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.“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.“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 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.
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.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.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.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.Van Gogh’s original self-portrait oil painting from 1889 on which Doug and Carly’s mosaic was based.
Recently artist Wendy Schroeder emailed us some photographs of her mixed-media mosaic bar top, and it is worth taking a look at for several reasons, especially if you are doing a high-end project and would like to integrate figurative mosaic art in a seamless way with other design elements.Strong Figurative Design
First, the glass tile mosaic part of the bar top is a strong figurative design (koi pond with lily pads and lotus) that makes good use of contrasting colors from the color wheel. Wendy also made good use of multiple shades of the same hue to make color fields more interesting. (She used multiple greens for the lily pads and multiple blues for the water instead of just one color for each.) There is also good use of andamento, which is the practice of arranging the tile in curved concentric rows to suggest motion instead of placing the tile in straight rows or grids.This impressive mosaic bar by artist Wendy Schroeder has a strong figurative design for the glass tile mosaic portion, which is integrated with the other materials and features making up the bar. Notice how well the rounded river stone mosaic works with the glass tile mosaic in spite of being different in texture and color and how the river stone mosaic helps tie in the sink and draining board. Also note the use of thick stone tile to make a border and cover the side edges of the bar top. Figurative Design Integrated With Other Elements
Another reason this project was successful is that the glass tile mosaic koi pond is well integrated with the other features and elements making up the bar. A second type of mosaic made from monochromatic rounded river stones contrasts the color and texture of the glass mosaic, and it helps tie in the black sink and draining board. Sure the entire bar top could have been covered with the mosaic of the koi pond, but having less of it and having it paired with a contrasting dark material make its colors stand out more.
Wendy’s use of the stone mosaic to limit the amount of colorful glass mosaic is a convincing demonstration of how less can be more in art, and it makes good practical sense too. Pots and pans can be dropped on stone mosaic around the sink instead of on brittle glass tile. Besides, I’m not sure the glass mosaic would have looked as strong if it ran all the way to the sink. It may have looked more like a generic repeating covering purchased by the square foot if it had been used to cover the entire bar top. The irregularly shaped intersection with the river stone mosaic calls attention to the custom aspects of the design.The artist Wendy Schroeder working on her mosaic bar top. Note that the rounded river stone mosaic is yet to be installed around the sink as are the thick stone tiles used to cover the edge of the bar top. The photograph gives a good overview of the figurative elements. Note the abstract swirls running between the lily pads. The abstract swirl illustrates how curving andamento can be used to interact with figures in a mosaic design.
The large boulder construction of the body of the bar underneath helps tie the mosaic bar to the same materials used elsewhere in the cabin.A Novel Border / Edge Treatment
Third, Wendy’s mosaic bar top has a great solution for the side edges. Instead of tiling it with small glass mosaic, thick stone tiles were used in a way where the tiles extend up to form a border around the mosaic on the top surface. You need to look closely at the first and third photographs to see these border tiles, and only their top edges are visible in the first photo. Note how those tiles have to be as thick as they are to properly form a border around the black river stone mosaic.A walnut cutting board and brass bin cover are built into the mosaic bar top. Note the thick stone tile used to cover the side edges of the bar top and how these stone tiles form a border around the glass mosaic. Project Integrated With Room Decor
The photograph above shows how a walnut cutting board and brass bin cover were integrated into the mosaic design of the counter top. The thick boarder tiles used to line the edge of the counter top are also used to form a boarder around the sink and brass bin cover. This boarder helps tie all the different components together.
What is equally important to me is how the bar counter top as a whole works with the other design elements in the room. After all, the colors and the materials and the design of the mosaic shouldn’t look out of place in the room where it is being installed. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how well the mosaic itself is executed. Usually this sort of harmony is achieved by using similar colors or materials or motifs or themes in the mosaic. The hardwood floors and stone mosaic used elsewhere in the kitchen help the bar to look “at home” because they are similar in color and texture and design and theme to the bar. Even the modern stainless steel appliances are visually compatible with the bar top because it contains black and gray elements.
