My dear old friend Jay Brown had been requesting a mosaic of a blue crab for years, and this past week Jay had his official investiture as a federal judge, and so I decided it was time.Art with a Capital A
Normally I avoid bespoke commissions like the plague because I have trouble keeping to a script, even when I write the script.
I have done so much engineering work with rigid specs that it is important to me that my art be its own animal and go where it wants to go. I tend to make things only when I feel driven by mystical-religious type impulses.
I also seem to be unable to keep things easy no matter how much I plan to do so at the start of the project. I just start exploring, and the Blue Crab Mosaic was no exception.
Janet Crawford has owned and operated Fog Forest Gallery in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada since 1984.
The gallery’s current exhibit is called “Piece Works” and has been in the making for several years.
As the name implies, the exhibit features works of art that were created by assembling small pieces, and the exhibit itself is an assemblage of multiple artists and mediums, and so the title of the show is apt on multiple levels.
The mediums include collage, found-object sculpture, rug hooking, mixed media, and of course mosaic.
There are 12 artists in total including mosaicists Kath Kornelsen Rutherford, Tim Isaac, Sheryl Crowley, and Janet Crawford.
I think Janet did a great job curating the exhibit because the mosaics selected show a range of styles possible in that medium.
This article doesn’t include any images of the sculptures, rugs, and mixed-media artwork in the show, and so make sure you take a look at the gallery exhibition.
Artist Caroline Bommer’s recent Sunset Mosaic is a great example of an exception to the rules of mosaic art that I harp on in all my online content. After seeing the finished mosaic, I actually wanted to title this article, “Don’t Listen to Me. I Don’t Know Anything about Mosaic.”Exceptions to Rules of Art
I have often written about how much I like exceptions to general rules and how problematic artistic advice can be, especially when dispensed and consumed as a one-size-fits-all way.
First, there are many different styles of art. If you are trying to paint in a loose Impressionistic style, then following advice about how to paint in the French Academic style with all its crisp rendering will leave you farther from your goal.
I would caution anyone reading different art instruction books to keep that in mind.
I even recommend that you avoid reading some content out of idle curiosity when you know the style being discussed is different from what you are trying to do.
New Mexico artist Debbi Murzyn emailed me some pictures of her mosaic mandalas that she made using Native American symbols as the center of the designs.
She says she didn’t realize her cultural faux pas until she had completed them, and I think she was a little surprised by the fact that she was surprised.
After all, she does live in New Mexico and is sensitive to the problems of cultural appropriation.
To me, that gives some indication that Debbi was focused on the design of the art itself and not thinking in terms of the context of the symbol or how if would play with an audience.
Also, the mandalas don’t reproduce each symbol in the canonical way most commonly drawn. That is another indication that the art was made from the heart as opposed to leveraging the Native American associations with the symbols.
The mandalas are also interesting and skilled art in ways that don’t have anything to do with the symbols.
First there is the subtle use of harmonious hues and contrasts, and there are also some plays on symmetry.
Those were the things that dominated my attention when I first saw the mandalas.
This is an ode to the mosaic stepping stone.
There is much to praise:
Each stone can be its own design or part of a theme, or even part of a larger mosaic image made by placing similar stepping stones side by side.
Stepping stones allow you to build a larger design incrementally, from paths to patios, even whole landscapes.
They allow you to work on a project as you find the time instead of committing to a rigid installation schedule, such as required for pouring a concrete slab.
They don’t require large equipment or contractors.
They don’t require disruption of the installation area necessarily.
They make doing the work as satisfying and peaceful as the results.
Artist Sandra Christie of Married Metals emailed me some questions about an outdoor mosaic she wanted to make for her garden area in Connecticut.
The mosaic will be on a 50-square-foot slab of concrete that will be poured to make a short walkway into a fenced garden area.
Sandra’s initial questions didn’t emphasize drainage in particular other than to say it would be exposed to a fair amount of water, but I am so glad my initial response was mostly about drainage.Artist Sandra Christie’s Garden Area with Deer Fence.
I’m also Sandra didn’t understand what I meant at first because it caused an important exchange. There turned out to be some significant details to work out that I didn’t consider until Sandra emailed me back with some pictures.
My 13-year-old son made some mosaics on our 4-inch bamboo coasters with me. His designs are also figurative and iconic, but unlike the mosaics I have been making, his designs use whole uncut tiles.
My son’s designs are all Minecraft-inspired images, and so the blocky nature of uncut square 8-mm tiles was perfect:Minecraft-Inspired Mosaics by my Son
He challenged me to design some of my own mosaics using whole uncut tiles, and so I did.
Since we were working on contact paper as a temporary surface, I was able to lay out a design in tile and easily revise it over and over.
I made a profound discovery doing that with my son watching.Mosaic Coaster Sailing-Ship Design Great Teaching Tool
Small whole-tile mosaics are the perfect way to demonstrate some subtle points about the design process, in particular how to start with a rough composition and tweak it one tile at a time until it is as good as you can make it.
My son is impatient as I was at his age, and he mistakenly thinks that his artwork must show signs of virtuosity, or it isn’t worth pursuing.
I’ve showed him how I work by trial and error in multiple mediums and how I sketch faintly at first to converge on images, but I don’t think I’ve quite reached him until now.
The 144-tile compositions are the perfect format for his age-limited attention span.
He got to watch me work out an entire composition and repeatedly see how much power changing one single thing can have for making the whole image more recognizable (or not).
