Monthly Archives: August 2013

Art Using Improvised Methods

In my previous post, I wrote about the improvised double-reverse method one of our customers Tobin was using to lay up details for the large panels of his garden courtyard mosaic.

Tobin’s method uses packing tape and contact paper to temporarily lay up mosaic designs instead of the traditional lime putty or clay, but that lack of the traditional material does not compromise the design process or the durability of the artwork. In fact, his use of improvised materials illustrates some important concepts that apply to all mediums of visual art.

The Right Tool For The Job?

Sometimes it makes sense to delay work until you find the right tool or material for esthetic reasons or to ensure the durability of the artwork produced. However, if you know how to use what you have lying around your shop or kitchen, or studio or warehouse, you can spend more time experimenting with new ideas and less time gathering materials.

Gathering Materials As Distraction

Being able to work sooner rather than later is critical. This is particularly important for artists who still have day jobs and distractions like most of us. You can kill inspiration in the time spent gathering up materials.

Don’t let periods of creativity be wasted because you didn’t have a specialty product you couldn’t get at the local supermarket. Instead, think of ways it could be made just as durable with more common tools and materials.

Does this sound like a strange thing to say coming from a person who sells specialty art materials that are shipped to people living several days away from our warehouse?

No! I’ve made mosaics from old marbles and bottlenecks and porcelain doorknobs and other things I’ve found, and I am well aware that it takes a lifetime to gather certain things just by looking around.

If the image in your mind is a face made out of pieces of opaque glass, you probably need to buy some glass mosaic tile or stained glass or colored art glass.

Stuff Is No Substitute for Improvisation

I still regularly have great ideas that would be lost if I didn’t think hard about some way to make it happen using what I currently have on hand, and this happens even when I am working in our warehouse with all its tons of inventory and studios full of art supplies plus a shop with power tools.

Artists tend to be gatherers of materials, and that is fine, but the defining skill of being an artist is the ability to improvise.

A Good Teaching Example

Back to why I think Tobin’s use of the contact paper is such a good teaching example about art in general:

Sometimes time is a bigger problem than materials. Sometimes you have to improvise ways to get large projects done in small installments. Tobin laid up details of his mosaic on small pieces of contact paper so that he could work on them during short lunch breaks at an analytical job.

I worked for several years as an engineer in factories and laboratories. I frequently worked on art projects during breaks, and this was easy to do if it was a small project like a Byzantine crown made from woven brass wire and glass beads or a turtle carved out of a knot of maple wood or a structural model of a temple made from laminated cardboard.

But how do you make the temple?

The answer is simple: one brick at a time. Devise ways to divide the project into “bricks” or discrete components. Collage these components together as they start to accumulate over time. Play with different configurations to see how the bricks go together before you cement them together. Try variations you didn’t consider originally. By doing so, you will learn which types of bricks you need more of and which types you don’t.

I laugh when I think of some of the things I made in airport hotel rooms while on business travel as an engineer. I was in the most impersonal, unnatural, sterile environments you can think of, and there I was sitting cross-legged on a blanket on the floor carving the face of an ancient god into a piece of driftwood I had found during a near-death experience on a wilderness beach.

Improvised Double-Reverse Mosaic Method Using Contact Paper And Clear Packing Tape

One of our customers Tobin is making an 80 square foot garden courtyard mosaic, the theme being the four elements (water, fire, wind, and earth) with a panel devoted to each element.

Recently Tobin emailed us some pictures of his work in progress, and I think they are worth showing online and not just because they are strong visually. They are also good how-to illustrations for a double-reverse method of laying up mosaic designs. On top of that, they illustrate a very important concept in making art in general, one that is essential.

Tobin says he cobbled his method together from different things he saw on our website and in books plus some trial and error and some lessons learned while installing a 12 foot by 4 foot shower mosaic.

In technical terms, what Tobin is doing could be described as an improvised double-reverse method that uses contact paper and clear packing tape instead of lime putty or clay to temporarily hold the tiles.

tobin mosaic bird detail

Bird detail in progress for Tobin’s mosaic panel for the Wind Element, which will include the bird and a woman playing a flute in a wind-swept flowing gown. Note that the tile will later be covered in clear packing tape, but for now it is held in place by sticky contact paper.

Here is what Tobin is doing:

Semi-translucent contact paper is taped down over the sketch of the mosaic design on a worktable. The contact paper is sticky side up, and the stickiness keeps the tile from moving around as they are placed into position along the outlines of the drawing.

Once the mosaic design is completely laid out on the sticky contact paper. A layer of clear packing tape is stuck down on the face of the mosaic. The clear packing tape is stickier than the contact paper, so the design lifts right off the contact paper when needed. Before removing the contact paper, Tobin cuts the mosaic into workable sections using a box cutter/utility knife.

Then Tobin does something different from what I would do at this point in the process. At this point, I would remove the contact paper and press the sheet into the thinset mortar I have spread on my surface. After the mortar hardens for 48 hours, I peel off the clear packing tape and grout my mosaic.

Instead, Tobin transfers his design yet again by gluing it to a sheet of fiberglass mesh using Weldbond Glue, which is a white PVA adhesive. The reason Tobin is doing the extra step with the mesh is because he is making the individual figures in a convenient and portable way that allows him to focus on the details and then arranging the figures on the mesh to create a final design.

