Mosaic Subway Sign Brad Srebnik with original NYC inspiration

Inspiration Versus Reproduction

I once had an employee-artist who became angry with me for encouraging people who didn’t think they could draw to trace artwork or photos to make patterns.

I explained that we wanted to reach all skill levels and that included some people who would be attempting mosaic or even art for the first time.

I explained that it was a learning exercise that had value in itself and wouldn’t necessarily dull people’s imagination.

Chagall was the most imaginative of all the painters of the early 20th century, and his introduction to art as a school boy began by copying illustrations from books.

I can safely say that I’m not against people making exact copies of existing artwork on principle.

But why would you want to do that with a mosaic?

For me, there is too much labor in the execution of a mosaic to think of it in the same way as drawing a master copy.

When you copy a drawing, every moment is spent looking and learning, while that sort of intensive processing of the original is largely over with a mosaic once you work out the cartoon (pattern) with andamento (how the rows of tiles will run) and the color scheme.

At least, you are better off that way.

Mosaic Subway Sign Brad Srebnik
Mosaic Subway Sign Brad Srebnik

Something New

Trying to match the shape of each irregular tesserae to those of the original is extremely tedious. In all probability, the artist who made the original didn’t cut each piece to an exact shape.

Most professional mosaic artists cut 3 or 4 or 5 candidates and use the piece that works the best. We don’t trim pieces to size and shape if we can help it. We nest pieces as we go along and use rejected pieces in other locations.

For this reason, it is easier to make your own version of a mosaic instead of an exact copy, piece by piece.

I would hope you wouldn’t want to waste the opportunity to make something new and different.

Of course it is easier to copy a gridded mosaic made from square tiles, but again, why would you?

Original NYC Subway Street Number Sign
Original NYC Subway Street Number Sign

Something Old

I knew I wanted to share Brad Srebnik’s mosaic when I saw it, especially when he showed me the mosaic that he looked at for inspiration.

What an excellent example of using a piece of artwork as an inspiration and source of design elements without copying anything!

In my opinion, Brad’s mosaic is a better design for an eye-catching mosaic plaque for the home because it’s design is more detailed and warmer and more colorful.

BUT I have a lot to say about what’s good and interesting about the original inspiration.

I love how the greens and oranges are muted and the white is a cream and not a bright pure white. If the purpose of the mosaic is to look old, the hues have to look the part and not be as intense as modern factories can make them.

One of my general recommendations is to turn up the contrast between light and dark, but look how much more authentic and old the signs looks by NOT having the numerals rendered in brightest white. Another exception to the rules.

Before you follow a piece of artistic advice, make sure it is relevant to what you are trying to do.

TIP: The easiest way to make a mosaic reproduction look more old is to restrict the color pallet and use less-intense hues, less-bright whites.

I like how the NYC subway sign look old thanks to its muted hues, but I would prefer Brad’s plaque for brightening up an interior.

The heightened contrast, the brightness, and the color scheme of his mosaic make the mood lighter. It resembles a backlit stained glass window. That wouldn’t have been possible had Brad been copying a model, or even copying basic aspects of the model, such as the idea of a muted color scheme.

I just love that Brad didn’t copy anything but the general idea of a numeral or letter surrounded by a twisted double border!



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8 responses to “Inspiration Versus Reproduction”

  1. Anthony Ferlazzo Ferlazzo Avatar
    Anthony Ferlazzo Ferlazzo

    I am a beginner of the art. I’m learning the mechanics first, then I think I can start concentrating the artistic end of it. Don’t forget you don’t have to be a Picaso to just place your house number on your house.

  2. FRED GENCHI Avatar

    Joe: You have to take into mind that some of us executing mosaics out here do not possess the artistic craft to render original patterns for detailed artwork. I personally love ancient mosaics I create my mosaics by rendering these ancient arts closely tile by tile. I improvise with color and andamento , but the design is virtually exact to the original. So, while I appreciate your encouragement for mosaicists to render their ouw designs, there are those that do not possess the artistic skills necessary to create original artwork. That said, we are getting closer to our own type of “original”. Regards and kudos to you for these posts. FMG (Esmont, VA) 03-11-2022

    1. Joe Moorman Avatar
      Joe Moorman

      Hi Fred,
      You make a great point that I need to clarify. I am sure you can testify to how much exacting labor is required to match cut for cut, especially if you want to document a particular andamento for historical accuracy.

      To me, that is one of the most interesting things about the old Roman mosaics, where you can see the different skill levels at work in the same mosaic.

      I want to make sure that novices understand that they don’t make things easier on themselves by attempting a cut-by-cut.

      Please email us pictures of your work.

  3. Alice Baker Avatar
    Alice Baker

    I consider myself an abstract mosaic artist, as my creativity just seems to go there – the symmetry, balance and the mesmerizing show of colors –

  4. Virginia Conrad Avatar
    Virginia Conrad

    Joe, Once again, you made my day! Thank you.

  5. Susan Cravey Avatar
    Susan Cravey

    When I first started doing mosaics, I used patterns, but as I moved more into it, I started drawing my own designs (my erasure was my best friend!). I never showed any artistic ability whatsoever in my younger days! I copied some things, mostly flora, and even went outside once and picked sea grapes and traced them onto paper. I realized I much preferred my own drawings to the patterns. Anyone can teach themselves to draw…just get a good eraser.

    1. Joe Moorman Avatar
      Joe Moorman

      Mosaic is good about tricking people into learning how to draw. They start by moving tile around to make shapes, and they start making lines with pencil on the backer to plan more complicated shapes. Before they know it, they are drawing at some level. Naive drawings can make great mosaic patterns.

  6. Erin Joy Donnelly Avatar
    Erin Joy Donnelly

    I appreciate the encouragement!

    While I am not, at all, new to embracing my innate drive to create art, I will advise that I am a complete & total newborn when it comes the creating art utilizing mosaic tiles/grout as a medium!

    After several months of “doing my homework”, (researching high & low on YouTube, reading books/articles, referencing FAQs on sites like this), I’ve finally gathered all of my supplies & I’m about to start my 1st ever mosaic piece!!

    In fact, today will be the 1st time in my life that I will snip tiles & cut glass as I’ve been longing to do over the months of watching all of these amazing creatives online!! I’m so excited! 💗
    I am totally utilizing an outline, (from this site, ☺️), as I feel more comfortable doing so at the moment. I literally can’t afford, (no pun intended, lol), to create something freehand & gather my own ideas only to have it end up being a mess & waste the $ spent on my materials…

    I cannot seem to generate an independent, solidified idea of what I want to create, but I I know the vibe & color scheme I want & I’m okay wi/this as this is my first time, (hence using the outlines).
    Who knows? once I start cutting the tiles/glass, etc… the flow of the piece my come naturally & I may completely abandon the idea I’ve been inspired by & create my own!
    For me, I feel safer having something to guide me & something to refer to while I attempt my 1st ever mosaic tile creation. 😊

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