Category Archives: Joe’s Rantings

Joe explains it all.

The Importance of Small Experiments in Art

In my previous post about how to use found objects in mosaic art, I made the claim that small experiments done before you start a large project do not require any extra time because of the time they save on the project itself. I wish I could emphasize how true this is.

Here is how you know it is true: How many times have you ever done something new and seemingly simple such as patching a hole in drywall or some other basic home repair and spent a lot of time and stress doing it, only to realize after you were done that the next time you have to do this same task, it won’t take nearly as much time and not be stressful at all because now you knew how to do it? Worse than that, how many times have you not been pleased with the results and realized you could now do it perfectly if only you could start over?

Small technical experiments allow you to do this in a sense. While you aren’t actually starting over, you are figuring out how your materials and methods work before you begin, which is more or less the same as getting a chance to start over in terms of saving time and stress. It can also save materials as well, even if your experiment is thrown away. How is this possible? Ask yourself, does it make more sense to throw away a scrap piece of backer board with some tiles or rocks cemented to it with thinset, or to have to throw away 80 square feet of tile and all the thinset used to mount it because you had to scrape or chisel it all off when you realized the grout gaps were all wrong or you didn’t mix enough water into the thinset or some other basic mistake?

Urgent Project Deadline! We Have To Start Now!

If you are facing an urgent deadline on a group project or large installation, you cannot afford to work inefficiently or make blunders that require you to start over. In other words, it is precisely because time is running out that you should do a simple experiment or two before you begin.

I have actually had customers admit they had never made a mosaic before and still tell me that they didn’t have time to make a small mosaic trivet before they started some 30 square foot project at their church or school, only to email me in a complete panic a week later when the project is an irretrievable disaster. And I am talking several customerS (plural), not an isolated incident.

What is it about mosaic that makes some people think that it requires absolutely no technical skills or experience? They probably wouldn’t offer to paint a 30 foot mural if they had never painted a small painting, but for some reason they don’t seem to make the same connection with mosaic, and it happens all the time. But I digress…

All that being said, mosaic is amazingly simple and accessible compared to most art forms, but something doesn’t have to be on par with rocket science for it to be a good idea to practice it at least once before you do it in front of an audience or coordinate 15 people doing it or do 100 square feet of it.

Experienced Artists Know The Value Of Small Studies

Experienced artists routinely do sketches and studies before executing large public art projects. Often these sketches and studies are done quickly or informally for the knowledge gained, but many times they are completed as finished works of art and sold. Either way, the small studies are almost always done first. If an experienced artist would never do a large public art project without first doing some studies and quick experiments, why do novices think this step can be skipped?

It is easier to work out color schemes and compositions on a 6 inch trivet than on 60 foot mural.

Small Experiments Made While Working

So far I have discussed small experiments as something novices really should do BEFORE attempting large projects, but “off canvas” experiments made while working on the main project are also important.

What I mean by “off canvas” is this: if an experienced artist is working on a painting and comes to a brush stroke or color combination they are unsure about, they will often do some quick experiments on their palette or an old canvas to the side before proceeding with the painting itself. By not experimenting on the painting itself, the artist avoids the risk of botching up the work already done. By doing the initial experiments on a piece of scrap to the side, the artist also has freedom to experiment in a looser and more exploratory way which would not have been possible on the canvas itself. On the painting, the artist has to be concerned about how the brush stroke or color combination fits in with the image being rendered, while anything done on the scrap canvas can be all about the brush stroke or colors per se.

Remember To Experiment Elsewhere

The “off canvass” principle applies to all mediums not just painting or mosaic, yet it is difficult sometimes even for experienced artists to remember. For example, it may makes more sense to figure out how a new type of stitch will work on a scrap piece of fabric than the wedding dress being made, but it is precisely because the seamstress has worked for 8 hours straight on the wedding dress that she is too focused on it to remember to put it aside and try out the stitch first on the scrap.

