Thinset Mortar is concrete with polymers added for enhanced strength and adhesive properties and is the recommended material for all outdoor and wet mosaics (pools, fountains, etc.). Unhardened thinset looks more or less like wet concrete, but it is sticky almost like honey or tar, and handling it for the first time can be a little intimidating. However, with some basic planning, you can eliminate a lot of the mess and all the stress.
One approach is to pre-mount your tiles on paper or mesh so that the final installation only involves trowels to spread thinset on a surface instead of placing individual tiles by hand into thinset.
But what if you want to mount individual tiles by hand and use thinset similar to how you use a convenient bottle of glue to make indoor mosaics?
Well, it doesn’t make sense to try to apply a small amount of thinset to the back of an individual tile similar to how people will sometimes apply glue to the back of a tile from a squeeze bottle. That approach continually contaminates the fingertips with thinset. Instead, it is more efficient and cleaner to spread a little bit of thinset over a small area of your surface and press tiles into that. Small trowels, old butter knives, palette knives and even popsicle sticks are useful for this.
These same spreading tools are also useful for pushing the tiles around and making slight adjustments in position, but invariably artists will use their fingertips for this purpose once they “get in the groove” and lose themselves in the creative flow. And then there are all the plops and spills and silly accidents like picking up the spreading tool from the wrong end.
The question becomes how do you keep your tools and hands clean without consuming a large amount of rags. Remember, this isn’t water or even glue that you are wiping off. It is concrete with sand it it. While you might be able to use the same rag all day when working with Weldbond or some other water-based glue, you can make a rag more of less unusable with just a few wipes of thinset.
Without a system, you will use up an astronomical amount of rags and still have dirty hands. It just isn’t possible to reach for rags randomly without eventually grabbing one that is already contaminated and smearing wet concrete across everything. And it is always the rag that looks perfectly clean that bites you! When the material in question is thinset, it only takes a pea-sized amount to make a big mess.My Three Rag System
Mosaic and other crafts are more enjoyable and productive when you organize your workstation so that tools and materials are close to hand. This is doubly true when you are working with a messy material like thinset. You’ve got to set things up in a way that takes into account that you will frequently need to clean your hands and tools.
Here is how I use three rags in different ways to maximize the useful life of each rag:Dirty Rag: a contaminated rag lying on the work surface near the art. Wet rag: a rag is floating in a 2-gallon bucket half filled with water. Dry Rag: a clean dry rag lying in the artist’s lap. Dirty Rag
The dirty rag is placed directly on the mosaic or work table, right beside the place on the mosaic where I am currently mounting tiles. This is the rag used for wiping clumps of thinset from fingertips and tools. (Note that you should try to shake off large clumps of thinset into a garbage pail first.)Wet Rag
The wet rag floats in a bucket half-filled with water. Hands and tools are dipped into the bucket to rinse them off. The wet rag stays in the bucket and is only there to provide something to rub against to help remove any last traces of concrete.Dry Rag
The dry rag in the artist’s lap should only be used for drying hands and tools that are free of concrete and merely wet. Once the dry rag is contaminated just a little bit, it more or less has to be demoted to being used as the dirty rag. With that in mind, you have to be disciplined and resist the urge to grab it to wipe away spills and smears on the mosaic. For this reason, you should have a fourth rag for emergencies and use it only for that purpose.Emergency Rag
In addition to the three rags used for cleaning and drying hands and tools, a fourth rag is needed for cleaning drops and smears on the mosaic itself. Of course, you should always try to get most of the material up using your trowel or spreading tool and use the emergency rag only for the residue so that it lasts longer. Once the emergency rag becomes too contaminated, it is demoted to being the new dirty rag.Additional Materials and Tips
It takes a little practice to be able to lose yourself in your work and still be disciplined and conscious enough to not grab the first rag you come to when you make a mistake. That is why you should have a box of extra rags standing by. You should also have a bucket by your feet for quick disposal of contaminated rags.Rinse Your Dirty Rags Outside
Remember to take a break and run outside to the garden hose and rinse the thinset from these rags before it hardens. These rags might be permanently stained, but they can be cleaned sufficiently to be as useful as new rags in the studio. If you are only an occasional artist, this need to reuse rags might not be such a big deal, but if you work with thinset on a regular basis, the amount of rags consumed can be significant. There will always be some that are past saving, so we try to salvage what we can.Use a Garbage Pail
Another tip is to have an old garbage pail at your workstation so that you can throw old clumps of thinset into it instead your dirty rag bucket. I put scraps of cardboard and trash in my garbage pail to that I have something to wipe my spreading tool on. I try to use the garbage pail as much as possible to take pressure off my dirty rag.Recycled Plastic Grocery Bags
Most artists tend to work until they can’t work any more, and that makes clean up all the more burdensome, especially when clean up involves wet concrete and requires some actual labor. This is when people are tempted to just grab all their contaminated rags and use them to wipe the left over thinset out of the mixing bucket and just throw them all away and be done. Again, this might be acceptable for an occasional artist, but it really isn’t very “green” or sustainable in a studio that frequently works with thinset.
