• How To Estimate Mosaic Colors Using Photoshop Elements

    Irregular Shapes

    It’s easy to estimate the total area of a rectangular or circular mosaic using our tile estimator, but it can be much more difficult if the shape of the mosaic is irregular. In fact, most of the individual color fields in a mosaic are arranged in irregular shapes, unless you are doing an abstract geometrical pattern.

    How do you estimate the area covered by an individual color when it is arranged in irregular shapes throughout a mosaic design?

    The following is a method using Photoshop Elements.

    Use Digital Images

    If you get the image into the computer, the computer already knows how many pixels are that color and the total number of pixels in the image.

    The trick is to find some way for the computer to tell us this information, and there are probably many image editing software packages that could be used in some way to do it. I used Photoshop Elements because that was what I had installed. I would think GIMP and other freeware imaging packages could be adapted in some way as well.

    This method uses Photoshop’s Magic Extractor to cut out the color field, then turning that color field black and putting it on a white background. In the RBG color mode used by JPEGs, white has a value of 255 and black has a value of 0. If we take an average of the value of all pixels, this weighted average divided by 255 will represent the percent of the image area that is NOT the particular color.

    Photoshop Elements Example

    For this example, we will use a jpeg of Henri Matisse’s painting “The Dance” and find the percent of the total area that is covered by blue.

    Henri Matisse painting “The Dance”

    Tip: When you make your own mosaic designs, don’t use one blue color for an area such as this. Instead, use two or even three blues of the same hue but slightly different in shade and mix them together to create visual interest. Note how Matisse’s bold color fields aren’t completely homogenized, even in this digital copy of low resolution.

    Step 1. Use The Magic Extractor To Clip Out The Color Of Interest

    Use the Magic Extractor in Photoshop Elements to clip out the color.

    Image > Magic Extractor has a + highlighter for marking the color you want to save and a second highlighter for marking all the colors you want to delete. You can use the Preview button to see if you have things marked correctly.

    Note that I used the first highlighter to mark the blue in multiple places to make sure that I marked all the different shades of blue. I also marked it in each separate blue area just to be sure, but this isn’t necessary. When I used the second highlighter, I made sure I marked the grass and the dancers in a way that got all the different colors and shades of colors used for them.

    Magic Extractor results in Photoshop Elements

    Notice how efficiently the Magic Extractor removes the non-blue elements.

    Step 2. Use Filter Tools To Black Out The Color Filter > Adjustments > Threshold

    Under the Filter menu, there is a collection of tools called Adjustments. Use the Threshold tool, and drag the pointer to 255. What this is doing is saying black out all color with RBG values under 255, which is the RBG for pure white.

    Step 3. Save As A JPEG With A White Background.

    Notice that the gridded background is not colored at all, which means the image is now a Photoshop file PSD instead of a JPEG. We need to save it as a JPEG with a white background before we can proceed. However, first you should save this PSD file in case you need to backtrack for whatever reason, and then save it as a JPEG.

    Once you have saved it as a JPEG, close this PSD file and open the newly created JPEG.

    Open the JPEG with a white background  Step 4. Use Filter Tools To Set Every Pixel To The Average Color.

    Now comes the real trick of how to find out how many pixels were in the blue area that we turned to black. Photoshop has a tool that will turn every pixel to the average of all the pixel’s current RBG values. All of our pixels are white (RBG = 255) or black (RBG = 0). The weighted average of all these pixels will be a gray with an RBG somewhere between 0 and 255. The larger the blacked area was before the averaging, the darker the gray will be and the lower the RBG number. The Average tool is found under the Filter menu: Filter > Average or Filter > Blur > Average.

    Filter > Blur > Average Step 5. Use The Color Picker Tool To Find The RBG Value Of The Gray.

     

    matisse-color-picker

    Photoshop’s Color Picker tool is the eyedropper icon. Use it to click the image and then the “Select Foreground Color” square at the bottom of the left toolbar.