That is why I keep multiple easels with multiple canvasses in my painting studio. I want other surfaces always handy and visible so that I remember to try things out there first if I am sure. Of course, I do experiment with the canvas I am actually painting, just as any other artist does, but I try not to grope around blindly there and risk messing up the work I have already done.

Experiments As Short Breaks

If you are struggling to render a detail in painting, drawing, mosaic or whatever medium of visual art, then the tendency is to become focused exclusively on that particular detail, which can be problematic if for no other reason than you stop seeing the work as whole.

This is when you need to remember to step back and look at the work as a whole and possibly do a quick study elsewhere before continuing with the work of art. In fact, doing a little quick experimentation to the side often helps because it takes your eyes off the project for a few minutes so that when you look at it again, you see the image as a whole instead of the particular detail you were struggling with.

Often this study on the side might take less than a minute and might not involve more that a few pen or brush strokes or a few tile arranged loosely on a board just to see how the shapes might fit together, but it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of the finished art produced and in reducing frustration.


Architectural Mosaic Safety Issues

An architectural mosaic can cut someone if sharp edges are left exposed or crush someone if it’s not mounted securely. Even a small mosaic plaque is significantly heavier than a painting or photograph of the same size and should not be hung with light gauge wire or fasteners.

Preventing Cuts

Would You Glue Razor Blades To Your Shower Wall?

Broken glass can be sharper than any razor blade. Don’t cement razor sharp daggers to walls, floors or anywhere else. Use a marble file or grozing pliers to knock off any razor edges.

Use Smaller Grout Gaps To Reduce Cuts

Tighter (smaller) grout gaps helps reduce the potential for cuts. It’s intrinsically more difficult to cut yourself the closer the pieces are together because the closer they are, they less flesh that can be pressed between them.

However, there must be a grout gap large enough to get some grout into during the process of rubbing the wet grout into the cracks. Grout (and thus a gap big enough to be able to press wet concrete into) is needed to seal out water. That is one of the big ironies of mosaic: You can make your mosaic significantly more vulnerable to water damage by mounting the tiles so closely that they touch. Wet concrete might find it difficult to fit into a hairline crack, but water won’t have any problem.

Grout Cannot Hide SIns (Forever)

Grout erodes over time, particularly in locations with lots of water and traffic, such as the bathroom floor and shower stall. When the grout erodes, it re-exposes the sharp edges. Don’t use grout to hide safety problems.

Repair Damaged Mosaics

Repair damaged mosaics by prying off broken tiles or smoothing with a marble file.

Mount Mosaics Securely

The most secure mounting for a mosaic mural is a stone, concrete or masonry wall. However it is possible to mount a mosaic mural on a wood-framed wall provided you review the wall with a carpenter to make sure it’s structure can support the weight.

Smaller mosaics may be mounted using multistranded stainless-steel picture wire with construction-sized wood screws, but install a redundant wire as a back up. Use multiple fasteners in the wood and stagger their locations so as not to split the wood.

Larger murals should use steel mounting clamps or mounting trays. The fasteners should be of structural size and not finishing or cabinet nails. Put fasteners in studs and review your mounting scheme with your carpenter when you review the wall with them. Weights of large murals can be calculated from area multiplied by unit weight, which can be summed from component materials if not actually weighed on a scale.

Make sure you have a carpenter look at the wall to see if it can bear the load.

How To Lay Out A Home Art Studio

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:

  1. Make a basic layout that maximizes work surfaces and open shelves where you can see and reach different materials.
  2. Keep tools and materials for a specific media or process in plastic totes or open-top boxes.
  3. Move the totes in and out of the workstation based on which process you are using.
  4. Have a separate shelf where totes of specific materials stay when not in use.
  5. Subdivide each tote with smaller containers that organize tools and materials as needed.
  6. 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 principles

  • adequate 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.


How To Make Reclaimed Wooden Frames And Mount Indoor Mosaics

Frames That Match The Art

If the mosaic is a mixed-media mosaic with rounded and irregular sculptural elements, a frame in the style of a generic photo frame or document frame may look out of place with its uniformity and minimalism and linear perfection.

