David Armstrong has created some inspiring mosaic portraits, and he did it using whole tiles arranged in a grid instead of irregular pieces cut and fit as needed. Normally, I dislike mosaic designs based on grids because they lack the extra visual element provided by tile arrangement (andamento), but David’s work has tons of visual interest that more than compensates for this. Continue reading
Yosemite Mosaic Landscape
Limitations of the Grid and Tile as Pixels
Jim Price’s Yosemite Mosaic is an excellent example of how photorealistic mosaic art does NOT have to be rendered in a uniform grid of pixels.
For an example of a gridded mosaic where tiles are used as pixel, look at the impressive black and white mosaic another artist Mark made of his grandson peering through a telescope. Note the contrast of styles between these two mosaics!
While the tile-as-pixel mode of working is very effective and straightforward for beginners, it limits the artist stylistically because tiles in a grid do not vary in shape and direction, and you can’t do things like arrange tiles in concentric rows around figures to suggest motion. You also can’t use different sizes and shapes to suggest the texture of surfaces. All you have is a grid, and the process of laying tile is all a matter of putting the right color in the right cell.
Alternatives to Grid Designs
You have more opportunity for stylistic flourishes if you work in a mode similar to stained glass artwork and used pieces with irregular shapes based on the figures being rendered, which usually means larger pieces –but not necessarily. Artist Lorna Ball’s stained glass mosaics are good examples of using small pieces to create realistic textures (bird plumage, tree bark).
I really admire the mosaic Jim Price made of Yosemite because it is photorealistic yet not pixelated, nor does it go to the opposite extreme and render in large pieces like commonly seen in stained glass artwork. Instead, the image is rendered in small tesserae (tiles), and the tile is used in rows that follow the lines of the figure being rendered. Rectangular tile is placed in staggered rows like the classic “subway tiling,” but it is not one uniform set of rows. Instead, different areas and different figures have their own set of rows at a different orientation from those row sets in adjacent areas. To see what I mean, look at where the tops of the cliffs (vertical rows thrusting upward) meets the sky (horizontal rows).
Every element of the composition works well with adjacent areas and objects and contrasting andamento (direction of rows) helps define areas as separate elements. It is clear Jim thought about the row schemes for different elements very carefully and spent a lot of time executing it.
I wanted to do something big: (24” x 44”). This mosaic took me 20 months to complete, working approx. 3 hours a day using 3/8” tiles. I estimated 13,000 cut pieces. One of my toughest challenges was picking the tile colors. I learned to make do when I could not find all the exact colors I wanted. Grout was also challenging, picking the correct colors – it’s amazing how important grout is and how it affects the overall look of the piece. I used 2 grout colors, grey for the sky/mountains and a medium brown for the rest.
Let the Background Be Background
Note that Jim does not make contour lines around the clouds but instead renders the entire sky (clouds and all) using one system of rows of rectangular tiles that define the clouds impressionistically. This is just what the sky needs. The alternative would have been to render the clouds and the surrounds sky with flourishes of different sets of curved rows, but that would have given the clouds too much visual interest and made them look more like elements in the foreground.
Wheat Field with Crows
Jim Price made this mosaic master copy after Van Gogh’s painting of the same name, and I think it is good example of the emotion and energy that stylized artwork is capable of and why many people value that type of art over straight realism.
Nearly all of Van Gogh paintings beg to be copied as mosaics because the paintings themselves are already mosaics of heavy brushstrokes that make expert use andamento to convey a sense of motion. Everything dances in a Van Gogh painting, even in his still life paintings, but “Wheat Field with Crows” was a particularly good choice for interpretation.
Jim made his Wheat Field With Crows using Italian stained glass and says he has the cuts to prove it. I believe him.
Working With Stained Glass and Alternatives
Stained glass can form razor-sharp edges and slivers when it is cut, some colors more than others because the metal oxide pigments alter the physical properties of the glass. Molded glass tiles such as vitreous and the sintered recycled glass variety are a lot less sharp when they break and don’t produce as many daggers and needles, and so they are better choices when working with children, especially since you can choose to work with whole uncut tile or mostly uncut.
