Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Importance of Small Experiments in Art

In my previous post about how to use found objects in mosaic art, I made the claim that small experiments done before you start a large project do not require any extra time because of the time they save on the project itself. I wish I could emphasize how true this is.

Here is how you know it is true: How many times have you ever done something new and seemingly simple such as patching a hole in drywall or some other basic home repair and spent a lot of time and stress doing it, only to realize after you were done that the next time you have to do this same task, it won’t take nearly as much time and not be stressful at all because now you knew how to do it? Worse than that, how many times have you not been pleased with the results and realized you could now do it perfectly if only you could start over?

Small technical experiments allow you to do this in a sense. While you aren’t actually starting over, you are figuring out how your materials and methods work before you begin, which is more or less the same as getting a chance to start over in terms of saving time and stress. It can also save materials as well, even if your experiment is thrown away. How is this possible? Ask yourself, does it make more sense to throw away a scrap piece of backer board with some tiles or rocks cemented to it with thinset, or to have to throw away 80 square feet of tile and all the thinset used to mount it because you had to scrape or chisel it all off when you realized the grout gaps were all wrong or you didn’t mix enough water into the thinset or some other basic mistake?

Urgent Project Deadline! We Have To Start Now!

If you are facing an urgent deadline on a group project or large installation, you cannot afford to work inefficiently or make blunders that require you to start over. In other words, it is precisely because time is running out that you should do a simple experiment or two before you begin.

I have actually had customers admit they had never made a mosaic before and still tell me that they didn’t have time to make a small mosaic trivet before they started some 30 square foot project at their church or school, only to email me in a complete panic a week later when the project is an irretrievable disaster. And I am talking several customerS (plural), not an isolated incident.

What is it about mosaic that makes some people think that it requires absolutely no technical skills or experience? They probably wouldn’t offer to paint a 30 foot mural if they had never painted a small painting, but for some reason they don’t seem to make the same connection with mosaic, and it happens all the time. But I digress…

All that being said, mosaic is amazingly simple and accessible compared to most art forms, but something doesn’t have to be on par with rocket science for it to be a good idea to practice it at least once before you do it in front of an audience or coordinate 15 people doing it or do 100 square feet of it.

Experienced Artists Know The Value Of Small Studies

Experienced artists routinely do sketches and studies before executing large public art projects. Often these sketches and studies are done quickly or informally for the knowledge gained, but many times they are completed as finished works of art and sold. Either way, the small studies are almost always done first. If an experienced artist would never do a large public art project without first doing some studies and quick experiments, why do novices think this step can be skipped?

It is easier to work out color schemes and compositions on a 6 inch trivet than on 60 foot mural.

Small Experiments Made While Working

So far I have discussed small experiments as something novices really should do BEFORE attempting large projects, but “off canvas” experiments made while working on the main project are also important.

What I mean by “off canvas” is this: if an experienced artist is working on a painting and comes to a brush stroke or color combination they are unsure about, they will often do some quick experiments on their palette or an old canvas to the side before proceeding with the painting itself. By not experimenting on the painting itself, the artist avoids the risk of botching up the work already done. By doing the initial experiments on a piece of scrap to the side, the artist also has freedom to experiment in a looser and more exploratory way which would not have been possible on the canvas itself. On the painting, the artist has to be concerned about how the brush stroke or color combination fits in with the image being rendered, while anything done on the scrap canvas can be all about the brush stroke or colors per se.

Remember To Experiment Elsewhere

The “off canvass” principle applies to all mediums not just painting or mosaic, yet it is difficult sometimes even for experienced artists to remember. For example, it may makes more sense to figure out how a new type of stitch will work on a scrap piece of fabric than the wedding dress being made, but it is precisely because the seamstress has worked for 8 hours straight on the wedding dress that she is too focused on it to remember to put it aside and try out the stitch first on the scrap.

That is why I keep multiple easels with multiple canvasses in my painting studio. I want other surfaces always handy and visible so that I remember to try things out there first if I am sure. Of course, I do experiment with the canvas I am actually painting, just as any other artist does, but I try not to grope around blindly there and risk messing up the work I have already done.

Experiments As Short Breaks

If you are struggling to render a detail in painting, drawing, mosaic or whatever medium of visual art, then the tendency is to become focused exclusively on that particular detail, which can be problematic if for no other reason than you stop seeing the work as whole.

This is when you need to remember to step back and look at the work as a whole and possibly do a quick study elsewhere before continuing with the work of art. In fact, doing a little quick experimentation to the side often helps because it takes your eyes off the project for a few minutes so that when you look at it again, you see the image as a whole instead of the particular detail you were struggling with.

Often this study on the side might take less than a minute and might not involve more that a few pen or brush strokes or a few tile arranged loosely on a board just to see how the shapes might fit together, but it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of the finished art produced and in reducing frustration.

 

How To Use Found Objects In Mosaic Art

Making and grouting a mosaic from ordinary flat tile is relatively straight forward. However, adding three-dimensional objects such as porcelain figurines or even simple rounded stones can complicate the grouting process. Instead of using a grout float or damp sponge to wipe away the excess grout, you may need to use a gloved hand as we often do, and you may have “excavate” some objects using brushes or dental picks if they have very complex shapes with nooks and crevices. An old toothbrush can be useful for cleaning wet grout from crevices in objects, but note that brushes of all type remove grout very aggressively, so take care that the toothbrush doesn’t gouge out any grout from where it needs to be.

If your mosaic is mostly dimensional objects, then the amount of labor required to remove excess wet grout may be excessive, and the easiest way to solve the problem is to avoid the grouting process entirely. Also, unsealed porous objects such as seashells cannot be grouted without staining them with the grout.

For these situations, it is better to press the objects into thinset mortar instead of the usual glue-the-grout method used for making indoor mosaics.

Thinset is a type of concrete, so if you spread it on slightly thicker, then a little bit will press up around the sides of the objects and serve as grout between the tesserae (“tile”). The key is to not spread so much thinset so that the object sinks in too deeply or too much thinset squeezes up and around the object.

Before you start pressing your childhood treasures and precious souvenirs into the sticky wet concrete that is thinset, you will want to practice for a few minutes with some ordinary rocks on piece of scrap. That way you can figure out how thickly to spread the thinset to avoid problems and practice keeping your hands clean while working with wet concrete. Otherwise your fingertips are likely to get wet concrete on objects that aren’t easily cleaned.

Your quick experiment on a piece of scrap should use more than one size of rock and include pressing objects close together. That way you can decide how closely you want to space your found objects in your actual mosaic and see how small objects have the potential to be buried in thinset pressed out by large objects nearby.

Keep in mind that small experiments like this do not require any extra time. Whatever time that is required to do them is almost always made up for in the time they save you on your project.