The good news is that there is a readily available waste material that can be used as a disposable wipe for rubbing thinset off buckets and tools. Plastic grocery bags work very well for this and can be gathered for free in as large a quantity as needed.Medical Examination Gloves
Thinset and grout contain portland cement and are mildly caustic. We wear disposable latex medical examination gloves when we work with thinset to keep it from drying out our skin.
You Can’t Force Freshness
To make it as a professional artist, you have to keep your art fresh and always be enthusiastic about working on it. The easiest way to do that is to keep a variety of media in your studio and move between them as needed.
Yes, you need to have discipline and focus and stick to a craft over time to develop any depth of skill in it, in mosaic or in painting or whatever your preferred medium of art happens to be, but sometimes you need a break from the routine to have perspective on what you are doing. Sometimes you need to make little clay sculptures instead of mosaic. Or work with paper cutouts or collages from old Kodachrome photographs from 1960’s National Geographic magazines. Sometimes the most important work you can do is to not bang your head against blockages or monotony.The Importance of Play
As an artist, you will most likely live on small commissions and day jobs and can’t afford to let too much time go by in an unproductive way. Most likely you are painfully familiar with how competitive the world is and how much economic incentive there is to always by sharpening your skills. The question is how to take a break without taking a break, and the answer is alternative mediums.Legos Tonight
I play Legos with my 4-year-old son every day after I pick him up from preschool. We built up our collection of Legos from a few key starter sets and ordering specialty kits like wheels and doors and windows as needed. I am careful to avoid anything that is too theme specific, especially franchise themes like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and stick to generic Legos instead. I want to show my son how to build things he imagines from generic components, not make copies of things that are already saturated in video and other commercial media.Used Bulk Lots on Ebay
The best source of Legos turns out to be eBay, where you can buy them in 10-pound and 20-pound bulk lots and get thousands of used blocks and components for the price you would pay for just a few hundred new pieces. Also, the selection of blocks in the used bulk lots is much more diverse than what you could find in any new set because these bulk lots contain blocks from countless sets of different themes from different years, many of which are discontinued and no longer available. The latest bulk lots I bought probably contained blocks from at least 40 to 50 different sets, and about 50% of the blocks were components I had never seen before: shafts, brackets, panels, hinges, beams, axles, etc. The color selection in these used bulk lots is also more diverse than what you find in a new set for exactly the same reason.How To Clean Used Toys
One concern about buying used toys is that they can be covered in several decades worth of filth, contagious germs and little-kid stickiness. Since Legos and most contemporary toys are plastic, it is very easy to clean them by soaking in a basin of warm water with a small amount of chlorine bleach added. We use one of our large plastic recycling totes and a colander to process the whole set in one batch. The colander is more or less required to catch all the hundreds of tiny pieces.
If you are buying toys to make assemblage sculpture, you should also consider cleaning them in a batch before starting work, although I am referring to newer contemporary toys and things that don’t have an interesting patina that defines how the object looks. Antique metal toys and even plastic toys from a few decades ago often have some rust or dirt or patina that can’t be cleaned off without changing if not downright ruining the look of the toy. Make sure you avoid the bleach bath for these type pieces and give them individual attention. I have even seen artists paint a layer of thin acrylic over patinas and dirt to make sure it didn’t come off.My Latest Lego Creations
Enough babbling about how to make art! Here is what I made last night. Let the bidding begin at one million dollars. That is how much fun I had making them. Note that the hoist on the crane works, as does the magnet, and all of these creations were built from generic components without a plan:Lego Crane Truck Rear View Lego Crane Truck Front View Lego Asian Taxi Lego Amphibious Duck Vehicle Lego Adjustable Camera Boom Mounted on Rolling Swivel Platform Lego Jet Car
Someone recently asked me about how they could make a Moroccan-styled Glass Mosaic Sink, and that got me thinking about different options for making mosaic sinks in general.How to Make a Custom Basin from Thinset and Hardware Cloth?