From what I have seen over the years, architectural mosaic projects that fail usually do so because the materials or colors or design of the mosaic are not compatible with the decor of the room as a whole. It means a lot for me to say that because I am a figurative artist who paints and mosaics for its own sake, and I hate the idea of shallow people buying a painting merely because it matches their sofa, but art is context and art is design. Things have to be balanced and compatible as a whole in terms of interior design for the artwork itself to be fully appreciated.“And that’s not all! If you act now, we will include custom lighting!” As if a successful mixed-media mosaic project that worked well with existing room decor were not enough of an accomplishment, Wendy built in custom fiber optic lights BENEATH the glass of the mosaic. My initial emotional response to this piece was pure artistic envy: “Someone has outcrazied me, and I feel threatened.” Drawing The Pattern Directly On The Backer
Another reason I wanted to show off this project is that Wendy got some good photographs of the work in progress, which is something I have been terrible about doing, at least in the past. One of her work-in-process photos shows how she drew her cartoon (pattern or outline) directly on the backer used for the mosaic counter top, which in this case is a plywood surface with some reinforcing underneath.The outlined patterns used for creating mosaic designs are referred to as “cartoons,” and these can be drawn directly on the backer to be mosaiced if the surface isn’t currently in use. Usually you have to lay up the mosaic design in advance on mounting tape or mounting paper or fiberglass mesh because the surface to be covered is being used during the time it takes to lay up the design. Mounting The Tile Mounting tile on a large project is a time consuming process that ties up real estate in your studio for an extended period. It isn’t practical to pick up and store everything after each working session, so it makes sense to find a room or work surface that can be occupied for the length of the project. All that being said, small mosaic plaques can be made quite easily on a shared table provided you vacuum after work sessions and keep materials stored in trays.
Custom figurative mosaic work with glass tile means a lot of cutting, which is easy to do with a mosaic glass cutter, but tiny glass slivers are produced. These can be quite sharp and lie hidden on surfaces until you rub your hand over them. Keep your vacuum handy and cut over an old towel to contain these sharp slivers. Make sure you retire the towel after use or use it exclusively for mosaic.
Thanks Wendy! I really enjoyed showing off your project.
There are two options for bases for making a mosaic sculpture for your lawn:Buy an unfinished concrete sculpture from a lawn and garden center or a store that specializes in concrete lawn sculpture. Make your own concrete sculpture using cement and chicken wire and pea gravel and similar reinforcing materials as discussed on various websites found by searching Google for “concrete sculpture” or our page for how to make concrete mosaic sculptures.
Note that my page focuses on a large structural base I was making at the time while some of the other websites have better pictures of how to crumple up chicken wire to make smaller figurines. However, the Internet contains a lot of problematic advice about hypertufa and other practices, so make sure you read my caveats below.
Each of these options has advantages and pitfalls that are important to consider before deciding which route you will go. Either way, following best practices to prevent moisture penetration is critical for ensuring the longevity of your mosaic lawn art.Frog mosaic lawn sculpture by artist Lyn Richards is an excellent example of how you can take a mass-produced concrete base and make it your own unique piece of art by how you tile it. Note how the artist used multiple green hues instead of one monolithic color field and how the greens contrast the reds and yellows, which are arranged in patterns that suggest motion. Purchasing A Factory-Made Base
A factory-made base purchased from a lawn and garden center will be identical to all the other pieces made from the same mold, but there is obvious the advantage that you can start mosaicing immediately without having to make the base yourself, which is a complete project in itself and tends to be more labor intensive than expected, unless the artist has worked with concrete before. Also, you can make the generic base into an original work of art by how you tile it, as demonstrated by the artwork by Lyn Richards featured on this page.Sealants Can Interfere With Bonding
If a drop of water soaks into the surface of the concrete, there is no excess sealant present, and the thinset mortar used to attach tiles should be able to bond securely.
