Monthly Archives: December 2014

Stained Glass Mosaic Art

Artist and MAS employee Natalija Moss has recently completed a series of mosaics made from stained glass, and they are definitely worth seeing and discussing for several reasons. Natalija’s other artwork and video game plugins can be seen at her Lady Natalya website.

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“Erza” Stained Glass Mosaic by artist and MAS employee Natalija Moss. Note how the dark charcoal-colored grout line mimics the lead channel soldered joints of stained glass artwork. This piece is technically a mosaic (it is grouted “tile” on an opaque background), but it is aesthetically stained glass in terms of the sizes of the individual pieces of glass and how they are used to render details.

Stained glass can be used in mosaic artwork in two different ways. The stained glass can be cut up into small tesserae (pieces) just like glass mosaic tile in a typical mosaic approach, or it can be used in larger pieces similar to how it is used in stained glass artwork. This latter approach preserves the large swirls of color which cutting into smaller pieces tends to break up, and this allows “the glass to do the work” as stained glass artists often say as a maxim. What they mean by that expression is allowing the swirls in the stained glass to create visual interest and suggest details such as ripples in water instead of rendering each ripple individually as a separate piece of glass.

I tend to think of mosaic artwork in terms of the traditional mosaic approach and cut any stained glass I use into tiny tiles, but I was impressed by how successful Natalija’s mosaics were and how conspicuously different they were from my preconceptions.

Compare Natalija’s “Erza” mosaic to Doug and Carly’s “Van Gogh Self Portrait” mosaic. Notice how the flowing andamento so crucial to the the Van Gogh mosaic is COMPLETELY absent in Natalija’s work.

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“The Major” Stained Glass Mosaic Artwork by Natalija Moss. Note the complete absence of flowing andamento (arrangement of tile in concentric rows to suggest motion) which is normally so crucial to mosaic art

On reflection, I can see that Natalija’s use of stained glass in larger pieces instead of many small tesserae is merely stained glass artwork as stained glass artwork is typically done, but there are two reasons that Natalija’s work still stands out. First, she didn’t give up the stained glass convention of larger piece sizes merely because she was mounting on an opaque background to make a mosaic.

The second reason Natalija’s work caught my notice was the freshness of her themes/subjects. As a rule, stained glass artwork tends to use some of the most cliche designs to be found in art and crafts marketing (which is saying quite a bit), so Natalija’s use of subjects from Japanimation is fairly novel for that medium. I think that grabbed my attention as much as the absence of andamento.

“Penguins” Stained Glass Mosaics

“Penguins” Stained Glass Mosaics by Natalija Moss demonstrate that it is possible to be cute without being saccharine sweet. Note how the background colors are warm and appealing instead of the cold blues that might be more naturally expected. To paraphrase the American painter James McNeill Whistler, “Nature must be corrected.” This is an important point to remember when designing compositions and when selecting colors. You can move a tree to the side to frame a scene. You can select a completely different background color quite easily when you aren’t attempting photographic realism.

 A Digression On The Failings of Stained Glass Retailers

It has been very easy for me to ignore stained glass artwork for the most part in the 13+ years I have been running Mosaic Art Supply because so much of it I came across by chance was so cliche and dated. The butterflies, bald eagles and tulips you see so much of now in stained glass catalogs appear to be the exact same patterns I saw 15 years ago and as a boy in the 1970’s.

I think the people who sell stained glass have done a disservice to their customers and to their own wallets by promoting their industry in such a tired way. Sure, there will always be people who want sappy stuff because they like sappy stuff or think it is easier to make, but I think that sort of approach tends to kill interest in the medium over time by not attracting younger people and people with more serious interests in art. This converging on the cliche by stained glass marketers has also meant that their patterns were more easily mass produced by countless Chinese competitors, which further destroys profit margins as everyone “races to the bottom” to compete solely on lowest price.

All of my product decisions at Mosaic Art Supply were made with one eye toward avoiding these traps, and this is why we have always avoided selling the mosaic craft kits we see on the market. I want to promote a serious interest in Art with a capital A because I think it is in the best interest of my industry, and because if I wanted to help distribute mass-produced junk, I could have stayed in the corporate world. In the sense of being something a person creates for deeply personal reasons, Art is one of the few intrinsically sacred things in a world where everything is increasingly profaned and commercialized. That is why the prevalence of cliche stained glass patterns has always struck me as being nothing less than a tragedy, a huge opportunity lost. Even if you prefer those particular subjects/themes, it should still strike you as conspicuously strange that you don’t often see alternatives to those themes being offered as patterns by stained glass retailers.

Improved Smalti

The new Mud Turtle Mosaic brand of smalti was selected based on how well the material cuts, and it is competitively priced. The material appears to be more homogenized and have fewer cold seams than most art glass products because it tends to break more predictably and produces fewer useless shards.

Smalti is hand-cut mosaic glass that is made according to traditional formulas of sand, lime and mineral pigments. Our smalti is hand cut, and the composition is more or less the same as other brands of smaltis. The critical difference is that we have it produced in a factory that makes modern molded glass tile, which means the smalti is made in slightly larger batches and handled more consistently to avoid cold seams when the molten glass is poured on the cooling slab.

