Category: Improving Your Art

  • Interpreting Artwork In A Different Medium

    Interpreting Artwork In A Different Medium

    Interpreting a work of art in a different medium is a matter of capturing the essence of the original without being an exact copy, although most people would prefer to see a copy that had no departures than something that was unrecognizable. With that in mind, the first step in creating an interpretation of an existing work is to identify what features are most important about it, what things define it in essence. It depends on the work of art. It isn’t always a particular detail or figure. It isn’t always the colors.

    A Case Study Cypress Bayou Painting by Joe Moorman Cypress Bayou quilt panel by Jackie Iglehart. Click the the image to see a larger version.

    Recently, artist Jackie Iglehart created a quilt panel interpretation of my painting “Cypress Bayou” and won this year’s quilting challenge at the Valley Forge Homestead Quilters Guild in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. I was blown away by the results. Jackie’s quilt panel captures the look and feel of my painting to an extent that I doubted was possible in that medium.

  • Mosaic Interpretation of Picasso Painting

    Mosaic Interpretation of Picasso Painting

    Brian Kyle’s mosaic interpretation of Picasso’s painting “Man With Ice Cream Cone” is a refreshing departure from the cute themes that seem to dominate contemporary mosaic artwork. Brian calls his mosaic “The Lecher” and says that some people are creeped out by it. I say that makes it real Art (with a capital A) in the sense of being worth thinking and talking about.

    Mosaic Interpretation of Picasso’s “Man With Ice-Cream Cone” by Brian Kyle. Notice how the working lines of the black background all converge on the ice cream to make it a focal point. Improving Picasso?

    Brian’s mosaic is also noteworthy because it has some interesting elements that actually build on what Picasso was doing, which is no small trick. (Successfully improving or extending a master’s work is a fairly significant accomplishment any day of the week.) Notice how the working lines of the black background all converge on the ice cream to make it a focal point. I think Picasso would have approved and possibly even been jealous of how Brian used the lines of the background to focus even more attention on the cartoonish black tongue licking the white ice cream.

    Glass Beads For Texture and Depth

    Another thing that makes Brian’s mosaic worth looking at is that the artist successfully used glass beads with ordinary flat glass tile to give the surface texture and depth.

    Glass Beads in “The Lecher” Mosaic give the surface a texture that begs to be touched. Work In Progress

    Brian also sent us a good photograph of the mosaic in progress, which shows the classic direct method of drawing the pattern on the backer and mosaicing directly on that surface.

    Work In Progress photo of “The Lecher” Mosaic shows the pattern drawn directly on the backer.

     

  • Creating Visual Interest In Mosaics

    Creating Visual Interest In Mosaics

    Contrast is a good way to create visual interest in your mosaic, and when contrast comes in the form of highlights and shadows, it also creates verisimilitude (the appearance of being real). Highlights and shadows can be as simple as shading the edges of a figure and leaving the center lighter so that the figure looks rounded instead of flat. Or you can be more ambitious and model the folds of fabric and clothing using contrasting regions of light and dark tile.

    Highlights On Garment Folds

    Artist Claudia Benavente’s mosaics are a great example of making images more “real” and visually interesting using highlights on folds of garments and hair. The gold background of the nativity scene below was made using our silver leaf imitation gold mosaic glass.

    Mosaic after the facade of Siena Cathedral by artist Claudia Benavente is rich with visual interest that was created by modeling garment folds as regions of lighter and darker colors. These colors can be shades of similar hues (Mary’s robes) or different colors entirely (Joseph’s robes). Texture From Mottled Colors

    Notice how the stone blocks in the above mosaic are not made from one gray color or even two grays. Instead, the artist uses perhaps six or seven different colors so that the blocks have texture. Think about how much more interesting these blocks are with their mottled colors than if they were made from one color.

    Hair and Vegetation Caramel Colored Horse Mosaic by artist Claudia Benavente. You can feel the wind in the horse’s tousled mane thanks to the contrasting colors used in the different strands. The use of color in the horse’s body gives it life and motion.

    Hair and vegetation are also opportunities to breath life into your work. Instead of making monochromatic shapes or silhouettes to represent these elements, show the internal details.

    Light and Dark / Warm and Cool Red Horse Mosaic by artist Claudia Benavente uses two different methods of creating contrast: light and dark colors and warm and cool colors.

    In my opinion, the Guggenheim museum owns several billion dollars in abstract paintings that aren’t nearly as interesting as the background of this mosaic. Just look at it, and you want to touch it and feel the texture created by the mottling of warm colors with light and dark colors. Notice how the cool blues and indigos of the horse’s nose and eyes contrast with the fiery red background. Notice how this mosaic looks more intensely red with the other colors mixed in than it would have if it were solid red. Contrast is the key to many aspects of visual art, including color intensity.

  • How To Choose A Mosaic Background Color

    The background in a work of mosaic art serves two purposes:

    contrast the colors of the figures in the foreground. suggest motion by arranging the tile in contours around figures.