Sometimes you can find factory-made sculptures that have been drenched in sealants, and these can interfere with thinset’s ability to bond to the concrete securely, and tiles could fall off over time. If a drop of water beads on the surface of the sculpture (similar to how water beads on a waxed car), then you know the sculpture is coated in a sealant that should be removed before mosaicing. To remove the sealant, scour the surface with a stiff wire brush of the type used to clean welds (the wires are stiffer and more coarse than those on most wire brushes used to clean barbeque grills).Butterfly mosaic planter by artist Lyn Richards was made on a concrete base, which are much more durable than terracotta planters. Note how the artist used the grout line to add even more detail to the butterfly’s wing. Also note how the black grout makes the colors look even brighter. Beware Of Lightweight Concrete
Sometimes factories will mix expanded perlite or other materials into the concrete to make it weigh less than regular concrete. This is fine in theory, but the expanded perlite is highly porous and mostly air and therefore readily absorbs water. This makes the sculpture highly vulnerable to freeze damage: water seeps in, freezes and expands, and then the surface of the concrete flakes off. If you find a sculpture that appears to be lighter than expected or has a softer or more porous look to it, then coat it all over (bottom included) with a layer of thinset mortar and allow that to harden before you mosaic on it.Birdbath mosaic by artist Lyn Richards. Outdoor mosaics on horizontal surfaces tend to have shorter lives as standing water penetrates between the tiles. Mosaic benches and birdbaths and other horizontal surfaces should be sealed with multiple applications of a tile and grout sealer to prevent this from happening. You should also consider cleaning and sealing these surfaces every year or two. Making Your Own Concrete Sculpture For A Base
Mixing up even 5 pounds of concrete can be labor intensive, and mosaic lawn sculptures of any size at all can require 25 to 50 pounds at least. As you might recall from mixing up grout, your arms feel it even with the small batches, and most people will find a drill with mixing paddle necessary to mix up anything over 10 pounds.
Several of the websites explaining how to make concrete sculpture emphasize the need to make the bases hollow or to use Styrofoam or harder varieties of expanded polystyrene to fill internal voids. This is good sound advice, especially if you make the surrounding shell of concrete structurally sound by reinforcing it with metal rods and wire.Thinset Instead Of Regular Concrete
There are different concrete mixtures recommended on the various websites, some of which include glass fibers used to give the concrete the tensile strength it normally lacks. For my concrete sculptures, I used thinset mortar instead of regular concrete. Thinset mortar is like regular cement with sand, but it also has polymers for adhesion and tensile strength. I also mixed in fine pea gravel for additional strength and bulk. The pea gravel was sieved to remove larger pieces and added 1 part pea gravel to 2 parts thinset on a weight basis.
Thinset is more expensive than regular concrete, but it is so much stronger, and you don’t have to worry about whether or not it is adhering well to a bare wire frame. Also, if you have to add concrete to a large frame in multiple batches mixed in multiple studio sessions, you can be confident that the fresh thinset is adhering to the thinset that is already hard, and you can’t say that about regular concrete, which is likely to form a crack at the boundary.
Of course, the concrete sculpture recipes I saw on various websites recommended different latex additives that should be added to the regular concrete to make it be more like thinset. But my thoughts were why reinvent thinset from different components if I could simply buy thinset, which was actually cheaper by the time you factor in the additives. Also, instead of picking or sieving the larger rocks from a bag of concrete, I thought it made more sense to start with a bag of thinset (which contains no stones) and add the exact size of pea gravel I needed to ensure it fit into my wire mesh frame.Hypertufa
Hypertufa is synthetic version of a type of porous limestone called tufa, and it is popular for making custom planters because its porosity is good for plant roots and getting covered with moss and lichens. Hypertufa is made by mixing peat moss and perlite and sometimes other materials into concrete to make it porous and lightweight.
About half the post you see on gardening blogs repeat the mantra the hypertufa is completely freeze proof. The other half are asking for advice of how to prevent their hypertufa planters from mysteriously cracking (usually with an acknowledgment that they accept the official dogma that the cracking couldn’t possibly be due to freezing temperatures).
What I do know is that all other porous materials I have encountered in my experience with outdoor mosaics are highly susceptible to freeze damage: terracotta, unglazed ceramic, unpolished stone, etc. If it has small holes in it, even tiny microscopic holes, then moisture penetrates and freezes and cracks or flakes the surface.
I’m not sure why hypertufa would be any different. The peat moss and perlite are ready conduits for deep moisture penetration. I strongly suspect that hypertufa is so soft that the damage due to freezing and expanding doesn’t result in macro cracks right away, and thus people with weak reasoning skills assume it is freeze proof. Later when cumulative damage finally results in a crack, the crack is attributed to the anger of the hypertufa gods or something like that.Fish mosaic planter by artist Lyn Richards makes excellent use of glass gems as bubbles. Notice the mixed use of green hues in the seaweed and how the fish and weed are integrated and how they make use of contrasting colors from opposite sides of the color wheel (green and orange). The white makes these colors “pop” even more, as does the black grout.
