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How To Transfer Mosaic Patterns Quickly By Tracing

This article explains how to use a charcoal pencil (or graphite pencil) to color the back side of a paper pattern and then trace over the pattern firmly to transfer it to a plywood mosaic backer board.

I have written a separate article explaining why tracing borrowed images is better than drawing for making patterns for small mosaics  -even when the purpose is to create original artwork.

If your backer is much larger than your pattern, you can enlarge the pattern by transferring it to the backer using the grid method of pattern transfer instead of the method I explain here.

Example Using 6×6 Inch Backer

In this example, I use the 6×6-Inch Plywood Mosaic Backer Board we sell at our online store and a detail cropped from Franz Marc’s fauvist painting “The Large Red Horses.”

Large Red Horses painting Franz Marc

Large Red Horses fauvist painting by Franz Marc includes a prancing horse that is rich with curves that suggest motion.

Step 1. Find And Make Your Pattern

I used Photoshop to crop and size the image and convert it to a black and white, but you can also use photocopies from books and your own drawings as starting points. Read more about this process in my article How To Make Mosaic Patterns Without Drawing.

Note that the image was sized so that it was 6×6 inches and printed out on regular printer paper.

The Purpose Of The Pattern

For small mosaic icons and tabletops, you can work directly on the surface. Simply draw or transfer your pattern onto the backer. This pattern should look something like the black line drawing from a coloring book, just a map showing the outlines of different colored areas, possibly subdivided to show shading. (Shading and variation in these different color regions can be worked out when you start placing the tile, and so your pattern can be as simple as a cartoon outline.)

Mosaic pattern Photoshop

Photoshop was used to crop out a detail of the painting and convert it to a black and white image that emphasizes outlines. I also added a border to mark the 6-inch x 6-inch space to make it easy to line up the paper on the backer board. The outlines of the black and white image are what we will transfer to the wood mosaic backer.

Step 2. Fold The Pattern Around The Backer Board

Fold the paper pattern around the backer board so that the image of your figure is centered on the board. Having a border drawn the same size as the backer board helps you line it up.

Fold Pattern Around Backer Board

Fold your mosaic pattern around the backer board so that the image is centered. Note that my pattern should have centered the horse better in the square so that the tail isn’t so close to the edge. If the pattern transfers as shown, it will be difficult to render that part in tile, and i will need to make the tail slightly thinner so that I can put some background around it because tile can only be cut so thin.

Step 3. Unfold The Pattern And Remove Board

Unfold The Pattern And Remove Board

Unfold the mosaic pattern and remove the backer board. The folding was only done to get the paper creased at the edges of the pattern.

Step 4. Rub Outlines Of Pattern With Charcoal Or Pencil

Rub Outlines Of Pattern With Charcoal

Rub the outlines of the figure with a charcoal pencil (preferred) or a regular graphite pencil. Note that we are rubbing the BACK of the pattern not the front. Color every line that will need to be transferred.

*** FOR MOSAIC PATTERNS THAT SHOW EVERY TILE AND HAVE LOTS OF LINES, YOU MAY FIND IT EASIER TO USE CARBON PAPER INSTEAD OF RUBBING THE BACK OF THE PATTERN WITH CHARCOAL. ***

Step 5. Refold The Pattern Around The Board And Tape

Refold The Pattern Around The Board

Refold the mosaic pattern around the backer board and tape it in place, preferably with some easy to remove painter’s tape. The creases in the prefolded paper made it easy to line the pattern up without smearing the charcoal all over the wood. Note that the tape goes on the VARNISHED side of the wood. The charcoal pattern will be transferred to the UNVARNISHED side.

Step 6. Trace The Pattern Firmly

Mosaic pattern traced

Trace the outlines of the figure firmly with a ballpoint pen or a pencil that is more dull than sharp. You want to press firmly so that the charcoal on the back of the paper pattern is transferred to the wood, but you don’t want to rip the paper. Avoid getting the paper humid or wet for this reason. Make sure you trace all the lines (curves) you would like to see on your backer.

