Why break up ceramic figurines to use the pieces in mosaic artwork when you can use the whole figurine? Artist Laurie Gilson emailed me some photos of her recent work, and they are great examples of how you can use ceramic figurines in your mosaics and still use standard elements such as tile arranged in rows. Continue reading
Artist Phyllis Kempter emailed me some photos of the ornaments she made using our kits for 3-inch spherical mosaic Christmas ornaments and our 12mm recycled glass tile (plus a few other sizes of tile), and her ornaments caught my eye for two reasons:
First, she used green in the patterns for her ornaments, which is good to do if you think the ornament might by hung on something other than a Christmas tree, at least some of the time. Green might not help the ornament stand out on the tree as well as red would, but it goes a long way toward suggesting Christmas when the ornament is not on a tree, especially when used with red.
Second, one of her photos was of her well-organized work space, and it illustrates several methods and tips for making the tiling process easier and faster. Continue reading
Recently April Costigan sent us some pictures of pet memorial mosaics made on stepping stones and some portraits of pets still living, and they are great examples of what you could make for your loved one. April’s mosaics also show a natural progression in skill, and so they are worth showing to a wider audience. Continue reading
Artist Cherie Bosela has some mixed-media mosaic sculpture that you really should see, especially if you are considering making some of your own. Cherie’s body of work is incredible, and it includes bas relief mosaics (flat panel with raised elements) and figurative sculpture encrusted with glass beads and found objects such as seashells.
I absolutely love her stuff and how well material choices resonate with the subject matter, specifically the use of beads to create insects and flowers. (The ancient Egyptian word(s) for jewelry translates literally as “artificial flowers and animals,” if I remember correctly.) Continue reading
Artist Jason Oakley made this great pixellated mosaic of Mario and some of the other characters in the Mario games. I like how the gridded pattern of tiles looks exactly like low-resolution pixels such as used in vintage video games.
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.
Artist MC Holt-Evans of Nashville recently made a mosaic sculpture very much in keeping with spirit of The Music City, and her mosaic guitar is worth taking a look at, especially if you are considering making a mosaic on an improvised base such as a musical instrument or a piece of furniture. The instructions below could be adapted for using other household objects as a base.
Mosaic Sculptures on Improvised Bases
Mosaic sculptures that use household objects as their base aren’t anything new. For example pique assiette (broken plate) mosaic furniture is fairly common, as are mosaic gazing spheres made from bowling balls. (Note that my article on gazing spheres explains why hard polystyrene makes a better base than a bowling ball.) However, a guitar can be a particularly challenging choice of mosaic base for several reasons: The shape is complex and curved, and part of it (the neck) is long and thin and has a lot of corners. The wood of the guitar’s sound box is thin, and yet it has a thick layer of lacquer that must be removed before adhesives and grout will bond to it.
Prepping the Guitar
A medium grit sandpaper (120 grit) can be used to take off any lacquers or sealants. As always, wear an N95 rated dust mask for doing this type of work. (The N95 dust masks are cheap and readily available at a building material or hardware store.) I don’t recommend wet-sanding a guitar because you want to minimize its exposure to moisture until you get it sealed because the wood is thin and easily warped by moisture.
Are you going to want to put the strings back on the guitar after it is mosaiced? Probably so, and that mean you need to take into account the thickness of the tile you are adding to the surface and raise the nut fret that separate the head from the neck. Use a hard wood for this such as bass (the wood used for sewing boxes and buttons) and not some soft wood like balsa.
When you reseal the guitar with a water-based primer, you should apply two thin coats instead of one heavy one. To seal her guitar, Holt-Evans used an acrylic primer called Zinsser’s Bullseye 1-2-3 because it was recommended by an artist who works with mosaic guitars. Weldbond adhesive could also be used to seal/prime a guitar, and it might be the better choice because it is the adhesive that will be used to attach the tiles, and thus you wouldn’t have to worry about how well the adhesive and primer bonded to each other, but you would still need to give the sealing coat at least a week to dry out completely and fully harden before you tiled on it. Holt-Evans reported that she left coarse brush strokes in the sealant. This improves the bonding of adhesives and grout.
Using What You Have on Hand?
Be careful selecting a primer at random because Weldbond might not bond to some of them, definitely not oil-based materials. You want an acrylic, something like an artist’s gesso and not a latex house paint. PVA’s like Weldbond won’t bond to the vinyls and other binders in some house paint. Using what you have on hand isn’t necessarily being frugal if it doesn’t last nearly as long as it would have with the right stuff.
Mounting the Tile
Partially Crushed Liquor Boxes
Use partially crushed liquor boxes to cradle the guitar or sculpture while you work on it. You can rearrange the boxes to re-position the guitar as needed so that whatever part of the curved surface you are working on is facing up.
Brush on the Adhesive and Let It Get Tacky
If you are having problems with tile sliding around, use a small paint brush to spread the Weldbond onto the surface and allow to sit for a few minutes and get tacky before you add the tile. Depending on how dry or moist your air is, this can be about 15 minutes, perhaps much faster if it is dry midwinter air and the heater is running. Remember, if you let the glue skin over too much, then it won’t bond to the glass as well.
Dental Picks and Cotton Swabs
Dental picks (or tooth picks) are invaluable for adjusting the positions of tiles without contaminating your fingertips. Cotton swabs can help clean up messes with precision and not move tile out of position. Tip: Don’t thow your wet-glue swabs into the trash. Instead, let them dry out and peel the dried glue off them next session and get another life out of them.
