Tag Archives: animal subject

Choosing Mosaic Colors Based On Contrast

Recently artist Jill Miller emailed me wanting some advice about choosing colors for a mosaic table top she was making, and the design she was a chickadee bird with holly leaves and berries. From her photos and a description of the colors she wanted to use for the border of the round table top, it was obvious that she wanted to use muted colors instead of intense colors. I was happy to help. I thought her project was a great example for how to choose colors for backgrounds and making sure there was adequate contrast between the different elements.

Chickadee Mosaic Table Top

Chickadee design for mosaic table top with some candidates for background color. Note how the faint moss green selected for the holly leaf does not adequately contrast the underside of the bird. Notice how the same can be said of the muted brown tile directly under the bird. The orange tiles do contrast the bird, but it is problematic to have a background color that is more intense than the colors of the figure in the foreground. Also, cool colors are usually used for backgrounds because cool colors recede while warm colors come forward visually.

Whether muted colors or intense colors are used, it is still important for there to be contrast in the colors that define different elements, else the elements don’t stand out from one another.

TIP: You don’t have to glue tiles down to see if they are the right color. You don’t even have to position them carefully. Just spread them roughly where they should go, take a break, and then look at the mosaic later. The loose tiles will either contrast the image enough to make the figure stand out, or they won’t. Your fresh unbiased eyes won’t lie to you. Don’t try to rationalize a color that doesn’t work based on some design you have in mind. Listen to your art. Look at it and really see it.

Color Study Version 1

Mosaic Color Study Version 1

Mosaic Color Study Version 1 with intense green vitreous used for holly leaf. The problem with the vitreous green isn’t that the color is too intense but that it is grainy while the other colored tiles are glassy. Also, the green is a little more intense than the color scheme Jill had in mind.

Each work of art is just one version of many potential variations that could have been made with the same design. While it is not critical that you stay true to your original vision, it is important that you don’t have competing versions trying to exist in the same composition. The most important thing to stay true to is the design that is taking shape and making sure that color choices are internally consistent.

Color Study Version 2


Mosaic Color Study Version 2

Mosaic Color Study Version 2 with moss green for holly leaf. This more intense moss green still isn’t intense enough to adequately contrast the bird. Also, the color choices for the Chickadee are true to life, while this color green for a holly leaf is not. Again, colors don’t have to be true to life, but they do need to be internally consistent. A work of visual art can be a world unto itself, but it does need its own internal logic.

Color Study Version 3

Mosaic Color Study Version 3

Mosaic Color Study Version 3 with mint green for holly leaf. “Ah, said Goldilocks, this third bed is just right…” Notice how this mint green teal color has enough intensity to contrast the colors in the Chickadee yet still keeps with the artist’s vision of muted colors. I like it. The muted colors remind me of an Audubon print, and what could be more appropriate for a picture of a bird?

Wrong Color? All Is Not Lost.

Most beginners are so eager to begin work that they start gluing down tiles before they are sure they have the right color. Usually they don’t notice that they don’t really like the color until they have spent an hour or so mounting tiles in glue. If that happens, all is not lost. Put on some work gloves and safety glasses  and scrape up the tiles with a screw driver. Soak them in water to remove glue residue. If the glue has already hardened for several days, you may break some tiles while scraping them up. If so, use a vacuum to pick up sharp slivers. Moistening the tiles for 30 minutes with a cotton swab dipped in water can help soften glue, but it can also increase the risk of creating gouges and delaminations in plywood backers.

Color Wheels and Complementary (Contrasting) Colors

Color wheels are an artist’s tool for choosing complimentary colors, which are pairs of color “opposites” that provide maximum contrast to each other: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple. Those are the main pairs of opposites, but the hues in between also have opposites. For example: blue-green and red-orange. Color wheel charts position all of these opposites directly across the wheel from each other, which makes it easy to see what the optimal contrast would be for any given hue.

You can see some color wheels by searching Google for “color wheel” or “complimentary colors.” Some are more in depth than others. I like the ones that also show different options for value, which is the relative lightness or darkness of the color.