    The first point is obvious, but the second is often overlooked even though it can make the difference between a great mosaic and a mediocre mosaic. The background isn’t supposed to be just empty space to be filled as quickly as possible with a grid of tile similar to how bathrooms are tiled. Consider Van Gogh’s Starry Night and how motion is conveyed in the directionality of the brush strokes:

    Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night is the best example I can think of for illustrating how brush strokes and lines of tile can be used to convey a sense of motion in visual art. A Good Teaching Example

    A friend recently emailed me a photo of a mosaic in progress and asked me for advice. Specifically, he wanted to know what type of tile and what color would best work for the background of a mosaic of a bass (fish) he had made from the 12mm C3 Recycled Glass Tile. The project was interesting because he wanted to make the background from a different type of tile than he had used for the fish, and there were other color constraints: the bass would be swallowing a large blue glass cabochon gem, and there would be green water grasses at the bottom.

    These constraints made the project a good teaching example for the simple reason that many artists work this way, especially naive artists and artists who work in a more exploratory way (as I do). Instead of copying an existing design verbatim, these artists will create the central figure or figures first, and then select a background color and additional figures based on how well they work with the central figure already in place. This mode of designing by trial and error is a natural consequence of working with limited color palettes. (Tile colors can’t be custom blended to any hue or shade like paint, so you have to select a background colors from what is available.) The trial-and-error mode also comes naturally when you are trying to incorporate specific found objects into a mosaic, such as the blue cabochon gem that my friend wanted to use in his.

    Greenish and bluish metallic glass mosaic tile would be a poor choice for background because they do not adequately contrast the colors used in the bass. Use Contrasting Colors

    The image above was included in the original email requesting my advice. My fresh unbiased eyes could immediately see that the green metallic tiles would not fully contrast the colors in the bass. I could also see that even the blue metallic would not work because the golden sparkle of the copper aventurine dust gives the blue glass an overall greenish cast.

    In fact, using blue tile of any type would be problematic if the blue cabochon gem is used. So I presented two alternatives:

    Use light pink or orange colors for the water, such as might be seen in late afternoon. Replace the blue cabochon with an orange cabochon.

    The first alternative appealed to me for two reasons. First, warm colors such as light pink or orange are more appealing in general. (Basic biopsychology: the brain likes warm colors.) Second, art with non-obvious color choices is usually more interesting. (If the sky ain’t always blue, why do we always have to color it blue without first questioning the instinct to do so?)

    An esoteric digression: This second point touches more sophisticated questions about visual art: Does an object have an intrinsic hue, or are the colors (plural) it reflects at a given instant a function of the color of the light shining on it at that particular instant? The answer is obvious to our eyes but not to our memories. Our memories tend to be more verbal than visual, and we remember things in a more archetypical mode: monochromatic “green trees” and “blue skies” and not the myriad of hues that they are in real life.

    Following Design Fundamentals Won’t Do You Wrong

    My friend decided to replace the blue gem with a golden yellow one and use blue tile for the water. These conservative design decisions work because they follow fundamental principles: The blue tiles contrast the greens of the fish and water grasses and the yellow of the cabochon.

    Of course my friend could have tried light oranges or light pinks for the water, but that would have involved more risk and more trial and error than would have been advisable on an early project such as this. I will write an additional blog post about how this particular mosaic could have been improved, but I will also write about the problems of artistic advice and how advice in general doesn’t work well in a one-size-fits-all mode.

    My friend’s finished mosaic of a large mouth bass swallowing a cabochon gem makes successful use of contrasting colors.

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Long-Term Art-Studio Experiments and the Pace of Mosaic Composition

    Don’t Rush The Design Process

    It is easier for me to explain what I mean about pace and long term experiments if I discuss my painting instead of my mosaic artwork. Compared to most mediums of visual art, mosaic isn’t typically executed in a rush because the amount of work usually requires multiple sessions in the studio. (You don’t slap on some tile quite as quickly as you do paint.) However,  the point I make about my painting has a lot of relevance to the process of DESIGNING or CONCEIVING a mosaic composition and how you reflect on the work in progress and evaluate color decisions as you go along. Never blindly execute what you initially guessed to be a good decision. The design “mode” should never be turned off if your are trying to make great art.

    I think the highest form of visual art is finding objects in clouds. This is an aspect of dreaming that occurs while we are awake. I like my paintings to resolve into compositions as I go along with figures emerging from a dance of color and texture. Artificial Deadlines Are A Double-Edged Sword

    Accomplishment builds confidence, but what are you accomplishing if you aren’t happy with the results?

    Not long after starting Mosaic Art Supply, I found myself working on painting more than mosaic, at least in the studio time that I set aside for my own projects. (Go figure.) I made the decision to work on my painting in the following way: I would complete a small painting in a single session each night and then write something about creating it (personal significance or techniques) and then publish the painting’s photograph and text online. I didn’t use a blog format, but it was essentially a blog, with pages named for the artwork in question and no dating. Most of my paintings at Riverson Fine Art were created in this way.

    This one-painting-each-night approach was great for getting me accustomed to “finishing” work, but the constant artificial deadline of having to be done that night also made me hectically overwork some paintings (because I didn’t spend enough time looking at what I was painting and felt a rush to go with snap decisions). I also didn’t allow enough time to figure out technical questions before the lack of knowledge showed on the canvas in a clear way.

    It became clear that this exercise of doing rapid experiments each night could only teach me so much, and it had clearly taught me some bad habits that I had to unlearn somehow.