The Merits Of Reclaimed Wood

I think reclaimed wood with some naturally worn edges and grooves works very well, especially if you use the surface of the wood without sanding off all the wear and join the wood in such a way that matches the worn character of the wood. Reclaimed wood is a great example of downcycling in art and using repurposed materials.

Wood bleached white from the sun might not be as useful as indoor wood that was been aged to a warm color.

I salvage solid wood desks and chest-o-drawers when I see them on the side of the road, but here I’m talking about larger pieces salvaged from a house, maybe something roughly 1.5 to 2 inches thick, maybe something from an oaken door frame.

Original nails can be good, preferably square, preferably flush with the surface or near to flush. Rust stains, knots, old peg holes, notches, channels and dovetailing are good features to look for when choosing your wood.

Joining The Corners

I wouldn’t cut the wood to make a 45-degree mitre joint like a manufactured frame. The joint should not be a super-straight line with crisp corners if that isn’t how the other edges of the wood are.

How I attach the pieces together at the corner joints depends on the sizes, shapes and end details of the wood I found.

I like to notch things like the logs at the corners of the log cabin. In a cabin, the logs are notched shallow enough so that a log sits slightly above the two logs it is sitting on. For a mosaic frame, I cut deep notches so the four sides are all a the same level in the same plain and not two sides higher than the other two.

No Daniel Boone, you don’t use an axe to notch something this small. Instead, use a wood chisel and mallet. You can cut a notch by making repeated passes on a tablesaw set to shallow depth, but I don’t like how uniform and crisp the tablesaw is compared to the wood chisel.

You can peg the notch-joint corners with a rusty square-cut nail or brass wood screw from the front or a more generic fastener hidden from the back based on preference.

A shallow pan of a dilute bleach solution can accelerate rusting of steel nails and other findings.

Finishing Cuts

The edges of any cuts need to look like the rest the wood. Round the edges of cuts by light controlled blows with a hammer and burnishing with an old rag that gives off traces of shoe polish or wood stain, not sanding. Better yet, look for pieces of wood that are slightly longer than needed and extend out to the sides.

If a piece of old wood is too wide, consider splitting it instead of saw-milling it in a tablesaw.

Attaching Frame To Mosaic

The frame should be built around the mosaic. What I mean by that is every time you join a corner, fit it onto the mosaic to test the fit before and after driving the fastener.

I would probably have the surface of the frame be about 1/2 inch to 3/4″ inch above the surface of the mosaic but do it in a way that didn’t cause a problem shading or obscuring details. That is best accomplished by using wood that is thinner or more worn down on its inside edge.

Make sure that your mosaic is securely integrated with the frame and can’t just pop out. For esthetic and structural reasons, the frame needs to be part of the art. Use adhesives and fasteners for safety’s sake. Use your wood chisel to make sure the mosaic fits snugly inside the frame.

Mounting The Mosaic

Smaller mosaic plaques can be hung using stainless steel multi-strand picture wire provided the weight isn’t too great and the mosaic is being hung where it cannot be brushed by someone walking past and isn’t hung overhead.

A mosaic is significantly heavier than a painting or photograph. Use double mounting wires. Use stainless steel multi-strand picture wire.

Attach the first wire to nails in the back of the wood, not silly little screw eyes such as sold for hanging pictures. Wrap the wire under the heads of two nails on each side, first one nail, then the other down below it. That is your back up nail on each side.

The second wire is the backup wire, and it runs to the same 4 nails and is wrapped under the nail heads over the top of the ends of the first wire.

The nail should be selected for having a broad head, but don’t use a roofing tack. The heads of roofing tacks tend to break off easier than most nails. A screw with drilled pilot hole is preferable to a nail.

You must not use wood that is too brittle or worn out to be structurally sound. The fastener will pull out or split the wood over time. Use good carpentry skills and stagger the fasteners so that they don’t split the same grain.

