The Many Styles of Pottery

The pottery of San Juan de Oriente is produced in a variety of

both traditional and modern designs. In order to fully appreciate

the range of pottery styles produced here, it is important to be

able to identify the major styles.


When examining a wide range of Nicaraguan pottery, it will

soon become apparent that the variety of designs will fall into

one of the following primary categories:


  • Utilitarian

  • Traditional

  • Pre-Colombian

  • Geometric

  • Modern/Contemporary


Among the various styles, individual pieces may be painted in the traditional fashion, using natural mineral oxides for the different colors, or they may be accented by scoring or etching the outer layer of soft clay or even pecking to remove a portion of the outer-most layer to produce a 3-dimensional effect.  We refer to these in the following way:


  • Incised designs  - are those where a pattern is cut into the clay to accentuate a particular pattern.

  • Relief designs - are those where the outer layer of clay is pecked away to create a bas-relief effect.   


These effects may be utilized in any of the five major sytles of pottery produced in San Juan de Oriente.



Utilitarian pottery consists of plates and cups for daily use or, more commonly today, purely for decoration. These pieces are based on the traditional production of ceramics for home use. While many of these, particularly cups and bowls, are actually used in the home, others are painted with traditional floral designs or at times bright modern images for display. The most common designs rely on many of the same images and color patterns that are seen in traditional pottery.

Utilitarian Incised

Utilitarian Relief

Traditional Incised


Traditional style, also called freeform style among the artists, is the traditional pottery design that San Juan de Oriente has become identified with and the original style for which it is known – or somewhat of a signature style for the area. Designs consist of images of plants, flowers, birds, frogs, fish, monkeys, and other themes from nature. These traditional styles often utilize background colors of terra cotta with a brick red color for trim and images painted in pigments of deep red, green, and blue. Once you see several variations of this style it becomes relatively easy to spot a piece of traditional San Juan pottery.

Traditional Relief



This is the authentic pre-Colombian style of the native people and is represented in antiquities as seen in museums and similar collections. Pre-Colombian designs are taken from prehistoric pottery found in archeological sites and re-created on modern pieces. When replicating original designs, modern replicas are often left unfinished without the polish, to duplicate the dull finish of older pieces. Sometimes these pieces are rolled in dry clay powder before firing so that the clay is baked onto the painted finish and then wiped off so that a dark brown wash remains, replicating the look of an ancient piece.


Today’s pre-Colombian pieces, as the originals, usually have limited colors with terra cotta or ivory backgrounds. Black, brown or deep red pigments, commonly of natural dyes, are used for the image design.


Modern pre-Colombian designs attempt to replicate the original painted prehistoric pieces, while others may have images incised or etched into the piece. In more modern designs pieces will integrate pre-Colombian designs as backgrounds or cover a portion of the piece alternating with other designs and colors. These composite pieces are more properly referred to as modern style.

Geometric Relief



Geometric designs are done by painting, incising or etching the surface of the pottery with repeated lines or other design patterns. Geometric patterns were commonly found on ancient pieces and painted on as part of the pre-Columbian patterns. Today’s pieces may be painted in a variety of patterns or they may be scored or even pecked into the surface of the soft clay by removing only the upper layer.


The tradition of painting repeated patterns has resulted in some of M. C. Escher’s designs recently being used on pottery. These include patterns of fish and birds or other similar repeated and morphing patterns. This is obviously a recent innovation as some of the younger artists have not only learned the pottery tradition from their elders, but have gone to art schools in Managua and been exposed to other artists and modern influences. New ideas in art have resulted in these nontraditional geometric patterns and other unusual modern pottery designs.

          Modern or Contemporary Style:


The term modern, or contemporary design, consits of those pieces with unique non-traditional shapes and designs, those integrating pre-Columbian and geometric designs, or those pieces that don’t neatly fall into any of the above categories. It, therefore, represents a wide range of artistic styles. As some of the younger artists attend art schools and others incorporate ideas from new sources into their work, they are expanding traditional styles or designing something entirely new. Among some of the more experimental artists, it seems that new shapes and images are appearing at an increasing rate as they build upon the past and push the boundaries of their pottery styles.

Modern Incised

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