Step 7. Remove The Paper And Fill In Missing Lines

Mosaic Pattern Missing Lines

When you remove the paper pattern, you will notice small places where the lines (curves) of the design didn’t get transferred for whatever reason, usually because you forgot to trace there or sometimes because you didn’t put charcoal in those places. You can fix those by drawing the missing lines. It is easy to do even if you have little confidence in your ability to draw because the existing lines give you a frame of reference.

Step 8.  Make The Lines Permanent With A Marker

Make Pattern Permanent With Marker

Make the lines of your transferred patterns permanent using a fine-tip marker such as the Sharpie brand. If you don’t do this step, then your hands and glue will quickly rub off the pattern.

Ready For Indoor Use

Mosaic pattern ready for work

The Mosaic pattern is transferred ready for tiling. This is a dry indoor mosaic, and so the tile can be attached with Weldbond Adhesive. For outdoor and wet mosaics. a concrete stepping stone or piece of flagstone could be used for a backer and the tiles mounted with thinset mortar.

Variations On This Method

There are a couple of parts of this method that could have been done through alternative means:

  1. Instead of folding the paper pattern around the backer, it could have been cut to the size of the backer and taped on that way.
  2. Instead for rubbing charcoal or graphite pencil on the back of the pattern, carbon tracing paper could have been used.

How To Make Mosaic Patterns Without Drawing

You can and should spend more time “drawing” with tile than drawing with a pencil when most of the details in the mosaic are about the size the smallest piece of tile that can be cut.

If the smallest details of your design are larger than multiple tiles, then you should draw a detailed pattern, but most mosaic plaques are small enough so that nearly all lines are affected by limitations in how small the tile can be cut, and drawing patterns for these can be counterproductive and cloud judgment.

Improvise Loosely On A Photo Or Image Used As A “Pattern”

HERE’S WHY NOT TO DRAW FOR SMALLS: Every element in your drawing will need to be a multiple of tiles wide or a fraction wide. Until you understand those multiples and fractions in practical terms of what you can cut and what looks good, your drawings can lead you to make bad design decisions and artificially cause you more stress than is necessary without teaching you more about rendering in tile. How To Transfer A Pattern From A Digital Image.

Mosaic Coaster Heart

Mosaic Coaster with Heart Design  was made using a photo of an ox’s heart downloaded from Google Images as the pattern. Is there any doubt as to whether or not this mosaic is an original interpretation? Would anyone try to argue that it is a copy of the photo?

This Method Can Be Used To Make Original Art

What is the alternative to drawing if the beginner is only interested in making original art?

Answer: Select a model from a large number of images (such as hundreds or thousands looked up online or your own photos), and then render loosely with tile on top of that image making simplifications as needed.

This rendering process (“drawing with tile”) can teach you things about the image that the pencil is unaware of. It is a much more taxing interpretation than drawing, and it has its own vocabulary.

Here are the steps for making a pattern quickly from a photo or image,. The details follow. And an explanation about why this method works better than drawing studies of that image.

Make a “Pattern” From A Photo or Image Instead of Drawing It

  1. View a large pool of images, such as can be had in Google images, your own photos, books, and encyclopedias.
  2. Select an image with strong lines and iconic shapes.
  3. Modify the image as desired. Combine multiple figures if desired.
  4. Convert that image into a black and white image. (Photoshop or photocopier or tracing or sketching.)
  5. Resize the image to the size of the mosaic backer.
  6. Transfer the pattern to the backer.
  7. Render LOOSELY on this pattern making simplifications as needed.

I have written a separate article about How To Transfer Mosaic Patterns,

Resize Digitally or Using The Grid Method

Mosaic patterns can be resized digitally, but I have written some instructions for resizing a mosaic pattern using a grid while you copy it onto your backer board.

Combine and Modify Images

You can combine figures from different photos by drawing or tracing them and then cutting them out and gluing them together in collages, or you can do it digitally in Photoshop or other image editors. I prefer the digital method because you can resize the different figures as needed before combining them in a scene.

Making Black and White Copies of Photos

Photoshop is also useful for converting images to black and white without making the images too dark. Use Photoshop’s Adjust Sharpness tool and Adjust Brightness/Contrast before using Photoshop’s Convert To Black And White so that the black and white image is created has maximum contrast. That will help make the image be more outlines than dark shapes, and we need distinct outlines to transfer the pattern onto the backer.