If you do work with stained glass, it is important to remember that nothing else will prick your fingers faster or more often, especially the tiny crumbs and slivers of stained glass that hide on work surfaces. That’s why you keep a vacuum handy and periodically clean off your work area.
Italian Versus American Glass
Our stained glass is all American made. I haven’t noticed much difference between American made and the limited number of sheets of Italian glass I have used as far as cutting it and handling it. As far as looks, I have seen sheets made in both countries that were too exquisite to cut up, but it seems like the Italian manufacturers try to make most every sheet swirled to that level of perfection. It seems like a lot of extra money for not much return if you are cutting the glass up small for mosaic art.
Jim Price lives in Southern California. He has been a graphic artist for 53 years and tried every medium of art before realizing that mosaic was his true love. Contact the artist directly:
Artist Lyn Richards sent me some pictures of the mosaic bird bath she made this past summer, and it is worth showing off. The floral design and the colors used in the mosaic were inspired by Van Gogh’s painting “Irises.”
Material List for a Mosaic Birdbath
To make a mosaic bird bath such as this, you could use a ready-made concrete bird bath from a lawn and garden center, or you could make an original concrete sculpture if you are looking for something with a less conventional shape. Lyn used a ready-made concrete bird bath that came in two sections: a base column and a bowl.
Thinset Mortar and Tools
Thinset mortar should be used instead of adhesive for attaching the tile. A complete list of tools and materials for mixing thinset and for applying it is given in my instructions for using thinset mortar with glass tile. (Note the instructions were written for doing extremely detailed work, so I might make thinset seem much more difficult to use than it really is.) I have also written a page for how to keep your hands clean when using thinset.
Glass Mosaic Tile
Glass mosaic tile in non-porous and so water can’t get inside it and freeze and crack it all to pieces. This makes glass superior to stone and ceramic tile when used outdoors. You can use any of the glass we sell. Lyn’s mosaic was made from different brands of 3/4 inch vitreous glass tile, metallic glass tile. iridescent glass, and stained glass.
To find out how much tile you need, you can divide your shape into component surfaces and use our mosaic tile estimator. What do I mean by component surfaces? For estimation purposes, Lyn’s bath can be thought of as cylinder topped by a disk. The surface area of the cylinder is A = D*Pi*H, where D is the diameter, and Pi is 3.14, and H is the height. The surface area of the disk is A = Pi/4*D*D. Note that this time D is the diameter of the bowl and not the pedestal base. Remember to multiply the surface area of the disk by a factor of 2 because there is a top and a bottom.
As always, remember to inflate your estimate by 5 to 10% to account for cutting scrap and to provide a cushion for error in your estimates. I have always found that it is much better to have tile left over than it is to not have enough. Suppliers sell out from time to time, and the next manufacturer batch might not match what you already have, or at least match exactly. Also, leftover tile serves as inspiration and material for future projects.
Finding and Transferring Patterns
Lyn used Van Gogh’s painting “Irises” for her pattern. She drew the outline of the shapes (blades and petals) onto the concrete using a pencil, and then she went over that drawing with a black Sharpie marker when she was sure she had her lines correct. This is recommended: Don’t use the marker until I work out my lines by trial and error using a pencil. If your pencil drawing gets to be a mess and you need to start over, you can “erase” it by wet sanding it and wiping it off with a rag.
Choice of Colors and Visual Interest
Note how Lyn used multiple shades and hues of green to make the blades of the iris leaves instead of using just one type of green. This creates shade and depth and visual interest and makes all the difference in the world. Monochromatic color fields are boring, and they take just as long to tile as a more interesting mix of colors. Note the solitary pea green blade of new growth and how it stands out from the other leaves, which are a mix of darker and bluer greens. Similarly, the petals of the irises are made from multiple cyan blues and ultramarine blues instead of one color, and this makes them more lifelike and more visually appealing.