To make a custom shape such as the simple elegant shape used in the Moroccan sinks I have seen, I would probably use a large ceramic serving bowl reinforced and extended with thinset mortar and hardware cloth (wire mesh). Actually I would probably use the bowl only as a mold for the curved bottom and build the sink up in layers of thinset and fiberglass mesh, Once I had a few layers, I would let that harden. Then I would cement in some hardware cloth and use a 1/4″ rebar hoop to stiffen the outer rim and support the bowl. Make sure the hardware cloth extends past the rebar hoop. Fold this back down over the hoop and lay if flat on the outside. Cover this in 2 coats of thinset,
Of coarse, you need to have a metal drain cemented in place from the very beginning. I would use the upside-down bowl as a mold to get the curvature I wanted, and I would leave the fiberglass mesh bare in the very top where the metal drain will be placed. I would stick the metal drain in a hole in the middle of the hardware cloth. I would fold this hardware cloth down on the outside of this shell and made sure the metal drain matches up with the bare fiberglass mesh at the top of the inverted sink shell.
That is similar to how I made shapes for sculptures. Sometimes I would use an object as a “mold” to define the shape by draping it in mesh covered with thinset, and other times I would weld up a rebar skeleton and cover it with hardware cloth first and then cover this skeleton with thinset.How To Use A Conventional Porcelain and Iron Sink As A Mosaic Base?
I’ve always thought about making a more contemporary mosaic sink, a wall mounted unit or maybe even a pedestal.
For either one, you could use a conventional sink (glazed porcelain or cast iron enameled with glazed porcelain). I’m always seeing interesting ones in construction dumpsters and beside the road on pickup day. It’s not like you have to wait too long to find one if you keep you eyes open on streets where they were restoring old houses.
The question is how to scuff up the porcelain so that the thinset sticks to it extra tight. Maybe the artist will get lucky, and the one in the construction dumpster will be 80-years old and used to rinse mops and scratched and stained. If not, I’d probably use a dual-grit rubbing stone an a leather work glove to scuff it up. I do stuff like that wet of course to keep from making a bunch of air-born dust. Remember, a mist bottle is often more effective than a dust mask, and a lot more comfortable when it’s hot.
You could definitely make an interesting mosaic sink from some of the glass tile I sell.
However, none of my glass is certified to be safe as a food preparation surface like a dish or a cutting board. This might not be relevant when talking about a counter top, but a sink is different.
Some people use their sink as a bowl for soaking vegetables and frozen meat. I wouldn’t do that in a sink made from stained glass because I would want to be sure that none of the softer varieties of stained glass were shedding metal oxide pigments. I wouldn’t rule that out in a sink which is subjected to organic acids and spoiled food on a regular basis and chronically damp. You could avoid the problem by using a bowl for soaking food and keeping the sink clean of food residues.Recycled Glass Tiles
The Elementile brand of Recycled Glass Tiles would be an interesting choice for a mosaic sink, and probably the most durable glass material we have for an application like that. Elementile is small and available in a range of colors too, so you could have a fairly detailed design without having to cut it or supplement other types of glass to make up for missing colors. I’m sure this is what I would use. I would use the standard finish Elementile and avoid the iridescent version of the product.Stained Glass
I have seen smaller pieces of stained glass used in some amazingly detailed figures in mixed medial counter tops that ranging from repeating borders in conventional ceramic tiling to found-object mosaics that included artifacts like beach bonfire glass and boyhood collections of arrowheads.Use Small Pieces for Mosaic Counter Tops
I think I would avoid large pieces of stained glass for a sink or a counter top because some of it is very brittle, and all of it is relatively thin: nominally 1/8 inch. Most all of the glass mosaic tile is nominally 1/8″ thick, but none are larger than 1″ x 1″. There is a relationship. When the thickness is relatively thin, the piece size can only be so large before it is too easily cracked by a falling object.
Smaller tiles are less likely to crack than large ones. Here’s why: With smaller tiles, there are more lines of grout between the tiles. The grout between tile is concrete and actually helps strengthen the face of a glass mosaics to blows.
In general, I would probably avoid stained glass for sinks and only use it selectively in counter tops and those backsplashes that are less likely to see impacts from dinnerware being slung and slid around.