Intense Colors and Contrast

Contrasting colors are important because they make images stand out. Look at these great bird mosaics made by Phil Lamie’s elementary school students, Notice how these mosaic take full advantage of contrast between intense blues and warm oranges. Notice how the cool blues are usually in the background and the warm colors are in the figures in the foreground. In the case of the blue bird, notice how the blue in the bird in the foreground is more intense than the blue of the sky in the background. Value and intensity can be used to make foreground images stand out from backgrounds, as the blue bird mosaic demonstrates. All of these bird mosaics are visually striking because they follow basic rules of using color.



Stained Glass as Mosaic Tile: A Question of Styles

In my article Stained Glass Mosaic Art, I explained how stained glass can be cut up into small pieces and used like conventional tesserae or cut larger and used to define entire elements as is done in a stained glass window. In the window mode of working, one single piece of variegated glass is used to render an element, say a tree trunk for example, and whatever shading or detail is provided by the swirls or bands in the glass. Contrast that with conventional mosaic mode, where the shading or detail is built from different pieces of glass, and together they render the tree trunk.

The objection to working in the conventional mosaic mode is that most artists don’t want to lose all the visual interest of the swirls of color by cutting them up. Canadian artist Lorna Ball demonstrates that it is possible to use stained glass cut up into small tiles and not lose the visual interest provided by the variegated colors of the glass.

Grey Owl mosaic

Grey Owl mosaic by Artist Lorna Ball demonstrates that mosaic is a fine art where individual style can be expressed as fully as in painting.

Note the bark on the trees in the mosaic below. Sure, a single piece of swirled glass could be used for the trunks, but could any swirling no matter how beautiful capture the texture and dimension of the bark facets as well as Ball’s separate slivers of different colors do?

Up Through The Trees mosaic art

Up Through The Trees mosaic by Lorna Ball captures the essence of looking up from the forest floor. You can almost hear the birds up above in the canopy.

Lorna’s work also demonstrates an important point about using stained glass cut up into small tile: just because the tile is cut up small, it doesn’t have to be cut up into similar shapes and sizes. Notice in the mosaic below how the black tiles in the branches of the trees are completely different in shape and proportion from the white tiles in the tree trunks and from the yellow tiles that render the leaves:

Autumn Trees mosaic art

Autumn Trees mosaic by Lorna Ball makes successful use of different shaped tesserae.

The slender black tiles used for tree branches might make you wonder if the conventional mosaic style and the conventional stained glass style can be hybridized, and the answer is a qualified yes. For example, the above scene would have looked odd if the leaves of the canopy and forest floor were rendered in their tiny tiles and the tree trunks were replaced with single pieces of swirled glass. There has to be stylistic integrity throughout the composition, or the odd element will stick out like a sore thumb. The styles are simply too different. Look at the following mosaic by Natalija Moss as a reminder of how different these two stylistic modes are:

The Major mosaic art

The Major mosaic by Natalija Moss.

What if the blue strips of the background were rendered in smaller blue tiles in a conventional mosaic manner? Could the face still be composed from large pieces? No, the background would have more visual detail than the figure in the foreground, which is the exact opposite of what is needed to make the figure stand out from the background.

Stained Glass Mosaic Art

Artist and MAS employee Natalija Moss has recently completed a series of mosaics made from stained glass, and they are definitely worth seeing and discussing for several reasons. Natalija’s other artwork and video game plugins can be seen at her Lady Natalya website.


“Erza” Stained Glass Mosaic by artist and MAS employee Natalija Moss. Note how the dark charcoal-colored grout line mimics the lead channel soldered joints of stained glass artwork. This piece is technically a mosaic (it is grouted “tile” on an opaque background), but it is aesthetically stained glass in terms of the sizes of the individual pieces of glass and how they are used to render details.

Stained glass can be used in mosaic artwork in two different ways. The stained glass can be cut up into small tesserae (pieces) just like glass mosaic tile in a typical mosaic approach, or it can be used in larger pieces similar to how it is used in stained glass artwork. This latter approach preserves the large swirls of color which cutting into smaller pieces tends to break up, and this allows “the glass to do the work” as stained glass artists often say as a maxim. What they mean by that expression is allowing the swirls in the stained glass to create visual interest and suggest details such as ripples in water instead of rendering each ripple individually as a separate piece of glass.

