Category Archives: Step by Step Instructions

Detailed instructions that teach how to make mosaic artwork.

How to Build Up Areas and Fill Holes in Mosaic Backers

For dry indoor mosaics, areas can be built up to support thinner tile next to thicker tile by mixing sand or sawdust to Weldbond adhesive to create a heavy paste. You can also fill holes in mosaic backers using this method. Sand is best for minimizing the contraction that happens as the glue dries, but sawdust can be used when weight is an issue.

For outdoor and wet mosaics, thinset mortar can be mixed with clean pea gravel to make a concrete. The pea gravel must be washed clean and dried to avoid contaminating the mortar, and we recommend screening the pea gravel and using only small pieces. Note that you cannot use sand because too much sand will overwhelm the mortar and make it crumbly.

Case Study: Stained Glass Mosaic Coffee Table

Stained Glass Mosaic Coffee Table

Stained Glass Mosaic Coffee Table by artist Holly LaBarre.

Recently our customer Holly LaBarre emailed us asking how to build up areas between wooden slats of a mosaic coffee table she was making. The design concept for the coffee table was to make it look like it was made from pallet wood or wooden planks and put stained glass mosaic between the planks. The problem was that the planks are significantly thicker than the stained glass, but Holly wanted the stained glass to flush with the planks so that the coffee table had a flat surface.

The solution was to put a piece of 1/2-inch plywood on the underside of the table top and then build up the area to be mosaiced using a paste of Weldbond and sand.

Mosaic backer built up

Mosaic backer built up. This photo shows one trough with an initial filling of paste. The other two troughs are still empty and show the plywood backer underneath the table top.

The catch is how to build up the area to the right height so that when the stained glass is applied, it isn’t too high or low. To figure this out, Holly made a simple gauge from a straight edged piece of wood that rests on the surrounding planks and has a small piece of stained glass glued to its bottom edge.

simple gauge made from straight-edged board

A simple gauge made from a straight-edged board and a piece of stained glass glued to the bottom shows how high the area needs to be built up. This photo shows that more paste needs to be added, probably 1/2 inch more.

 

Matching Grout to a Room’s Color Scheme?

Choosing a grout color is more of a situation where you want to avoid making a mistake that causes the tile to look wrong than it is an opportunity to tie in the room’s color scheme by selecting some optimal color.

A Case Study

matching grout colors

Should you match grout color to a room’s color scheme? Not necessarily. Making sure the grout color works with the tile colors is much more important.

Recently a customer emailed us the photo above and asked for advice on how to match the grout color to the room’s color scheme, which includes rich gunstock brown cabinets and paint that is pale green or taupe and a black counter top. The mosaic backsplash itself is made from long gray and black tile in varying lengths.

Choosing By A Process of Elimination

Grout colors should always contrast tile colors enough so that each tile is visually distinct. If you were to use a gray grout on this mosaic, the gray tiles wouldn’t stand out as individual tiles. If you used black grout, you would would have the same problem with the black tiles. Since the mosaic is a gray and black color element, a white grout of some shade makes sense. A pure white grout is likely to be too bright, and so an off-white grout that is more or less the same color as the exposed backer between the tiles would be a safe choice.

Too Clever for Your Own Good?

What if you still thought that you needed to tie in the grout color to the room’s color scheme? Then you might consider using some sort of terracotta or brown grout in either a light or dark shade. The problem with that approach is that there are many different hues of gray, and not all of these will look good with a particular brown, even if that brown is optimal for the room.

If you are bent on using some sort of brown or other color for a black-white-gray backsplash such as this, then make sure you take some of the tile with you to the building material store and actually hold the tile up to the grout swatch. That way you can see if the hues look odd together. Avoiding that mistake is much more important than trying to match the other colors in the room.

How You Know This Is Good Advice

Notice how the counter top is black, and the stove and microwave oven are black and silver in color. They don’t have any brown or taupe color elements, but they are perfectly at home in the room’s color scheme. Similarly, the mosaic backspash is a black-white-gray color element that needs nothing extra to tie it in.

 

 

Mosaic Baptismal Font

Artist Sondra Jonson recently completed a mosaic baptismal font for St. James Catholic Church using our gold glass mosaic and metallic glass tile and vitreous glass tile, and it turned out really well. Religious architecture is supposed to be instructive and inspiring, and so Sondra used a spiral galaxy motif for the bottom of the font and a night sky with stars for the insides of the walls to convey the cosmic significance of the sacrament of baptism.

Mosaic Baptismal Font

Mosaic Baptismal Font at St James Catholic Church uses a spiral galaxy motif for the bottom and a field of stars for the insides of the walls.

Laying Up The Mosaic Design

Sondra laid up the mosaic design using mosaic mounting tape, which is recommended instead of fiberglass mesh for outdoor and wet mosaics because glue is used to attach tile to mesh, and glue is vulnerable to moisture. If you use mosaic mounting tape to pick your design up by the faces of the tiles, then you can press the tile directly into the thinset mortar. If you would like to know more, I wrote some instructions for laying up mosaic designs on contact paper and then picking it up with mosaic mounting tape.

Mosaic design divided into sections

Mosaic design divided into sections for ease of handling. Note the use of cardboard “trays” to lift the sheets without bending. The clear mosaic mounting tape is on the front of the tiles.

Square Sheets?