    Kids Don’t Try This At Home

    My solution was to totally change the pace of how I created art and not worry about publishing it or showing it. (The mosaic business was giving me more of a public presence than I wanted anyway.) But I did much more than this: I went to the opposite extreme. I didn’t even think about individual compositions or at least completing them as compositions. I drew up long lists of technical questions I needed to answer (such as how to mix up any color, ANY color I might need, shade or hue), and then I laid out what experiments I needed to do to find the answers.

    More than that, I allowed myself to digress into a series of smaller investigations if I got stumped on a particular color or problem, no matter how irrelevant the issue seemed by itself. It was merely enough that I couldn’t answer the question, and I worked until I figured it out. I wanted to know how to do whatever it was in the event the same issue ever came up later when I started painting figurative compositions again.

    This might seem obsessive on the surface, but I had already painted enough canvasses in a completely unsatisfactory way to know that I wouldn’t have the confidence to complete anything until I was more technically competent.

    In the case of how to mix up any shade or hue, I simply painted a series of mixing grids, such as recommended and discussed in most books about how to paint.

    To get the type of effects I wanted, I also needed to know how these colors looked when imperfectly layered over a canvas textured with peaks of modeling paste so that the layer underneath showed in the valleys. This greatly multiplied the number of variables I had to figure out.

    How would these look when color complements were paired? What about warm on warm or cool on cool? How would they look with dark on light or vice versa? How did making the upper layer more translucent with medium affect the hue of the layer underneath? How did varying the size and type of texture affect ALL of the above?

    Should the texture be rounded or sharp? Should texture run in raised ridges at the edges of figures? What would be the most effective way of duplicating specific results I found pleasing? How controlled or random should the sequence of layering be?

    And then there was my META question: If I mastered all of these variables, could I use the resulting techniques to make quick-drying acrylic paint look as visually interesting and complex as slow-drying oil paint, which naturally diffused creating soft edges and subtle transitions of hue?

    The answer could only be found by executing all of these combinations in a lengthy series of large abstract canvasses that took literally years. Each canvas was painted 10, 20 times, maybe 50 or more. Not 50 layers of paint. I mean 50 uses of the canvas for different “compositions” of multiple layers with all the accumulating texture that provided. Some of my canvasses from this period are almost as heavy as mosaics.

    Finally, just 6 months ago, I felt that I had investigated enough unknowns to have a vocabulary of techniques sufficient to attempt a figurative composition again with confidence. So I started painting figurative works again, or rather, I started trying to paint figurative compositions again, and I felt anything but confident.

    For starters, it wasn’t that easy to stop digressing each time I had a question about hue, texture or other variables in combination. I had gotten in the mode of “find out how” not “wing it to complete the composition.”

    Also, I had to factor in how I developed compositions. I don’t work from a model in front of me. I work from hundreds of remembered models arranged in imaginative compositions. I draw from the imagination. I also work interactively with the canvas to allow figures to evolve from seemingly random strokes. I like to let the design emerge from the canvas in a way similar to how the mind sees objects in clouds, which I think is one of the highest forms of visual art.

    All of this is fairly absorbing and cannot be done if I am having to concentrate too much on how to get the effects I want.

    The long and the short of it is that I finally have a painting near enough completion to show after years of one long extended series of experiments that took over 4 years.

    This painting is unfinished. I am thinking of calling it “Color Dance.” Parallels with Mosaic Art

    In a mosaic, you may not have layering of color as a variable, but you definitely have juxtaposition of color, and you have variegation of color fields and color field transition. You also have how all of these variables are affected by tile size and work lines (andamento: how the tiles are arranged in contours to show motion or  arranged randomly or grid-like). Think about all these variables and how they might be used to make your composition stronger. Of course, you don’t have to go completely mental like I did with painting and try to think about every combination of variables, but do spend some time thinking about what else might be before you begin setting tile in concrete.

    A Practical Way To Experiment In Mosaic

    Draw a cartoon (outline) of your design on the mosaic backer with a pencil, and then just place tile in the different color fields. At first, think about just different pairs of complementary colors, and try to get the basic color layout planned. Then think about how each color field might be made more visually complex by adding a few related hues or shades to the color field instead of using only one hue or shade. Once that is fairly worked out, then think about what size the tiles should be and how they should be arranged. It is hard to go wrong by arranging tiles in lines parallel to the outlines of figures. These contoured work line suggest motion, and this almost always looks more interesting than random patterns or grids. Remember, you aren’t tiling a shower or bricking a wall. You are rendering an image, so take advantage of all the trompe l’oeil you can, especially andamento!

    The meta message is this: You can’t tile over an unsuccessful part of a mosaic the same way you can quickly paint over an unsuccessful part of a painting. This means that designs are enhanced when you do quick experiments with your cartoon BEFORE you start mounting tile: merely lay the tile out loosely on your outline and see how the colors work together. Try different combinations. You can’t try them after the tile is glued down, or at least as easily. Make haste slowly and avoid the need to chisel off glass tile.