    Use Photoshop’s Color Picker tool (eyedropper icon) to click the image and then click the “Select Foreground Color” square. This square is at the bottom of the left toolbar. Once you click the square, the dialog window will pop open and show you the RBG (red blue green) values for this gray. Since it is a gray averaged from pure white and pure black, all the RBG values should be the same number.

    In our example, we see that the RBG value for the gray is 149. If we divide 149 by 255, we get 0.58, which means that 58% of the image’s area is the whited-out non-blue colors. To get the percent of the total area that is blue, we subtract 58% from 100% and get 42%.

    Why this works: If the mosaic was completely whited out, then the RBG number we found using the Color Picker would be 255, the number of white. But some of the mosaic was our blacked-out blue area. Black has an RBG number of 0. When all the white pixels (255) were averaged with the black pixels (0), the number calculated for this average was 149. Dividing 149 by 255 tells us the ratio of white area to total area. Grays with a higher RBG number mean that the amount of white area before averaging was larger.

    So let’s say you were making a 6 ft x 4 ft mosaic interpretation of this Matisse painting. The total area is 6 ft x 4 ft = 24 square feet. The area that is blue is 0.42 x 24 square feet =  10.1 square feet.

    You can find out how many tiles you need to cover that blue area using our tile estimator, which has a table of different tile sizes per square foot based on a standard grout gap.

    Faster and Easier Than It Seems

    Note that you will need to do this for all your colors (you can find the area of the last colors by subtracting the rest from 100%). However, this isn’t very much work. In fact, once you do it a few times, you can do this sort of analysis easily and quickly. Keep in mind that if a color isn’t used anywhere but in small areas like trimming and borders, then it might be difficult to block it out using the Magic Extractor tool, but do you really need a close estimate of something that is only used in 5% of the area? (If so, you need to use a higher resolution pattern, and do the analysis in sections.) Also, you can save that color for last and find it’s area by subtracting all the other color area estimates from 100%.

     

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  • 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.

     

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  • How To Use Found Objects In Mosaic Art

    Making and grouting a mosaic from ordinary flat tile is relatively straight forward. However, adding three-dimensional objects such as porcelain figurines or even simple rounded stones can complicate the grouting process. Instead of using a grout float or damp sponge to wipe away the excess grout, you may need to use a gloved hand as we often do, and you may have “excavate” some objects using brushes or dental picks if they have very complex shapes with nooks and crevices. An old toothbrush can be useful for cleaning wet grout from crevices in objects, but note that brushes of all type remove grout very aggressively, so take care that the toothbrush doesn’t gouge out any grout from where it needs to be.

    If your mosaic is mostly dimensional objects, then the amount of labor required to remove excess wet grout may be excessive, and the easiest way to solve the problem is to avoid the grouting process entirely. Also, unsealed porous objects such as seashells cannot be grouted without staining them with the grout.

    For these situations, it is better to press the objects into thinset mortar instead of the usual glue-the-grout method used for making indoor mosaics.

    Thinset is a type of concrete, so if you spread it on slightly thicker, then a little bit will press up around the sides of the objects and serve as grout between the tesserae (“tile”). The key is to not spread so much thinset so that the object sinks in too deeply or too much thinset squeezes up and around the object.

    Before you start pressing your childhood treasures and precious souvenirs into the sticky wet concrete that is thinset, you will want to practice for a few minutes with some ordinary rocks on piece of scrap. That way you can figure out how thickly to spread the thinset to avoid problems and practice keeping your hands clean while working with wet concrete. Otherwise your fingertips are likely to get wet concrete on objects that aren’t easily cleaned.

    Your quick experiment on a piece of scrap should use more than one size of rock and include pressing objects close together. That way you can decide how closely you want to space your found objects in your actual mosaic and see how small objects have the potential to be buried in thinset pressed out by large objects nearby.

    Keep in mind that small experiments like this do not require any extra time. Whatever time that is required to do them is almost always made up for in the time they save you on your project.

     

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  • How To Use China Plates For Mosaic Tile

    Recently someone emailed me about how to estimate how many plates would be needed for a medium-sized mosaic of several square feet.