Whether you use mesh or mounting tape, you need to minimize the amount of bending and flexing because that can make tiles pop off the sheets. You can use cardboard or plywood panels to lift and transport the sheets. Note that Sondra’s sheets aren’t square for the simple reason that radial sections made more sense than squares because the area to be covered was hexagonal.

 

Mosaic Font Bottom Detail

Mosaic Font Bottom Detail shows how the design was laid up in one piece before being cut into manageable sheets.

Write Down The Names Of Your Tiles!

We recommend that artists save their invoice and glue a small piece of tile next to each product listed on the invoice. That way, you know what you used and where you bought it and when. The date of purchase is as important as the color name and supplier because tile varies by batch, and manufacturers revise their products all the time. Sondra wisely made a sample board for the materials used in the baptismal font in case it ever needs to be repaired or a future client wants to use some of the same materials,

Mosaic Palette Sample Board

Mosaic Palette Sample Board for the baptismal font project.

I cannot imagine installing a large public art project without documenting what materials and sources you used. Even if a product is discontinued or revised, which does happen, you or your client will still have the name and the brand and samples for a photo if you make a board like this on for the project. That is a better starting point for finding a replacement from a different supplier than blurry detail shots cropped from photos of the project, which is what people email us all too often.

Mosaic Installation

This mosaic was installed using thinset mortar, which is recommended for all mosaics in pools and fountains and other wet locations. I wrote some instructions for using thinset mortar for detailed mosaic artwork if you need to know more for your project.

Mosaic Baptismal Font wall detail

Mosaic Baptismal Font wall detail being installed with thinset mortar.

The Artist Surveys Work In Progress

Artist Sondra Johnson mosaic in progress

Artist Sondra Johnson working on the mosaic design for the bottom of the baptismal font.

Shrinking Grout: Fixing Holes In Groutlines

Grout does not shrink, but it is prone to forming voids and bubbles if it is not rubbed thoroughly into the grout gaps. These holes are easily repaired.

My friend Fredrik reported a problem while grouting his mosaic portraits of famous rock icons. He described the grout as having shrank in the grout gap.

Shrinking Grout Detail

Shrinking Grout Detail shows voids and bubbles at the intersection of groutlines. This is a classic problem and indicates that the grout was inadequately rubbed and pressed into the gaps.

Real Grout Doesn’t Shrink

The grout didn’t actually shrink, which isn’t possible with traditional grout made from portland cement, sand, and water. (I can’t speak for the newer epoxy-based grouts because we haven’t used them.) What actually happened was that voids were left in the intersections of the groutlines, and these voids got covered with a thin film of grout that then dried out without curing.

Press Grout DOWN Into The Gaps

When you grout a mosaic, it is important to press the grout down between the tiles, and to rub and press the grout thoroughly. Otherwise, voids and bubbles will be left down in the gaps and get covered over with a superficial layer grout similar to how a thin layer of wind-driven snow and ice will sometimes form over a crevasse in a glacier. That is why pressing down is important, and you shouldn’t just rub tangentially across the surface.

You can also “pull” voids into grout by rubbing it repeatedly in the same direction. That is why it is best to rub in circles and to vary the direction of the rubbing randomly.

Avoid Dry Air: Use Humidifiers

Fredrik reported that he wasn’t able to able to spend very long pressing the grout into the gaps because it started to harden almost immediately. It takes grout a while to harden, and this hardening happens by binding water not by drying out, but grout can become prematurely stiff and difficult to manipulate if it starts drying out. Since Fredrik was working in Sweden in February, I suspect the air was very dry due to the heat running, not to mention the already low humidity of the winter air. You can avoid this problem by running a humidifier near your mosaic and by doing the grouting away from heater vents. You can also cover the grouted mosaic with plastic kitchen wrap such as the Saranwrap brand.

How To Fix Holes In A Groutline

The good news is that it is possible to grout voids and holes and bubbles in a mosaic that is already grouted. The only caveat is that the old grout can suck the moisture out of the new grout before it can properly cure and harden. To prevent this, mist the mosaic thoroughly with water before you begin so that the old grout is saturated with water. Note that the mosaic should not be coated with water because droplets of water or a thin layer of water could interfere with intimate bonding. It really helps to have a humidifier running near the mosaic, and you should start the humidifier an hour or so before you grout so that the old grout isn’t bone dry.

Before you regrout, you need to expose all the hidden voids and bubbles. You can do this by pressing on the grout with a small screwdriver and vacuuming out all the loose crumbles. Of course, you need to do this in places that look like there is a problem, and but you also need to press in places that look deceptively fine. You don’t want to have to grout a third time.

I prefer to press straight down instead of dragging the screwdriver because I want to avoid scratching up grout that is fine. If you do get some scratched up grout from your probing, use a stiff bristle brush and a little water on the finished mosaic to buff out the scratches and make them less noticeable.

If you notice that your grout is crumbly in general, you should scrape it all out and regrout. In that case, you might want to use the grout removal tool.

Mixing Up Small Amounts of Grout

One objection to fixing small grout problems is that people don’t want to mix up a whole container of grout and end up wasting almost all of it. The good news is that you don’t have to waste any or at least very much, and you don’t have to be paranoid about whether or not you are adding the right amount of water. You can easily mix up a small amount using a few rules of thumb:

  • If you have a small postal or kitchen scale, use 1 part water by weight to every 4 parts dry grout.
  • If you don’t have a small scale, add a little water and mix thoroughly. Stop adding water when the grout has the consistency of dough.
  • Once you have enough water in the grout, mix it thoroughly to ensure even consistency with no tiny lumps of dry material. These can sabotage the grout hardening process.