An Example Mosaic Pattern

Here is what a mosaic pattern might look like when derived from a color photograph:

Mosaic pattern Photoshop

Photoshop was used to crop out a detail of Franz Marc’s fauvist painting “The Large Red Horses” and convert it to a black and white image that emphasizes outlines. The outlines and curves are what you want to transfer to your mosaic backer.

In Defence of Drawing

Drawing a pattern by hand or by using the grid transfer method is a great exercise because it enables you to become familiar with the lines and see the image in your mind. Drawing also is an opportunity to interpret what you are seeing and make original art. In fact, for someone like me, the drawing becomes an end unto itself and almost immediately has more detail than can be rendered in the size of tile I will be using.

Drawings As Maps To Nowhere

Overdrawing the details is just part of the problem. The more time spent drawing a pattern, the more likely the artist is to try to hold to it religiously rather than improvising more freely with the tile when needed. This makes the actual mosaic work more tedious than it needs to be, and it can result in awkward results when you attempt a detail in a way that doesn’t take into account the work lines of the tile or what shapes are being used or some other aspect of the tile.

Staying true to carefully rendered patterns can have you scraping off gluey tiles and redrawing the detail in a way that matches the flow of the tile –or pulling tiles off your mesh, mounting tape, or tile paper. I call this mistake “Following the pattern into a detail that can’t be rendered,” and it can happen even when you work indirectly and lay the mosaic up in advance.

Of course, this doesn’t happen often on large mosaics where the tiles are tiny compared to the details being rendered, but for small mosaic plaques and icons, the resolution issue affects nearly every single tile.

How Patterns Should Be Used For Small Mosaic Images

Don’t be a slave to your pattern. Don’t let your pattern interfere with the tiling process and the rendering that happens there. The easiest way to do that is to not become emotionally invested in your pattern, and many artists cannot do this very well with their own drawings. Avoid the issue by using a photo or borrowed image as a starting point. Draw with tile, not a pencil.

Ethical Considerations?

The “Mosaic Coaster with Heart Design” shown above was made using a photo of an ox’s heart downloaded from Google Images as the pattern. Is there any doubt as to whether or not this mosaic is an original interpretation? Would anyone try to argue that it is a copy of the photo?

Look at the width of different features in terms of tile count. Most everything is one or two tiles wide. How would drawing the photograph help a novice make those design decisions? Wouldn’t a novice be better off improvising on a copy the photo itself? Wouldn’t anyone attempting to draw a meaningful pattern need an experienced eye for how the tile can be cut and arranged?

Failures In Craft Marketing

Here is an anecdotal case study of how craft kits get it wrong and actually detract from the art experience:

This past Halloween, my ex wife hosted her annual pumpkin carving party for our five-year-old son and all his friends, and I helped as usual.

The party was the same format as previous years, but my ex-wife bought some pumpkin carving kits that were so flawed in both concept and execution that I find myself still thinking about them. In fact, the kits seem to epitomize what is wrong with most craft kits and craft products in general.

Traditional pumpkin carving is a great opportunity for ordinary people to work with their hands and make some art, and for many people it is probably be the only visual art they make the entire year. No special equipment is needed, and a person gets to make their own design. In my opinion, this is what makes pumpkin carving an important form of art, and I mean art in the highest sense of the word, Art with a capital A. Traditional pumpkin carving is also a great practical exercise in how to render personality and emotion with a few basic lines and shapes.

Contrast this with the pumpkin carving kits:

In order to appeal to the person buying the kits, the kits contained patterns for elaborate designs, designs that were impressive mostly because they were so elaborate, designs that ensured that most people using them would be totally focused on getting these professional results instead of self expression. The kit’s packaging featured pictures of pumpkins decorated with these over-the-top designs because that was their main purpose: to sell the kits.

Clearly these pumpkins had been carved by someone with an advanced experience level, and in all probability the professional artist who carved them needed several hours to do so, and probably needed more than a few practice pumpkins. From my own experience in art and manufacturing, I strongly suspect that several practice pumpkins were abandoned almost immediately due to early cuts that didn’t go as planned.

