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
Artist Frederic Lecut’s “Pan’s Head” mosaic has a style that matches its theme, and it is a great example of using classical elements in a contemporary mosaic.
The face of the “goat-footed god of Attica” or Pan is the subject of Lecut’s mosaic, and consequently the artist incorporates several aspects of ancient Greek mosaic in his design. Continue reading
Artist Frederic Lecut’s Opus Pixellatum Technique is a tool for rapidly creating original photorealistic mosaics and incorporating improvised elements.
Artist Frederic Lecut
Mosaic Artist Frederic Lecut creates striking portraits of people’s eyes, mosaics that are photorealistic in execution and powerful as compositions because they are cropped closely and look almost like eyes seen in a Niqab. Continue reading
Ceramic tile can be used for outdoor mosaic patio tables provided you live someplace warm year round, but otherwise glass tile should be used because it is impervious to moisture and freeze damage. There are other reasons to use glass tile explained later in this article.
Concrete Patio Table Set
Artist Naomi Haas recently completed a mosaic patio table set that included concrete benches, and I really liked it for several reasons. For starters, the table base and benches she had were sturdy and stable and appropriate for an outdoor mosaic (and not wood or rusted light-gauge metal or some of the other junk people email us about using).
I also like the color scheme. Naomi colored the un-mosaiced surfaces black and used black grout to make the bright festive colors of the Mexican Talavera tile stand out. To make the concrete black, Naomi used a product called Flex Seal, but black spray paint could have been used. Another thing that draws me to this project is that Naomi made a different design for each bench instead of making them the same.
Pricing art is difficult because it is subjective, and pricing mosaic artwork is even more problematic due to the extra labor required to make it, but there is a structured way to determine a hard number, even if the buyer is a friend or relative.
Recently artist Valri Castleman emailed my a photo of her untitled mosaic shown above and asked for my advice on how to price it for a family member. Normally I am not drawn to mosaics made from triangular pieces, but I like Valri’s mosaic and think it is worth sharing for several reason. For starters, there is some sophisticated “figure-ground-reversal” going on that reminds me of Picasso and the Cubists. There is also some interesting use of grout lines to outline figures. Lastly, the mosaic is a good case study for how to price your art for sale to a friend.
Interpreting a work of art in a different medium is a matter of capturing the essence of the original without being an exact copy, although most people would prefer to see a copy that had no departures than something that was unrecognizable. With that in mind, the first step in creating an interpretation of an existing work is to identify what features are most important about it, what things define it in essence. It depends on the work of art. It isn’t always a particular detail or figure. It isn’t always the colors.
A Case Study
Recently, artist Jackie Iglehart created a quilt panel interpretation of my painting “Cypress Bayou” and won this year’s quilting challenge at the Valley Forge Homestead Quilters Guild in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. I was blown away by the results. Jackie’s quilt panel captures the look and feel of my painting to an extent that I doubted was possible in that medium. Continue reading
Don’t Rush The Design Process
It is easier for me to explain what I mean about pace and long term experiments if I discuss my painting instead of my mosaic artwork. Compared to most mediums of visual art, mosaic isn’t typically executed in a rush because the amount of work usually requires multiple sessions in the studio. (You don’t slap on some tile quite as quickly as you do paint.) However, the point I make about my painting has a lot of relevance to the process of DESIGNING or CONCEIVING a mosaic composition and how you reflect on the work in progress and evaluate color decisions as you go along. Never blindly execute what you initially guessed to be a good decision. The design “mode” should never be turned off if your are trying to make great art.
Artificial Deadlines Are A Double-Edged Sword
Accomplishment builds confidence, but what are you accomplishing if you aren’t happy with the results?
Not long after starting Mosaic Art Supply, I found myself working on painting more than mosaic, at least in the studio time that I set aside for my own projects. (Go figure.) I made the decision to work on my painting in the following way: I would complete a small painting in a single session each night and then write something about creating it (personal significance or techniques) and then publish the painting’s photograph and text online. I didn’t use a blog format, but it was essentially a blog, with pages named for the artwork in question and no dating. Most of my paintings at Riverson Fine Art were created in this way.