Removing Glass Tile To Change A Mosaic

This method for altering a mosaic can be used before grouting, or grout can first be removed by scraping it out with a grout removal tool or screwdriver.

Why Remove Tiles?

Even experienced artists modify their designs as they work on them, and beginners can’t help but use a trial and error approach. After all. it’s hard to plan exactly what you will do when you are just learning a new medium.

With drawing and painting, revision is easy, but what about mosaic? How do you remove and replace tiles after the glue is dry?

Horse Mosaic Before Versus After

Prancing Horse Mosaic Before Versus After shows the changes made by prying up and replacing tiles. The purpose of the change was to make the head more horse shaped. I think the mosaic could be further improved by making the mane and tail from the same umber tile used in the hooves and outlines.

How To Remove Tiles SELECTIVELY From A Mosaic

The following method assumes the tile is attached to a plywood backer using a white PVA glue such as Weldbond. You could use the same techniques on an outdoor mosaic made with thinset mortar, but it would be very difficult if the mortar has cured for more than a few days. Mostly this method is used while you are working and see obvious mistakes, and the glue or mortar is not very hard.

Soften The Glue If Needed

OPTIONAL: If needed, apply a few drops of water around the tiles in question to soften the glue. If the surrounding tiles get wet and unexpectedly come up or look like they might, you can pull them up and reglue them too.

Cotton swabs are useful for applying drops of water to precise locations. Dry cotton swabs are useful for soaking up excess water and containing the spread.

Use A Metal Tool To Pry

Use a small screw driver or studio spatula to pry the tile up or lift it up with a dental pick.

VERY IMPORTANT: Use a ruler as a fulcrum to lean the metal tool on when you pry. If you lean the tool on the surrounding tile, you can split or crack the tile VERY EASILY without applying much pressure at all.

Prying Up Mosaic Tile

Prying Up Mosaic Tile can very easily crack surrounding tile if you lean your tool on surrounding tile as a fulcrum. Instead, hold a ruler firmly in place and lean your prying tool on that.

Scrape Off Broken Pieces

If the tile breaks into pieces, and some pieces are still glued down, you can scrape that off, but take care because the tool can slip, and then you can jam your hand into the razor sharp pieces before you are aware what is happening. Wear leather work gloves to avoid skinning your knuckles or cutting your fingertips open on broken tile.

Repairing Holes In Backers

If you gouge a hole in the backer while scraping or prying, it can be repaired with Weldbond glue or glue mixed with sawdust if the hole is deep. If a layer of plywood gets snagged and sticks up like a flap of loose skin, squirt glue under it and apply a heavy weight on that precise location to hold it down until the glue is dry.

Safety

Wear safety glasses with side shields RELIGIOUSLY when doing this work. Prying tile with a metal tool can shoot tiny splinters right at your face. Wear leather work gloves when scraping in case your tool slips.

Mosaic Art In Progress

Mosaic Art In Progress. Sometimes you don’t see your art objectively until you start working on another mosaic. Thus, it is better to wait instead of grouting a mosaic right away.

Using Contact Paper to Transfer A Mosaic Design

Choice of Pattern

This method for transferring a mosaic design with contact paper works whether you are improvising on a quickly sketched cartoon or carefully following a detailed pattern for each piece of tile.

This method reverses the mosaic from left to right in a mirror effect because the tile is laid upside down onto the sticky pattern and then a backer board spread with glue is placed on top of the upside down tiles. If you have NUMBERS or LETTERS in your pattern, remember to reverse them in your pattern by turning the pattern over and tracing it from the other side in marker and using that as your pattern.

Mosaic Versus Pattern

The ungrouted mosaic beside the pattern that was used to lay it up. The sketch was from memories of an ancient Roman mosaic I saw in a book years ago with legs more like that of a scarab and antennae more like that of a moth. To me, these features made the Roman bee look more like the archetype of all insects than the familiar fat honey bee and called attention to the fact that honey comes from insects.

The pattern above was a quick sketch and not followed rigorously. Instead, I improvised details based on how I could cut the tile.

The Free Mosaic Patterns available at our tile and supplies store are drawn in terms of pieces that can be cut from 1/2-inch recycled glass tile and show each piece in the mosaic.

Tape Contact Paper Over Pattern

Contact Paper Taped Over Mosaic Pattern

The first step is to tape the pattern down on a work surface. Then the contact paper is taped over the pattern, but it is taped UPSIDE DOWN with the sticky side up. Cut the contact paper 1 inch larger than the border of the pattern.

Make sure you tape the contact paper UPSIDE DOWN. The purpose of the contact paper is to keep the tile from moving around as you lay out the design.

Clear packing tape can be substituted for contact paper, but you may want to pat the tape with your hands several tiles to make it less sticky.

Lay Tile UPSIDE DOWN on the Sticky Pattern

The pattern is sticky because it has a piece of upside down contact paper taped over it. Lay pieces of tile face down onto the pattern so that the textured backsides are facing up. Later we will coat the backer in glue and lay it on these upside down tile.

Lay Tile Upside Down

Lay tile upside down on the sticky contact paper so that the embossed texture of the backsides is facing up.

Work from the Center of Pattern

Tile on pattern for mosaic bee

Tile pieces (called tesserae by mosaicists) on the pattern for a mosaic bee. Also shown are the essential tools: Mosaic Glass Cutter and dental picks and tweezers.