That sort of collage approach to building up the design from individually rendered figures is a good way to make complicated designs and larger pieces more manageable.

I often do something similar when I draw up scenes on paper. Without intending to do so, I end up cutting out the figures from the the original drawing and arranging them on a new piece of paper because I didn’t like something in the original drawing (maybe one of the figures was too large or oriented at the wrong angle). Then I lay a new piece of paper on top of this collage and trace enough to make a complete drawing.  The meta point is this: there are ways to work around your limitations in skill or specialized materials or even time.

I will write more about Tobin’s Mosaic and how his method illustrates an essential concept in making art in my next post.

tobin-water-element mosaic

Tobin’s Water Element panel, from a Four Elements series of garden mosaics.


Can I Use Silicone Caulk as a Mosaic Adhesive?

First I want to clarify that I am not talking about the invisible pore sealers that are used to seal tile and grout. Those are silicone-based as well, but my post about mosaic birdhouses was talking about using silicone caulks and sealing gels as an adhesive for mounting tile. I have serious doubts about these.

glass-on-glass stained glass mosaic

Glass-on-glass mosaics such as this sun catcher use silicone to adhere stained glass pieces to a clear glass backing. However, for any other style of mosaic art, silicone should be avoided.

I have seen some silicone adhesives used on tile sample boards that was so strong that it was impossible to pry off a tile without breaking it, but the tile did come off in pieces. However, with fully cured thinset mortar or Weldbond (white PVA adhesive), the tiles sometimes have to be chiseled off into a powder in order to repair a mosaic.

This may seem like a meaningless distinction if the silicone is strong enough, but over time the difference in strength will show itself in missing tiles.

Also, how well does the silicone product age? Does it become brittle? What else is in it? Will the flexibility of the silicone gel or caulk allow the tile to move and crack up the grout over time? Will it be like the old caulk or old silicone gel on a piece of window glass, capable of being scraped off fairly cleanly?


I’ve done some follow up research, and learned a couple of things. First, a silicone adhesive or caulk may be a good option for people making mosaic mannequins or mosaics on plastic or fiberglass sculptures. Note that I haven’t evaluated this myself.

Another thing that I have learned is that a silicone-based caulk should not get brittle in ultraviolet light or cold temperatures in the same way that acrylic-based caulks will. Silicone is also waterproof.

However, the flexibility of silicone-based products when fully cured is still a problem in my opinion for mounting architectural mosaics. If the grout is to remain intact (and thus protect the substrate from water damage), then the tiles cannot be moving slightly every time pressure is applied to the surface of the mosaic.

Mosaic Birdhouses

Today someone emailed me about using 1/4-inch concrete backer board to make mosaic birdhouses more weather-resistant and durable. I think they had read we recommend thinset mortar for all outdoor and wet mosaics and that thinset mortar was not recommended for wood, which is true, and they were wanting to overcome the problem by laminating the concrete backer board to the outsides of the plywood birdhouse.

That might make the birdhouse more durable, but it would not be practical. For starters, the birdhouse would be so heavy that it wouldn’t be safe to mount it anywhere overhead, at least in the type locations usually used for birdhouses (i.e., on top of a pole).

The thing to remember about mosaic birdhouses is that they are no more durable than the wood from which they are made. That means you should use plywood instead of board to make the birdhouse, and the inside of the birdhouse should be coated with several layers of exterior paint. (I’m not sure how that might affect a bird’s willingness to nest there and am speaking only in terms of durability.) The reason you would paint the inside is to help prevent moisture from the air degrading the plywood from the inside over time. I am speaking of humidity not precipitation.

Generally we recommend white PVA adhesives such as Weldbond only for dry indoor mosaics. However, birdhouses are generally kept on a post or some other location where water cannot pool. With that in mind, a birdhouse could be made with Weldbond provided the inside of the birdhouse was painted and the mosaic was thoroughly sealed with a tile and grout sealer. If those things are done, the mosaic should outlast the plywood on which it is made.

Some people recommend epoxies and silicone based adhesives because they are waterproof. I don’t like the fumes and fast curing times of epoxies or how they can’t be cleaned up with soap and water. As far as silicone adhesives, I’m not sure why I am seeing them recommended so often on the Internet. I’ve not used any in my mosaic work, and maybe they have some better versions now, but the silicone caulks and sealants and adhesives I used for home repairs in the past tended to be too soft and flexible when cured and peeled too easily from glass.

I suspect that I am seeing silicone recommended for mosaic work so often on the Internet is that there is a lot of misinformation that tends to get repeated and that many people aren’t very concerned about long-term durability, at least not as concerned as they are about selling something. I see a lot of craft advice on the Internet that is fundamentally unsound in regards to durability and weather resistance, including advice at the websites of large corporate-style players that have their own television shows. Word to the wise.

Why put all that work into a project if it isn’t going to last? Also, it takes a lot of fossil fuels and mined materials to manufacture products like tile and grout and adhesive. If you choose to use those materials, there is a practical and moral responsibility to make sure that whatever you make is made well enough that it doesn’t end up in the landfill within a mere 2 to 3 years.