How To Copy A Mosaic

An Easy First Project?

Many aspiring mosaics artists decide to copy an existing mosaic for their first project instead of making an original design on their own. Usually the person goes this route because they have no confidence in their ability to draw or their artistic abilities in general, or they believe that this decision will make the process of getting started easier. This is particularly ironic because making a tile-by-tile copy is in many ways more demanding of technical skill than making an original design, and it can also complicate the process of getting started, often in extreme ways.

This article explains some of the difficulties of exact copies and why you might want to use existing mosaics more as pictures to be copied and less as maps to where each individual tile should go. This article also explains the benefits of making a completely original mosaic design instead of a copy.

Why Copying Mosaics Can Be More Difficult Than An Original Design

Matching Each Tile?

Keep in mind that it is easier to cut up five or six pieces and pick the one that fits best than it is to trim a tile down to a specific size or shape. (The rejected pieces can go elsewhere in the mosaic.) If you decide to make a copy of a mosaic, you put yourself in the frustrating position of having to match each tile, which can be tedious.

The mosaic you are copying was made by someone who had practice cutting and arranging tile. Wouldn’t you want to get some practice cutting and placing tile before adding the extra burden of having to do it exactly like someone else?

Fundamentals First

Original designs allow you to spend more time playing with how you cut and arrange tile because you don’t have to be preoccupied with whether or not your results match an existing model. Also, if you allow yourself to make up your design as you go along (at least to a certain extent), you can decide to use a certain arrangement of tile simply because they fit together nicely or look a certain way.

Serendipitous Discoveries

It’s much easier to paint a beautiful picture when you allow yourself to keep individual brushstrokes that happened to turn out beautiful than it is to constantly be painting over them because they didn’t look like the model or what you originally had in mind.

If you decide to copy a work of art exactly, you have already constrained yourself to such an extent that everything you do is right or wrong. This may be a good technical exercise, but real art is about serendipitous discovery, and this is completely missing from the process of making copies.

Stress and Frustration

Some people decide to copy a famous Roman mosaic because successfully doing so would be some sort of unquestionable artistic accomplishment. This view is problematic, and not just because it implies that unquestioned displays of technical skill are what define great art. There is also the emphasis on results over process, and this can actually retard the development of technical skill.

It’s good to push and test yourself, but not every lesson is learned in this manner. Some of the more subtle lessons to be learned from art involve “listening” to your materials and processes. This does not happen as readily when our minds are in the same modes we use for driving through traffic or resolving problems at work.

When people make copies of art, they tend to judge their success or failure by how well their copy matches the original. This means their minds are more often in “work” mode than “art” mode, and they tend to overwork things or force things. At a minimum, this means that less was learned from producing the artwork than could have been. It also means that the process was more frustrating than it could have been and that the would-be artist is less likely to make another mosaic.

Matching Materials

Matching the materials used to make a particular mosaic can be extremely difficult, no matter if the mosaic is ancient or contemporary.

Many would-be mosaic artist squander their enthusiasm for making a mosaic by spending too long trying to find materials that match whatever they want to copy. Alternatively, if they ordered what materials that were readily available and created an original or semi-original design from them, then they could start work almost immediately when the impulse to create was still fresh.

This creative impulse is actually more critical than any particular tile or art material, so don’t waste it.

Problem Encountered When Matching Mosaic Tile

Molded Glass Tile

If the mosaic to be copied was made from molded glass tile, then the factory that made the tile could have been any number of countless factories that regularly start up and go out of business. Even the long-term producers periodically revise their product lines based on supply costs, process improvements and changes in demand. It is often impossible to match mosaic tile that is only a few years old simply because it isn’t manufactured any more.

Stone Tile

If the product is a stone tile, then there is not only the issue of how the manufacturer cut and finished the stone, but there is also question of what particular quarry it was sourced from. It’s hard to convince most Americans of the simple fact that not every basic material can be had as a commodity, but it is true.

Use SIMILAR Materials

Of course, the degree to which all of the above applies depends on how sane your are. If you are sane and practical, then you can make do with a similar material. If you need an exact match, you may want to consider therapy. Here are a few reasons why:

The mosaic that is being copied is usually a photograph of the mosaic and not an actual mosaic, and anyone who has ever photographed art (or glass in particular) can bear witness to the extent colors are distorted by photography and digital image reproduction, particularly blues and greens.

Also, consider your purposes in making the mosaic. Is it completely about the finished product looking a certain way, or is it also important that you learn about how art really works and have some fun in the process?

If it is all about the finished results, then keep in mind that master artists discover their art as much as they make it look like the original idea they had in mind. Not allowing yourself to vary from your original idea or picture is more likely to flaw your art than make it successful.

Ancient Mosaics

Ancient mosaics were exercises in using the limited color pallet available to render an image as naturally as possible. The lack of a broad color pallet forced the ancient artists to use draw objects in an outlined or stylized way, which make the art more interesting and more “modern” than an impressionistic rendering made from exact colors.

If the style and feel of the mosaic being copied ultimately derived from the ancient artist working with the limited materials he had available, does it make sense to try to artificially duplicate that same set of limitations or work with the limited set of materials you have available?

Sure, you may need to get a similar set of colors in a general sense (a white, a grey, a black, a terracotta red, a muted green, etc.), but when you push it beyond that point to needing exact color matches, you are in the realm of absurdity in my opinion.

How To Copy A Mosaic

Here are some principles for copying a work of mosaic art:

  • Copy the images in the mosaic, not each tile in the mosaic. Don’t use a mosaic as a “tile map” unless you are fine with the idea of spending most of your time matching the size and shape of each tile.
  • Consider making an interpretation of a mosaic design instead of an exact copy. This will allow you to develop and use your own rhythm for cutting and positioning tile instead of trying to imitate someone else’s mode of working.
  • Use similar materials and colors and understand that exact matching of materials is likely to be impossible for many mosaics, both contemporary and ancient.
  • Don’t copy a mosaic out of the mistaken belief that it would be easier or artistically superior to an original design.

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