Andamento and Visual Interest
The background of a mosaic is an opportunity to add visual interest to the scene and should never be “bricked” up like the tiled wall of a shower. Andamento is the visual flow of a mosaic created by arranging the tile in rows, and it can make the background of your mosaic as visually interesting as the figures in the foreground.
Observe how Lyn used multiple related hues for the background instead of one color. Also note there is not a single whole tile mixed in with all these cut pieces. Why not? A uniform square would stick out like a sore thumb among all the irregular pieces.
Cutting and Attaching the Tiles
Thinset is concrete that hardens over time. I can usually get three hours out of a batch, and I often work in sections, usually completing about 1 or 2 square feet per session, depending on how detailed my work is. Lyn found it useful to have her tile cut up in advance of a session, but you can always make incidental cuts as needed while you are attaching tile. Again, my thinset instructions explain the details of how to handle and use the mortar to attach tiles. Tip: partially crushed liquor boxes make great cradles for holding heavy pieces of stone and concrete while you tile them.
Removing Sharp Edges
A marble file or a rubbing stone can by used before the tile is mounted to remove any sharp edges. After the tile is mounted, it is a little more difficult to remove sharp edges, but gently rubbing the surface of your mosaic with a rubbing stone can help a lot.
Before grouting, you should clean off any excess thinset from the face of the tiles. Scraping this off will also make any loose tiles fall off so that you can reattach them before grouting. You should wait a day or two before grouting to let the thinset harden. Black grout is best for making your colors stand out. Lyn used a combination of black, gray, and brown grouts, and she blended these to get the exact color she wanted. A few days after your grout hardens, you should buff all the grout haze off and seal the finished mosaic with multiple applications of a silicone-based tile and grout sealer, such as available at any building material store.
Recently Doug Harris of Elementile sent me some photos of a mosaic rendering of Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 self-portrait, and it is definitely worth seeing. I think some of the best examples of how to use adamento in mosaic to convey a sense of motion are actually demonstrated in Van Gogh’s painting, and this self-portrait was a natural choice for mosaic interpretation. I have a photo of the painting at the end of this article.
Note how more than one hue of blue are used in the same field of color: Phthalo blues (cyans) and ultramarine blues (French blues) in multiple shades are combined in differing proportions to render both the clothing and the background. Notice how well the reddish and yellowish browns of the beard work together to create the image of a Dutchman’s red hair and how well these colors contrast the blues.
Color Contrasts And Color Mood
Van Gogh’s original oil painting on which this mosaic is based made use of more complex and subtle color fields (after all, he was working in oil paint not glass tile), but I think Carly’s choice to use more blues and more intense blues was a stroke of genius. The blues make a more striking contrast with the beard than the colors of the original painting, and the emphasis on blue is so in keeping with Van Gogh’s work as a whole and his mood and how we think of the artist. I am thinking of both the lonely genius who painted “Starry Night” and the painting itself.
The last picture Doug Harris sent me was of the work in progress, and it is my favorite because to me it says a lot about how art happens, at least for most people, including many of the great masters.
Whenever I see advertisements for art retreats and classes in places like Big Sur and Sienna, I am enticed by the idea of going to these picturesque places, but I am also perplexed by the idea of having studio sessions there. I don’t think I could spend any length of time focusing on art while I was in a place of such natural beauty unless I had at least several weeks there. Instead, I would be hiking and exploring with what little time I had available, and I would probably be too busy even to take photos. Keep in mind that someone like me has to check out the local geology, the creeks, the fossils, the artifacts, the indigenous plant life, signs of old home sites, signs of how the land has changed over the years, etc.
Not only that, my mind is already overflowing with creative ideas that I don’t have enough time to pursue. Do people really have to go to some place with over-the-top natural beauty to be inspired to create? For me, it is sometimes difficult to walk outside and check the mail and not spend the rest of the day thinking about landscape painting, especially if there are low rolling gray clouds and yellow leaves shivering in the tops of the poplars.