The pumpkin designs on the kit’s packaging included fine details that most people could not even sit down and draw much less carve. In fact, some of the designs were so filigree that you would have had to keep your pencil sharpened continuously just to be able to draw them. Think a lacy spiderweb spelling out “Happy Halloween” in the strands of the web. Some of the other designs were naturalistic renderings that required complex shapes be duplicated exactly for the image to look right. Think a light-and-shadow rendering of Boris Karloff’s face as Frankenstein.

So how did my ex-wife’s pumpkin carving party go? Exactly as I thought it would: Instead of getting to make their own designs and experience art, the children quickly became frustrated and annoyed and then required the help of all their parents, who also became frustrated and annoyed in varying degrees over time. Unlike previous years’ pumpkin carving parties, people could barely socialize because they had to do a task as intricate as threading a needle, and do it in fading outdoor light with impatient children looking on.

Of course, I tried to explain all this beforehand to my ex-wife, but like most husbands and ex-husbands, it doesn’t matter how many degrees or accomplishments we have. When we speak with our humble wives, we are all village idiots that don’t know anything. My two engineering degrees, a childhood spent in the mechanical and building trades, a lifetime of making art, a 13+ year stint running my own art supply business with all that entails in terms of consulting on school art projects and studying market trends, all of that was completely irrelevant.

At least it was until the party began…

I brought three pumpkins to the party. I didn’t even think about designs beforehand, I just made sure that what I carved used simple bold lines and no more detail than eyes and a mouth and maybe a nose. All of the expression was in the size and shape and spacing of these fundamental elements, yet each of my pumpkins distinctly conveyed the different emotion for which they could have been named: Scary, Scared and Silly.

Needless to say, I had finished all three of my pumpkins well before anyone else had made much if any progress at all on their pumpkin. I placed my pumpkins in a row near the edge of the snack table, and arranged them so that Silly appeared to be laughing at Scared, who appeared to be startled by Scary. Then I went around the patio and tried to help the demoralized children and the increasingly frustrated adults, some of whom were struggling not to cuss in front of the 5 and 6 year old children.

Meanwhile my ex-wife walked out with a tray of drinks and saw my pumpkins arranged in a row and said, “These are great! They look so good together like that. I told you the kits would be a good idea.”

Of course, she didn’t have to spend too many minutes out with the other parents on the patio before they had helped her revise her opinion of the kits, and that was before the cheap plastic handles started breaking on the cheap cutting tools. After that started happening, I think there was at least one or two parents who would have gladly lynched the creators of the pumpkin carving kits.

Yes, part of the problem was the fact that my ex-wife rather mindlessly selected a kit geared toward advanced designs and used it in an inappropriate social setting, but that only aggravated problems that already existed with the kits: The kits were about producing over-the-top results instead of experiencing a traditional art form in the way it had been experienced for generations. But even that statement does not adequately explain what was wrong. The kits were about PROMISING over-the-top results, but they were pretty weak in the delivery.

What disturbs me most about pumpkin carving kits is that all of its flaws seem to represent fairly prevalent trends in craft kits as a whole:

  • A strong emphasis on packaging and presentation.
  • Cheaply made tools and materials, sometimes so poorly made that they probably cost the manufacturer less than the packaging and presentation elements.
  • An emphasis on professional-looking results instead of an emphasis on the design process or the art experience or what could be learned in doing the project.
  • Encourage users to copy expertly made prototypes instead of making their own designs.
  • Kits more designed to be sold than used.
  • A complete disregard for what negative impacts the kit might have on traditional crafts, art education, the art experience, etc.
  • Use of designs that are cutesy or calculated to appeal to the overly competitive host. Think of pumpkins carved with words to show off what a clever homemaker you are instead of jack-o-lantern faces.

One way the pumpkin carving kits differ from what I’ve seen in other craft kits is that these other craft kits increasing try to make things easy or foolproof by eliminating most of the actual work. As if eliminating the design process weren’t enough, many kits try to eliminate the potential for failure by eliminating most of the activity of making the project. Instead of having the user do the different manufacturing processes, these type kits usually have things pre-painted or pre-wired or pre-whatevered, and all the end user does is snap things together. In fact, there are craft kits you can buy where I suppose unwrapping the kit and checking the materials would take more time than assembling the kit.