This one-painting-each-night approach was great for getting me accustomed to “finishing” work, but the constant artificial deadline of having to be done that night also made me hectically overwork some paintings (because I didn’t spend enough time looking at what I was painting and felt a rush to go with snap decisions). I also didn’t allow enough time to figure out technical questions before the lack of knowledge showed on the canvas in a clear way.
It became clear that this exercise of doing rapid experiments each night could only teach me so much, and it had clearly taught me some bad habits that I had to unlearn somehow.
Kids Don’t Try This At Home
My solution was to totally change the pace of how I created art and not worry about publishing it or showing it. (The mosaic business was giving me more of a public presence than I wanted anyway.) But I did much more than this: I went to the opposite extreme. I didn’t even think about individual compositions or at least completing them as compositions. I drew up long lists of technical questions I needed to answer (such as how to mix up any color, ANY color I might need, shade or hue), and then I laid out what experiments I needed to do to find the answers.
More than that, I allowed myself to digress into a series of smaller investigations if I got stumped on a particular color or problem, no matter how irrelevant the issue seemed by itself. It was merely enough that I couldn’t answer the question, and I worked until I figured it out. I wanted to know how to do whatever it was in the event the same issue ever came up later when I started painting figurative compositions again.
This might seem obsessive on the surface, but I had already painted enough canvasses in a completely unsatisfactory way to know that I wouldn’t have the confidence to complete anything until I was more technically competent.
In the case of how to mix up any shade or hue, I simply painted a series of mixing grids, such as recommended and discussed in most books about how to paint.
To get the type of effects I wanted, I also needed to know how these colors looked when imperfectly layered over a canvas textured with peaks of modeling paste so that the layer underneath showed in the valleys. This greatly multiplied the number of variables I had to figure out.
How would these look when color complements were paired? What about warm on warm or cool on cool? How would they look with dark on light or vice versa? How did making the upper layer more translucent with medium affect the hue of the layer underneath? How did varying the size and type of texture affect ALL of the above?
Should the texture be rounded or sharp? Should texture run in raised ridges at the edges of figures? What would be the most effective way of duplicating specific results I found pleasing? How controlled or random should the sequence of layering be?
And then there was my META question: If I mastered all of these variables, could I use the resulting techniques to make quick-drying acrylic paint look as visually interesting and complex as slow-drying oil paint, which naturally diffused creating soft edges and subtle transitions of hue?
The answer could only be found by executing all of these combinations in a lengthy series of large abstract canvasses that took literally years. Each canvas was painted 10, 20 times, maybe 50 or more. Not 50 layers of paint. I mean 50 uses of the canvas for different “compositions” of multiple layers with all the accumulating texture that provided. Some of my canvasses from this period are almost as heavy as mosaics.
Finally, just 6 months ago, I felt that I had investigated enough unknowns to have a vocabulary of techniques sufficient to attempt a figurative composition again with confidence. So I started painting figurative works again, or rather, I started trying to paint figurative compositions again, and I felt anything but confident.
For starters, it wasn’t that easy to stop digressing each time I had a question about hue, texture or other variables in combination. I had gotten in the mode of “find out how” not “wing it to complete the composition.”
Also, I had to factor in how I developed compositions. I don’t work from a model in front of me. I work from hundreds of remembered models arranged in imaginative compositions. I draw from the imagination. I also work interactively with the canvas to allow figures to evolve from seemingly random strokes. I like to let the design emerge from the canvas in a way similar to how the mind sees objects in clouds, which I think is one of the highest forms of visual art.
All of this is fairly absorbing and cannot be done if I am having to concentrate too much on how to get the effects I want.
The long and the short of it is that I finally have a painting near enough completion to show after years of one long extended series of experiments that took over 4 years.
Parallels with Mosaic Art
In a mosaic, you may not have layering of color as a variable, but you definitely have juxtaposition of color, and you have variegation of color fields and color field transition. You also have how all of these variables are affected by tile size and work lines (andamento: how the tiles are arranged in contours to show motion or arranged randomly or grid-like). Think about all these variables and how they might be used to make your composition stronger. Of course, you don’t have to go completely mental like I did with painting and try to think about every combination of variables, but do spend some time thinking about what else might be before you begin setting tile in concrete.
