Category: Inspiration

  • Mosaic Sinks

    Someone recently asked me about how they could make a Moroccan-styled Glass Mosaic Sink, and that got me thinking about different options for making mosaic sinks in general.

    How to Make a Custom Basin from Thinset and Hardware Cloth?

    To make a custom shape such as the simple elegant shape used in the Moroccan sinks I have seen, I would probably use a large ceramic serving bowl reinforced and extended with thinset mortar and hardware cloth (wire mesh). Actually I would probably use the bowl only as a mold for the curved bottom and build the sink up in layers of thinset and fiberglass mesh, Once I had a few layers, I would let that harden. Then I would cement in some hardware cloth and use a 1/4″ rebar hoop to stiffen the outer rim and support the bowl. Make sure the hardware cloth extends past the rebar hoop. Fold this back down over the hoop and lay if flat on the outside. Cover this in 2 coats of thinset,

    Of coarse, you need to have a metal drain cemented in place from the very beginning. I would use the upside-down bowl as a mold to get the curvature I wanted, and I would leave the fiberglass mesh bare in the very top where the metal drain will be placed. I would stick the metal drain  in a hole in the middle of the hardware cloth. I would fold this hardware cloth down on the outside of this shell and made sure the metal drain matches up with the bare fiberglass mesh at the top of the inverted sink shell.

    That is similar to how I made shapes for sculptures. Sometimes I would use an object as a “mold” to define the shape by draping it in mesh covered with thinset, and other times I would weld up a rebar skeleton and cover it with hardware cloth first and then cover this skeleton with thinset.

    How To Use A Conventional Porcelain and Iron Sink As A Mosaic Base?

    I’ve always thought about making a more contemporary mosaic sink, a wall mounted unit or maybe even a pedestal.

    For either one, you could use a conventional sink (glazed porcelain or cast iron enameled with glazed porcelain). I’m always seeing interesting ones in construction dumpsters and beside the road on pickup day. It’s not like you have to wait too long to find one if you keep you eyes open on streets where they were restoring old houses.

    The question is how to scuff up the porcelain so that the thinset sticks to it extra tight. Maybe the artist will get lucky, and the one in the construction dumpster will be 80-years old and used to rinse mops and scratched and stained. If not, I’d probably use a dual-grit rubbing stone an a leather work glove to scuff it up. I do stuff like that wet of course to keep from making a bunch of air-born dust. Remember, a mist bottle is often more effective than a dust mask, and a lot more comfortable when it’s hot.

    You could definitely make an interesting mosaic sink from some of the glass tile I sell.

    However, none of my glass is certified to be safe as a food preparation surface like a dish or a cutting board. This might not be relevant when talking about a counter top, but a sink is different.

    Some people use their sink as a bowl for soaking vegetables and frozen meat. I wouldn’t do that in a sink made from stained glass because I would want to be sure that none of the softer varieties of stained glass were shedding metal oxide pigments. I wouldn’t rule that out in a sink which is subjected to organic acids and spoiled food on a regular basis and chronically damp. You could avoid the problem by using a bowl for soaking food and keeping the sink clean of food residues.

    Recycled Glass Tiles

    The Elementile brand of Recycled Glass Tiles would be an interesting choice for a mosaic sink, and probably the most durable glass material we have for an application like that. Elementile is small and available in a range of colors too, so you could have a fairly detailed design without having to cut it or supplement other types of glass to make up for missing colors. I’m sure this is what I would use. I would use the standard finish Elementile and avoid the iridescent version of the product.

    Stained Glass

    I have seen smaller pieces of stained glass used in some amazingly detailed figures in mixed medial counter tops that ranging from repeating borders in conventional ceramic tiling to found-object mosaics that included artifacts like beach bonfire glass and boyhood collections of arrowheads.

    Use Small Pieces for Mosaic Counter Tops

    I think I would avoid large pieces of stained glass for a sink or a counter top because some of it is very brittle, and all of it is relatively thin: nominally 1/8 inch. Most all of the glass mosaic tile is nominally 1/8″ thick, but none are larger than 1″ x 1″. There is a relationship. When the thickness is relatively thin, the piece size can only be so large before it is too easily cracked by a falling object.

    Smaller tiles are less likely to crack than large ones. Here’s why: With smaller tiles, there are more lines of grout between the tiles. The grout between tile is concrete and actually helps strengthen the face of a glass mosaics to blows.

