These images are accentuated by and woven into a rich fabric of fine-line decorative elements and colors that cover the surfaces of the barro bruñido work. Additionally, the Nahual figure, a human being with the power to shapeshift into an animal counterpart (normally into a dog, owl, bat, wolf, jaguar, or turkey), is significant in the Mesoamerican folk-art tradition and plays an important role in the Tonaltecan iconography.6 

Although Luis and Irma readily embrace these traditions and incorporate them into much of their work, they are also willing to reinterpret the same, therefore exemplifying their desire to reflect the local ancient history, as well as offer new interpretations on form and surface for a contemporary audience. Using every effort to preserve the local traditions through the pieces they create and the imagery they apply to their work, they also rely on a curiosity about what lies ahead to seek new ways to meld the past with the present. Their creative inquisitiveness is what motivates them to search for new solutions to the issue of discovering both a personal identity in their work along with how it might also continue to reflect the culture in which they live.

9 Churumbela armadillo (greenware, unburnished), 10 in. (25 cm) in length, local clay and slip, colorants, stains. 10 Churumbela vase with traditional Tonalá painting of deer and floral images, 14 in. (36 cm) in diameter, local clay and slip, colorants, stains, burnishing. Photos: Richard Burkett and Joe Molinaro.

The ceramic works of Luis and Irma Cortez, along with other bruñido artists in the Tonalá area, illuminate a tradition founded on a rich history and creative artists. Work that has achieved both national and international acclaim continues to dominate the Mexican landscape, with artists like Luis and Irma leading the way. The colorful narratives that embellish their pieces, telling local stories and demonstrating an artistic sophistication, endure through time. It is these carefully developed ceramic works that continue adding to the cultural fiber of Mexico, and through the efforts of ceramic artists like Luis and Irma Cortez, the ceramic art of Mexico thrives today as it has for thousands of years.

the authors Richard Burkett is a professor emeritus at San Diego State University in San Diego, California, where he maintains his studio practice and writes HyperGlaze software. To learn more, visit www.thirdpottery.com

Joe Molinaro, professor emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, lives and maintains a studio practice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. To learn more, visit http://joemolinaro.com.


1 Bandera, which means flag in Spanish, is so named because it has the green-red-and-white colors of the Mexican flag.

2 Canelo is a type of bruñido is named for the color the fired clay turns out, which is various shades of cinnamon (canela in Spanish).

3 Petate or petalillo pottery is distinguished by having a light yellow background filled with crosshatching, which looks like a woven palm mat, called a petate.

4 Betus pottery is characterized by vibrant non-fired painted colors that give the ceramics a whimsical look.

5 The Mexican potter, Salvador Vazquez Carmona was born on December 23, 1933, in Tonalá, Jalisco. He is known for his style of bruñido, the pottery of the region, which he first learned from his mother when he was 6 years old.

6 The word nagual (or nahual) derives from the Nahuatl word nāhualli [na’wa:l:i], an indigenous religious practitioner, identified by the Spanish as a magician.