I frequently get emails asking me what is the best color mosaic tile we sell for rendering skin tones. I then have to explain that the question doesn’t have a straightforward answer, even if the person specifies the particular race or ethnicity of the skin to be depicted. The reason the question is problematic is that even a simplistic rendering of a face will require more than one color of tile so that you can show the features of the face, preferably through the use of shading and highlights instead of mere outlining.
Instead of talking about what I mean, an illustrated example will make the point instantly obvious:Harjeet Singh Sandhu’s mosaic portrait of NYC Mayor Bloomberg
Artist Harjeet Singh Sandhu’s mosaic portrait of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was NOT made by searching for the ONE most beautiful pinky white color of mosaic tile or stained glass we sell. Instead, Sandhu uses a variety of colors: muted pinks, off whites and browns in contrasting values (light versus dark) to show depth, shadow and highlights. Also note that the material Sandhu used was not stained glass or smalti or some other expensive variety of premium art glass, which is what people tend to search for when they think they need one particular color in order to be able to create a realistic image. The mosaic above was made from 3/8-inch vitreous mosaic tile, which has a fairly limited color palette and is produced primarily as a building material and not as an art supply.
More of Sandhu’s work and portrait by other mosaic artists can be seen on our page for mosaic portraits.
I take great pleasure in showing off Sandhu’s portraits, particularly when people express frustration in the lack of flesh tones available in vitreous glass tile or complain about the lack of intensity in the colors available. But I don’t do it in a self-righteous way. It took me forever to learn a few simple lessons about using color myself, especially this very important one:
The intensity of a color is determined in large part by the use of contrasting colors around it. If you want a fiery red, surround it by blues and greens, not oranges. Value (brightness or shade) also works by contrast. A warm cream looks bright when surrounded by dark brown and relatively dark when surrounded by pure white. Whether you use complementing colors to create contrast or light and dark, the key to creating visual interest is contrast.
Once you get the hang of experimenting and putting colors side by side to see how they contrast and compliment each other, you will be surprised at what complex images you can create from seemingly ordinary colors. I hardly ever see a random spill of mixed tile on the floor of the warehouse that I don’t start thinking about what sort of image I could render using only those colors, although I always end by thinking of what colors I would add to balance them (or which to subtract.) Just as you can learn a lot about painting by brushing pigment of canvas, you can learn about how to render in tile merely by playing with tile and making different arrangements.
We never have to worry about evaluating new adhesives in our work because we use conventional mosaic backers like plywood (indoors), concrete backer board, stone slabs and masonry walls. This means we always use Weldbond (a white PVA adhesive for dry indoor mosaics) and thinset mortar for everything else.
But what if you are wanting to put a mosaic on a plastic mannequin or a fiberglass sculpture or some other novel backer?
Well, these backers were made to be light weight, and so it doesn’t make sense to use thinset, which is a type of concrete, and Weldbond does not bond at all to most plastics.Silicone and Epoxy
Many people report using silicone-based adhesives and epoxies on plastics with good results, but there are several reasons to test whatever adhesive you select on your particular backer before investing time attaching very many tiles.Reasons to Test Your Adhesive Plastic Ain’t Plastic
There are many different types of plastics. The information you read online might say the product works well on plastic or bowling balls or whatever, but chances are that whatever plastic you have isn’t exactly the same as what the author used in their project, especially if you are using something found at a thrift store or yard sale and possibly several decades old.Delamination of Composite Materials
The problem might actually be within the substrate and not the glue per se. For instance, testing might reveal that your plastic is actually a composite material with a thin outer layer that pulls off relatively easily when something is glued to it.Glues Can Go Bad
What if the problem is with your particular container of glue? Specialty adhesives have shelf lives and expiration dates and can sometimes be ruined by exposure to heat or cold.Scrape Test
The easiest way to test an adhesive is to put a small bead or dot of adhesive in an out-of-the-way place on your backer and try scraping it off a few days later with a paint scraper or putty knife. Remember to use common sense and not damage your sculpture. If the bead of adhesive won’t come off, don’t keep banging on it with the scraper until you come away with a big chunk of the substrate or crack your sculpture. Instead, use sandpaper to sand the adhesive down.
To make your test bead, you will also want to rub the wet adhesive onto the surface to make sure that the bead of adhesive has actually made intimate contact with the surface and isn’t just sitting on top superficially. You don’t have to smear it flat. It can still be a small bead.