Begin cutting and laying tile near the center of your mosaic and work outward to avoid having to squeeze a piece between tiles that have already been laid, which can be frustrating and require more trimming.

Trim Less, Waste Less

Trimming tile to shave off just a little bit off is MUCH more difficult than cutting a piece into two parts . Trimming is difficult because tile will often crumble at the edge and not break as predictably or as cleanly as it would if you were cutting off a more substantial piece. That is why you want to avoid trimming as much as possible by doing the following:

  • Cut a few alternate pieces and use the best instead of trimming.
  • Remove small amounts by rubbing the piece on a marble file instead of trying to cut it off.
  • Work from the center of the mosaic to avoid the need to trim.
  • Tolerate less exact pieces and the grout gap these pieces create.
Tile pieces tesserae

Tile pieces (tesserae) cut into standard shapes (rectangles, trapezoids, triangles, irregular polygons) so that the artist can pick the best piece instead of trying to trim a piece to size.

Change Tile Color If Needed

Mosaic bee in progress

Mosaic bee in progress with the previous butterscotch color replaced with a more intense yellow.

The contact paper holds tile in place while you arrange the tile, which allows you to fit pieces more closely and even replace a color if it doesn’t look right.  A dental pick is useful for pulling up tile, but take care not to snag the contact paper or pattern. I dull my dental pick on concrete to prevent this.

Do Not Tile Beyond Borders

Bee Mosaic Tiling Complete

Bee Mosaic Tiling Complete. Do not tile past the outlined border.

Do not lay tile beyond the outline of the border so that the mosaic fits on the backer. Make sure each tile is within the border by a hair or touches the border but does not extend beyond. If you have a few pieces that do, the finished mosaic can be filed with a marble file, but it is better to file or cut the pieces before gluing.

Seal Backer With PVA Glue

Seal Backer PVA glue

Seal backer with a white PVA glue. Weldbond Adhesive is spread on the 6×6-inch plywood mosaic backer with an artist’s palette knife.

Plywood backers should be sealed with the same white PVA (polyvinyl acetate) adhesive that will be used to attach the tiles. This sealing coat should be applied and allowed to dry completely before proceeding.

We wouldn’t need to do this pre-sealing if we were gluing each tile individually with a generous blob, but we are going to glue on all the tiles at once in a layer spread thin, and we want to make sure that the second coat of glue that actually attaches the tile isn’t all sucked up by the plywood in places where it happens to be spread thinnest.

Spread Backer with 2nd Coat of Glue

Glue on Mosaic Backer

Glue on Mosaic Backer. After the sealing coat has completely dried, a second layer is spread.

How thick should you apply the glue? Place a few test tiles and pull them up and look at them. Make sure the glue wets the bottom of the tile completely. The glue has to be that deep, but don’t over do it. Try to spread it thinly enough so that the glue doesn’t come up too high between tiles placed closely together.

Place Glue-Covered Backer on Mosaic

Glue backer on mosaic

Glue-covered backer is carefully centered and lowered onto the mosaic.

Center the backer on the mosaic before it is lowered down because it is difficult to move the backer from side to side without moving the tile. If you do need to push the backer to center it, hold a straight edge on the opposite side to keep the tile from moving.

Untape Contact Paper and Flip Mosaic

Mosaic flipped upright

Mosaic flipped upright.

The contact paper is untaped from the work surface, and the mosaic is flipped upright so that the face of the mosaic is visible. Notice the occasional place where glue squeezed between the tile. This can be removed with a dental pick once the glue is thoroughly dry.

Remove Contact Paper

Contact paper removed from the bee mosaic.

Contact paper removed from the bee mosaic.

Allow the glue to dry before peeling off the contact paper. Also avoid cleaning the faces of the tiles or handing the mosaic until the glue under the tile is dry. If you bump one tile and it moves, other tiles are also moved, and they move again when you try to fix things. Tiles start sticking to the drying glue on you fingertips and pulling free from the backer. Don’t risk this. One touch can spiral into disaster.

Removing Glue Residue

After the glue dries and you remove the contact paper, you will notice places where the PVA glue got squeezed up between the tiles and filled the grout gap. There will probably be places where the glue smeared onto the faces of the tiles. The glue is clear when fully dry, but if it is misted with water, it will turn white and be more visible and softer and easier to remove.

Glue residue bee mosaic

Glue residue on bee mosaic can be turned white by misting with water.

We use a wide plastic pan with a wet terry washcloth spread on the bottom. We lay the mosaic face down on the wet cloth and allow the glue to turn white. We rub the mosaic on the cloth with a gentle even pressure making sure that not water squeezes out of the washcloth and between the tile. The washcloth should be thoroughly wet but rung out so that it does not drip or squeeze out water when pressed.

Of course, I am talking about a washcloth that has been retired and no longer rubbed on people’s faces. Glass slivers can nest in knitted fabrics and outlast the washer and dryer.

Keep an eye on the glue that is holding the tile to the board  (by looking at the side of the mosaic and in gaps and make sure that the glue there does NOT get wet and start whitening. Stop working and dry the mosaic and leave it to dry if you see that happening. 

Removing glue residue from bee mosaic

Removing glue residue from Roman bee mosaic using a wet terry washcloth.

If a few tiles pop free, they can be reglued after the mosaic is cleaned up. A dental pick is used to clean glue residue from between the tiles. Take care not to pry with the dental pick because you can crack and splinter the glass tile very easily by prying with small tools.