With my sailing ship, my son got to see the sails and the prow emerge from an unrecognizable chaos of white, brown, and blue.Mosaic Coaster Medieval Tower Design Limitations of Grid Mosaics
Photorealistic mosaics can be rendered in a mechanical way with whole tiles if your surface is large enough compared to the size of your tiles.
If you are willing to reduce the tile to a pixel (AND lose any element of style in the rendering), all things are possible in terms of the detail that can be rendered.
But there is a huge cost in turning a tile into a pixel.
I get to see how bad it can be all the time. There are factories in China that email me each week wanting to sell me wall-sized mosaics of Marilyn Monroe, Justin Bieber, pop-culture images of all description.
The results all look machine-generated, printed, more commodity than art.
That’s because each tile is tiny, and the composition is large, and so the mosaic aspect of the image isn’t really visible unless you are close to the surface.
On the other hand, when you only have 144 tiles to work with, creating a pixelated design is a completely different exercise.
The 144-tile compositions require a lot of human mental processing with jumps between the symbolic and the visual.
The decisions YOU have to make are specific to you and how your mind processes images. Style can’t help but be involved.
The problem is that the range of what you can render is limited.
With cut pieces of tile, I had been able to render all sorts of figures and scenes with a much higher level detail on those same 4-inch bamboo coasters.
With whole tile, there are only 144 pixels, merely 12 rows and 12 columns, and so the designs are limited to simple cut-out shapes with virtually no opportunities for shading or depth and certainly no variegation. Everything is a colored silhouette viewed straight on.
To push the limits of this format, I attempted to render a landscape scene instead of a single iconic object.
I chose a Southwestern desert landscape with saguaro cacti and a bull’s skull in the foreground, but the results were poor and failed the test of instantly being recognizable:Mosaic Coaster Failed Desert Design Spreadsheet Design Tool
After my failed landscape, I became interested in how many tiles I would need to have to be able to render a similar landscape composition and make it recognizable.
To be able to try different dimensions and resolutions quickly, I created a spreadsheet mosaic design tool.
I set the column widths and row heights to be equal to form a grid, and then I set the background color for each cell, which can be done quickly by copy and paste.
I tried a 6-inch backer, which gave me a grid of 18 x 18 cells or 324 tiles total, but that didn’t have enough resolution, and I then created and 24 x 24 cell version of the spreadsheet:Spreadsheet Mosaic Design Tool for Grid Step-by-Step Instructions
In that method, clear contact paper is taped over the pattern with sticky side up, and then tile is arranged to cover the design, and then the mosaic is picked up with mosaic mounting tape.
That method allows you to work with the tiles right side up.
BUT, we were working at home and only had some clear contact paper that had been used previously, and so we taped down the contact paper sticky side up and laid our tiles upside down on that.
The reason we put the tiles upside down was that we didn’t have any mounting tape to pick up the mosaic, and so we just glued the backer to the mosaic once we got it all laid out.
Of course that meant our designs would be reversed from left to right when done because we were working upside down.
There are photos below illustrating some of the individual steps, but the entire process is summarized here:Set the backer on a piece of paper and trace a line around it with a pen or pencil. This will show you how large the mosaic can be.Tape a piece of clear contact paper upside down on the paper with the sticky side up. Position the tiles upside down on the contact paper.Tweak the design as needed by trial and error.Spread mosaic adhesive on the backer. CAREFULLY spread adhesive on the backs of the tiles in the mosaic.Press the backer to the mosaic.Flip the assembly and make sure the mosaic is centered.Allow the adhesive to harden.Remove contact paper and scrub glue residue from the face of the mosaic with a Scotchbrite pad and a damp rag. STEPS 1 – 4. Mosaic Coaster designs upside down on Mounting Tape. Note that my son’s mushroom on the left is 13 rows x 12 columns, and so he had to redesign it as a 12 x 12 to fit on the coaster. STEPS 5 – 6. Mounting a Mosaic Using Adhesive STEP 8. Mosaic Coaster Mounting Tape Flipped Over STEP 10. Mosaic Coaster Mounting Tape Removed
In my previous post, I wrote about Peggy Pugh’s excellent use of color variegation and the potential for this technique to cause figures to lose definition when there is variegation in both the figure and the background.
In response, artist Jill Gatwood emailed me photos of a student’s work where the problem had caused the central figure to lose all definition and disappear into the background.
My apologies for the low resolution of the photo, but I was glad to receive it because it is a great illustration of the problem:Kokopelli Mosaic with original grout. If you didn’t know what I meant by figures getting lost in backgrounds, this mosaic is a prime example of what can happen when the figure and the background are both variegated in color.
I forgot to write about some of the teaching points from Peggy Pugh’s mosaic backsplash.
Variegated and mottled colors create more visual interest in mosaic artwork than monochromatic color fields.
However, there is a limit to how much variation you can put into an area of color and still render an element as a distinct element and make it look separate from the background.
Peggy Pugh’s mosaic backsplash makes me wish the vent hood for the range didn’t have to be installed!
The backsplash design is a mosaic interpretation of the view from the window opposite to it in Peggy’s kitchen. The view is of Peggy’s flower gardens with Upper Back Bay in Newport, California in the background.
Peggy says this about her inspiration and the results of her work:
It is a peaceful and everchanging scene of tides, sky, birds and wetlands. The birds are those I see in the yard or the Back Bay, a very inspiring view.
I am thoroughly delighted with the way it turned out. It is not often that my idea of something matches the finished product.-the artist