    Each type of plate is different in terms of how many useable tiles it will produce due to how round/flat the plate is and how well it cuts. The only way I have found to estimate how many of a particular type of plate I will need is to cut up one of the plates and see how much useable material I get from that one plate. Make sure you look at the pieces critically and not count anything that is too jagged, small or weirdly shaped. Arrange the useable pieces into a rough square, and measure the dimensions. For example, if you get 8 inches x 8 inches, then you know that each plate produces about 64 square inches of tile. Divide that number by 144 to get the square footage produced, which in this example would be 0.44 square feet.

    Some types of ceramic dinnerware can be cut with a regular tile nipper, but many types are extremely hard and should be cut with a compound tile nipper, which has compound lever mechanism to multiply the force of your hand.

    You can use a hammer to break the plates up into large pieces, but avoid using the hammer to make the individual tile pieces because it tends to crush and splinter the material, and you end up wasting too much of the plate as scrap, especially if there are patterns on the plate you are trying to cut out. A compound nipper is well worth the investment if you are trying to cut out pieces from china with patterns like blue willow or floral prints, and you may want to consider getting a powered tile saw from the building material store if you want to carefully saw them out without losing too much as scrap.

    Here are a few more tips about using dinnerware to make mosaic tile:

    If you do use a hammer to make the initial breaks, then wrap the dish in an old towel. That will keep shards from flying and help contain the grit and slivers produced by the breaks.

    A ceramic and marble file is very useful for smoothing the razor edges of cut dinnerware. Keep in mind that some types of dinnerware are made from some of the hardest ceramic materials known to science, and the broken edges exposed by cutting can be sharper than any knife. Depending on the type of dinnerware you are cutting, something like a marble file may be required before the pieces are useable and safe.

    For years, I didn’t own a marble file. Instead, I used a piece of sandstone flagstone and merely rubbed the pieces on that as I cut them. Always remember that you are free to use improvised tools and methods to save time and money and stress!

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  • How To Make A Home Mosaic Art Studio

    Avoid Studio Obsession

    Setting up and organizing your studio or corner workspace can become an end unto itself and just one more thing that keeps you from working on your art. Keep in mind that great works of art have been created under terrible working conditions and with minimal tools and equipment. The most important thing you can do for your studio is to make sure you work on your art often and frequently. Incremental improvements will be made over time on an as-needed basis as you notice problems with inadequate lighting, incorrect work surface heights and the other general principles of laying out an art studio.

    For many years, my art was made on the floor of whatever small apartment I was living in at the time. My workspace was cramped, and often the project had to be cleaned up and put away immediately after each work session to make room for day-to-day activities like laundry or simply to be able to walk through the tiny room.

    In the example below, I show rolling tables, rolling shelves and other moveable fixtures that can be rearranged to accommodate large sculptural mosaics. This is not how my home art space was set up to make mosaics back in the day, and this probably isn’t how you should set up yours (unless you live in a large warehouse with concrete floors.)

    Use What You Have (And What Can Be Gotten For Little Cost)

    Instead of custom-built low tables on wheels, you can use what I once did: a plastic recycling tote turned upside down and slid into position as needed. Old coffee tables and end tables from garage sales are also useful. Keep in mind that in addition to your main work surface, it really helps to have one or two auxiliary tables on the side. This arrangement of tables creates a highly efficient C-shaped manufacturing cell where the operator can reach a wide range of materials merely by pivoting.

    Depending on how many different colors or materials you are working with, you may find that one of your two side tables should be an open shelf instead. An old bookshelf made for small paperbacks is an effective and cheap solution as are shelves mounted on a wall if your workspace is in a corner.

    If at all possible, have your main work table set against a window so that you can have natural light and look up from time to time to rest your eyes from the intense up-close work

    A C-Shaped Manufacturing Cell This particular mosaic studio was set up for standing artist who was working intermittently between packing orders for shipment and making “last-minute” changes before grouting.