    In general, I would probably avoid stained glass for sinks and only use it selectively in counter tops and those backsplashes that are less likely to see impacts from dinnerware being slung and slid around.

  • Mosaic Tile Colors for Flesh and Skin Tones

    I frequently get emails asking me what is the best color mosaic tile we sell for rendering skin tones. I then have to explain that the question doesn’t have a straightforward answer, even if the person specifies the particular race or ethnicity of the skin to be depicted. The reason the question is problematic is that even a simplistic rendering of a face will require more than one color of tile so that you can show the features of the face, preferably through the use of shading and highlights instead of mere outlining.

    Instead of talking about what I mean, an illustrated example will make the point instantly obvious:

    Harjeet Singh Sandhu’s mosaic portrait of NYC Mayor Bloomberg

    Artist Harjeet Singh Sandhu’s mosaic portrait of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was NOT made by searching for the ONE most beautiful pinky white color of mosaic tile or stained glass we sell. Instead, Sandhu uses a variety of colors: muted pinks, off whites and browns in contrasting values (light versus dark) to show depth, shadow and highlights. Also note that the material Sandhu used was not stained glass or smalti or some other expensive variety of premium art glass, which is what people tend to search for when they think they need one particular color in order to be able to create a realistic image. The mosaic above was made from 3/8-inch vitreous mosaic tile, which has a fairly limited color palette and is produced primarily as a building material and not as an art supply.

    More of Sandhu’s work and portrait by other mosaic artists can be seen on our page for mosaic portraits.

    I take great pleasure in showing off Sandhu’s portraits, particularly when people express frustration in the lack of flesh tones available in vitreous glass tile or complain about the lack of intensity in the colors available. But I don’t do it in a self-righteous way. It took me forever to learn a few simple lessons about using color myself, especially this very important one:

    The intensity of a color is determined in large part by the use of contrasting colors around it. If you want a fiery red, surround it by blues and greens, not oranges. Value (brightness or shade) also works by contrast. A warm cream looks bright when surrounded by dark brown and relatively dark when surrounded by pure white. Whether you use complementing colors to create contrast or light and dark, the key to creating visual interest is contrast.

    Once you get the hang of experimenting and putting colors side by side to see how they contrast and compliment each other, you will be surprised at what complex images you can create from seemingly ordinary colors. I hardly ever see a random spill of mixed tile on the floor of the warehouse that I don’t start thinking about what sort of image I could render using only those colors, although I always end by thinking of what colors I would add to balance them (or which to subtract.)  Just as you can learn a lot about painting by brushing pigment of canvas, you can learn about how to render in tile merely by playing with tile and making different arrangements.

  • Art Using Improvised Methods

    In my previous post, I wrote about the improvised double-reverse method one of our customers Tobin was using to lay up details for the large panels of his garden courtyard mosaic.

    Tobin’s method uses packing tape and contact paper to temporarily lay up mosaic designs instead of the traditional lime putty or clay, but that lack of the traditional material does not compromise the design process or the durability of the artwork. In fact, his use of improvised materials illustrates some important concepts that apply to all mediums of visual art.

    The Right Tool For The Job?

    Sometimes it makes sense to delay work until you find the right tool or material for esthetic reasons or to ensure the durability of the artwork produced. However, if you know how to use what you have lying around your shop or kitchen, or studio or warehouse, you can spend more time experimenting with new ideas and less time gathering materials.

    Gathering Materials As Distraction

    Being able to work sooner rather than later is critical. This is particularly important for artists who still have day jobs and distractions like most of us. You can kill inspiration in the time spent gathering up materials.

    Don’t let periods of creativity be wasted because you didn’t have a specialty product you couldn’t get at the local supermarket. Instead, think of ways it could be made just as durable with more common tools and materials.

    Does this sound like a strange thing to say coming from a person who sells specialty art materials that are shipped to people living several days away from our warehouse?

    No! I’ve made mosaics from old marbles and bottlenecks and porcelain doorknobs and other things I’ve found, and I am well aware that it takes a lifetime to gather certain things just by looking around.

    If the image in your mind is a face made out of pieces of opaque glass, you probably need to buy some glass mosaic tile or stained glass or colored art glass.

    Stuff Is No Substitute for Improvisation

    I still regularly have great ideas that would be lost if I didn’t think hard about some way to make it happen using what I currently have on hand, and this happens even when I am working in our warehouse with all its tons of inventory and studios full of art supplies plus a shop with power tools.

