Mosaics cannot be a “food safe” surface as defined by the Food and Drug Administration because grout is porous and cannot be cleaned easily or completely, and it sheds material over time. That being said, you can still make mosaic bowls and platters as centerpieces for holding fruit and other decorative uses.
Artist Susan Klug Kahan emailed me some photos of her peony mosaic bowl and asked my advice on grout color. Susan used a narrow grout gap, and so the visual impact of grouting and grout color would be minimal, but there was still a lot of incentive to get it right: The design was all about harmonious colors, and so a poor choice of grout color would be particularly conspicuous.
I recently saw some stained-glass mosaics by artist Debra D’Souza, and they reaffirmed my belief in the mosaic business and actually cheered me up after a day of work poop. To explain why Debra’s mosaics make me so happy, I first have to explain a problem that really haunts me as a retailer of arts and craft supplies.
Not Rocks with Fake Skins
Most of the stones you see used in mosaic artwork are rounded river rocks, which is fine when they are unique stones collected from beaches and hikes and real life, but all too often they are the epoxy-coated or urethane-coated river rocks of the same type of stone from the same factory no matter where you buy them, which is really sad to me.
The pattern for a mosaic is sometimes referred to as a cartoon because it is just an outline with no attempt at shading or color. The purpose of the cartoon is merely to map out the major work lines and color fields, and so the cartoon is relatively simple, even for photorealistic work. The texture and color mottling and finer details come from the tile.
Simplified Yet Exact
The cartoon is not required to have all the lines needed to create an image, but what lines it does have should be exact. For example, you shouldn’t try to draw all the flecks of color in the iris of an eye, but you should have that iris drawn exactly where it goes.
Many people are drawn to the idea of making mosaics from marble and stone, mostly because that was the material used by the ancient Romans but also because they would like to make a mosaic from natural materials in subdued colors.
Nevertheless, as soon as these people start trying to source materials, they quickly become frustrated with how limited the color palette is in marble mosaic, and they usually end up mixing the stone with smalti or ceramic or porcelain tiles, or they use dyed stone or synthetic stone for certain colors.
In either case, the mosaic usually doesn’t have the look and feel that was desired, which is really a tragedy because superior results could have been more easily and cheaply accomplished had the artist used all glass and merely restricted the color palette to more subtle hues.
Before you convince yourself you need to work in stone, spend some time looking at glass mosaics made from subdued color pallets.
There is tremendous power in getting the colors right. No matter how loosely executed, an impressionistic landscape painting takes on photorealistic qualities merely by having the correct colors for a scene with its particular light.
For that reason, most people wanting to make a mosaic portrait begin by trying to find the “right” color for the skin type they are trying to render, whether it be a pinkish northern European skin tone or a Latino coffee color or whatever.
When these people email us asking questions like, “which tile would you use to render the skin of a caucasian person?” or “which tile color would you use to make a mosaic of Polynesian faces?” my answer isn’t what these people are expecting or wanting:
Mosaic portraits should not be thought of in terms of one particular color that generally represents the skin tone of a race or individual. Instead, look at the highlights and shadows of the model photograph and think in terms of rendering those areas in a way that gets their colors right.
Found objects can be used as mosaic tesserae based on their color and texture and shape, as another form of tile more or less, but found-objects of symbolic value add a whole new dimension to mosaics, one that is as cerebral as it is visual.
You do not have to choose between making a found-object mosaic or a figurative mosaic. You can create visual interest in figurative mosaics by using found-objects in a spare and selective way.
I wanted to show off and discuss artist Janet Sacks’ mosaics because she has some great examples of using found objects in figurative mosaic, both in the sense of improvised tile for texture and color and in the sense of symbolic value. Janet’s work is particularly strong in my opinion because she does not overuse symbolic found objects.
Janet also has a couple of mosaics that deviate from practices that I recommend as a general rule, and I wanted to talk about why they still work.
Artist Cindy Christensen emailed us some pictures of several mosaic projects that she collaborated on with her woodworking husband, and I wanted to share them because they are all well executed and colorful. They are also great examples of how you can improve your mosaic art by partnering with someone who has more power tools or shop knowledge than you do.
Cindy says her husband made the wooden coasters and the birdhouse and the other sculptural bases, and that he helps with sanding window frames and other bases for her mosaics.
Since we also receive pictures of distressed projects from people needing advice on how to salvage the situation, I wanted to talk about the problem of accidentally misdirecting the handy person helping you and how to avoid it.
I have written in the past about “passion projects,” which is a term I use to describe first-time projects in a new medium that were executed by people with little or no training, and often executed in an explosive or emotional way after wanting to do something similar for years.
Many artists like to choose background colors after the central figures have been tiled.
It is best to tile from the middle and work toward the edges to avoid awkward spacing between at key focal points, but you should not leave the color choices for the background as a complete afterthought.
Nor should you have firm color requirement for the background and tile the central figures without placing that color next to them just to see if they work.
Avoid “painting yourself into a corner” by doing a lot of cutting and mounting without thinking ahead.
“Thinking ahead” can be as simple as placing a single tile next to what you are tiling now to see if it has adequate contrast.
The following method is only recommended for dry indoor mosaics. Artist Megan Adams recently used it to save a mosaic that had been compromised by white grout, which makes tile colors look less intense and the mosaic as a whole “bleached out” in appearance.
We put white grout in bathrooms because it is used as an indicator of cleanliness. It’s use in mosaic art is limited to making your project look like a summer camp project. Avoid it. Consider black or dark gray grout instead to make your colors look intense.
Also keep in mind that traditional sanded grout is lighter in color when it hardens, and so sometimes a light gray or light brown grout can turn out looking like an off-white and cause the same problem as if you had used white grout.