  • Advanced Tips For Selecting A Grout Color

    The primary reason for grouting tiled surfaces is to prevent water from penetrating behind the tile and weakening the adhesive or the backer and the structure beneath the backer. In mosaic artwork, the grout also has a visual function, and that is to contrast (not match) the tile colors. If the grout color does not sufficiently contrast the tile colors, than all the tiles blend together visually, and much of the “mosaic effect” is lost.

    Grout Color Should Contrast Not Match

    There are some novices who doubt my advice about contrasting grout color and even try to match their grout color to the tile colors. These are the people who later email me in a complete panic. They usually use the words “completely ruined” to describe what grouting did to their once beautiful mosaic, and from the pictures they send, I’m inclined to agree with them. (Note that these mosaics can be saved, but it requires either scraping the grout out with a grout removal tool or painting the grout with acrylic paint or some other ad hoc solution.)

    A Medium Gray Grout

    Since experience has shown time and again that the best grout color is one that contrasts tile color, the question becomes which grout color best contrasts ALL the different colors used in the mosaic. For MOST combinations of tile colors, the best contrast is usually provided by a medium to dark gray, with darker being the better guess if in doubt. Always keep in mind that the color of the grout will be significantly lighter when fully cured compared to how it looks when wet.

    A Notable Exception: Lighter Blues

    There are a few notable exceptions to the rule of gray grout being best. The most obvious exception is when you are using gray tile (duh), but the one that usually catches people by surprise is when tiles of lighter blue colors are used. Unfortunately, these are just the shades of blue that are popular for water and sky elements, so this is a significant exception. In this situation, a warm light brown or sand colored grout might be a good choice for contrasting the blue tile, but what if there are light brown tile used elsewhere in the mosaic? Is there a good standby color of grout for this situation? The answer is no, but there is a quick solution.

    Go Look At Grout Colors With Your Tile

    Building material stores such as Home Depot and Lowes usually carry about 30 or more colors of grout, and they have color swatches on the shelves and/or packaging so that you can pick out grout similar to how you pick out paint, only with much more limited options. The trick or tip is to not to try to do this from memory without the benefit of having your tile with you. Take one or two tile of each color used in the mosaic with you to the store and hold them up against the color swatches. I have even gone into the store with small mosaics, just as I have taken in parts of plumbing I was trying to match or replace. Don’t be self conscious about it. The people who work there are accustomed to seeing professionals at work, and you will be quite unobtrusive compared to the building contractors dealing with emergencies. At least you won’t be covered in dirt and holding a toilet seat or something like that.

    Some “Advanced” Tips

    From the many emails and pictures I have received in the past 12+ years, I can state with some confidence that novices tend to regret choosing grout colors as an attempt to add another color to the mosaic. Matching grout color to tile color tends to be even more disastrous.

    If you already have your figures rendered in tile using a relatively small grout gap, and you like how those figures look, then your main objective while grouting should be to not mess up the visual art that was already working, especially if you are a novice at mosaic.

    Of course, even a novice can take a few of each color tile and create an abstract experiment on a scrap piece of plywood and try a novel grout color on it.

    The monochromatic nature of medium gray grout makes it contrast colors intrinsically, in the same way that back and white contrast colors intrinsically. All three are balanced in hue. The keep-it-simple and less-is-more principles really come into play when you decide to second guess some shade of medium to dark gray when grouting figurative mosaic artwork.

    On the other hand, there are all those earth tones to play with…

    Just remember to experiment on a piece of scrap before trying it out on a mosaic where 90% of the work was spent cutting and mounting the tile.

  • How To Make Custom Shapes For Mosaic Backers

    Rectangular backers are fine for most mosaic designs, but sometimes you want to make an irregularly-shaped mosaic or a mosaic with a custom shape, such as the silhouette of a common object: tree, automobile, flower, turtle, etc. How you make such a backer and what materials you use depends on whether or not the mosaic will be installed in an outdoor or wet location. Note that not every location in a kitchen or bathroom has to be considered as being “wet.”

    First, I will discuss irregularly-shaped backers, and then I will explain how to make custom-shaped backers for both indoors and outdoors. The last section about custom-shaped backers for outdoors should be useful for people making mosaic signs and placards.

    Why You Should Not Buy A Shaped Backer

    If you buy a shaped backer from a craft supplier, then your mosaic will have exactly the same shape and size as all the other mosaics made from that particular backer. Also, most of that craft crapola is designed in China, and it all looks rather dated. The saddest customer picture we ever received was a picture of a beautiful mosaic design (serious, intense, original) executed on the most boring, cutesy, cliche shape of a ladybug. Oh what might have been…

    Irregularly-Shaped Backers

    If you want more of a random “found” shape instead of a specific shape, then the solution is to use a piece of scrap plywood or flagstone depending on whether or not the mosaic is outdoors.

    Indoors

    For indoor mosaics, you can use a piece of 1/2″ cabinet-grade plywood, and a local carpenter or cabinet maker can give you more than you could ever use. Check with friends and their spouses for a few pieces of scrap, or you can buy a sheet of cabinet-grade plywood at a building material store such as Home Depot or Lowes and have a friend cut out what you need with a jigsaw. You can also buy a decent jigsaw for about $75, but make sure you follow the safety instructions and maybe watch a safety video or two on Youtube if you are a novice with power tools.