I recommend putting two or three beads of adhesive in the test area to make sure that you have at least one that has good contact. If the adhesive fails the test, you want to know it failed because the adhesive isn’t meant for the material, not because you didn’t apply it very well. For the same reason, you will want to make sure that you prepare the surface before testing.Surface Preparation
Before applying glue, you need to make sure the surface is clean and free of dust and oils. Most molded plastic surfaces are fairly smooth, so you will also want to lightly scuff it with a medium-grit sandpaper. However, you shouldn’t skip cleaning the surface before sanding it. If there are oils or contaminants on the surface, it is possible for them to migrate down to the freshly exposed material as you are sanding. The sandpaper gets contaminated and then contaminates the new material underneath.
I use dish-washing detergents for cleaning applications like this because they wash away cleanly. Solvents like alcohol might be more effective for lifting grease with less scrubbing, but they also run the risk of being absorbed by the material being cleaned. Probably not, but it’s safer to assume the worst when using a base of unidentified materials.Which Brand to Use?
Consider brands like Loc-Tite, DAP and Permatex. Loc-Tite makes a variety of adhesive products in addition to epoxies and silicone adhesives, so make sure you don’t buy one of their super glue (cyanoacrylate) products. Cyanoacrylate bonds are strong but tend not to last as long because they are brittle.
Gorilla Glue is a tougher and more impact resistant cyanoacrylate adhesive, and it does have a lot of fans, but we have not used it. I would be interested in learning more about how it ages. If the tiny rubber particles that give Gorilla Glue its toughness were to oxidize over time and dry rot the way rubber does, then I would have serious doubts about using it in art meant to be durable.
Going to the adhesive aisle of a building material store and reading a few labels is a good way to find a few candidates and compare them side by side based on manufacturer recommendations. Usually the packaging will have a list of materials the adhesive will work on. Online shopping might be less useful in this regard because the product descriptions are often fairly brief, but the flip side is you can read product reviews.
HOWEVER, no matter how much of that type information you gather, make sure you test the adhesive on your particular plastic/fiberglass backer before committing time on the actual tiling.
The first thing you need to know about outdoor and wet mosaic (pool, fountain, shower) is that thinset mortar is used instead of glue. Thinset mortar is a type of concrete with polymers added for tensile strength and enhanced adhesive properties. It contains sand and portland cement just like standard concrete and comes as a powder which is mixed with water. Hardened thinset is like concrete, only stronger and tougher (able to withstand greater impact without cracking).
I wrote a must-read page for how to use thinset mortar for detailed mosaic artwork. The thinset page contains basic handling instructions and a procedure for keeping your hands clean as you work, which is actually not as simple an issue as you would think if you haven’t ever done much work with sticky substances like construction adhesives.
I have also written a summary of basic pointers for outdoor mosaic art and an illustrated case study based on a customer’s street number project. Both of those pages contain information that can make your outdoor mosaic more durable and less labor intensive to make. (One caveat: the case study documents how our customer did his particular project, which could have been done much more efficiently by laying up the mosaic temporarily on paper, but what it lacks in efficiency it more than makes up for as an example of how much shear energy amateur artists bring to their first projects in a new medium. The sequence of photos is also instructive.)BIG Bags of Thinset
The first thing you will notice when you go to the building material store to buy thinset is that it comes in 50-pound bags. Only 50-pound bags. As if people never had to tile the floor of a shower that was only 6 square feet. Or make mosaic art or do any number of household projects that would require nowhere near 50 pounds of anything.
For over a decade I have been hoping to find a manufacturer who could supply thinset in smaller containers, but no luck yet. I’m not sure exactly why a company the size of TEC or Laticrete wouldn’t value someone like me distributing thousands of samples of their product and paying for the privilege of doing so, but the shear lack of imagination in corporate America has never ceased to amaze me.
Imagine if you could only buy nails in 50-pound bags. Think that might kill some potential sales?
The good new is that thinset is a very useful product for home repairs, and there are ways to make the 50-pound bag more easy to use. Also, mosaic art tends to be addictive and serialized. If you make one, you will make several in all probability. Statistically, you are also likely to return to the craft repeatedly over the years.How to Manage a 50-Pound Bag
Tip #1. Buy a 5-gallon plastic bucket with lid when you buy your bag of thinset. If you keep it sealed in the bucket where moisture and humidity can’t degrade it, the thinset should last for years and years.
Tip #2. Read and copy any instructional information from the bag before you put it into the bucket. If you forget step #2, you can always read the outside of another bag at the store or look up the manufacturer’s product information online.