The mounting wires need to hang on a fastener of structural size in the studs of the wall.

Use Metal Mounting Brackets Not Picture Wire For Large Mosaics

If your mosaic is large and heavy enough, it needs to mounted with metal brackets similar to those  used to mount mirrors, not hanging on a picture wire. Mosaic murals of this size may not need a frame.

Where To Get Materials

A carpenter friend who renovates old homes throws a lot of amazing art material into dumpsters all the time: oak flooring, oak door frames, old floor joists and ceiling beams. I’ve always been grateful that I’m tall enough to peak over inside a construction dumpster.

The Importance Of Repurposed Downcycling In Art Studios

In my previous article about how to cut cement board for use as a mosaic backer, I explained how I didn’t buy carbide-grit jigsaw blades for this because I re-used my worn-out wood blades for this once they became to dull for wood, and that it didn’t matter that cutting the cement board destroyed them completely. The worn-out wood blades would normally be thrown away as useless, so they are essentially free. This is an example of repurposed downcycling.

Repurposed Downcycling Versus Conventional Recycling

Recycling cans and bottles and plastics and paper usually means collecting old containers, transporting them to a plant, melting or breaking them down, re-manufacturing the raw material into new products and then transporting these finished goods to consumers. Each step of this supposedly “green” and sustainable process is actually much more energy intensive than it should be.

What this means is that conventional recycling doesn’t conserve nearly as many resources as when you can repurpose waste materials on site, even if that new purpose isn’t as important as the original purpose of the material.

For example, consider the re-use of a 32-ounce yogurt tub as a water container for rinsing paint brushes while working with acrylic paint. A container used to rinse paint brushes doesn’t need to be made from virgin plastic, which was what was required to make the yogurt tub. You could use a container to rinse brushes that was made from recycled plastics, old plastics that didn’t have to be certified to be contaminant free. However, if you can re-use the virgin plastic food container (a purpose requiring high-grade material)  for a brush rinsing container (a purpose requiring lesser-grade material) you save all the energy and other resources required to produce one from recycled plastics.

Examples Of Products Replaced By Free Repurposed Materials

Here are just a few examples from my studios and steel and woodworking shops. The free repurposed material is in parentheses () following the commercial product being replaced:

  • paper towels (old newspapers)
  • shop rags (worn-out clothing cut into pieces)
  • carbide-grit jigsaw blades (old dull blades made for cutting wood)
  • rags for cleaning up thinset (plastic grocery bags)
  • studio floor mats (flattened cardboard boxes)
  • sorting bins for nails, screws and hardware (tin cans of uniform size in a cardboard box)
  • small disposable paint containers for mixing (bottoms of milk and juice jugs cut down)
  • plastic buckets with lids (plastic paint buckets)
  • nuts, bolts, washers, screws (reclaimed hardware from old appliances)

Then there all the many different ways you can use discarded objects of metal, glass and wood as raw materials for sculpture…

Downcycling Is Different From Hording

As an artist, your most important resource is time. Your second most important resource is space. Saving large unsorted piles of mixed materials is an act of waste. It wastes your time, and it wastes your workspace, and it usually wastes the materials too eventually.

If the materials are unsorted or saved in quantities beyond what you use on a regular basis, then sooner or later it will be necessary to dispose of them all at once, even if it is after you are gone. Unused junk is unused junk. What a bizarre burden to live with. What a bizarre burden to leave for your loved ones to sort out!

Practical Tips For Downcycling

Here are some practical tips for saving materials for repurposed uses in the art studio:

  • sort materials immediately or discard them.
  • store materials in labeled containers.
  • don’t save more than you use.
  • don’t try to save everything, or even most of everything, or even some of everything.
  • don’t store anything at the expense of your workspace.
  • don’t spend more time salvaging materials than working on your art.