    Outdoors

    For outdoor mosaics, you should not use wood or adhesive. Wood doesn’t even have to get wet for the humidity in the air to swell and warp it. Instead of the glue-then-grout method used for indoor mosaics, you should use thinset mortar to attach the tiles to a stone or masonry surface. Concrete backer board can be used for rectangular and circular mosaics that have some sort of frame (such as the rim of a metal patio table), but the edges of concrete backer board can be crumbly, and that makes it a lot less useful for irregularly-shaped mosaics where the edges are left unfinished, such as you see in the fragments of ancient Roman mosaics displayed in museums.

    To make an irregularly-shaped outdoor mosaic in the style of a Roman or Greek fragment, use a piece of flat flagstone such as can be found at stone stores, landscaping stores and some higher-end lawn and garden centers. Avoid slate and sandstone, especially the softer varieties. You can get a general idea of how soft or brittle a type of stone is merely by paying attention to how it has been breaking or scratching or weathering in the big piles or stacks at the stone store. Slate is good and flat and smooth, but it tends to be thin and break too easily for most sane people to care about mosaicing on it.

    Custom-Shaped Backers For Indoor Mosaics

    For indoor mosaics, 1/2-inch cabinet-grade plywood is my preferred backer, and it is sold at most building material stores. It comes pre-sanded and is more resistant to warping than the cheaper plywood used for construction sheathing. There also fewer if any internal voids in the plies of wood, so the edges are stronger and look neater. The few extra dollars for cabinet-grade plywood are worth the cost.

    The shape of your backer can be drawn directly on the plywood with a pencil, or you can first draw the shape on cardboard or paper and then cut it out and use it as a stencil and trace the shape on the plywood.

    Cutting the shape out is best done with a jigsaw, which can be bought for about $75, but you can ask friends and their spouses to do it for you if they have one. Most people who work with carpentry or cabinetry will have one, but if you decide to cut it yourself, make sure you watch an online safety video about using jigsaws first. In my opinion, jigsaws aren’t nearly as dangerous as circular saws and table saws, but novices should be extra careful when using power tools.

     Custom-Shaped Backers For Outdoor Mosaics

    Metal isn’t recommended as a mosaic backer, but if you are mounting the mosaic outside, then metal will probably be involved in some way, at least in how the mosaic is attached to the building or post. The most obvious solution is to have concrete backer board set in a metal frame made from angle iron, and this frame can have mounting studs (bolts) welded to it prior to painting it and inserting the backer board.

    I don’t recommend hanging mosaic signs from chains because mosaic work is heavy, and intense wind from storms can turn the sign into a battering ram. Also, the chains would need to be checked periodically for wear, and the artist cannot guarantee that the owner of the sign will do this over time.

    Of course, a frame made from angle iron is really only practical for rectangular shapes.

    My approach for making a custom-shaped mosaic for outdoors was to put the steel inside the concrete. Essentially, all I did was cut out my shape in 3/4″ expanded steel using a cardboard pattern as template, then weld mounting studs (bolts) to it, and then I encased it in thinset mortar, which is a type of sticky concrete.

    Expanded steel 3/4 inch. The 3/4 inch measurement refers to the size of the internal holes, specifically the minor axis (shorter dimension) instead of the longer side-to-side dimension.

    The 3/4″ expanded steel was cut using an angle grinder with a thin cutting wheel because I didn’t have a cutting torch and haven’t yet saved up enough money to buy a plasma cutter. (Are you listening Santa?)

    I used my cardboard template to outline two pieces of expanded steel, and I made sure that the direction of the expanded metal was oriented at 90 degrees between the two pieces. That way when I welded them together, I was sure that the holes would not line up perfectly. Instead, I wanted the holes in each piece of metal to be partially covered by the other sheet.

    This structure was made from scraps of expanded metal I had in the shop instead of two pieces expressly cut out for the job, but notice how I made sure the expanded pattern in the top and bottom layer are still rotated 60 degrees from each other instead of perfectly lined up. A rotation of 90 degrees is optimal for ensuring the holes in the resulting structure aren’t too large.

    Once I had my shape welded together, I welded some 3/8-inch bolts to it to that the finished mosaic could be bolted to a wall. Then the frame was scoured with the stiff wire brushes that are used to clean welds.

    The thinset mortar I used to cover the frame was applied in multiple coats. The first coat was mixed with about 50% fine pea gravel so that the mortar had some bulk to fill the holes in the frame. Note that most pea gravel you see at lawn and garden centers will need to be sieved through 1/4″ hardware cloth or at least have the larger stones picked out. If that seems tedious, then consider how tedious it will be to pick put the large stones once they are coated in sticky concrete but are too big to be pressed into the frame. (Been there.)

    This is the underside of a finished outdoor mosaic backer. Note the three mounting studs. Also note that the top surface (facing down) is a lot smoother than this backside. I made the top surface perfectly smooth by applying a second coating of thinset to the top face and then setting it upside down on a piece of construction plastic.

    Thinset mortar contracts or “thins” as it cures, so there isn’t much point in making your surface perfectly smooth with the first application. Of course you want it level, and you don’t want any large pieces sticking up, but there is no need to try to smooth it to a finished surface with a trowel. If you do smooth it perfectly, you will notice dimples that get larger each day for about a week as the thinset contracts internally.

