Discover Azulejo tiles and get creative in Lisbon

In Portugal’s city of art, Michael Edwards enjoys a hands-on art experience.
Christ in Majesty and April 25th Bridge in Lisbon - Discover Azulejo tiles and get creative in Lisbon
View across the Tagus to Christ in Majesty and April 25th Bridge in Lisbon

Art is everywhere in Lisbon. There are the museums: antiquities, contemporary, fine arts as well as the remarkable Museum of art, architecture and technology. Almost every square boasts a finely sculpted historic figure. Then there are the tiles.

Those famous Azulejo tiles decorate houses, law courts, metro stations, markets, shops and theatres.  Frequently blue the Azulejo tiles take the first part of their name from azul, the Portuguese word for blue. Dating back to the influence of Moor invasion, the tiles dominate Portuguese architecture. It seems that for centuries the Portuguese have dreaded empty, blank walls. They even a phrase for the syndrome of fear of empty spaces: horror vacui. Minimalism is not big in Lisbon.

Those millions of tiles everywhere have inspired Tom and Jilly, two Brits who have brought their art to Lisbon. They run a variety of hands-on art courses in the heart of Lisbon.

“I couldn’t afford London rents for a studio,” says Tom. “I explored possible studios in Margate then realised that Lisbon would be a warmer option.”

Azulejo tiles decorate buildings around Lisbon

Azulejo tiles – heritage and contemporary

One of their most popular courses is based on Portuguese tile design. Students of the Lisboa Social Press are invited to design the sort of pattern that would have been used on a tile. Though the output is printed on postcards and cards.

So where does the name, Lisboa Social Press, come from? Lisboa is self-explanatory. The studio, flooded with light, is on the third floor of a building constructed after the earthquake and tsunami of 1755 devastated Lisbon’s capital city.

“There are records that a family with 10 children once lived here,” says Tom, looking around his small studio incredulously, “though this unit has been an artist’s studio since the 1960s.”

And it is social. At Tom’s workshops, guests gather round the tables and create. He talks about life in Lisbon as an ex-pat. Those taking the workshop share their experiences of Lisbon. Drinking tea, coffee or something stronger, their creative instincts are developed.

Ultimately, the students will use a roller to evenly spread ink over their lino-cut creation. Then their press the lino-cut, imprinting their design on to their chosen card or postcard.

Tom gives the briefest history of Portuguese tiles and designs, explaining how geometric patterns are created to link with the surrounding tiles.

Student's Azulejo tile designs
Azulejo tile designs by students of the Lisboa Social Press.

The spirit of Portugal

Then comes the creativity. What design to draw? Here in Portugal’s capital what could represent the spirit of the country?

Could it be a fado singer telling a tale of fate and woe? If that sounds difficult it is possible to trace an image from a phone or i-pad, adapting your image as you draw it.

How about a representation of the 25th April Bridge, celebrating the freedom achieved by Portugal’s 1976 revolution. Perhaps with its neighbour, the statue of Christ the King, in the background?

Or a design paying tribute to Portugal’s brave seafaring tradition? The golden age of exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, under the inspired leadership of Henry the Navigator. Achievements recognised by the Monument to the Discoverers at Belem, where a vast tiled representation of the globe shows Portuguese explorers voyaging to all points of the globe.

I opt for a dramatic deep blue depiction of a caravel sail ship battling through a storm. “It’s a forgiving medium,” Tom encourages as I remember how my school’s art department banned me from taking any public art exams.

Ultimately my prints look like a wobbly Blue Peter boat, created by squiffy sailor for a New Naive School of Art. But my creation does have a certain simple charm …

During lockdown, surprisingly Lisboa Social Press thrived. “We ran a lot of online courses for the big tech companies on the America’s west coast, the likes of Google and Spotify,” announces Tom.

As I depart I’ve acquired something of an interest in Azulejo tiles. If I run out of patterns to admire on the metro, Lisbon even has its own museums of tiles.

Lisbon fact file

If you are heading off to Lisbon, here are some helpful links from my trip. You can find out about courses and activities at Stretch & Sketch.

You can learn more about the city of Lisbon, its history and tourism, see Lisboa OFFICIAL Site.

I also reviewed the beautiful art deco Hotel Britania.

Tags: , , , , Last modified: February 16, 2022

Written by 12:11 pm Europe, Travel