    In the picture above, notice the main work surface is augmented by an open shelf to the right and a smaller lower table to the right (almost out of camera view). Notice how the small plastic containers of tile could not be reached by a seated artist. If the artist were seated, those containers of tile would be better places by arranging them on the shelf, preferably a more efficient shelf with more levels than the one shown here. The point of the C-shaped manufacturing cell is to arrange things where the artist can reach them without getting up or stretching.

    Use A Low Table For Seated Artists I’ve built some low tables on wheels that are about knee high, which allows a seated artist to position tiles and see. The artist does not need to bend over or reach the far side of the mosaic. Instead, the mosaic can be spun on the table, or the table itself can be spun.

    Mosaic is different from painting in that it is best done while the surface is lying horizontally, and this presents a problem in how step back and see the work as a whole as you are working on it. Sure, you can clean off the tools and loose pieces of tile and prop the mosaic up vertically, but this just isn’t practical.

    More importantly, it’s difficult to judge how far you are spacing each tile you place if you are looking at the mosaic from a low angle. You need to be looking at it from above. Conventional desks and worktables don’t allow this because they are too high unless you are standing, and that doesn’t make sense for hours at a time. The solution is to use a work surface much lower than what you would use for most other art activities. Old coffee tables are just about the right height and make near ideal mosaic work surfaces, particularly the square ones.

    Can You Tell This Picture Has Been Staged? Large work surfaces allow you to lay out tools and materials and still rotate and move the mosaic to work on different areas.

    Once you work on a mosaic, the above picture should make you chuckle with its artificial neatness. I’ve laid out all the nippers, palette knives, tweezers, etc. like surgical instruments. Keep in mind that surgeons have interns and nurses and even other surgeons to assist. That means you have to keep things findable yourself.

    That doesn’t mean rows, but it does mean rough zones that radiate out from your current site of active work. The zone can be as simple as tools right, blues top, greens left.

    How To Manage Your Immediate Work Area

    The place on the mosaic where you are actively mounting tile tends to get ringed with the tools you are currently using (glue, rag, tweezer, pick) and bins of the different colors most relevant to that location. Try to keep the stuff you aren’t using most swapped toward the back of its zone.

    Also if you’re like me, you will want to create a special zone where you periodically slam down something you’ve had to search for a minute or two to find. If it keeps getting lost, put it in the special zone.

    Why You Can Only Be So Disorganized

    You will find yourself reaching for a palette knife as quick as any surgeon reaching for a scapple when you need to do stuff like scoop runny wet mortar before it drips onto an unsealed 250 myo limestone ammonite fossil to stain it forever. You have to work carefully and deliberately and quickly when you fabricate a surface from artifacts, and you have to know what to do when things go wrong.

    And things do go wrong when you work with wet concrete and stuff easily stained by concrete.

    You can be in a good rhythm, but then you will drop something, and before you know it, you will  suddenly have concrete on both hands, plus the past 6 things you touched, including whatever you are currently holding, which will continue to get dirtier until you just drop it and accidentally touch you hand to your face or hair in frustration. And then you laugh like a crazy man or cuss or both and spend the next five to ten minutes bathing things and picking concrete out of your eyebrow.

    Contain Your Cutting Slivers

    You can’t just cut tile, especially glass tile without creating some dangerous slivers and splinters, so this means you can’t indiscriminately hold your cutting tool over your lap or work surface. Cut tile over a tray or plastic tote to help contain the slivers generated by cutting. Totes with some depth like dishpans and unused litter boxes are more effective than flat trays for catching splinters that shoot out instead of merely falling.

    Why is this important? Random slivers lying invisible on surfaces cause more cuts than handling the tile. Inevitably you touch your finger, hand or forearm to the surface, and you have cut yourself before you know what is happening. The cuts are usually surprisingly deep given the size of the slivers. I’ve had one roll a deep cut all the way across my palm when I foolishly brushed a seemingly clean table with my bare ungloved hand.

    Keep your shop vacuum in the cell of the workstation if possible and use if frequently with a counter brush like the kind we sell.