    Artists tend to be gatherers of materials, and that is fine, but the defining skill of being an artist is the ability to improvise.

    A Good Teaching Example

    Back to why I think Tobin’s use of the contact paper is such a good teaching example about art in general:

    Sometimes time is a bigger problem than materials. Sometimes you have to improvise ways to get large projects done in small installments. Tobin laid up details of his mosaic on small pieces of contact paper so that he could work on them during short lunch breaks at an analytical job.

    I worked for several years as an engineer in factories and laboratories. I frequently worked on art projects during breaks, and this was easy to do if it was a small project like a Byzantine crown made from woven brass wire and glass beads or a turtle carved out of a knot of maple wood or a structural model of a temple made from laminated cardboard.

    But how do you make the temple?

    The answer is simple: one brick at a time. Devise ways to divide the project into “bricks” or discrete components. Collage these components together as they start to accumulate over time. Play with different configurations to see how the bricks go together before you cement them together. Try variations you didn’t consider originally. By doing so, you will learn which types of bricks you need more of and which types you don’t.

    I laugh when I think of some of the things I made in airport hotel rooms while on business travel as an engineer. I was in the most impersonal, unnatural, sterile environments you can think of, and there I was sitting cross-legged on a blanket on the floor carving the face of an ancient god into a piece of driftwood I had found during a near-death experience on a wilderness beach.

  • Improvised Double-Reverse Mosaic Method Using Contact Paper And Clear Packing Tape

    One of our customers Tobin is making an 80 square foot garden courtyard mosaic, the theme being the four elements (water, fire, wind, and earth) with a panel devoted to each element.

    Recently Tobin emailed us some pictures of his work in progress, and I think they are worth showing online and not just because they are strong visually. They are also good how-to illustrations for a double-reverse method of laying up mosaic designs. On top of that, they illustrate a very important concept in making art in general, one that is essential.

    Tobin says he cobbled his method together from different things he saw on our website and in books plus some trial and error and some lessons learned while installing a 12 foot by 4 foot shower mosaic.

    In technical terms, what Tobin is doing could be described as an improvised double-reverse method that uses contact paper and clear packing tape instead of lime putty or clay to temporarily hold the tiles.

    Bird detail in progress for Tobin’s mosaic panel for the Wind Element, which will include the bird and a woman playing a flute in a wind-swept flowing gown. Note that the tile will later be covered in clear packing tape, but for now it is held in place by sticky contact paper.

    Here is what Tobin is doing:

    Semi-translucent contact paper is taped down over the sketch of the mosaic design on a worktable. The contact paper is sticky side up, and the stickiness keeps the tile from moving around as they are placed into position along the outlines of the drawing.

    Once the mosaic design is completely laid out on the sticky contact paper. A layer of clear packing tape is stuck down on the face of the mosaic. The clear packing tape is stickier than the contact paper, so the design lifts right off the contact paper when needed. Before removing the contact paper, Tobin cuts the mosaic into workable sections using a box cutter/utility knife.

    Then Tobin does something different from what I would do at this point in the process. At this point, I would remove the contact paper and press the sheet into the thinset mortar I have spread on my surface. After the mortar hardens for 48 hours, I peel off the clear packing tape and grout my mosaic.

    Instead, Tobin transfers his design yet again by gluing it to a sheet of fiberglass mesh using Weldbond Glue, which is a white PVA adhesive. The reason Tobin is doing the extra step with the mesh is because he is making the individual figures in a convenient and portable way that allows him to focus on the details and then arranging the figures on the mesh to create a final design.

    That sort of collage approach to building up the design from individually rendered figures is a good way to make complicated designs and larger pieces more manageable.

    I often do something similar when I draw up scenes on paper. Without intending to do so, I end up cutting out the figures from the the original drawing and arranging them on a new piece of paper because I didn’t like something in the original drawing (maybe one of the figures was too large or oriented at the wrong angle). Then I lay a new piece of paper on top of this collage and trace enough to make a complete drawing.  The meta point is this: there are ways to work around your limitations in skill or specialized materials or even time.

    I will write more about Tobin’s Mosaic and how his method illustrates an essential concept in making art in my next post.

    Tobin’s Water Element panel, from a Four Elements series of garden mosaics.