Tip #3. Put the entire bag into 5-gallon bucket. Do not attempt to pour the bag into the bucket unless you want to create a dust cloud the size of Texas and coat the inside of your lungs with fortified concrete.
Tip #4. Slit the top of the bag with a box cutter and keep an old measuring cup or plastic tumbler in the bag inside the bucket for scooping out thinset as needed.
Tip #5. Scoop and mix your thinset outdoors in a location you can hose down. Or just be neat.
Tip #6. Mix your thinset up in an oversized container. For example, if you are mixing up only 3 to 5 pounds of thinset, you should still use something the size of a 2-gallon bucket. That will help contain the dust and the splatter. If you use a container that isn’t much larger than the mass you are mixing, then you will probably sling dust and mud out. Concrete is heavy and thick and takes concentrated force to mix it. That means it is more likely to be accidentally slung while being stirred.
Tip #7. Pour the measured water on top of the thinset to be mixed up. Blend it slowly and carefully at first to minimize the amount of dust being created.Surface Preparation
If you are mosaicing on an outdoor wall of stone or masonry or a slab of concrete, then make sure the surface is clean and free from paint and any outer layers that may have been degraded by exposure to the elements.
Note that degraded surface conditions might not be as obvious as flaking paint chips. It might simply be that the outermost layer of stone or concrete is a little more crumbly than the same material underneath.
The easiest way to test for this type of superficial decay is the same method you would use to remove it if it exists. Take a wire brush of the type used for cleaning welded metal and scour the surface. If surface material comes off relatively easy, then you have some idea how much scouring you need to do.
Remember it doesn’t matter how well you mount your mosaic or seal it if you mounted it on a dirty or degraded surface. The tiles will start falling off relatively quickly.The Right Brush
Note that the wire brushes used to clean welds have wooden handles and thicker stiffer bristles than the wire brushes used to clean barbeque pits. They are available at most hardware stores.
If you are installing a large outdoor mural, then you may want to use a circular wire brush on a power tool such as a drill or angle grinder. But, as my father used to say, “Boy, put you some long pants on and keep a good hold a this thing cause it’ll take the hide clean off you.”
Wearing the clear plastic face shields used by metal workers are also a good idea, especially if you are a novice. Gloves are not optional when using any power tool that removes material.Plaster The Surface Level
When we mosaic a masonry wall or fireplace, we will often plaster the surface level a few days before mounting the mosaic. What do we use? Good ole thinset from our 50-pound bag.
Note that thinset gets thinner as it sets or cures (hence the name), and so you should be aware that any divots or trenches you fill with thinset (such as the seam between bricks) may start off level, but as the thinset cures, a ghost of the original divot or trench will reappear. If the holes I am trying to fill are more than half an inch deep, I will reapply a second plastering of thinset after the first coating has cured for three days.Pre-Mount Your Tiles
Doing detailed work outdoors is much more difficult than working at your studio table, even if you are doing it on the first magical day of warm spring weather or the first refreshingly cool day of fall. Even in pleasant weather, there are ergonomic limitations that quickly come apparent when you attempt to set each tile by hand, and then there are only so many daylight hours and so many days that you can be on the job site.
The solution is to lay up your mosaic before hand. I recently wrote an illustrated post that explains how to use sticky contact paper and clear packing tape to lay out mosaic designs in advance of actually mounting them. We also sell mounting paper and mounting grids in our mosaic tools category.
In my previous post, I wrote about improvisation being a critical skill for visual artists working in multiple mediums. I regularly get emails from people using methods that are not technically sound: using hot glue guns to mount mosaic tile, using grout as mortar to attach tiles, etc., and so I think I need to say a little bit about improvising in ways that are technically sound versus just trying things blindly.Improvisation Requires More Knowledge Not Less
Improvisation is best done with knowledge of fundamentals and how things should be done for durability sake. Improvisation is not stumbling in the dark or willfully ignoring design principles or shop practices. To deviate from the beaten path, you have to know more not less. Otherwise your artwork is likely to be physically defective in some unexpected and undesirable ways.Ignorance Is Ugly (Often Literally)
When I see a piece of art that is poorly made and not very durable, all I can think about is how quickly that piece will end up in the landfill and how much fossil fuel and mined minerals were used to manufacturer the materials the artist consumed.
As an artist, you are free to use paint and glue and concrete in novel ways, but if you ignore basic usage instructions and fundamental design principles, then your artwork probably won’t age very well.
