Kokopelli Mosaic comparison showing improved figure.

Mosaic Backgrounds & Variegation

In my previous post, I wrote about Peggy Pugh’s excellent use of color variegation and the potential for this technique to cause figures to lose definition when there is variegation in both the figure and the background.

In response, artist Jill Gatwood emailed me photos of a student’s work where the problem had caused the central figure to lose all definition and disappear into the background.

My apologies for the low resolution of the photo, but I was glad to receive it because it is a great illustration of the problem:

Kokopelli Mosaic with original grout.
Kokopelli Mosaic with original grout. If you didn’t know what I meant by figures getting lost in backgrounds, this mosaic is a prime example of what can happen when the figure and the background are both variegated in color.

Notice that even though the figure has lost definition, the mosaic still works as a colorful abstract. I have a lot of happy little mistakes in my own portfolio.

Dark Grout

Like most professional mosaicists, Jill uses dark grout as her default choice for mosaic images, but she is also a big advocate for exceptions where white and light-colored grouts prove useful.

I should note that these exceptions tend to be stylized images and symbols instead of images that attempt to be lifelike.

TIP: Our eyes/minds expect the cracks between objects to be dark as seen in nature and not bright or white, and that is why dark grouts are preferred for realistic images.

Grout Color by Zone

For several reasons, I discourage people from designing mosaics where different colored grouts are used for different figures or areas.

First, grouting is inherently messy. It’s a lot more work to gout by zone because there is a clean up for each color and the problem of making sure you don’t get the grout into other gaps where you don’t want it.

Second, grouting tends to change the look of mosaics, and most novices are blindsided by the color impact of grouting, and usually they are disappointed because their grout gaps are wider than they realized.

Third, if you are using grout as a source of color or to differentiate figures, then you probably haven’t spent enough time thinking about tile colors and color contrasts.

I think it makes more sense to encourage best practices from the very beginning:

TIP: Keep your grout gaps small. Small gaps produce more colorful mosaics with less surprises after grouting. They are also MUCH easier to grout.

Jill to the Rescue

While it might not be best to design mosaics around multiple grout colors, grouting by zone can be a great way to rescue situations that are noticed after all the tiles are mounted.

This Kokopelli mosaic is a prime example.

The problem wasn’t addressed until after the mosaic was grouted.

Fortunately, Jill is very experienced and knew what to do.

She and the student scraped out the black grout in the Kokopelli figure and regrouted with a light-colored grout:

Kokopelli Mosaic with figure grouted with white.
Kokopelli Mosaic with figure grouted with white. Very nice!

This problem could have also been fixed with acrylic paint if the mosaic is installed in a dry indoor location.

TIP: I’ve noticed that many novices think that grouting will “pull things together” or somehow resolve issues with definition of figures, but that isn’t the case. If your grout gaps are wide, problems noticed before grouting tend to look worse after grouting. Use small gaps and think in terms of tile colors not grout color.

Break the Rules

Sometimes you make a “mistake” and it turns out to be a great insight. Art is about paying attention and seeing.

By seeing, I mean seeing things as they really are and not perceiving the image according to intentions.

That is why we all do things like step back and squint or take a photo and look at the art as a thumbnail, anything to see the composition as a whole with fresh eyes.

TIP: I recommend going to bed and looking at the art first thing in the morning and trusting your first reaction instead of talking yourself into an opinion.

I’m sure that Jill’s student made deliberate use of upside-down tile to show the embossing on the back side, and I really like it, especially with the dark grout in the crevices of the embossing. It adds a lot of texture and pattern, and the design is much stronger because of it.

BUT, I have received emails from people who thought they made a disastrous mistake by using upside-down tiles and wanted to scrap the whole project.

I am thinking of one particular email from the first few years of the business. I can’t remember anything about it other than I talked the person into completing and grouting the mosaic instead of throwing it away, and the results were fantastic.

Before you decide you have made a mistake in your artwork, look at it with fresh eyes and avoid judging it completely in terms of your original idea. Artwork takes on a life of its own. Listen to it. Don’t force it.







3 responses to “Mosaic Backgrounds & Variegation”

  1. Morgan Halford Avatar
    Morgan Halford

    Excellent example of the principle! And I was so happy to have “read more” and found that the instructor had come to the rescue! The finished work is beautiful and I loved the look of the backwards tile to show the embossing! That’s where the magic happened – where the rest of us follow the rules and glue the embossed-side down, the artist in this case took a chance and the result is fantastic. Not all chances work out though, and as you point out: it can be a fine line between magic and mistake!

  2. D Ruth Stark Avatar
    D Ruth Stark

    What a fabulous rescue!

  3. Susan Cravey Avatar
    Susan Cravey

    I love everything about this mosaic, especially the upside down tiles. It never occurred to me what kind of effect they could make! I’ll be sure to use them somewhere, on something. Also, the lighter grout to bring out the figure is truly inspired. I’ve been working mostly with glass, intermixed with tiles and other small objects, but I think that a tile mosaic is in my future. Thank you for posting this.

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