Mosaic Ready For Grouting

Roman Bee Mosaic ready to be grouted

Roman Bee Mosaic ready to be grouted

How To Transfer Mosaic Patterns Quickly By Tracing

This article explains how to use a charcoal pencil (or graphite pencil) to color the back side of a paper pattern and then trace over the pattern firmly to transfer it to a plywood mosaic backer board.

I have written a separate article explaining why tracing borrowed images is better than drawing for making patterns for small mosaics  -even when the purpose is to create original artwork.

If your backer is much larger than your pattern, you can enlarge the pattern by transferring it to the backer using the grid method of pattern transfer instead of the method I explain here.

Example Using 6×6 Inch Backer

In this example, I use the 6×6-Inch Plywood Mosaic Backer Board we sell at our online store and a detail cropped from Franz Marc’s fauvist painting “The Large Red Horses.”

Large Red Horses painting Franz Marc

Large Red Horses fauvist painting by Franz Marc includes a prancing horse that is rich with curves that suggest motion.

Step 1. Find And Make Your Pattern

I used Photoshop to crop and size the image and convert it to a black and white, but you can also use photocopies from books and your own drawings as starting points. Read more about this process in my article How To Make Mosaic Patterns Without Drawing.

Note that the image was sized so that it was 6×6 inches and printed out on regular printer paper.

The Purpose Of The Pattern

For small mosaic icons and tabletops, you can work directly on the surface. Simply draw or transfer your pattern onto the backer. This pattern should look something like the black line drawing from a coloring book, just a map showing the outlines of different colored areas, possibly subdivided to show shading. (Shading and variation in these different color regions can be worked out when you start placing the tile, and so your pattern can be as simple as a cartoon outline.)

Mosaic pattern Photoshop

Photoshop was used to crop out a detail of the painting and convert it to a black and white image that emphasizes outlines. I also added a border to mark the 6-inch x 6-inch space to make it easy to line up the paper on the backer board. The outlines of the black and white image are what we will transfer to the wood mosaic backer.

Step 2. Fold The Pattern Around The Backer Board

Fold the paper pattern around the backer board so that the image of your figure is centered on the board. Having a border drawn the same size as the backer board helps you line it up.

Fold Pattern Around Backer Board

Fold your mosaic pattern around the backer board so that the image is centered. Note that my pattern should have centered the horse better in the square so that the tail isn’t so close to the edge. If the pattern transfers as shown, it will be difficult to render that part in tile, and i will need to make the tail slightly thinner so that I can put some background around it because tile can only be cut so thin.

Step 3. Unfold The Pattern And Remove Board

Unfold The Pattern And Remove Board

Unfold the mosaic pattern and remove the backer board. The folding was only done to get the paper creased at the edges of the pattern.

Step 4. Rub Outlines Of Pattern With Charcoal Or Pencil

Rub Outlines Of Pattern With Charcoal

Rub the outlines of the figure with a charcoal pencil (preferred) or a regular graphite pencil. Note that we are rubbing the BACK of the pattern not the front. Color every line that will need to be transferred.

*** FOR MOSAIC PATTERNS THAT SHOW EVERY TILE AND HAVE LOTS OF LINES, YOU MAY FIND IT EASIER TO USE CARBON PAPER INSTEAD OF RUBBING THE BACK OF THE PATTERN WITH CHARCOAL. ***

Step 5. Refold The Pattern Around The Board And Tape

Refold The Pattern Around The Board

Refold the mosaic pattern around the backer board and tape it in place, preferably with some easy to remove painter’s tape. The creases in the prefolded paper made it easy to line the pattern up without smearing the charcoal all over the wood. Note that the tape goes on the VARNISHED side of the wood. The charcoal pattern will be transferred to the UNVARNISHED side.

Step 6. Trace The Pattern Firmly

Mosaic pattern traced

Trace the outlines of the figure firmly with a ballpoint pen or a pencil that is more dull than sharp. You want to press firmly so that the charcoal on the back of the paper pattern is transferred to the wood, but you don’t want to rip the paper. Avoid getting the paper humid or wet for this reason. Make sure you trace all the lines (curves) you would like to see on your backer.

Step 7. Remove The Paper And Fill In Missing Lines

Mosaic Pattern Missing Lines

When you remove the paper pattern, you will notice small places where the lines (curves) of the design didn’t get transferred for whatever reason, usually because you forgot to trace there or sometimes because you didn’t put charcoal in those places. You can fix those by drawing the missing lines. It is easy to do even if you have little confidence in your ability to draw because the existing lines give you a frame of reference.

Step 8.  Make The Lines Permanent With A Marker

Make Pattern Permanent With Marker

Make the lines of your transferred patterns permanent using a fine-tip marker such as the Sharpie brand. If you don’t do this step, then your hands and glue will quickly rub off the pattern.

Ready For Indoor Use

Mosaic pattern ready for work

The Mosaic pattern is transferred ready for tiling. This is a dry indoor mosaic, and so the tile can be attached with Weldbond Adhesive. For outdoor and wet mosaics. a concrete stepping stone or piece of flagstone could be used for a backer and the tiles mounted with thinset mortar.

Variations On This Method

There are a couple of parts of this method that could have been done through alternative means:

  1. Instead of folding the paper pattern around the backer, it could have been cut to the size of the backer and taped on that way.
  2. Instead for rubbing charcoal or graphite pencil on the back of the pattern, carbon tracing paper could have been used.