I strongly suspect that hypertufa is so soft that the damage due to freezing and expanding doesn’t result in macro cracks right away, and thus people with weak reasoning skills assume it is freeze proof. Later when cumulative damage finally results in a crack, the crack is attributed to the anger of the hypertufa gods or something like that. “I must have done something wrong in how I mixed up the hypertufa or cured it. It couldn’t be the freezing winter conditions.”
All that being said, hypertufa is fine for someone making a simple un-mosaiced planter and wants it to crumble away slowly like natural limestone. But if you are going to the time and expense of covering it with mosaic tile, then avoid hypertufa. If you want to make a lighter core from concrete mixed with perlite, that is fine, but cover the outside with a layer of thinset before you mosaic to ensure that the vulnerable porous material is protected from the risk of moisture penetration and freeze damage.How To Mosaic A Concrete Lawn Sculpture
Like all outdoor mosaic and wet mosaic, the tile should be attached with thinset mortar instead of glue. Other than that, the instructions are more or less the same as our instructions for regular flat panel mosaics. I wrote some detailed instructions for using thinset mortar for mosaic art.
You can grout an outdoor mosaic with thinset instead of grout. Thinset is harder and more water-resistant than traditional grout, so it is probably better to use thinset for grouting. Thinset can be dyed with concrete dye. (Note that I am always talking about traditional powered thinset mixed with water and NOT the new epoxy-based systems with a liquid component). I use Versabond thinset in my work, and I have exceeded the dye manufacturer’s maximum recommended amount of dye in the thinset by a factor of 2 without affecting hardness or bond strength in any way that I could notice, but I am sure that it is possible to add too much dye depending on the brand.
Tip: Put cardboard on your work table to protect it from the weight and roughness of the concrete sculpture.
Tip: Rest the bottom of the sculpture on small blocks such as stone tiles or whatever so that you can mosaic and grout the bottom edge of the sculpture without the surface of the table getting in the way.
Tip: Consider sitting your sculpture on some plain concrete stepping stones when you install it in the garden by raising it slightly off the moist soil, you can greatly increase the life of the mosaic, especially the tiles near the bottom edge.
Tip: Use a pencil or marker to draw patterns on the surface of the sculpture.
Tip: Never use one color blue to make a color field when you could mix two similar blue colors to make the same field of color. It makes the element more visually interesting.
REQUIRED: After your grout has hardened for a few days, seal your finished mosaic sculpture with multiple applications of a tile and grout sealer following the instructions on the package. It wipes right off glass tile and only seals invisible pores.
Making and grouting a mosaic from ordinary flat tile is relatively straight forward. However, adding three-dimensional objects such as porcelain figurines or even simple rounded stones can complicate the grouting process. Instead of using a grout float or damp sponge to wipe away the excess grout, you may need to use a gloved hand as we often do, and you may have “excavate” some objects using brushes or dental picks if they have very complex shapes with nooks and crevices. An old toothbrush can be useful for cleaning wet grout from crevices in objects, but note that brushes of all type remove grout very aggressively, so take care that the toothbrush doesn’t gouge out any grout from where it needs to be.
If your mosaic is mostly dimensional objects, then the amount of labor required to remove excess wet grout may be excessive, and the easiest way to solve the problem is to avoid the grouting process entirely. Also, unsealed porous objects such as seashells cannot be grouted without staining them with the grout.
For these situations, it is better to press the objects into thinset mortar instead of the usual glue-the-grout method used for making indoor mosaics.
Thinset is a type of concrete, so if you spread it on slightly thicker, then a little bit will press up around the sides of the objects and serve as grout between the tesserae (“tile”). The key is to not spread so much thinset so that the object sinks in too deeply or too much thinset squeezes up and around the object.
Before you start pressing your childhood treasures and precious souvenirs into the sticky wet concrete that is thinset, you will want to practice for a few minutes with some ordinary rocks on piece of scrap. That way you can figure out how thickly to spread the thinset to avoid problems and practice keeping your hands clean while working with wet concrete. Otherwise your fingertips are likely to get wet concrete on objects that aren’t easily cleaned.
Your quick experiment on a piece of scrap should use more than one size of rock and include pressing objects close together. That way you can decide how closely you want to space your found objects in your actual mosaic and see how small objects have the potential to be buried in thinset pressed out by large objects nearby.