A Practical Way To Experiment In Mosaic
Draw a cartoon (outline) of your design on the mosaic backer with a pencil, and then just place tile in the different color fields. At first, think about just different pairs of complementary colors, and try to get the basic color layout planned. Then think about how each color field might be made more visually complex by adding a few related hues or shades to the color field instead of using only one hue or shade. Once that is fairly worked out, then think about what size the tiles should be and how they should be arranged. It is hard to go wrong by arranging tiles in lines parallel to the outlines of figures. These contoured work line suggest motion, and this almost always looks more interesting than random patterns or grids. Remember, you aren’t tiling a shower or bricking a wall. You are rendering an image, so take advantage of all the trompe l’oeil you can, especially andamento!
The meta message is this: You can’t tile over an unsuccessful part of a mosaic the same way you can quickly paint over an unsuccessful part of a painting. This means that designs are enhanced when you do quick experiments with your cartoon BEFORE you start mounting tile: merely lay the tile out loosely on your outline and see how the colors work together. Try different combinations. You can’t try them after the tile is glued down, or at least as easily. Make haste slowly and avoid the need to chisel off glass tile.
The primary reason for grouting tiled surfaces is to prevent water from penetrating behind the tile and weakening the adhesive or the backer and the structure beneath the backer. In mosaic artwork, the grout also has a visual function, and that is to contrast (not match) the tile colors. If the grout color does not sufficiently contrast the tile colors, than all the tiles blend together visually, and much of the “mosaic effect” is lost.
Grout Color Should Contrast Not Match
There are some novices who doubt my advice about contrasting grout color and even try to match their grout color to the tile colors. These are the people who later email me in a complete panic. They usually use the words “completely ruined” to describe what grouting did to their once beautiful mosaic, and from the pictures they send, I’m inclined to agree with them. (Note that these mosaics can be saved, but it requires either scraping the grout out with a grout removal tool or painting the grout with acrylic paint or some other ad hoc solution.)
A Medium Gray Grout
Since experience has shown time and again that the best grout color is one that contrasts tile color, the question becomes which grout color best contrasts ALL the different colors used in the mosaic. For MOST combinations of tile colors, the best contrast is usually provided by a medium to dark gray, with darker being the better guess if in doubt. Always keep in mind that the color of the grout will be significantly lighter when fully cured compared to how it looks when wet.
A Notable Exception: Lighter Blues
There are a few notable exceptions to the rule of gray grout being best. The most obvious exception is when you are using gray tile (duh), but the one that usually catches people by surprise is when tiles of lighter blue colors are used. Unfortunately, these are just the shades of blue that are popular for water and sky elements, so this is a significant exception. In this situation, a warm light brown or sand colored grout might be a good choice for contrasting the blue tile, but what if there are light brown tile used elsewhere in the mosaic? Is there a good standby color of grout for this situation? The answer is no, but there is a quick solution.
Go Look At Grout Colors With Your Tile
Building material stores such as Home Depot and Lowes usually carry about 30 or more colors of grout, and they have color swatches on the shelves and/or packaging so that you can pick out grout similar to how you pick out paint, only with much more limited options. The trick or tip is to not to try to do this from memory without the benefit of having your tile with you. Take one or two tile of each color used in the mosaic with you to the store and hold them up against the color swatches. I have even gone into the store with small mosaics, just as I have taken in parts of plumbing I was trying to match or replace. Don’t be self conscious about it. The people who work there are accustomed to seeing professionals at work, and you will be quite unobtrusive compared to the building contractors dealing with emergencies. At least you won’t be covered in dirt and holding a toilet seat or something like that.
Some “Advanced” Tips
From the many emails and pictures I have received in the past 12+ years, I can state with some confidence that novices tend to regret choosing grout colors as an attempt to add another color to the mosaic. Matching grout color to tile color tends to be even more disastrous.
