Category: Joe’s Rantings

  • 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…

  • How To Photograph Mosaic Art and Paintings

    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.

  • 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.

  • Mosaic Birdhouses

    Today someone emailed me about using 1/4-inch concrete backer board to make mosaic birdhouses more weather-resistant and durable. I think they had read we recommend thinset mortar for all outdoor and wet mosaics and that thinset mortar was not recommended for wood, which is true, and they were wanting to overcome the problem by laminating the concrete backer board to the outsides of the plywood birdhouse.

    That might make the birdhouse more durable, but it would not be practical. For starters, the birdhouse would be so heavy that it wouldn’t be safe to mount it anywhere overhead, at least in the type locations usually used for birdhouses (i.e., on top of a pole).

    The thing to remember about mosaic birdhouses is that they are no more durable than the wood from which they are made. That means you should use plywood instead of board to make the birdhouse, and the inside of the birdhouse should be coated with several layers of exterior paint. (I’m not sure how that might affect a bird’s willingness to nest there and am speaking only in terms of durability.) The reason you would paint the inside is to help prevent moisture from the air degrading the plywood from the inside over time. I am speaking of humidity not precipitation.

    Generally we recommend white PVA adhesives such as Weldbond only for dry indoor mosaics. However, birdhouses are generally kept on a post or some other location where water cannot pool. With that in mind, a birdhouse could be made with Weldbond provided the inside of the birdhouse was painted and the mosaic was thoroughly sealed with a tile and grout sealer. If those things are done, the mosaic should outlast the plywood on which it is made.

    Some people recommend epoxies and silicone based adhesives because they are waterproof. I don’t like the fumes and fast curing times of epoxies or how they can’t be cleaned up with soap and water. As far as silicone adhesives, I’m not sure why I am seeing them recommended so often on the Internet. I’ve not used any in my mosaic work, and maybe they have some better versions now, but the silicone caulks and sealants and adhesives I used for home repairs in the past tended to be too soft and flexible when cured and peeled too easily from glass.

    I suspect that I am seeing silicone recommended for mosaic work so often on the Internet is that there is a lot of misinformation that tends to get repeated and that many people aren’t very concerned about long-term durability, at least not as concerned as they are about selling something. I see a lot of craft advice on the Internet that is fundamentally unsound in regards to durability and weather resistance, including advice at the websites of large corporate-style players that have their own television shows. Word to the wise.

    Why put all that work into a project if it isn’t going to last? Also, it takes a lot of fossil fuels and mined materials to manufacture products like tile and grout and adhesive. If you choose to use those materials, there is a practical and moral responsibility to make sure that whatever you make is made well enough that it doesn’t end up in the landfill within a mere 2 to 3 years.