Keep in mind that small experiments like this do not require any extra time. Whatever time that is required to do them is almost always made up for in the time they save you on your project.
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 workA 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.
You have to build the factory before you can make the product, and that includes when you work sitting on the floor of a hotel room while on business travel like I did for years. Your factory can be as simple as a small plastic tote or gym bag with all your materials and tools packed inside.
However, the key to maximizing the amount of time you spend working on art is minimizing how much time you waste laying out and putting away materials when you are done. A designated desk or worktable can make all the difference in the world as far as productivity, especially if you lay out your tools and materials in an efficient way and keep things organized so you aren’t constantly cleaning up messes or clutter.
I wanted to talk about art studios in general first before how to configure a studio for mosaic work. My acrylic painting studio is a better example of basic principles for organizing the home art studio because my mosaic studio is at the warehouse and the tables and racks are larger and on wheels and are made for working on larger sculptural mosaic. However, I do have some mosaic-specific points at the bottom of this article.In my painting studio, I have things where I am surrounded on three sides by brushes and palette tools and paints and rags all arranged in the order I reach for them with minimal travel distance to the canvas at the right. Note that the totes of brushes and tools and rags and paints are all positioned about knee high so that I can reach them easily while seated. Note that there are other easels and nails on walls for displaying works in progress and color studies. Note there are open shelves just out of camera view to the left and right. An Efficient Home Art Studio Is Similar To A Factory Workstation
Factories that have workers doing complicated assembly tasks by hand usually have them doing this work at stationary tables called workstations and not on moving assembly lines or conveyors.
The layout of these workstations have been optimized to shave seconds off of each step in the process and minimize the total floorspace used. Bins of parts and tools are arranged in order at just the right height so that the worker has to reach a minimal distance. Often the workstation is C-shaped with the worker in the middle. There is adequate lighting and a plan for how parts flow into the workstation and finished products out without the operator having to take a step.
Few professional artists have had the first course in Industrial Engineering, but their studios often look like workstations professionally designed for a factory. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. If you work in a place day in and day out, and you are clever enough to create art, your tools and materials tend to get arranged in an efficient layout over the years merely by trial and error.
But as a trained engineer, I can see at a glance the extent to which these studios are ergonomically efficient, and it is remarkable just how honed some artist’s work spaces are, especially when laid out for one specific activity like sewing or painting or assembling small sculptures.Multiple Creative Tasks Sharing One Space
The more difficult question is how do you lay out your limited space at home when you use it for incompatible processes like sewing and mosaic making, which requires mixing up grout and cutting and gluing tile, all processes that are inherently messy and could easily contaminate fabrics.Modular Totes, Boxes or Trays
The solution is to using the same space is to use plastic totes or open boxes to minimize the amount of time you spend getting things out and putting them away:Make a basic layout that maximizes work surfaces and open shelves where you can see and reach different materials. Keep tools and materials for a specific media or process in plastic totes or open-top boxes. Move the totes in and out of the workstation based on which process you are using. Have a separate shelf where totes of specific materials stay when not in use. Subdivide each tote with smaller containers that organize tools and materials as needed. When possible, do you work on trays or boards or shallow totes that can be moved with everything on it as a work in progress. Separate Out The Dirty Processes
You must also divide processes into clean processes versus messy processes, and this is sometimes relative.
For example, attaching tiles by thinset mortar involves handling a sticky variety of concrete and using a bucket of water to rinse you hands and loose concrete and grit will contaminate the work surface around you mosaic. However, an artist with a little bit of experience can easily contain the mess by using a plastic drop cloth on the table and being neat with rags and a vacuum. This is a relatively clean process that could be done inside in your studio.
On the other hand, mixing up grout or thinset can create dust, and washing up the buckets and tools are best done using a water hose. Note that these tasks are usually shorter in duration and are not the actual implementation of the design, so they are best done outside of the workstation you are using for your clean processes. Locations like driveways, patios, back porches and garages are more appropriate for these dirtier processes.