Repurposed Downcycling Also Saves Time, Labor and Money

Downcycling of waste materials for “lesser” purposes has other advantages than saving more resources than conventional recycling. Re-purposed materials save money because they are essentially free. Re-purposed materials also save time and labor. How? An example makes it instantly obvious: If you can cover the floor with old newspapers or flattened cardboard boxes, then you can paint the ceiling a lot faster without having to stress about every drop that falls.

Most manufacturing and maintenance processes can be done faster with sacrificial materials of some sort. Things like removable painter’s tape and paper patterns and disposable rags for cleaning up are obvious examples. When you use downcycled materials for these purposes, you can use more of them if needed without hesitation because they are free, and this allows you to  focus on minimizing time and labor costs.

How To Color Grout

This article is about coloring grout for mosaic art before the grout is applied.

This article isn’t about staining grout for bathroom backsplashes. From what I’ve read, staining bathroom grout doesn’t tend to last but has to be refreshed within a year or two. If I wanted to change gout color, I would remove the existing grout with a grout removal tool and then re-grout.

Another problem with grout stains and concrete dyes is that they tend to be limited in color, especially what is available at your local building material store.

Coloring Grout With Acrylic Paint

White grout (for dry indoor mosaic art*) can be colored with artists acrylic paint. You should mix the grout up according to manufacturer instructions, and once you have a nice lump of grout with a consistency similar to dough, you can add the paint. Mix in the paint a little bit at a time until you work up to the color you want. (It’s easier to add than remove, as my father would say.)

Make sure you use white grout because white will be easiest to color. If you find that you can’t get a dark enough color with white grout, then consider starting with grey grout. However, if you start with grey grout, you may find it easier to get a darker color, but it might be less intense than what you got with the white grout.

*Outdoor And Wet Mosaics

I’ve not used this on wet mosaics. That doesn’t mean it cannot be done. It only means you should test first and be aware that not all pigments are UV resistant and can fade with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Testing For Outdoor Use

I would test my colored grout by placing a hardened lump in water for a week and look for signs of color leaching or softening. I would use a minimal amount of water and look to see if the water was tinted after a week of soaking.

I would also make a few other lumps for hammer hardness testing. I would have a few control lumps with NO paint added so I could compare their hardness to the experimental specimens. Place the head of the hammer in your hand and press down on the sample with increasing weight until it crumbles. The specimens with paint should be more resistant to crumbling. Definitely email me if you observe anything different.

Use Studio Grade Pigments For Reds, Oranges And Yellows.

Use studio-grade or student-grade pigments when it comes to reds, oranges and yellows. The artist-grade pigments of reds, oranges and yellows are cadmium oxides, which are toxic. Studio-grade pigments are generally “non-toxic,” which means there isn’t a known toxic effect in the short term.

Acrylic Paint Strengthens Grout

Acrylic paint should improve the tensile strength and impact resistance of the grout the same way thinset is fortified with polymers. Of course, all of this refers to conventional grout and not the new epoxy-based grouts. I have no idea what could be done with epoxy grouts.

Should You Color Grout?

The most important question about coloring grout is should you color it.

Consider the following:

Novice artists tend to see the choice of grout color as an opportunity to improve their mosaic. Experienced artists tend to see grout color as a potential to screw up their mosaic and thus tend to make a conservative choice for grout color,

Grout color should contrast tile colors not match them. Unless you are using gray tile or light blue tile, a medium gray is usually the best choice of color because it tends to contrast the most colors. If you match grout color to tile color, then your tiles won’t be separated visually, and the mosaic effect will be lost.

The grout line is best used to separate the tiles visually and not as a color field. Think about how a thin pencil line provides definition to watercolor paintings but not color. That is how grout is best used.

Wrong Color Grout?

If you realize that you chose the wrong color grout, I wrote an article on fixing grout mistakes, including wrong colors.

Test Color Of Hardened Grout Before Applying To Mosaic

Of course you should test the color of your mix before applying the grout to your mosaic. By test, I mean mix up a small amount of grout and color it and allow it to harden overnight. You need to know what the grout looks like when it is hardened and dry before you even consider applying it. Keep in mind that grout always looks less intense and lighter after it has hardened.