I guess that is nice if your goal was merely to possess the end product, but not very nice if you actually wanted to learn very much about woodworking or weaving or whatever type of craft it was supposed to be about. At least I can say that for the pumpkin kits my ex-wife picked out: they left you plenty of work to do, and you were free to fail from the get go.

Outdoor School Mosaics

Recently I received an email from an art teacher whose school mosaic project was an outdoor mosaic where each child would create a mosaic on an 8 inch x 8 inch brick paver (paving stone), and then the mosaic pavers would be arranged together in a crazy quilt design similar to what artist Victor Kobayashi created for his mosaic patio in Honolulu.

I really like the crazy quilt approach to school projects because it allows each student to make their own art and have a real art experience instead of copying some teacher’s favorite piece of art, which usually involves more boredom or frustration than it does art. Crazy quilt projects also tend to produce more exuberant and impressive results. Copying something is merely copying something, even if that something is an acknowledged masterpiece.

Normally, school mosaic projects can use 1/2-inch or 3/4-inch sanded plywood as a backer, and the tile can be attached using a white PVA adhesive such as Weldbond, but plywood and glue are for indoors only. For outdoor and wet mosaics, you must use thinset mortar to attach the tiles to the backer, and that backer must be cement, stone or masonry. For large mosaics, a sheet of concrete backer board can be mounted to a metal wall using a frame welded from angle iron, or the mosaic can be created directly on a stone or concrete wall or a brick wall plastered smooth with thinset. In this case, the mosaic can be laid up in advance on fiberglass mesh, mosaic paper or clear mounting tape, and then these sheets can be pressed into thinset spread on the wall using a notched trowel.

This particular teacher decided to use brick pavers for her backers, but the concrete stepping stones/pavers commonly sold at building material stores could have been used in a similar way. The real issue for her project was how the students could use thinset mortar to attach each individual tile without creating a huge mess.

Thinset mortar is a sanded portland cement product with polymers added for strength and adhesive properties, so think of it as sticky concrete because that is essentially what it is. Your students might be mature and competent enough to use a bottle of glue that looks and handles just like Elmer’s glue, but how are they going to fare when they start working with sticky concrete? Now that I have your attention and your hair is standing on end, let me calm you by saying that it can be done, and it can be done fairly easily with a little forethought and planning.

One option would be to avoid setting each tile individually and lay up the designs in advance on clear mounting tape using my instructions for using contact paper and mounting tape. Then thinset could be spread on the pavers and the whole design mounted at once.

But that still involves handling thinset and some point, and sometimes you find situations where the mounting tape method isn’t practical (such as when not all of your tile have the same thickness).

Make A Prototype To Answer Basic Questions

The key too minimizing frustration and mess is to figure out your process BEFORE you involve the children, and the best way of doing that is to make a prototype in advance. In making a small mosaic beforehand, you work out the details of your materials and methods, including how the thinset will be distributed between the different children and how they will apply it to the backer.

Here are some questions you should answer by making your prototype. Please don’t let any of these alarm you because I have a practical recommendation at the end of this article that greatly simplifies everything and even eliminates some of these concerns:

How long does it take to apply tile to a mosaic of this size?

How many classroom sessions will be required?

Would it be more practical to have longer sessions instead of a larger number of short sessions?

How will thinset be applied to the stepping stones? Will the children spread the thinset themselves?

How will the children keep their hands clean while working; buckets of water and piles of rags?

How will we keep the thinset from drying out in the heated winter air or summer AC? Can we use humidifiers if necessary?

How much thinset do you need to mix up at one time? (This is answered by thinking about how many students will be working at once and how much thinset you used in one working session.)

How will we mix up the thinset? Is a parent volunteer available with a mixing paddle, drill motor and 5 gallon bucket? Do we have any parents who work as contractors and have experience with laying tile or mixing up concrete?

All of these things are relatively easy to implement, but they can make things chaotic or difficult if you don’t think about them in advance.

Thinset And Surfaces

There are a few specific concerns related to using thinset and pavers/stepping stones.

Surface Wetting

Sometimes you can drop a clump of thinset onto concrete backer board and it will harden without bonding to the backer board and it will fall right off or come off with minimal scraping. This was because the thinset didn’t really make intimate contact with the board due to surface dust. This can become more of an issue over time as you work and the thinset starts to set up as you are using it. The point is that sometimes you need to smear thinset into a surface to make sure it adequately wets the surface and makes intimate contact. Normally this happens merely by pressing a tile into the thinset, but you might do well to keep an eye out for students who are minimalists in terms of how much thinset they apply and for those who have a butterfly touch and just kind of sit the tile on top of the thinset instead of pressing it in.

