I have examples throughout this blog illustrating why darker grouts work much better for mosaic artwork than light colored grouts do. I also have examples of using complex color fields of related hues and explanations why they provide more visual interest than monochromatic color fields.
I repeat these two points so often because they are easy ways to make your mosaics look much better.
Artist Kat Hammer recently started making mosaics, and her first two mosaics of sunflowers are great examples of both points. Actually, her second mosaic of sunflowers is a great teaching example of when NOT to use a complex color field for the background and when a simple monochromatic background is preferred.
That last detail is very important, and I haven’t talked enough about it.
First I need to point out how darn good a darker grout looks:Kat Hammer Mosaic Sunflowers dark grout
The best grout gap for mosaic artwork depends on whether or not the mosaic will be outdoors or in a potentially wet location such as a backsplash.When Do You Need A Grout Gap?
If the mosaic might get wet or exposed to humid air, you can’t have the tiles touch each other. You need a gap for the grout to fit into to seal out moisture.
Tiles that touch can never touch close enough to seal out moisture.
If the mosaic is a small indoor icon or plaque, you don’t have to worry about sealing out moisture, and so you can fit the tiles tightly together and skip grouting.
TIP: You might want to grout anyway to fill in any small incidental gaps left by imperfectly shaped tesserae, especially if your mosaic is a “dry” tabletop or architectural surface. (If those surfaces are in the kitchen or bathroom, you should consider them “wet” and use a grout gap.)Smaller Gaps Preferred
Smaller gaps are preferred because they make grouting easier, and they minimize the color impact of grouting.
A grout gap only needs to be large enough to ensure that grout can fill the gap all the way to the bottom and not just a smear across the top and hide a void underneath.
Mr. Pinchapotamus is your new best friend. He holds small glass tile while you cut them with a Mosaic Glass Cutter so that your fingertips aren’t near the blades. He can also hold the tile more firmly in place than your fingertips, and so Mr. Pinchapotamus also improves the precision of your cuts.
Artist Barbara Stutts recently emailed me some photos of her abstract mosaic stepping stones and mosaic-covered river stones, and they resonated with me for several reasons.
Barbara says she is relatively new to mosaic, but her abstract mosaics are worth sharing because they are well executed and serve as good teaching examples.
In this case, one of the lessons needing a teaching example is what beautiful art you can make without drawing or rending an image in any way.Abstract Mosaic Stepping Stone p1 by Barbara Stutts
Mosaic stepping stones such as these can be made directly on concrete stepping stones using thinset mortar, and you can purchase both products at a local building material store.
If you need something lighter and thinner for a mosaic that will be mounted vertically on an outdoor wall, you could use a large porcelain floor tile in either 12 inch or 18 inch size as the backer.
Making a series of smaller works instead of one large work is the best way to improve your art.
The reason is obvious: instead of investing all your time in executing the larger image, which might already be flawed or compromised long before it is completed, you get several opportunities to get it right.
In addition to getting several more chances, you also have the benefit of looking at your previous attempt and seeing what you did wrong and would like to try differently on the next work.
That is why most of the teachers and artists who recommend “a series of smalls” also recommend that the smalls be the same composition or at least variations on the same composition or theme.
Even if your small works are different compositions, you still spend a higher percentage of your studio time making and evaluating decisions (actively learning) compared to making one large work, where the decisions are made once and most of the time is spent on execution.
This shift of focus from execution to decision making via “a series of smalls” is critical in learning the medium of mosaic because mosaic takes so much more time and effort than painting or drawing, especially when the work is large. Tiles and mortar are heavy.
I have always transferred my glass tile from the plastic factory bags used for shipment and into glass jars or plastic tubs. I do that for several reasons:
Rigid containers like recycled jars and plastic yogurt containers make it easier to rinse out the glass dust and slivers formed by cutting. Torn plastic bags drip water and don’t dry easily.
Glass jars and open-top tubs also make it easier to see the true color of the tiles, which is difficult when viewed through scratched and dirty plastic.
The Four Seasons mosaic by Marc Chagall in Chicago was originally installed outdoors in the 1970s but has since had a glass canopy installed over the top to protect it from the elements.
Part of the reason for the canopy is Chicago’s harsh freezing weather, which is hard on all mosaics, but another reason for the canopy is that Chagall painted additional details on top of the tile in places where his artist’s eye saw that that something more was needed.
Everything (except being boring) might be legal in visual art, but in mosaic, not so much. When you are making something to withstand the elements or to function as an architectural surface, you really have no choice but to use best practices and standard methods and materials. Otherwise, the artwork won’t last.
I recommend that schools wanting to make a mosaic mural for their school consider “crazy quilt” displays that are assembled from individual mosaic projects all on the same size backer, say anywhere from 6×6 inches or 12×12 inches.
This allows each student a real art experience (making their own design) instead of just being a worker bee on a group project, which runs the risk of teaching mostly the craft/shop aspect of the process while being too light on individual expression/design.
A good compromise is to have the class work on a group project to “learn by doing” under supervision and them have them do small individual projects afterward. These individual mosaics are then arranged as a “crazy quilt” frame around the central group project.
It is important that any school’s visual arts class or art project actually be about students doing art (individual design and expression). Don’t lose sight of that in your school’s project.Pre-Glue Exercise
When the students start gluing tile, you will be pre-occupied with showing inexperienced people how to glue without making a mess and won’t have much bandwidth for making sure everyone is working consistently in terms of spacing.
Showing the importance of small consistent grout gaps and how to arrange tile can be done before glue is ever involved.
If you like the cut-face look of smalti but don’t like the price, remember that you can cut recycled glass tiles in half and mount them on edge to get the same look and feel as smalti.
Since your “halves” of tile won’t be perfect halves, they will all be slightly different heights when turned on edge. The surface formed by these tiles make can’t help but have an interesting texture.
The slightly uneven surface emphasizes the tiles as individual pieces, and the mosaic “effect” of the image is enhanced:
Artist Denise Cook’s mosaic portrait of Frida Kahlo is a great teaching example. It illustrates several important tips for making better mosaic artwork. The background and skin tones are made more visually interesting via variegation of shade and hue respectively. There is also a satisfying andamento in the background, and the use of found objects to represent pictorial elements is done seamlessly.Visual Interest In Backgrounds
Portraits often have simple “monochromatic” backgrounds so that the central figure is more iconic.
In painting, it is easy to avoid boring uniformity in a nominally “monochrome” color field merely by being a little lazy. If the paint isn’t overmixed to perfect uniformity on the palette, every brushstroke can’t help but have a slightly different shade or hue or both.
In mosaic, you can achieve similar results by using 2 or 3 different tints of the same or similar hue. That is what Denise did in her Frida Kahlo portrait.