How To Make Mosaic Patterns Without Drawing

You can and should spend more time “drawing” with tile than drawing with a pencil when most of the details in the mosaic are about the size the smallest piece of tile that can be cut.

If the smallest details of your design are larger than multiple tiles, then you should draw a detailed pattern, but most mosaic plaques are small enough so that nearly all lines are affected by limitations in how small the tile can be cut, and drawing patterns for these can be counterproductive and cloud judgment.

Improvise Loosely On A Photo Or Image Used As A “Pattern”

HERE’S WHY NOT TO DRAW FOR SMALLS: Every element in your drawing will need to be a multiple of tiles wide or a fraction wide. Until you understand those multiples and fractions in practical terms of what you can cut and what looks good, your drawings can lead you to make bad design decisions and artificially cause you more stress than is necessary without teaching you more about rendering in tile. How To Transfer A Pattern From A Digital Image.

Mosaic Coaster Heart

Mosaic Coaster with Heart Design  was made using a photo of an ox’s heart downloaded from Google Images as the pattern. Is there any doubt as to whether or not this mosaic is an original interpretation? Would anyone try to argue that it is a copy of the photo?

This Method Can Be Used To Make Original Art

What is the alternative to drawing if the beginner is only interested in making original art?

Answer: Select a model from a large number of images (such as hundreds or thousands looked up online or your own photos), and then render loosely with tile on top of that image making simplifications as needed.

This rendering process (“drawing with tile”) can teach you things about the image that the pencil is unaware of. It is a much more taxing interpretation than drawing, and it has its own vocabulary.

Here are the steps for making a pattern quickly from a photo or image,. The details follow. And an explanation about why this method works better than drawing studies of that image.

Make a “Pattern” From A Photo or Image Instead of Drawing It

  1. View a large pool of images, such as can be had in Google images, your own photos, books, and encyclopedias.
  2. Select an image with strong lines and iconic shapes.
  3. Modify the image as desired. Combine multiple figures if desired.
  4. Convert that image into a black and white image. (Photoshop or photocopier or tracing or sketching.)
  5. Resize the image to the size of the mosaic backer.
  6. Transfer the pattern to the backer.
  7. Render LOOSELY on this pattern making simplifications as needed.

I have written a separate article about How To Transfer Mosaic Patterns,

Resize Digitally or Using The Grid Method

Mosaic patterns can be resized digitally, but I have written some instructions for resizing a mosaic pattern using a grid while you copy it onto your backer board.

Combine and Modify Images

You can combine figures from different photos by drawing or tracing them and then cutting them out and gluing them together in collages, or you can do it digitally in Photoshop or other image editors. I prefer the digital method because you can resize the different figures as needed before combining them in a scene.

Making Black and White Copies of Photos

Photoshop is also useful for converting images to black and white without making the images too dark. Use Photoshop’s Adjust Sharpness tool and Adjust Brightness/Contrast before using Photoshop’s Convert To Black And White so that the black and white image is created has maximum contrast. That will help make the image be more outlines than dark shapes, and we need distinct outlines to transfer the pattern onto the backer.

An Example Mosaic Pattern

Here is what a mosaic pattern might look like when derived from a color photograph:

Mosaic pattern Photoshop

Photoshop was used to crop out a detail of Franz Marc’s fauvist painting “The Large Red Horses” and convert it to a black and white image that emphasizes outlines. The outlines and curves are what you want to transfer to your mosaic backer.

In Defence of Drawing

Drawing a pattern by hand or by using the grid transfer method is a great exercise because it enables you to become familiar with the lines and see the image in your mind. Drawing also is an opportunity to interpret what you are seeing and make original art. In fact, for someone like me, the drawing becomes an end unto itself and almost immediately has more detail than can be rendered in the size of tile I will be using.

Drawings As Maps To Nowhere

Overdrawing the details is just part of the problem. The more time spent drawing a pattern, the more likely the artist is to try to hold to it religiously rather than improvising more freely with the tile when needed. This makes the actual mosaic work more tedious than it needs to be, and it can result in awkward results when you attempt a detail in a way that doesn’t take into account the work lines of the tile or what shapes are being used or some other aspect of the tile.

Staying true to carefully rendered patterns can have you scraping off gluey tiles and redrawing the detail in a way that matches the flow of the tile –or pulling tiles off your mesh, mounting tape, or tile paper. I call this mistake “Following the pattern into a detail that can’t be rendered,” and it can happen even when you work indirectly and lay the mosaic up in advance.

Of course, this doesn’t happen often on large mosaics where the tiles are tiny compared to the details being rendered, but for small mosaic plaques and icons, the resolution issue affects nearly every single tile.

How Patterns Should Be Used For Small Mosaic Images

Don’t be a slave to your pattern. Don’t let your pattern interfere with the tiling process and the rendering that happens there. The easiest way to do that is to not become emotionally invested in your pattern, and many artists cannot do this very well with their own drawings. Avoid the issue by using a photo or borrowed image as a starting point. Draw with tile, not a pencil.

Ethical Considerations?

The “Mosaic Coaster with Heart Design” shown above was made using a photo of an ox’s heart downloaded from Google Images as the pattern. Is there any doubt as to whether or not this mosaic is an original interpretation? Would anyone try to argue that it is a copy of the photo?

Look at the width of different features in terms of tile count. Most everything is one or two tiles wide. How would drawing the photograph help a novice make those design decisions? Wouldn’t a novice be better off improvising on a copy the photo itself? Wouldn’t anyone attempting to draw a meaningful pattern need an experienced eye for how the tile can be cut and arranged?