Cold seams are where two wrinkles or bulges of glass came together but didn’t fully fuse. You encounter them a lot in stained glass from when the different colors are swirled together. That is why stained glass (and a lot of smalti) shatters so unpredictably when you attempt to cut it small. I am eager to get feedback on this new product.

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The new Mud-Turtle Mosaic brand of smalti comes in a wide range of colors for rendering complex images.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait Mosaic

Recently Doug Harris of Elementile sent me some photos of a mosaic rendering of Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 self-portrait, and it is definitely worth seeing. I think some of the best examples of how to use adamento in mosaic to convey a sense of motion are actually demonstrated in Van Gogh’s painting, and this self-portrait was a natural choice for mosaic interpretation. I have a photo of the painting at the end of this article.

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Mosaic interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh’s Self Portrait oil painting. The mosaic was done by Doug Harris and family of Elementile, with most work being done by his daughter Carly.

Note how more than one hue of blue are used in the same field of color: Phthalo blues (cyans) and ultramarine blues (French blues) in multiple shades are combined in differing proportions to render both the clothing and the background. Notice how well the reddish and yellowish browns of the beard work together to create the image of a Dutchman’s red hair and how well these colors contrast the blues.

Color Contrasts And Color Mood

Van Gogh’s original oil painting on which this mosaic is based made use of more complex and subtle color fields (after all, he was working in oil paint not glass tile), but I think Carly’s choice to use more blues and more intense blues was a stroke of genius. The blues make a more striking contrast with the beard than the colors of the original painting, and the emphasis on blue is so in keeping with Van Gogh’s work as a whole and his mood and how we think of the artist. I am thinking of both the lonely genius who painted “Starry Night” and the painting itself.

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Detail from mosaic interpretations of Van Gogh’s Self Portrait captures the artist’s wounded stare. I like the use of blue in the hair to heighten contrast.

Art Happens

The last picture Doug Harris sent me was of the work in progress, and it is my favorite because to me it says a lot about how art happens, at least for most people, including many of the great masters.

Whenever I see advertisements for art retreats and classes in places like Big Sur and Sienna, I am enticed by the idea of going to these picturesque places, but I am also perplexed by the idea of having studio sessions there. I don’t think I could spend any length of time focusing on art while I was in a place of such natural beauty unless I had at least several weeks there. Instead, I would be hiking and exploring with what little time I had available, and I would probably be too busy even to take photos. Keep in mind that someone like me has to check out the local geology, the creeks, the fossils, the artifacts, the indigenous plant life, signs of old home sites, signs of how the land has changed over the years, etc.

Not only that, my mind is already overflowing with creative ideas that I don’t have enough time to pursue. Do people really have to go to some place with over-the-top natural beauty to be inspired to create? For me, it is sometimes difficult to walk outside and check the mail and not spend the rest of the day thinking about landscape painting, especially if there are low rolling gray clouds and yellow leaves shivering in the tops of the poplars.

I like Doug’s photo of such great art being made in a crowded busy warehouse because that is where and how most of my art was made in the past decade or so, and before that it was usually on the floor or dining room table of where ever I was living, even in tiny apartments and hotels during business travel. Some people have to create. It is a need, and they will pursue it where ever and how ever they have to. No trips to Sienna or Rome are required.

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Van Gogh Self-Portrait mosaic in progress -on a low table, in what appears to be a warehouse hallway serving as an office/storeroom. When I first saw this photo, I thought that the mosaic was actually resting on the floor itself, a situation which seemed all too familiar from some my own projects.

Best Mosaic Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

To my knowledge, Vincent Van Gogh never made a mosaic, but I think many of his paintings offer great examples of how to use andamento in mosaic to create a sense of motion and add more visual interest to the artwork. Notice how Van Gogh uses flowing brushstrokes of different colors to build the folds of fabric in the artist’s clothing and how this same technique makes the background dance.

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Van Gogh’s original self-portrait oil painting from 1889 on which Doug and Carly’s mosaic was based.

Failures In Craft Marketing

Here is an anecdotal case study of how craft kits get it wrong and actually detract from the art experience:

This past Halloween, my ex wife hosted her annual pumpkin carving party for our five-year-old son and all his friends, and I helped as usual.

The party was the same format as previous years, but my ex-wife bought some pumpkin carving kits that were so flawed in both concept and execution that I find myself still thinking about them. In fact, the kits seem to epitomize what is wrong with most craft kits and craft products in general.

Traditional pumpkin carving is a great opportunity for ordinary people to work with their hands and make some art, and for many people it is probably be the only visual art they make the entire year. No special equipment is needed, and a person gets to make their own design. In my opinion, this is what makes pumpkin carving an important form of art, and I mean art in the highest sense of the word, Art with a capital A. Traditional pumpkin carving is also a great practical exercise in how to render personality and emotion with a few basic lines and shapes.