I tend to think of mosaic artwork in terms of the traditional mosaic approach and cut any stained glass I use into tiny tiles, but I was impressed by how successful Natalija’s mosaics were and how conspicuously different they were from my preconceptions.

Compare Natalija’s “Erza” mosaic to Doug and Carly’s “Van Gogh Self Portrait” mosaic. Notice how the flowing andamento so crucial to the the Van Gogh mosaic is COMPLETELY absent in Natalija’s work.


“The Major” Stained Glass Mosaic Artwork by Natalija Moss. Note the complete absence of flowing andamento (arrangement of tile in concentric rows to suggest motion) which is normally so crucial to mosaic art

On reflection, I can see that Natalija’s use of stained glass in larger pieces instead of many small tesserae is merely stained glass artwork as stained glass artwork is typically done, but there are two reasons that Natalija’s work still stands out. First, she didn’t give up the stained glass convention of larger piece sizes merely because she was mounting on an opaque background to make a mosaic.

The second reason Natalija’s work caught my notice was the freshness of her themes/subjects. As a rule, stained glass artwork tends to use some of the most cliche designs to be found in art and crafts marketing (which is saying quite a bit), so Natalija’s use of subjects from Japanimation is fairly novel for that medium. I think that grabbed my attention as much as the absence of andamento.

“Penguins” Stained Glass Mosaics

“Penguins” Stained Glass Mosaics by Natalija Moss demonstrate that it is possible to be cute without being saccharine sweet. Note how the background colors are warm and appealing instead of the cold blues that might be more naturally expected. To paraphrase the American painter James McNeill Whistler, “Nature must be corrected.” This is an important point to remember when designing compositions and when selecting colors. You can move a tree to the side to frame a scene. You can select a completely different background color quite easily when you aren’t attempting photographic realism.

 A Digression On The Failings of Stained Glass Retailers

It has been very easy for me to ignore stained glass artwork for the most part in the 13+ years I have been running Mosaic Art Supply because so much of it I came across by chance was so cliche and dated. The butterflies, bald eagles and tulips you see so much of now in stained glass catalogs appear to be the exact same patterns I saw 15 years ago and as a boy in the 1970’s.

I think the people who sell stained glass have done a disservice to their customers and to their own wallets by promoting their industry in such a tired way. Sure, there will always be people who want sappy stuff because they like sappy stuff or think it is easier to make, but I think that sort of approach tends to kill interest in the medium over time by not attracting younger people and people with more serious interests in art. This converging on the cliche by stained glass marketers has also meant that their patterns were more easily mass produced by countless Chinese competitors, which further destroys profit margins as everyone “races to the bottom” to compete solely on lowest price.

All of my product decisions at Mosaic Art Supply were made with one eye toward avoiding these traps, and this is why we have always avoided selling the mosaic craft kits we see on the market. I want to promote a serious interest in Art with a capital A because I think it is in the best interest of my industry, and because if I wanted to help distribute mass-produced junk, I could have stayed in the corporate world. In the sense of being something a person creates for deeply personal reasons, Art is one of the few intrinsically sacred things in a world where everything is increasingly profaned and commercialized. That is why the prevalence of cliche stained glass patterns has always struck me as being nothing less than a tragedy, a huge opportunity lost. Even if you prefer those particular subjects/themes, it should still strike you as conspicuously strange that you don’t often see alternatives to those themes being offered as patterns by stained glass retailers.

How To Choose A Mosaic Background Color

The background in a work of mosaic art serves two purposes:

  1. contrast the colors of the figures in the foreground.
  2. 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:


Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night is the best example I can think of for illustrating how brush strokes and lines of tile can be used to convey a sense of motion in visual art.

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.

mosaic bass in progress

Greenish and bluish metallic glass mosaic tile would be a poor choice for background because they do not adequately contrast the colors used in the bass.

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:

  1. Use light pink or orange colors for the water, such as might be seen in late afternoon.
  2. 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.

mosaic bass completed

My friend’s finished mosaic of a large mouth bass swallowing a cabochon gem makes successful use of contrasting colors.