I like Doug’s photo of such great art being made in a crowded busy warehouse because that is where and how most of my art was made in the past decade or so, and before that it was usually on the floor or dining room table of where ever I was living, even in tiny apartments and hotels during business travel. Some people have to create. It is a need, and they will pursue it where ever and how ever they have to. No trips to Sienna or Rome are required.
Best Mosaic Artist: Vincent Van Gogh
To my knowledge, Vincent Van Gogh never made a mosaic, but I think many of his paintings offer great examples of how to use andamento in mosaic to create a sense of motion and add more visual interest to the artwork. Notice how Van Gogh uses flowing brushstrokes of different colors to build the folds of fabric in the artist’s clothing and how this same technique makes the background dance.
The background in a work of mosaic art serves two purposes:
- contrast the colors of the figures in the foreground.
- suggest motion by arranging the tile in contours around figures.
The first point is obvious, but the second is often overlooked even though it can make the difference between a great mosaic and a mediocre mosaic. The background isn’t supposed to be just empty space to be filled as quickly as possible with a grid of tile similar to how bathrooms are tiled. Consider Van Gogh’s Starry Night and how motion is conveyed in the directionality of the brush strokes:
A Good Teaching Example
A friend recently emailed me a photo of a mosaic in progress and asked me for advice. Specifically, he wanted to know what type of tile and what color would best work for the background of a mosaic of a bass (fish) he had made from the 12mm C3 Recycled Glass Tile. The project was interesting because he wanted to make the background from a different type of tile than he had used for the fish, and there were other color constraints: the bass would be swallowing a large blue glass cabochon gem, and there would be green water grasses at the bottom.
These constraints made the project a good teaching example for the simple reason that many artists work this way, especially naive artists and artists who work in a more exploratory way (as I do). Instead of copying an existing design verbatim, these artists will create the central figure or figures first, and then select a background color and additional figures based on how well they work with the central figure already in place. This mode of designing by trial and error is a natural consequence of working with limited color palettes. (Tile colors can’t be custom blended to any hue or shade like paint, so you have to select a background colors from what is available.) The trial-and-error mode also comes naturally when you are trying to incorporate specific found objects into a mosaic, such as the blue cabochon gem that my friend wanted to use in his.
Use Contrasting Colors
The image above was included in the original email requesting my advice. My fresh unbiased eyes could immediately see that the green metallic tiles would not fully contrast the colors in the bass. I could also see that even the blue metallic would not work because the golden sparkle of the copper aventurine dust gives the blue glass an overall greenish cast.
In fact, using blue tile of any type would be problematic if the blue cabochon gem is used. So I presented two alternatives:
- Use light pink or orange colors for the water, such as might be seen in late afternoon.
- Replace the blue cabochon with an orange cabochon.
The first alternative appealed to me for two reasons. First, warm colors such as light pink or orange are more appealing in general. (Basic biopsychology: the brain likes warm colors.) Second, art with non-obvious color choices is usually more interesting. (If the sky ain’t always blue, why do we always have to color it blue without first questioning the instinct to do so?)
An esoteric digression: This second point touches more sophisticated questions about visual art: Does an object have an intrinsic hue, or are the colors (plural) it reflects at a given instant a function of the color of the light shining on it at that particular instant? The answer is obvious to our eyes but not to our memories. Our memories tend to be more verbal than visual, and we remember things in a more archetypical mode: monochromatic “green trees” and “blue skies” and not the myriad of hues that they are in real life.
Following Design Fundamentals Won’t Do You Wrong
My friend decided to replace the blue gem with a golden yellow one and use blue tile for the water. These conservative design decisions work because they follow fundamental principles: The blue tiles contrast the greens of the fish and water grasses and the yellow of the cabochon.
Of course my friend could have tried light oranges or light pinks for the water, but that would have involved more risk and more trial and error than would have been advisable on an early project such as this. I will write an additional blog post about how this particular mosaic could have been improved, but I will also write about the problems of artistic advice and how advice in general doesn’t work well in a one-size-fits-all mode.