Contrast this with the pumpkin carving kits:

In order to appeal to the person buying the kits, the kits contained patterns for elaborate designs, designs that were impressive mostly because they were so elaborate, designs that ensured that most people using them would be totally focused on getting these professional results instead of self expression. The kit’s packaging featured pictures of pumpkins decorated with these over-the-top designs because that was their main purpose: to sell the kits.

Clearly these pumpkins had been carved by someone with an advanced experience level, and in all probability the professional artist who carved them needed several hours to do so, and probably needed more than a few practice pumpkins. From my own experience in art and manufacturing, I strongly suspect that several practice pumpkins were abandoned almost immediately due to early cuts that didn’t go as planned.

The pumpkin designs on the kit’s packaging included fine details that most people could not even sit down and draw much less carve. In fact, some of the designs were so filigree that you would have had to keep your pencil sharpened continuously just to be able to draw them. Think a lacy spiderweb spelling out “Happy Halloween” in the strands of the web. Some of the other designs were naturalistic renderings that required complex shapes be duplicated exactly for the image to look right. Think a light-and-shadow rendering of Boris Karloff’s face as Frankenstein.

So how did my ex-wife’s pumpkin carving party go? Exactly as I thought it would: Instead of getting to make their own designs and experience art, the children quickly became frustrated and annoyed and then required the help of all their parents, who also became frustrated and annoyed in varying degrees over time. Unlike previous years’ pumpkin carving parties, people could barely socialize because they had to do a task as intricate as threading a needle, and do it in fading outdoor light with impatient children looking on.

Of course, I tried to explain all this beforehand to my ex-wife, but like most husbands and ex-husbands, it doesn’t matter how many degrees or accomplishments we have. When we speak with our humble wives, we are all village idiots that don’t know anything. My two engineering degrees, a childhood spent in the mechanical and building trades, a lifetime of making art, a 13+ year stint running my own art supply business with all that entails in terms of consulting on school art projects and studying market trends, all of that was completely irrelevant.

At least it was until the party began…

I brought three pumpkins to the party. I didn’t even think about designs beforehand, I just made sure that what I carved used simple bold lines and no more detail than eyes and a mouth and maybe a nose. All of the expression was in the size and shape and spacing of these fundamental elements, yet each of my pumpkins distinctly conveyed the different emotion for which they could have been named: Scary, Scared and Silly.

Needless to say, I had finished all three of my pumpkins well before anyone else had made much if any progress at all on their pumpkin. I placed my pumpkins in a row near the edge of the snack table, and arranged them so that Silly appeared to be laughing at Scared, who appeared to be startled by Scary. Then I went around the patio and tried to help the demoralized children and the increasingly frustrated adults, some of whom were struggling not to cuss in front of the 5 and 6 year old children.

Meanwhile my ex-wife walked out with a tray of drinks and saw my pumpkins arranged in a row and said, “These are great! They look so good together like that. I told you the kits would be a good idea.”

Of course, she didn’t have to spend too many minutes out with the other parents on the patio before they had helped her revise her opinion of the kits, and that was before the cheap plastic handles started breaking on the cheap cutting tools. After that started happening, I think there was at least one or two parents who would have gladly lynched the creators of the pumpkin carving kits.

Yes, part of the problem was the fact that my ex-wife rather mindlessly selected a kit geared toward advanced designs and used it in an inappropriate social setting, but that only aggravated problems that already existed with the kits: The kits were about producing over-the-top results instead of experiencing a traditional art form in the way it had been experienced for generations. But even that statement does not adequately explain what was wrong. The kits were about PROMISING over-the-top results, but they were pretty weak in the delivery.

What disturbs me most about pumpkin carving kits is that all of its flaws seem to represent fairly prevalent trends in craft kits as a whole:

  • A strong emphasis on packaging and presentation.
  • Cheaply made tools and materials, sometimes so poorly made that they probably cost the manufacturer less than the packaging and presentation elements.
  • An emphasis on professional-looking results instead of an emphasis on the design process or the art experience or what could be learned in doing the project.
  • Encourage users to copy expertly made prototypes instead of making their own designs.
  • Kits more designed to be sold than used.
  • A complete disregard for what negative impacts the kit might have on traditional crafts, art education, the art experience, etc.
  • Use of designs that are cutesy or calculated to appeal to the overly competitive host. Think of pumpkins carved with words to show off what a clever homemaker you are instead of jack-o-lantern faces.

One way the pumpkin carving kits differ from what I’ve seen in other craft kits is that these other craft kits increasing try to make things easy or foolproof by eliminating most of the actual work. As if eliminating the design process weren’t enough, many kits try to eliminate the potential for failure by eliminating most of the activity of making the project. Instead of having the user do the different manufacturing processes, these type kits usually have things pre-painted or pre-wired or pre-whatevered, and all the end user does is snap things together. In fact, there are craft kits you can buy where I suppose unwrapping the kit and checking the materials would take more time than assembling the kit.

I guess that is nice if your goal was merely to possess the end product, but not very nice if you actually wanted to learn very much about woodworking or weaving or whatever type of craft it was supposed to be about. At least I can say that for the pumpkin kits my ex-wife picked out: they left you plenty of work to do, and you were free to fail from the get go.