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.