If you are worrying about wasting a little grout and paint by testing it in this way, then consider how much you will waste if you apply it to your mosaic and it isn’t right…

Photographing Mosaic Art -- Blue Mirror

How To Photograph Mosaic Art and Paintings

Not too long ago, I included a request in our email newsletter for customers to send us pictures of their mosaic art. I was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly good some of the mosaics were, but I was more than a little bit disappointed to see how poor some of the photographs were. To be brutally honest, some of the photos made me nothing less than angry. Here’s why:

If you are going to spend over 40 hours making anything, does it makes sense to photograph it without spending at least 4 minutes to make sure you have a neutral background and adequate lighting? After all, the vast majority of the people who see your art will actually only see the photograph of it and not the mosaic itself.

Note: You don’t have to be paranoid about sending me pictures of your art. The pictures I am talking about were so dark and/or blurry that I couldn’t tell what type tile was used in the mosaic. Seriously.

It was actually shocking that people could have enough patience and artistic sensitivity to produce the quality of mosaic they submitted to us, yet not display any of those traits when taking photographs of that same art. Many of the photographs looked like they were taken by a passing teenager who could care less: “I think I got a good shot. It’s a little blurry, and there’s shadows on the top corner, but you get the idea. Whatever. Hey, do you know what time Burger King closes?”

If this seems like a rant, it is, but my cheapo cell phone is capable of taking better photographs than a lot of what we received. And that is just the point of this long-winded introduction: YOU DO NOT NEED AN EXPENSIVE CAMERA TO TAKE PUBLISHABLE PHOTOGRAPHS OF MOSAIC ART AND PAINTINGS. You can take excellent photos with ordinary and low-end digital cameras provided you take just a little time (minutes) to ensure that you have adequate lighting and background.
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Nonsense Questions

Correcting a Decade of Misinformation

For the past eleven years, I have been answering numerous how-to-mosaic questions via email on a daily basis.

In the early days, much of the advice I gave was essentially correcting misinformation that people had found elsewhere, specifically arts and crafts sources that wanted to make things as easy as possible in order to encourage sales.

These sources of information often omitted what needed to be done to make the mosaic durable and weather resistant. Possibly they thought the extra information might make the project look overly complicated or seem like too much work. (It isn’t.) However, in some cases I think it was ignorance on the part of the authors, and so they wrote instructions for how to make outdoor and garden mosaics using materials and methods meant for dry indoor locations.

And then there were all the people who would read instructions clearly meant for indoor mosaic projects like trivets and use those instructions to make an outdoor mosaic table or birdhouse…

This latter group included people who would send vitriolic emails blaming it on the tile we had sold them and other people who would propose solutions for how to rescue the poorly-conceived project: “If I dipped my mosaic birdhouse in a clear hard plastic, do you think it would keep it from falling apart? Do you sell anything like that?”

I think I preferred the emails from people threatening to sue me over the emails from people wanting clear plastics to pour over doomed outdoor projects.

But I have noticed a change in the type of mosaic questions I am getting via email over the past decade.

Some Things Do Change

Apparently the Internet has been successful in distributing a vast amount of basic how-to information because the questions I receive now don’t seem nearly as half-baked as they did when I started Mosaic Art Supply. I can’t even remember the last time someone emailed me asking if they could use a a large stretched painter’s canvas as a mosaic backer or if food coloring could be used to color grout. Silly nonsense like that used to come in several times a day when I first set up shop.

Nonsense Questions

The first reason those type questions seem like silly nonsense to me is that they don’t consider non-mosaic information the person asking is almost certainly already aware of, especially since they usually introduces themselves by mentioning their experience in art or their profession.

Q: Can I use a 3 ft x 4 ft stretched canvas as a backer for a mosaic of glass tiles?