Choosing Mosaic Colors Based On Contrast

Recently artist Jill Miller emailed me wanting some advice about choosing colors for a mosaic table top she was making, and the design she was a chickadee bird with holly leaves and berries. From her photos and a description of the colors she wanted to use for the border of the round table top, it was obvious that she wanted to use muted colors instead of intense colors. I was happy to help. I thought her project was a great example for how to choose colors for backgrounds and making sure there was adequate contrast between the different elements.

Chickadee Mosaic Table Top

Chickadee design for mosaic table top with some candidates for background color. Note how the faint moss green selected for the holly leaf does not adequately contrast the underside of the bird. Notice how the same can be said of the muted brown tile directly under the bird. The orange tiles do contrast the bird, but it is problematic to have a background color that is more intense than the colors of the figure in the foreground. Also, cool colors are usually used for backgrounds because cool colors recede while warm colors come forward visually.

Whether muted colors or intense colors are used, it is still important for there to be contrast in the colors that define different elements, else the elements don’t stand out from one another.

TIP: You don’t have to glue tiles down to see if they are the right color. You don’t even have to position them carefully. Just spread them roughly where they should go, take a break, and then look at the mosaic later. The loose tiles will either contrast the image enough to make the figure stand out, or they won’t. Your fresh unbiased eyes won’t lie to you. Don’t try to rationalize a color that doesn’t work based on some design you have in mind. Listen to your art. Look at it and really see it.

Color Study Version 1

Mosaic Color Study Version 1

Mosaic Color Study Version 1 with intense green vitreous used for holly leaf. The problem with the vitreous green isn’t that the color is too intense but that it is grainy while the other colored tiles are glassy. Also, the green is a little more intense than the color scheme Jill had in mind.

Each work of art is just one version of many potential variations that could have been made with the same design. While it is not critical that you stay true to your original vision, it is important that you don’t have competing versions trying to exist in the same composition. The most important thing to stay true to is the design that is taking shape and making sure that color choices are internally consistent.

Color Study Version 2

 

Mosaic Color Study Version 2

Mosaic Color Study Version 2 with moss green for holly leaf. This more intense moss green still isn’t intense enough to adequately contrast the bird. Also, the color choices for the Chickadee are true to life, while this color green for a holly leaf is not. Again, colors don’t have to be true to life, but they do need to be internally consistent. A work of visual art can be a world unto itself, but it does need its own internal logic.

Color Study Version 3

Mosaic Color Study Version 3

Mosaic Color Study Version 3 with mint green for holly leaf. “Ah, said Goldilocks, this third bed is just right…” Notice how this mint green teal color has enough intensity to contrast the colors in the Chickadee yet still keeps with the artist’s vision of muted colors. I like it. The muted colors remind me of an Audubon print, and what could be more appropriate for a picture of a bird?

Wrong Color? All Is Not Lost.

Most beginners are so eager to begin work that they start gluing down tiles before they are sure they have the right color. Usually they don’t notice that they don’t really like the color until they have spent an hour or so mounting tiles in glue. If that happens, all is not lost. Put on some work gloves and safety glasses  and scrape up the tiles with a screw driver. Soak them in water to remove glue residue. If the glue has already hardened for several days, you may break some tiles while scraping them up. If so, use a vacuum to pick up sharp slivers. Moistening the tiles for 30 minutes with a cotton swab dipped in water can help soften glue, but it can also increase the risk of creating gouges and delaminations in plywood backers.

Color Wheels and Complementary (Contrasting) Colors

Color wheels are an artist’s tool for choosing complimentary colors, which are pairs of color “opposites” that provide maximum contrast to each other: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple. Those are the main pairs of opposites, but the hues in between also have opposites. For example: blue-green and red-orange. Color wheel charts position all of these opposites directly across the wheel from each other, which makes it easy to see what the optimal contrast would be for any given hue.

You can see some color wheels by searching Google for “color wheel” or “complimentary colors.” Some are more in depth than others. I like the ones that also show different options for value, which is the relative lightness or darkness of the color.

Intense Colors and Contrast

Contrasting colors are important because they make images stand out. Look at these great bird mosaics made by Phil Lamie’s elementary school students, Notice how these mosaic take full advantage of contrast between intense blues and warm oranges. Notice how the cool blues are usually in the background and the warm colors are in the figures in the foreground. In the case of the blue bird, notice how the blue in the bird in the foreground is more intense than the blue of the sky in the background. Value and intensity can be used to make foreground images stand out from backgrounds, as the blue bird mosaic demonstrates. All of these bird mosaics are visually striking because they follow basic rules of using color.

 

 

Mosaic Pizza Oven

Mosaic Fireplace and Oven Surrounds: The Basics

A couple of years ago, I wrote a page explaining how glass, ceramic, and stone tiles can be used for mosaic fireplace surrounds and how the tiles should be mounted with thinset mortar or white PVA (polyvinyl acetate) adhesives such as Weldbond. But we are talking about the SURROUNDS, not inside the firebox. For inside the firebox, your need to use refractory materials (brick or stone) that can resist combustion temperatures. For the hearth, the issue is not temperature resistance so much as impact resistance: It doesn’t make sense to use glass tiles that are easily cracked by a metal poker or small tiles that are easily knocked loose. Stylistic concerns should never outweigh performance and durability, else the work won’t look good for long.