Presealed Pavers

One problem you might encounter is pavers or stepping stones that have been sealed with some sort of silicon or polymer that might interfere with thinset bonding well to them. You can test for this simply by dripping some water or spittle on the paver and observing whether or not the water wets the surface. If the water wets the surface and soaks in, then there shouldn’t be any problem. If the water beads up similar to how water beads on a waxed car, or if it fails to soak in, then you know that the pavers have a heavy coat of sealant and should be avoided.

Skin Irritation

Wet concrete is mildly caustic, so it can dry and irritate the skin. A box of disposable medical examination gloves from the drug store can prevent this. You should also have the children wear safety glasses with side shields.

Overly Complex Designs And A Recommendation

Another thing you can learn from making a prototype is how much time is involved and how simple or complex the designs can be in order to be completed in the time allowed. I definitely prefer children be allowed to make original designs so that they get a real art experience, but you still need to give them recommendations about what level of detail is practical and look out for children trying to make overly complex and detailed designs. For this reason, it can be somewhat problematic for children to sketch out their designs in advance. Sometimes the mere act of drawing gets a person thinking in terms of a level of detail that isn’t practical in the medium in which the design will be executed. I have encountered this time and again while sketching out designs for my painting and mosaic.

Instead of sketching out designs, a more practical exercise might be for the students to play around with arranging tile before they decide on a finished design and definitely before they work with concrete.

I recommend making cardboard squares the same size as the mosaic backer and allowing the children to practice laying up their design on the square. If possible, give them one session to play with different arrangements and experiment with rendering different designs in the square, and a second session to finalize their design.

Then the following sessions could be about transferring the tile to the thinset on the paver. Using this approach, it would be possible for a teacher or parent volunteer to spread thinset on the pavers, and then the students merely transfer their tile designs from the cardboard squares/trays to the thinset, which would greatly minimize the amount time the children spent touching concrete.

A Practical Method For Kids And Thinset

  1. Make squares from cardboard that are the same size as the stepping stones/pavers or draw squares the size of the pavers on cardboard or trays. I prefer to cut out the cardboard squares so that they can be wrapped with contact paper with the sticky side out to prevent the tile from moving around.
  2. Have children spend one or two sessions arranging tile into designs on these squares/trays.
  3. Have teachers or parent volunteers mix up and spread thinset on the stepping stones.
  4. The children transfer their designs to the stepping stone one tile at a time. Alternatively, clear mounting tape could be used to pick up and transfer more complex designs made from smaller tile.
  5. After the thinset has hardened for a day, grout the mosaics with more thinset or grout.
  6. After the grout has hardened for at least a day or two, clean off any remaining grout residue by rubbing with a clean cloth and seal the mosaics with a tile and grout sealer.

MORE COMPLICATED DESIGNS?

The above instructions were written for children and beginners who just need to play around with tile to make simple designs. However, you may have more advanced students capable of making more sophisticated images from many small pieces of tile. I have written a second article Mosaic Transfer Instructions which explains how to lay up a more complicated design on a pattern and transfer it all at once to thinset or cement using mosaic mounting tape or clear packing tape.

New Recycled Glass Mosaic Tile Assortments

Color family assortments of 12mm recycled glass mosaic tile are now available. The 12mm Elementile brand of tile is some of our most affordable tile. It also cuts into extremely small pieces with minimal glass dust, shards or scrap.

recycled glass mosaic tile 12mm

Recycled glass mosaic tile by Elementile is now available in 12mm color assortments. It is our easiest tile to use, and it is some of our most affordable tile.

This is the same tile that I wrote about for use in micromosaic art because the homogeneous microstructure of the material allows it to be cut into extremely small pieces without a lot of random breaks or scrap. What that means in practical terms is that you could buy a single bag of Assorted 12mm Elementile and have all the tile you need to make a small-yet-highly-detailed mosaic on a 4″ x 4″ piece of plywood or coaster and still have tile left over!

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.