A: Can your canvas hold 30 to 40 pounds of anything without sagging? No. It’s fabric. Also, fabric flexes; tile does not.

Q: Can I use food color to dye grout? Would it last if it worked?

A: No. Grout is concrete and mildly caustic when mixed. It would eat a vegetable pigment. Besides, what’s the longest you have ever seen a spilled Kool-Aid stain last on a sidewalk before fading away?

Of course, you never get to answer those type question emails quite as bluntly, but you do have to answer them, and sometimes they keep emailing back, and you actually have to explain to them why it won’t work, convince them it won’t work.

That is when it truly becomes nonsense: when someone is so in love with the idea they have come up with, they want you to bless it and tell them that it will work, even though they know it won’t.

Better Questions Now

As people have become more educated about basic how-to information, their questions have become a lot more relevant and practical and worth sharing with a broader audience.

For instance, more and more people generally seem to know they need to use thinset mortar instead of glue for outdoor and wet mosaics, and so now more of the questions are about how to use thinset instead of “why did the mosaic I made with a hot glue gun suddenly fall apart when it turned cold out?”

I have to be honest. In 2003 when I launched my business, I worked around the clock drawing on every knowledge resource I had gained from two engineering degrees and a lifetime of shop work just to get by, but that was not the challenging part. The challenging part was email. Sometimes I would open an email and think I literally might go mad if I attempted to answer it, but I answered them every day…

The Importance of Durability in Mosaic Art

In my previous post, I wrote about improvisation being a critical skill for visual artists working in multiple mediums. I regularly get emails from people using methods that are not technically sound: using hot glue guns to mount mosaic tile, using grout as mortar to attach tiles, etc., and so I think I need to say a little bit about improvising in ways that are technically sound versus just trying things blindly.

Improvisation Requires More Knowledge Not Less

Improvisation is best done with knowledge of fundamentals and how things should be done for durability sake. Improvisation is not stumbling in the dark or willfully ignoring design principles or shop practices. To deviate from the beaten path, you have to know more not less. Otherwise your artwork is likely to be physically defective in some unexpected and undesirable ways.

Ignorance Is Ugly (Often Literally)

When I see a piece of art that is poorly made and not very durable, all I can think about is how quickly that piece will end up in the landfill and how much fossil fuel and mined minerals were used to manufacturer the materials the artist consumed.

As an artist, you are free to use paint and glue and concrete in novel ways, but if you ignore basic usage instructions and fundamental design principles, then your artwork probably won’t age very well.

Poorly executed craft work is a manifestation of ignorance, and ignorance is never attractive. Where durability is concerned, naivety just isn’t the same as the naivety that make children’s artwork so wonderful. There is nothing liberating or instructive in seeing yet one more piece of poorly made junk in an age dominated by poorly made junk.

The Art of Impermanence

There is quite a lot of wonderful art that is made to be temporary, and its impermanence is actually part of its beauty and significance and wow factor, for want of a better phrase. Who hasn’t seen a photo-realistic masterpiece chalked on a sidewalk and not been stuck in an emotional way by the fact that it will all be gone in the next rain? The fact that it will be gone so soon makes us ponder that piece of art in ways that would have never occurred to us if it were just another painting on canvas.

A Sad Persistent Reproach

The example of a masterpiece chalked on a sidewalk is significantly different from a mosaic missing tiles and chunks of adhesive. The sidewalk painting washes dramatically and cleanly away. A poorly executed mosaic is a sad persistent reproach that just won’t go away. It has to be scraped or chiseled off as penance for the artist’s disregard for doing things in the right way.

Remember, what makes crumbling architecture so beautiful was that it was built to endure as long as possible not to be disposable.

If you want to make Tibetan butter sculptures to watch them melt in the sun as a meditation on the impermanence of everything, then use butter, not materials that were manufactured to be durable. I would say this for esthetic reasons alone, but there is also the moral reason, especially when the materials in question (cement, glass tile, etc.) require so many resources to be manufactured.



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.