Poorly executed craft work is a manifestation of ignorance, and ignorance is never attractive. Where durability is concerned, naivety just isn’t the same as the naivety that make children’s artwork so wonderful. There is nothing liberating or instructive in seeing yet one more piece of poorly made junk in an age dominated by poorly made junk.The Art of Impermanence
There is quite a lot of wonderful art that is made to be temporary, and its impermanence is actually part of its beauty and significance and wow factor, for want of a better phrase. Who hasn’t seen a photo-realistic masterpiece chalked on a sidewalk and not been stuck in an emotional way by the fact that it will all be gone in the next rain? The fact that it will be gone so soon makes us ponder that piece of art in ways that would have never occurred to us if it were just another painting on canvas.A Sad Persistent Reproach
The example of a masterpiece chalked on a sidewalk is significantly different from a mosaic missing tiles and chunks of adhesive. The sidewalk painting washes dramatically and cleanly away. A poorly executed mosaic is a sad persistent reproach that just won’t go away. It has to be scraped or chiseled off as penance for the artist’s disregard for doing things in the right way.
Remember, what makes crumbling architecture so beautiful was that it was built to endure as long as possible not to be disposable.
If you want to make Tibetan butter sculptures to watch them melt in the sun as a meditation on the impermanence of everything, then use butter, not materials that were manufactured to be durable. I would say this for esthetic reasons alone, but there is also the moral reason, especially when the materials in question (cement, glass tile, etc.) require so many resources to be manufactured.
In my previous post, I wrote about the improvised double-reverse method one of our customers Tobin was using to lay up details for the large panels of his garden courtyard mosaic.
Tobin’s method uses packing tape and contact paper to temporarily lay up mosaic designs instead of the traditional lime putty or clay, but that lack of the traditional material does not compromise the design process or the durability of the artwork. In fact, his use of improvised materials illustrates some important concepts that apply to all mediums of visual art.The Right Tool For The Job?
Sometimes it makes sense to delay work until you find the right tool or material for esthetic reasons or to ensure the durability of the artwork produced. However, if you know how to use what you have lying around your shop or kitchen, or studio or warehouse, you can spend more time experimenting with new ideas and less time gathering materials.Gathering Materials As Distraction
Being able to work sooner rather than later is critical. This is particularly important for artists who still have day jobs and distractions like most of us. You can kill inspiration in the time spent gathering up materials.
Don’t let periods of creativity be wasted because you didn’t have a specialty product you couldn’t get at the local supermarket. Instead, think of ways it could be made just as durable with more common tools and materials.
Does this sound like a strange thing to say coming from a person who sells specialty art materials that are shipped to people living several days away from our warehouse?
No! I’ve made mosaics from old marbles and bottlenecks and porcelain doorknobs and other things I’ve found, and I am well aware that it takes a lifetime to gather certain things just by looking around.
If the image in your mind is a face made out of pieces of opaque glass, you probably need to buy some glass mosaic tile or stained glass or colored art glass.Stuff Is No Substitute for Improvisation
I still regularly have great ideas that would be lost if I didn’t think hard about some way to make it happen using what I currently have on hand, and this happens even when I am working in our warehouse with all its tons of inventory and studios full of art supplies plus a shop with power tools.
Artists tend to be gatherers of materials, and that is fine, but the defining skill of being an artist is the ability to improvise.A Good Teaching Example
Back to why I think Tobin’s use of the contact paper is such a good teaching example about art in general:
Sometimes time is a bigger problem than materials. Sometimes you have to improvise ways to get large projects done in small installments. Tobin laid up details of his mosaic on small pieces of contact paper so that he could work on them during short lunch breaks at an analytical job.
I worked for several years as an engineer in factories and laboratories. I frequently worked on art projects during breaks, and this was easy to do if it was a small project like a Byzantine crown made from woven brass wire and glass beads or a turtle carved out of a knot of maple wood or a structural model of a temple made from laminated cardboard.
But how do you make the temple?
The answer is simple: one brick at a time. Devise ways to divide the project into “bricks” or discrete components. Collage these components together as they start to accumulate over time. Play with different configurations to see how the bricks go together before you cement them together. Try variations you didn’t consider originally. By doing so, you will learn which types of bricks you need more of and which types you don’t.
I laugh when I think of some of the things I made in airport hotel rooms while on business travel as an engineer. I was in the most impersonal, unnatural, sterile environments you can think of, and there I was sitting cross-legged on a blanket on the floor carving the face of an ancient god into a piece of driftwood I had found during a near-death experience on a wilderness beach.