    Due to this internal contraction and the resulting dimples, I wait about a week before applying this second coat, which mainly involves spreading the thinset on the face with a putty knife or trowel and then turning the mosaic face down on a piece of construction plastic.

    Roll of construction plastic. Grout does not stick to plastics in general, but this stuff is especially good about being stick free.

    Construction plastic is sold in large rolls at building material stores. A cheaper alternative is clingy kitchen wrap such as the Saran Wrap brand. Kitchen wraps aren’t as strong, and they don’t tend to stay put even when taped down, but an easy solution to this problem is to find a large piece of cardboard and wrap it around the cardboard about 3+ layers deep. Then you can lay the covered cardboard on your work surface.

    WARNING AND DISCLAIMER

    Use this improvised method and these instructions at your own risk. Like all the instructions on my websites, these instructions haven’t been rigorously tested in corporate laboratories. Neither can they anticipate all the potential mistakes an individual could make in executing them. As always, if you are installing anything for a client, it is your obligation to evaluate the strength, safety and longevity of your art, especially if it is to be displayed in a public space.

    All that being said, there isn’t too much if anything in these methods that uses materials in a way that they aren’t commonly used or at least in a similar way. Unless you weld things in an amateurish way or fail to clean the welds, then the backer should have a very long life, even outdoors. The only mode of failure I am particularly concerned about is the possibility of the bolts rusting through over time, although that would be a concern with any heavy sign mounted by bolts.

  • How To Estimate Mosaic Colors Using Photoshop Elements

    Irregular Shapes

    It’s easy to estimate the total area of a rectangular or circular mosaic using our tile estimator, but it can be much more difficult if the shape of the mosaic is irregular. In fact, most of the individual color fields in a mosaic are arranged in irregular shapes, unless you are doing an abstract geometrical pattern.

    How do you estimate the area covered by an individual color when it is arranged in irregular shapes throughout a mosaic design?

    The following is a method using Photoshop Elements.

    Use Digital Images

    If you get the image into the computer, the computer already knows how many pixels are that color and the total number of pixels in the image.

    The trick is to find some way for the computer to tell us this information, and there are probably many image editing software packages that could be used in some way to do it. I used Photoshop Elements because that was what I had installed. I would think GIMP and other freeware imaging packages could be adapted in some way as well.

    This method uses Photoshop’s Magic Extractor to cut out the color field, then turning that color field black and putting it on a white background. In the RBG color mode used by JPEGs, white has a value of 255 and black has a value of 0. If we take an average of the value of all pixels, this weighted average divided by 255 will represent the percent of the image area that is NOT the particular color.

    Photoshop Elements Example

    For this example, we will use a jpeg of Henri Matisse’s painting “The Dance” and find the percent of the total area that is covered by blue.

    Henri Matisse painting “The Dance”

    Tip: When you make your own mosaic designs, don’t use one blue color for an area such as this. Instead, use two or even three blues of the same hue but slightly different in shade and mix them together to create visual interest. Note how Matisse’s bold color fields aren’t completely homogenized, even in this digital copy of low resolution.

    Step 1. Use The Magic Extractor To Clip Out The Color Of Interest

    Use the Magic Extractor in Photoshop Elements to clip out the color.

    Image > Magic Extractor has a + highlighter for marking the color you want to save and a second highlighter for marking all the colors you want to delete. You can use the Preview button to see if you have things marked correctly.

    Note that I used the first highlighter to mark the blue in multiple places to make sure that I marked all the different shades of blue. I also marked it in each separate blue area just to be sure, but this isn’t necessary. When I used the second highlighter, I made sure I marked the grass and the dancers in a way that got all the different colors and shades of colors used for them.

    Magic Extractor results in Photoshop Elements

    Notice how efficiently the Magic Extractor removes the non-blue elements.

    Step 2. Use Filter Tools To Black Out The Color Filter > Adjustments > Threshold

    Under the Filter menu, there is a collection of tools called Adjustments. Use the Threshold tool, and drag the pointer to 255. What this is doing is saying black out all color with RBG values under 255, which is the RBG for pure white.

    Step 3. Save As A JPEG With A White Background.

    Notice that the gridded background is not colored at all, which means the image is now a Photoshop file PSD instead of a JPEG. We need to save it as a JPEG with a white background before we can proceed. However, first you should save this PSD file in case you need to backtrack for whatever reason, and then save it as a JPEG.

    Once you have saved it as a JPEG, close this PSD file and open the newly created JPEG.

    Open the JPEG with a white background  Step 4. Use Filter Tools To Set Every Pixel To The Average Color.

    Now comes the real trick of how to find out how many pixels were in the blue area that we turned to black. Photoshop has a tool that will turn every pixel to the average of all the pixel’s current RBG values. All of our pixels are white (RBG = 255) or black (RBG = 0). The weighted average of all these pixels will be a gray with an RBG somewhere between 0 and 255. The larger the blacked area was before the averaging, the darker the gray will be and the lower the RBG number. The Average tool is found under the Filter menu: Filter > Average or Filter > Blur > Average.

    Filter > Blur > Average Step 5. Use The Color Picker Tool To Find The RBG Value Of The Gray.