    I have a wire mesh fitting over my vacuum hose, and it makes the vacuum a lot more useful. I use the wire mesh fitting for vacuuming the dust out of all my small part containers without having to remove the parts: mosaic tile, screws, hardware, fossils, teeth, arrowheads, artifacts. This is huge when you have a room with thousands of open-top containers of small parts.

    How To Make A Mesh Vacuum Fitting

    I made the mesh fitting from 3/8″ hardware cloth (galvanized steel wire mesh) folded over the end of a hose pipe salvaged from a dead shop vac. The wire mesh was folded under at the outer edges, and I spent a few minutes with with the needle nose pliers nipping and tucking under the sharp ends. Then I wrapped it about three times with duct tape.

     What Your Really Need To Know About Duct Tape

    Just because you are using duct tape doesn’t mean that your work has to be “halfast” and disposable.  You can form up some useful things with duct tape. Also, the environmental cost of making duct tape  and disposing it when worn out means that it is actually a very expensive material and should not be used carelessly.

    The nozzle I made was wrapped about three times with duct tape. If you leave the sharps turned out, you could wrap a whole roll on there and still get poked if you ever pressed down on it good.

    Tools List Mosaic tools arranged to the right of Dorothy Stucki’s in-progress mosaic “To Begin and End With Nothing.”

    In the tools laid out above, some are more clearly visible than others, so my list begins with the less than obvious and the less visible:

    misting water bottle (not shown) glue tray for dipping tiles in glue -use plastic lid  (not shown) tray of cotton swabs tray of assorted metal detail tools: dental picks, tweezers of different type, small pocket screwdrivers, palette knives, butter knives, spoons palette knives putty knives pencil cup full of odd tools: scissors, toothbrushes, pencils, markers, box cutter marble file mosaic glass cutter tile nipper Grout Mixing Tools

    I don’t mix my grout or thinset mortar up in the workstation where I actually position the tile. I prefer to mix up and wash up in a separate place, preferably where things can be hosed down without the possibility of getting concrete in any drains. For this reason, your grout and grout mixing supplies don’t have to be stored around your mosaic workstation.

    Grout mixing tools for smaller batches include small digital kitchen scale, measuring cups, buckets, pails, rubber gloves and a counter brush. Note the white tray to the left is the catching tray for the mounted compound nipper above it.

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  • 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.

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  • 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:

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

     

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  • 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.

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  • Mosaic Holiday Ornament Kit

    I have designed a base kit that people can use to make a mosaic holiday ornament, and I plan to sell the base kit at the website. I designed the ornament base relatively quickly due to business demands, but I have spent at least 10 years thinking of how I would design mosaic kits or bases if I ever got around to it.

    Design Criteria

    Here are the criteria I decided were important for the holiday ornament kit:

    The kit should be only a base with instructions and not a complete kit because most people will want to pick out their own tile colors. The base should be reparable from generic components available at any hardware store. The mountings of the base should emphasize strength over shine or polish or decorative finish. The name of the ornament kit should avoid the word “Christmas” so that it could be used for other holidays and purposes year round. Materials Used

    The base is a 3-inch hard polystyrene foam sphere with mounting made from a loop of twine through a #8 stainless steel washer. The mounting is secured to the sphere using a 3-inch deck screw.

    Note that the ornament does not hang perfectly centered from the string but is biased to one side, although the bias is slight. This was deemed preferable over a purpose-made ornament mount that would be perfectly centered yet not reliably hold the weight of a MOSAIC ornament.

    The base is designed to hold the weight of a mosaic over the years without having the mounting pull free from the sphere. Thus the hardware used in the mounting emphasizes strength over decorative finish.  Hard Polystyrene Foam Sphere 3-Inch

    A wooded base would add too much weight. Styrofoam or foam of some sort was needed, but not the soft foam made for floral design. A hard foam of the type used for fishing floats was needed. I selected expanded polystyrene, which is hard and paintable, which means a white PVA glue such as Weldbond can bond to it. I chose a 3-inch sphere because that was roughly the most common size and shape of Christmas ornaments sold in the US, at least in decades past.