One of our customers Tobin is making an 80 square foot garden courtyard mosaic, the theme being the four elements (water, fire, wind, and earth) with a panel devoted to each element.
Recently Tobin emailed us some pictures of his work in progress, and I think they are worth showing online and not just because they are strong visually. They are also good how-to illustrations for a double-reverse method of laying up mosaic designs. On top of that, they illustrate a very important concept in making art in general, one that is essential.
Tobin says he cobbled his method together from different things he saw on our website and in books plus some trial and error and some lessons learned while installing a 12 foot by 4 foot shower mosaic.
In technical terms, what Tobin is doing could be described as an improvised double-reverse method that uses contact paper and clear packing tape instead of lime putty or clay to temporarily hold the tiles.Bird detail in progress for Tobin’s mosaic panel for the Wind Element, which will include the bird and a woman playing a flute in a wind-swept flowing gown. Note that the tile will later be covered in clear packing tape, but for now it is held in place by sticky contact paper.
Here is what Tobin is doing:
Semi-translucent contact paper is taped down over the sketch of the mosaic design on a worktable. The contact paper is sticky side up, and the stickiness keeps the tile from moving around as they are placed into position along the outlines of the drawing.
Once the mosaic design is completely laid out on the sticky contact paper. A layer of clear packing tape is stuck down on the face of the mosaic. The clear packing tape is stickier than the contact paper, so the design lifts right off the contact paper when needed. Before removing the contact paper, Tobin cuts the mosaic into workable sections using a box cutter/utility knife.
Then Tobin does something different from what I would do at this point in the process. At this point, I would remove the contact paper and press the sheet into the thinset mortar I have spread on my surface. After the mortar hardens for 48 hours, I peel off the clear packing tape and grout my mosaic.
Instead, Tobin transfers his design yet again by gluing it to a sheet of fiberglass mesh using Weldbond Glue, which is a white PVA adhesive. The reason Tobin is doing the extra step with the mesh is because he is making the individual figures in a convenient and portable way that allows him to focus on the details and then arranging the figures on the mesh to create a final design.
That sort of collage approach to building up the design from individually rendered figures is a good way to make complicated designs and larger pieces more manageable.
I often do something similar when I draw up scenes on paper. Without intending to do so, I end up cutting out the figures from the the original drawing and arranging them on a new piece of paper because I didn’t like something in the original drawing (maybe one of the figures was too large or oriented at the wrong angle). Then I lay a new piece of paper on top of this collage and trace enough to make a complete drawing. The meta point is this: there are ways to work around your limitations in skill or specialized materials or even time.
I will write more about Tobin’s Mosaic and how his method illustrates an essential concept in making art in my next post.Tobin’s Water Element panel, from a Four Elements series of garden mosaics.
First I want to clarify that I am not talking about the invisible pore sealers that are used to seal tile and grout. Those are silicone-based as well, but my post about mosaic birdhouses was talking about using silicone caulks and sealing gels as an adhesive for mounting tile. I have serious doubts about these.Glass-on-glass mosaics such as this sun catcher use silicone to adhere stained glass pieces to a clear glass backing. However, for any other style of mosaic art, silicone should be avoided.
I have seen some silicone adhesives used on tile sample boards that was so strong that it was impossible to pry off a tile without breaking it, but the tile did come off in pieces. However, with fully cured thinset mortar or Weldbond (white PVA adhesive), the tiles sometimes have to be chiseled off into a powder in order to repair a mosaic.
This may seem like a meaningless distinction if the silicone is strong enough, but over time the difference in strength will show itself in missing tiles.
Also, how well does the silicone product age? Does it become brittle? What else is in it? Will the flexibility of the silicone gel or caulk allow the tile to move and crack up the grout over time? Will it be like the old caulk or old silicone gel on a piece of window glass, capable of being scraped off fairly cleanly?CLARIFICATION
I’ve done some follow up research, and learned a couple of things. First, a silicone adhesive or caulk may be a good option for people making mosaic mannequins or mosaics on plastic or fiberglass sculptures. Note that I haven’t evaluated this myself.
Another thing that I have learned is that a silicone-based caulk should not get brittle in ultraviolet light or cold temperatures in the same way that acrylic-based caulks will. Silicone is also waterproof.
However, the flexibility of silicone-based products when fully cured is still a problem in my opinion for mounting architectural mosaics. If the grout is to remain intact (and thus protect the substrate from water damage), then the tiles cannot be moving slightly every time pressure is applied to the surface of the mosaic.