This exterior space or space(s) should also be used for any sawing, sanding or drilling, although avoid using power tools and hoses at the same time or using power tools on damp surfaces.Don’t Squat On The Ground, Even For Dirty Work
A folding plastic table with locking legs is a great thing that can save a lot of strain on your knees and back. Don’t bend over or squat to mix up grout or wash out buckets like most people are tempted to do whenever they work with a garden hose. Suddenly they are 8 years old again even though their lower back isn’t. What happens is you get into what you are doing and don’t realize you are getting stiff and need to change positions. Something as simple as an overturned plastic milk crate can be used as a seat for working close to the ground with a hose, but you are better off with a seat with lumbar support or standing at a table. You always end up bent over longer than you had planned to be.General Principles For Designing Home Art Studios
An art studio’s specific needs depend on the size of the art being created and the processes used, but there are some general principlesadequate light work surfaces, preferably adjustable height, preferably more than one shelves and open storage areas that display materials in a visible and accessible way. an arrangement that puts the artist at the center of work surfaces and shelves. an arrangement that doesn’t require to bend over or hold awkward poses. a seat, preferably with lumbar support, that can be quickly rolled out of the way. an easy way to move materials in and out of the workstation. use plastic storage totes to store everything for a particular process. move these totes in and out of the workstation when changing processes. don’t use your workstation to store totes for processes not in use. Specific Principles For Designing Mosaic Studios
Mosaic work that is simply attaching sheets of mesh-mounted tile to a surface can be done in an area for messy processes or on site. The workstation used to create the sheets of mesh-mounted tile could also be used to create small and medium-sized mosaic plaques and sculptures, no matter if Weldbond adhesive or thinset mortar is used. The only difference being is that you have to go to you “messy process” area to mix up your thinset and wash out the buckets and tools at the end of the session.a comfortable seat with lumber support. a main work surface as large as practical to accommodate a mosaic plaque lying flat while surrounded by tools and containers of different materials adjacent tables or open shelving plastic totes that can be rinsed, not cardboard boxes plastic containers such as yogurt and butter tubs for holding tile pieces. shallow trays for catching and holding pieces of tile while being cut. rags mosaic glass cutter, tile nipper, tweezers, pick-up tools, dental picks safety glasses
I also wrote a page for specifically setting up a workstation for using thinset mortar.
For most processes, especially mosaic, it helps to have a vacuum handy within reach.
This article is about how to incorporate mosaic art into the design of your tiled bar top and is less about the basics of how you mount the plywood, cut a hole for the sink, etc. If you need that type of basic construction information, there is an article on HGTV’s website about how to tile a countertop.
However, I noticed that the HGTV article didn’t specify the thickness of the concrete backer board to use. For a floor, you must use 1/2 inch concrete backer board, but for a countertop, you can use 1/4 inch and probably should because it makes it easier to cut a whole for a sink with a jigsaw. You can’t cut plywood and concrete board at the same time because the blade gets dull too rapidly from the concrete, and then it rips the plywood instead of cutting it cleanly. Make sure you have holes in your plywood before laminating.
Back to mosaic art and how to incorporate it into tiled countertops:
Recently a customer emailed me with some photos of a bar top she had mosaiced for her home, and I thought they were worth showing off for several reasons. Not only were the execution and color choices well done, but the design complemented the color scheme and decor of the room as a whole, yet still managed to have its own merits as mosaic art and not be mere tiling.Mosaic countertops are easily replaced if the next home owner doesn’t care for the design. Unlike many forms of home renovation, these projects are relatively low-cost yet have maximum visibility and design impact. Photo courtesy of artist Charlotte Ward.
I think it is important to promote successful examples of architectural art because contemporary tastes have tended to converge on “basic black” and Bauhaus clean functionality in a monolithic way, especially when home remodeling is concerned. I certainly understand the reasons why: who wants to spend money to make their home less sellable? Who wants to customize their home in a way that most potential buyers might find unattractive?
Even if we have confidence in our own artistic and design skills, those of us who have lived in tight real estate markets have seen too many houses in “up and coming” neighborhoods where the previous owner may have had little money, but apparently had even less sense and spent $15 to $20,000 to add a room or porch that made no design sense at all or cut windows and doors where they made no sense or bricked them up with equal indifference. After being forced to consider such houses merely because they were the only thing on the market within budget, no rational person wants to even risk the possibility of spending money in a way that makes the largest investment of their life lose value.
And so we err on the side of caution and dismiss any individualistic ideas about home renovation and go for simple clean designs that lean toward the generic.