    #9 Deck Screw 3-inch

    A plain screw was chosen over an eye screw because eye screws tend to be too small or short or too heavy gauge. As far as what you can find in most hardware stores, there is no middle ground. A #9 deck screw has just the right pitch and thread length to grab onto the polystyrene. The 3-inch length was also optimal for the sphere size I had chosen. I used a deck screw because they are coated for corrosion resistance, and I wanted a fastener that could be re-glued in place if it failed years from now as the polystyrene fatigued from the weight of the mosaic.

    #8 Stainless Steel Washer With Twine Loop

    The #8 washer can accommodate a twine loop and the shaft of the deck screw yet not slip over the head of the deck screw. Stainless steel was selected for corrosion resistance.

    Design Philosophy

    There are all sorts of ornament mounts that we could have purchased from China that are purpose-made and shiny and all that. The problem is that the mounts made for Christmas ornaments aren’t made to hold the weight of a mosaic, especially over the course of years.
    The hardware I selected to mount the ornament was based on strength and durability and repairability. After all, why does it need to be shiny and decorative if the mosaic underneath it will be shiny and decorative enough? Not only that, shouldn’t a hand-made ornament look hand made?

    Field Reparable From Generic Components

    If someone uses my base kit to make a family heirloom that is passed down generation to generation, the most important aspect of the base should be durability followed by repairability. After all, I didn’t want anyone to have to throw away their great grandma’s ornament simply because they couldn’t fix it.

    When I was pursuing my first engineering degree, I worked an internship at an aerospace defense contractor so I could steal the plans for the death star and send them to the rebel alliance. (Actually I worked the internship because I was clueless in general, especially as to how I could ever figure out how to use an engineering degree to live the life I really wanted to live and make art full time.)

    Anyway, while I was there I studied the military hardware doctrines of the Soviet Red Army and how they contrasted with that of NATO. While US designs for jets and tanks and other weapons systems were pushing the envelope in terms of sophistication and complexity, the Soviet design philosophy was more pragmatic: supply chains in times of war are easily disrupted, so don’t make anything that couldn’t be repaired in the field with generic components.

    The ornament base I designed uses generic mounting hardware that could be easily sourced and replaced.

    Failure Mode Effects Analysis

    When teams of engineers are designing a new product in the corporate workplace, they do something called “Failure Mode Effects Analysis,” which is a study of how the product might fail in different ways and what the likely effects are of each mode of failure. For example, if the power switch for a vacuum cleaner shorts out, does the vacuum simply stop working or could it electrocute someone?

    I applied this methodology to the mounting of the mosaic ornament and quickly rejected all the purpose-made ornament mounts I saw on the market. None of them seemed likely to support the weight of a mosaic. I also applied this principle to generic screws and hardware. If or when the mounting screw pulls out, I wanted a fastener coated with something that a white PVA adhesive such as Weldbond could bond to. That is why I selected a deck screw which has a corrosion-resistant coating instead of bare steel or zinc. Sure my fastener might pull out after years and years, but glue could be squeezed into the hole and the same fastener re-inserted.

    Most Kits Discourage Original Design

    Over the years, I have looked at craft kits sold for mosaic art with an eye toward selling them myself, but I have always been turned off in a major way by what I found. Every kit I saw on the market was overpriced, cheaply made and uninspired in terms of design, with a heavy emphasis on cutesy or being easy to complete in a relatively short amount of time. I considered designing my own project kits, but I didn’t want to do anything that encouraged people to make a copy of a design instead of making their own design. I started Mosaic Art Supply to encourage people to try their own hand at design and promote Art with a capital A, not sell junk to people who wanted to make junk.

    I like the base kit I have made for a holiday ornament because other than size and shape, there isn’t any constraint on what type designs people could put on the base.

    The base kit come unassembled so that the tile can be glued on and grouted without soiling the mounting hardware.

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  • 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.

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