     

    matisse-color-picker

    Photoshop’s Color Picker tool is the eyedropper icon. Use it to click the image and then the “Select Foreground Color” square at the bottom of the left toolbar.

    Use Photoshop’s Color Picker tool (eyedropper icon) to click the image and then click the “Select Foreground Color” square. This square is at the bottom of the left toolbar. Once you click the square, the dialog window will pop open and show you the RBG (red blue green) values for this gray. Since it is a gray averaged from pure white and pure black, all the RBG values should be the same number.

    In our example, we see that the RBG value for the gray is 149. If we divide 149 by 255, we get 0.58, which means that 58% of the image’s area is the whited-out non-blue colors. To get the percent of the total area that is blue, we subtract 58% from 100% and get 42%.

    Why this works: If the mosaic was completely whited out, then the RBG number we found using the Color Picker would be 255, the number of white. But some of the mosaic was our blacked-out blue area. Black has an RBG number of 0. When all the white pixels (255) were averaged with the black pixels (0), the number calculated for this average was 149. Dividing 149 by 255 tells us the ratio of white area to total area. Grays with a higher RBG number mean that the amount of white area before averaging was larger.

    So let’s say you were making a 6 ft x 4 ft mosaic interpretation of this Matisse painting. The total area is 6 ft x 4 ft = 24 square feet. The area that is blue is 0.42 x 24 square feet =  10.1 square feet.

    You can find out how many tiles you need to cover that blue area using our tile estimator, which has a table of different tile sizes per square foot based on a standard grout gap.

    Faster and Easier Than It Seems

    Note that you will need to do this for all your colors (you can find the area of the last colors by subtracting the rest from 100%). However, this isn’t very much work. In fact, once you do it a few times, you can do this sort of analysis easily and quickly. Keep in mind that if a color isn’t used anywhere but in small areas like trimming and borders, then it might be difficult to block it out using the Magic Extractor tool, but do you really need a close estimate of something that is only used in 5% of the area? (If so, you need to use a higher resolution pattern, and do the analysis in sections.) Also, you can save that color for last and find it’s area by subtracting all the other color area estimates from 100%.

     

  • 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 Make A Home Mosaic Art Studio

    Avoid Studio Obsession

    Setting up and organizing your studio or corner workspace can become an end unto itself and just one more thing that keeps you from working on your art. Keep in mind that great works of art have been created under terrible working conditions and with minimal tools and equipment. The most important thing you can do for your studio is to make sure you work on your art often and frequently. Incremental improvements will be made over time on an as-needed basis as you notice problems with inadequate lighting, incorrect work surface heights and the other general principles of laying out an art studio.

    For many years, my art was made on the floor of whatever small apartment I was living in at the time. My workspace was cramped, and often the project had to be cleaned up and put away immediately after each work session to make room for day-to-day activities like laundry or simply to be able to walk through the tiny room.

    In the example below, I show rolling tables, rolling shelves and other moveable fixtures that can be rearranged to accommodate large sculptural mosaics. This is not how my home art space was set up to make mosaics back in the day, and this probably isn’t how you should set up yours (unless you live in a large warehouse with concrete floors.)

    Use What You Have (And What Can Be Gotten For Little Cost)

    Instead of custom-built low tables on wheels, you can use what I once did: a plastic recycling tote turned upside down and slid into position as needed. Old coffee tables and end tables from garage sales are also useful. Keep in mind that in addition to your main work surface, it really helps to have one or two auxiliary tables on the side. This arrangement of tables creates a highly efficient C-shaped manufacturing cell where the operator can reach a wide range of materials merely by pivoting.

    Depending on how many different colors or materials you are working with, you may find that one of your two side tables should be an open shelf instead. An old bookshelf made for small paperbacks is an effective and cheap solution as are shelves mounted on a wall if your workspace is in a corner.

    If at all possible, have your main work table set against a window so that you can have natural light and look up from time to time to rest your eyes from the intense up-close work

    A C-Shaped Manufacturing Cell This particular mosaic studio was set up for standing artist who was working intermittently between packing orders for shipment and making “last-minute” changes before grouting.

    In the picture above, notice the main work surface is augmented by an open shelf to the right and a smaller lower table to the right (almost out of camera view). Notice how the small plastic containers of tile could not be reached by a seated artist. If the artist were seated, those containers of tile would be better places by arranging them on the shelf, preferably a more efficient shelf with more levels than the one shown here. The point of the C-shaped manufacturing cell is to arrange things where the artist can reach them without getting up or stretching.

    Use A Low Table For Seated Artists I’ve built some low tables on wheels that are about knee high, which allows a seated artist to position tiles and see. The artist does not need to bend over or reach the far side of the mosaic. Instead, the mosaic can be spun on the table, or the table itself can be spun.

    Mosaic is different from painting in that it is best done while the surface is lying horizontally, and this presents a problem in how step back and see the work as a whole as you are working on it. Sure, you can clean off the tools and loose pieces of tile and prop the mosaic up vertically, but this just isn’t practical.

    More importantly, it’s difficult to judge how far you are spacing each tile you place if you are looking at the mosaic from a low angle. You need to be looking at it from above. Conventional desks and worktables don’t allow this because they are too high unless you are standing, and that doesn’t make sense for hours at a time. The solution is to use a work surface much lower than what you would use for most other art activities. Old coffee tables are just about the right height and make near ideal mosaic work surfaces, particularly the square ones.