But that sort of thinking is why 9 billion houses have black granite countertops, and that is why those same black granite countertops will one day be the most despised, dated feature of those houses. If you doubt this, consider how many landfills full of real heart-of-pine paneling that you have seen ripped out of houses on HGTV home renovation shows. The wood paneling is rich-colored natural material (just as the granite countertops are rich-colored natural material). We just don’t like it anymore because it is so indicative of decades past because it was so widely used at the time.
The good news is that things like mosaic countertops and mosaic fireplace surrounds are easily replaced if the next owner or potential owner doesn’t care for the design. Unlike many forms of home renovation, these projects are relatively low-cost yet have maximum visibility and design impact. In short, mosaic countertops may be one of the few personalized home renovation projects you can pursue without jeopardizing the “curb appeal” of your house.Brown copper and vegetable green are natural color compliments. This color combination also has connotations of old brass with a green patina, so there is an “antique” feel to the color scheme, which is very appropriate for a bar used for entertaining. Photo courtesy of artist Charlotte Ward. Inserts In Regular Tiling
Note that you don’t have to mosaic the entire bar. The side edges can be regular bullnose ceramic tile, and mosaic art can be an insert in the middle of the regular tiling. All you would need to do is leave an un-tiled space in the middle of the bar (or instruct the building contractor to do so). Then you could put your own mosaic design in that space. Glass mosaic tile (typically ~1/8″ thick) is slightly thinner than ceramic tile (typically 1/4″ or 3/8″), and so you may need to build up the un-tiled space slightly with mortar before you mosaic it, but that isn’t difficult.
An Easy First Project?
Many aspiring mosaics artists decide to copy an existing mosaic for their first project instead of making an original design on their own. Usually the person goes this route because they have no confidence in their ability to draw or their artistic abilities in general, or they believe that this decision will make the process of getting started easier. This is particularly ironic because making a tile-by-tile copy is in many ways more demanding of technical skill than making an original design, and it can also complicate the process of getting started, often in extreme ways.
This article explains some of the difficulties of exact copies and why you might want to use existing mosaics more as pictures to be copied and less as maps to where each individual tile should go. This article also explains the benefits of making a completely original mosaic design instead of a copy.Why Copying Mosaics Can Be More Difficult Than An Original Design Matching Each Tile?
Keep in mind that it is easier to cut up five or six pieces and pick the one that fits best than it is to trim a tile down to a specific size or shape. (The rejected pieces can go elsewhere in the mosaic.) If you decide to make a copy of a mosaic, you put yourself in the frustrating position of having to match each tile, which can be tedious.
The mosaic you are copying was made by someone who had practice cutting and arranging tile. Wouldn’t you want to get some practice cutting and placing tile before adding the extra burden of having to do it exactly like someone else?Fundamentals First
Original designs allow you to spend more time playing with how you cut and arrange tile because you don’t have to be preoccupied with whether or not your results match an existing model. Also, if you allow yourself to make up your design as you go along (at least to a certain extent), you can decide to use a certain arrangement of tile simply because they fit together nicely or look a certain way.Serendipitous Discoveries
It’s much easier to paint a beautiful picture when you allow yourself to keep individual brushstrokes that happened to turn out beautiful than it is to constantly be painting over them because they didn’t look like the model or what you originally had in mind.
If you decide to copy a work of art exactly, you have already constrained yourself to such an extent that everything you do is right or wrong. This may be a good technical exercise, but real art is about serendipitous discovery, and this is completely missing from the process of making copies.Stress and Frustration
Some people decide to copy a famous Roman mosaic because successfully doing so would be some sort of unquestionable artistic accomplishment. This view is problematic, and not just because it implies that unquestioned displays of technical skill are what define great art. There is also the emphasis on results over process, and this can actually retard the development of technical skill.
It’s good to push and test yourself, but not every lesson is learned in this manner. Some of the more subtle lessons to be learned from art involve “listening” to your materials and processes. This does not happen as readily when our minds are in the same modes we use for driving through traffic or resolving problems at work.
When people make copies of art, they tend to judge their success or failure by how well their copy matches the original. This means their minds are more often in “work” mode than “art” mode, and they tend to overwork things or force things. At a minimum, this means that less was learned from producing the artwork than could have been. It also means that the process was more frustrating than it could have been and that the would-be artist is less likely to make another mosaic.Matching Materials
Matching the materials used to make a particular mosaic can be extremely difficult, no matter if the mosaic is ancient or contemporary.