If you already have your figures rendered in tile using a relatively small grout gap, and you like how those figures look, then your main objective while grouting should be to not mess up the visual art that was already working, especially if you are a novice at mosaic.
Of course, even a novice can take a few of each color tile and create an abstract experiment on a scrap piece of plywood and try a novel grout color on it.
The monochromatic nature of medium gray grout makes it contrast colors intrinsically, in the same way that back and white contrast colors intrinsically. All three are balanced in hue. The keep-it-simple and less-is-more principles really come into play when you decide to second guess some shade of medium to dark gray when grouting figurative mosaic artwork.
On the other hand, there are all those earth tones to play with…
Just remember to experiment on a piece of scrap before trying it out on a mosaic where 90% of the work was spent cutting and mounting the tile.
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.
This article is about how to incorporate mosaic art into the design of your tiled bar top and is less about the basics of how you mount the plywood, cut a hole for the sink, etc. If you need that type of basic construction information, there is an article on HGTV’s website about how to tile a countertop.
However, I noticed that the HGTV article didn’t specify the thickness of the concrete backer board to use. For a floor, you must use 1/2 inch concrete backer board, but for a countertop, you can use 1/4 inch and probably should because it makes it easier to cut a whole for a sink with a jigsaw. You can’t cut plywood and concrete board at the same time because the blade gets dull too rapidly from the concrete, and then it rips the plywood instead of cutting it cleanly. Make sure you have holes in your plywood before laminating.
Back to mosaic art and how to incorporate it into tiled countertops:
Recently a customer emailed me with some photos of a bar top she had mosaiced for her home, and I thought they were worth showing off for several reasons. Not only were the execution and color choices well done, but the design complemented the color scheme and decor of the room as a whole, yet still managed to have its own merits as mosaic art and not be mere tiling.
I think it is important to promote successful examples of architectural art because contemporary tastes have tended to converge on “basic black” and Bauhaus clean functionality in a monolithic way, especially when home remodeling is concerned. I certainly understand the reasons why: who wants to spend money to make their home less sellable? Who wants to customize their home in a way that most potential buyers might find unattractive?
Even if we have confidence in our own artistic and design skills, those of us who have lived in tight real estate markets have seen too many houses in “up and coming” neighborhoods where the previous owner may have had little money, but apparently had even less sense and spent $15 to $20,000 to add a room or porch that made no design sense at all or cut windows and doors where they made no sense or bricked them up with equal indifference. After being forced to consider such houses merely because they were the only thing on the market within budget, no rational person wants to even risk the possibility of spending money in a way that makes the largest investment of their life lose value.
And so we err on the side of caution and dismiss any individualistic ideas about home renovation and go for simple clean designs that lean toward the generic.
But that sort of thinking is why 9 billion houses have black granite countertops, and that is why those same black granite countertops will one day be the most despised, dated feature of those houses. If you doubt this, consider how many landfills full of real heart-of-pine paneling that you have seen ripped out of houses on HGTV home renovation shows. The wood paneling is rich-colored natural material (just as the granite countertops are rich-colored natural material). We just don’t like it anymore because it is so indicative of decades past because it was so widely used at the time.
The good news is that things like mosaic countertops and mosaic fireplace surrounds are easily replaced if the next owner or potential owner doesn’t care for the design. Unlike many forms of home renovation, these projects are relatively low-cost yet have maximum visibility and design impact. In short, mosaic countertops may be one of the few personalized home renovation projects you can pursue without jeopardizing the “curb appeal” of your house.
Inserts In Regular Tiling
Note that you don’t have to mosaic the entire bar. The side edges can be regular bullnose ceramic tile, and mosaic art can be an insert in the middle of the regular tiling. All you would need to do is leave an un-tiled space in the middle of the bar (or instruct the building contractor to do so). Then you could put your own mosaic design in that space. Glass mosaic tile (typically ~1/8″ thick) is slightly thinner than ceramic tile (typically 1/4″ or 3/8″), and so you may need to build up the un-tiled space slightly with mortar before you mosaic it, but that isn’t difficult.