    Can You Tell This Picture Has Been Staged? Large work surfaces allow you to lay out tools and materials and still rotate and move the mosaic to work on different areas.

    Once you work on a mosaic, the above picture should make you chuckle with its artificial neatness. I’ve laid out all the nippers, palette knives, tweezers, etc. like surgical instruments. Keep in mind that surgeons have interns and nurses and even other surgeons to assist. That means you have to keep things findable yourself.

    That doesn’t mean rows, but it does mean rough zones that radiate out from your current site of active work. The zone can be as simple as tools right, blues top, greens left.

    How To Manage Your Immediate Work Area

    The place on the mosaic where you are actively mounting tile tends to get ringed with the tools you are currently using (glue, rag, tweezer, pick) and bins of the different colors most relevant to that location. Try to keep the stuff you aren’t using most swapped toward the back of its zone.

    Also if you’re like me, you will want to create a special zone where you periodically slam down something you’ve had to search for a minute or two to find. If it keeps getting lost, put it in the special zone.

    Why You Can Only Be So Disorganized

    You will find yourself reaching for a palette knife as quick as any surgeon reaching for a scapple when you need to do stuff like scoop runny wet mortar before it drips onto an unsealed 250 myo limestone ammonite fossil to stain it forever. You have to work carefully and deliberately and quickly when you fabricate a surface from artifacts, and you have to know what to do when things go wrong.

    And things do go wrong when you work with wet concrete and stuff easily stained by concrete.

    You can be in a good rhythm, but then you will drop something, and before you know it, you will  suddenly have concrete on both hands, plus the past 6 things you touched, including whatever you are currently holding, which will continue to get dirtier until you just drop it and accidentally touch you hand to your face or hair in frustration. And then you laugh like a crazy man or cuss or both and spend the next five to ten minutes bathing things and picking concrete out of your eyebrow.

    Contain Your Cutting Slivers

    You can’t just cut tile, especially glass tile without creating some dangerous slivers and splinters, so this means you can’t indiscriminately hold your cutting tool over your lap or work surface. Cut tile over a tray or plastic tote to help contain the slivers generated by cutting. Totes with some depth like dishpans and unused litter boxes are more effective than flat trays for catching splinters that shoot out instead of merely falling.

    Why is this important? Random slivers lying invisible on surfaces cause more cuts than handling the tile. Inevitably you touch your finger, hand or forearm to the surface, and you have cut yourself before you know what is happening. The cuts are usually surprisingly deep given the size of the slivers. I’ve had one roll a deep cut all the way across my palm when I foolishly brushed a seemingly clean table with my bare ungloved hand.

    Keep your shop vacuum in the cell of the workstation if possible and use if frequently with a counter brush like the kind we sell.

    I have a wire mesh fitting over my vacuum hose, and it makes the vacuum a lot more useful. I use the wire mesh fitting for vacuuming the dust out of all my small part containers without having to remove the parts: mosaic tile, screws, hardware, fossils, teeth, arrowheads, artifacts. This is huge when you have a room with thousands of open-top containers of small parts.

    How To Make A Mesh Vacuum Fitting

    I made the mesh fitting from 3/8″ hardware cloth (galvanized steel wire mesh) folded over the end of a hose pipe salvaged from a dead shop vac. The wire mesh was folded under at the outer edges, and I spent a few minutes with with the needle nose pliers nipping and tucking under the sharp ends. Then I wrapped it about three times with duct tape.

     What Your Really Need To Know About Duct Tape

    Just because you are using duct tape doesn’t mean that your work has to be “halfast” and disposable.  You can form up some useful things with duct tape. Also, the environmental cost of making duct tape  and disposing it when worn out means that it is actually a very expensive material and should not be used carelessly.

    The nozzle I made was wrapped about three times with duct tape. If you leave the sharps turned out, you could wrap a whole roll on there and still get poked if you ever pressed down on it good.

    Tools List Mosaic tools arranged to the right of Dorothy Stucki’s in-progress mosaic “To Begin and End With Nothing.”

    In the tools laid out above, some are more clearly visible than others, so my list begins with the less than obvious and the less visible:

    misting water bottle (not shown) glue tray for dipping tiles in glue -use plastic lid  (not shown) tray of cotton swabs tray of assorted metal detail tools: dental picks, tweezers of different type, small pocket screwdrivers, palette knives, butter knives, spoons palette knives putty knives pencil cup full of odd tools: scissors, toothbrushes, pencils, markers, box cutter marble file mosaic glass cutter tile nipper Grout Mixing Tools

    I don’t mix my grout or thinset mortar up in the workstation where I actually position the tile. I prefer to mix up and wash up in a separate place, preferably where things can be hosed down without the possibility of getting concrete in any drains. For this reason, your grout and grout mixing supplies don’t have to be stored around your mosaic workstation.

    Grout mixing tools for smaller batches include small digital kitchen scale, measuring cups, buckets, pails, rubber gloves and a counter brush. Note the white tray to the left is the catching tray for the mounted compound nipper above it.