Many would-be mosaic artist squander their enthusiasm for making a mosaic by spending too long trying to find materials that match whatever they want to copy. Alternatively, if they ordered what materials that were readily available and created an original or semi-original design from them, then they could start work almost immediately when the impulse to create was still fresh.
This creative impulse is actually more critical than any particular tile or art material, so don’t waste it.Problem Encountered When Matching Mosaic Tile Molded Glass Tile
If the mosaic to be copied was made from molded glass tile, then the factory that made the tile could have been any number of countless factories that regularly start up and go out of business. Even the long-term producers periodically revise their product lines based on supply costs, process improvements and changes in demand. It is often impossible to match mosaic tile that is only a few years old simply because it isn’t manufactured any more.Stone Tile
If the product is a stone tile, then there is not only the issue of how the manufacturer cut and finished the stone, but there is also question of what particular quarry it was sourced from. It’s hard to convince most Americans of the simple fact that not every basic material can be had as a commodity, but it is true.Use SIMILAR Materials
Of course, the degree to which all of the above applies depends on how sane your are. If you are sane and practical, then you can make do with a similar material. If you need an exact match, you may want to consider therapy. Here are a few reasons why:
The mosaic that is being copied is usually a photograph of the mosaic and not an actual mosaic, and anyone who has ever photographed art (or glass in particular) can bear witness to the extent colors are distorted by photography and digital image reproduction, particularly blues and greens.
Also, consider your purposes in making the mosaic. Is it completely about the finished product looking a certain way, or is it also important that you learn about how art really works and have some fun in the process?
If it is all about the finished results, then keep in mind that master artists discover their art as much as they make it look like the original idea they had in mind. Not allowing yourself to vary from your original idea or picture is more likely to flaw your art than make it successful.Ancient Mosaics
Ancient mosaics were exercises in using the limited color pallet available to render an image as naturally as possible. The lack of a broad color pallet forced the ancient artists to use draw objects in an outlined or stylized way, which make the art more interesting and more “modern” than an impressionistic rendering made from exact colors.
If the style and feel of the mosaic being copied ultimately derived from the ancient artist working with the limited materials he had available, does it make sense to try to artificially duplicate that same set of limitations or work with the limited set of materials you have available?
Sure, you may need to get a similar set of colors in a general sense (a white, a grey, a black, a terracotta red, a muted green, etc.), but when you push it beyond that point to needing exact color matches, you are in the realm of absurdity in my opinion.How To Copy A Mosaic
Here are some principles for copying a work of mosaic art:Copy the images in the mosaic, not each tile in the mosaic. Don’t use a mosaic as a “tile map” unless you are fine with the idea of spending most of your time matching the size and shape of each tile. Consider making an interpretation of a mosaic design instead of an exact copy. This will allow you to develop and use your own rhythm for cutting and positioning tile instead of trying to imitate someone else’s mode of working. Use similar materials and colors and understand that exact matching of materials is likely to be impossible for many mosaics, both contemporary and ancient. Don’t copy a mosaic out of the mistaken belief that it would be easier or artistically superior to an original design.
A common mistake made in first mosaics is a variation in the width in gaps between the tiles which results in the details of some areas being “lost” in concrete once the mosaic is grouted. The problem is a little sneaky because it isn’t visible until the mosaic is actually grouted, and so an artist can be experienced in other media and still get caught by this. In my opinion, it is one of the most subtle points in the mosaic learning curve.
Consider the detail in the photograph below:Rose detail from artist Dorothy Stucki’s “To Begin and End with Nothing”
The artist wishes to depict the angularity and variability in the shapes of the rose petals, and has done good job in doing so. However, some of the gaps between the petals are almost as wide as the tiles. This means two things in terms of how the mosaic will look once grouted:The rose will not be as colorful because once the gaps are filled with concrete, about 50% of the surface area of the rose will be dull concrete at the same height as the red glass and just as visible. Gaps don’t look nearly as wide when unfilled. That is the crux of how the problem sneaks up on experienced artists. The rose will look conspicuously different from the tiling around it because it will be the only place where the surface area contains so much concrete.
The good news is that the problem is easily fixed. I have written an article about how to remove and replace glass mosaic tile to change a design before grouting.
Another relevant point is the importance of displaying and studying your mosaic before you grout it.