Mosaic Pizza Oven

Mosaic Pizza Oven by artist Kristina Young with octopus tentacle motif. Seafood and sea life and undersea scenes were common themes of Roman mosaic.

Problems with a Mosaic Pizza Oven

Recently, artist Kristina Young emailed me concerning a problem she was having with a mosaic she installed on the outer surface of an Italian pizza oven. The problem was that the mosaic was cracking over the door of the oven, and that caused me some concern because that should not happen with traditional fireplaces and pizza ovens constructed with brick or stone, and I have been telling people for years that there was no reason why they could not put mosaics on these surfaces in spite of the heat. Had I overlooked some basic technical principle and made recommendations that could ruin hundreds of people’s projects? The engineer in me became completely paranoid, and I could not wait for Kristina to email me back with answers to my initial questions.

Spoiler Alert: The good news is that the cracking is reparable and that the cracking is by the iron frame of the oven door, not the masonry elements of the oven itself, which means that there is no reason to expect similar problems with traditional fireplaces and ovens that are made from all stone or brick or concrete.

The Case of the Cracking Mosaic

cracking mosaic detail

Detail shot showing crack in brand new mosaic covering the exterior of masonry pizza oven. The location of this crack is significant: It started  right above the iron frame of the oven door.

When Kristina first contacted me, she was concerned that the cracking might have been caused by heating the oven not long after the mosaic was completed. That is a potential issue because thinset mortar takes time to harden, and like concrete, it hardens by bonding moisture not by drying out. (Concrete, mortars, grouts, and other portland cement products will be soft and crumbly if they are dried out by heat or dried air. They need to incorporate the water mixed into them, not have it removed artificially.)

Humidify, Don’t Heat

I don’t think that the oven was heated prematurely or that premature heating caused the cracking. The crack is location specific, and if the mortar was artificially dried out before it could harden, then the problem would be seen all over the mosaic in the form of cracks and missing tiles. That being said, I would avoid heating fireplaces and ovens for several days after a mosaic has been applied to them and grouted. The usual practice is to run humidifiers near a new mosaic to protect them from AC or central heat –not build a fire under them!

Thermal Expansion

Except for the notable exception of ice, most materials expand when they are heated. (Water expands when it freezes, and that is why ice floats: it is less dense than the water beneath it.) The problem with thermal expansion is that materials expand at different rates, and metals like iron expand more rapidly than stone, brick, and concrete. Kristina had already told me that the crack started on the front of the oven just over the door, and so as soon as she sent me a picture of the oven showing that the door had an iron frame, it was obvious to me why the crack had started there: The glass and mortar mosaic expands at roughly the same rate as the brick and concrete oven underneath it, but the iron door frame and the other iron structural elements expand even faster. They push the mosaic up like a shell on the outside of the oven, and when the oven and frame cool back down and contract, the crack appears.

The Right Repair Materials

An “expansion joint” spontaneously forming in the middle of your mosaic might have most people panicking and thinking of repairing the crack with a flexible material such as caulk. Caulk is problematic because it will not age well. It will yellow and shrink and crack. It will look more and more like the synthetic material that it is, a material that looks out of place on tile, a material which does not age.

Grout could be used to fill the crack. After all, grout is the concrete product that is used to grout gaps between tiles in the first place. However, thinset mortar is a better choice because it is harder and tougher and more adhering than grout,, and it can tolerate slight displacement (movement) while grout cannot. In fact, it would have been best if the entire mosaic had been “grouted” with thinset. I suspect that heating and cooling the oven in cycles over time may cause other cracks to appear or reappear, and these should have thinset rubbed into them as needed. Hopefully any new cracks or reappearing cracks will be smaller, but in any case, thinset is better equipped to withstand the stresses of expanding and contracting than grout.

Mosaic crack repaired with thinset mortar

Mosaic crack being repaired with thinset mortar. The mortar is spread on and worked into the cracks and wiped off just like grout. Thinset is superior to grout because it is harder and tougher and can tolerate slight movement.

Aesthetics and Authenticity

Think of high-end restaurants in reclaimed urban warehouse spaces: the exposed beams, the plaster chipped away in places to reveal the stone walls underneath, the different architectural elements like fire doors and hoists deliberately left in place to call attention to the space’s past industrial use.

To me, one of the more interesting things you can see in the mosaics of Mexico and the Mediterranean basin are the repairs that have been made to these over the years following earthquakes and other damage. I’m not thinking of the repairs that were made in modern times by archaeologists or professional conservators sparing no expense to make the mosaic look as if the damage had never occurred. I’m thinking of repairs made in the distant past by inexpert hands or by people with limited access to materials. I’m thinking of repairs like mortar-filled voids and replacement tiles of not-quite-the-right color and how you can sometimes see a series of these inexact repairs apparently made at different times in response to different injuries. To me, these inexact repairs more than anything else give me a sense of how ancient the mosaics are and how much history they have witnessed, endured even: earthquakes, fires, wars with slings and arrows, wars with bullets and bombs.

A large part of the ethos of mosaic art is it being an enduring relic of the past. If I were wanting to design a mosaic to look like an old relic, I might consider deliberately including mortar-filled voids and cracks to simulate past damage or maybe re-mosaicing some of these regions with coarser tile. With that in mind, is a crack appearing in a new mosaic in an Italian or Mexican restaurant a problem or a windfall? I’m thinking not. I’m thinking of the kid who deliberately scuffs up his new baseball glove so that it doesn’t look the unused glove of a rookie.