Grouting Studio or Bench Space
I like to grout outside on a patio or some place that can be hosed off. You can use drop cloths indoors, but you still have to be relatively neat, or you will track sand on the floor and ruin it. Grout and thinset mortar are concrete, not paint. That being said, grouting inside can be done without making a mess and is routinely done by mosaic artists. A plastic folding table or a table covered in construction plastic from the building material store is ideal for a project that might require multiple sessions to grout.
Black grout makes color stand out more. All grout colors are lighter when the grout hardens, especially black grout. Black grout is usually jet black when mixed up but hardens to a charcoal gray or lighter. Pure white grout makes a mosaic look like a summer camp project.
Thinset Mortar vs Grout
I prefer thinset mortar instead of grout for projects like these. Thinset has an adhesive polymer in it that makes it strong and resistant to impact. Compared to ordinary concrete and grout, thinset is a lot less likely to crack and crumble when dropped. However, thinset contracts slightly as it cures, and so you might observe hairline cracks when used on a three dimensional object that can flex slightly, such as a wooden guitar. Like grout, thinset mortar can be dyed with concrete dyes.
Grouting something like this is best done in multiple sessions. Unlike a mosaic chair or desk, a guitar has multiple places where special are has to be taken in order to not soil or clog some detail. A guitar has frets and working pegs and a saddle and a sound hole to take into account. Painter’s tape can be used to protect the bare wood inside the sound hole. Use crushed liquor boxes to cradle the guitar in different orientations while you grout it.
The color of a grout can look different if different amounts of water are used to mix up different batches or if they are misted differently. Try to mix up and handle your grout in a consistent way.
Holt-Evans started by grouting the back of the guitar because it was the largest flat area with no obstructions and therefore the most straightforward surface to be grouted. When she grouted the back, she continued the grout over the sides so that there wouldn’t be a grout seam right at the corner because corners are vulnerable places and subject to many impacts.
The head and neck were each done in separate sessions, and for both of these elements, Holt-Evans did not take the mosaic and the grout around to the sides and backs. Only the top faces were covered, and so this meant that the grout had to be tapered off to the corner.
The front of the guitar was done in a later session because of the detail work required to get the grout tapered to the edge of the sound hole. The grout was carried down over the side to join the grout from the back on the sides.
To prevent a hairline crack where new grout meets the old, you should moisten the edge of the old grout with a little water on a cotton swab before grouting. This keeps the old grout from sucking all the water out of the new grout before it has a chance to harden.
Recently artist Wendy Schroeder emailed us some photographs of her mixed-media mosaic bar top, and it is worth taking a look at for several reasons, especially if you are doing a high-end project and would like to integrate figurative mosaic art in a seamless way with other design elements.
Strong Figurative Design
First, the glass tile mosaic part of the bar top is a strong figurative design (koi pond with lily pads and lotus) that makes good use of contrasting colors from the color wheel. Wendy also made good use of multiple shades of the same hue to make color fields more interesting. (She used multiple greens for the lily pads and multiple blues for the water instead of just one color for each.) There is also good use of andamento, which is the practice of arranging the tile in curved concentric rows to suggest motion instead of placing the tile in straight rows or grids.
Figurative Design Integrated With Other Elements
Another reason this project was successful is that the glass tile mosaic koi pond is well integrated with the other features and elements making up the bar. A second type of mosaic made from monochromatic rounded river stones contrasts the color and texture of the glass mosaic, and it helps tie in the black sink and draining board. Sure the entire bar top could have been covered with the mosaic of the koi pond, but having less of it and having it paired with a contrasting dark material make its colors stand out more.
Wendy’s use of the stone mosaic to limit the amount of colorful glass mosaic is a convincing demonstration of how less can be more in art, and it makes good practical sense too. Pots and pans can be dropped on stone mosaic around the sink instead of on brittle glass tile. Besides, I’m not sure the glass mosaic would have looked as strong if it ran all the way to the sink. It may have looked more like a generic repeating covering purchased by the square foot if it had been used to cover the entire bar top. The irregularly shaped intersection with the river stone mosaic calls attention to the custom aspects of the design.
The large boulder construction of the body of the bar underneath helps tie the mosaic bar to the same materials used elsewhere in the cabin.
A Novel Border / Edge Treatment
Third, Wendy’s mosaic bar top has a great solution for the side edges. Instead of tiling it with small glass mosaic, thick stone tiles were used in a way where the tiles extend up to form a border around the mosaic on the top surface. You need to look closely at the first and third photographs to see these border tiles, and only their top edges are visible in the first photo. Note how those tiles have to be as thick as they are to properly form a border around the black river stone mosaic.
Project Integrated With Room Decor
The photograph above shows how a walnut cutting board and brass bin cover were integrated into the mosaic design of the counter top. The thick boarder tiles used to line the edge of the counter top are also used to form a boarder around the sink and brass bin cover. This boarder helps tie all the different components together.
What is equally important to me is how the bar counter top as a whole works with the other design elements in the room. After all, the colors and the materials and the design of the mosaic shouldn’t look out of place in the room where it is being installed. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how well the mosaic itself is executed. Usually this sort of harmony is achieved by using similar colors or materials or motifs or themes in the mosaic. The hardwood floors and stone mosaic used elsewhere in the kitchen help the bar to look “at home” because they are similar in color and texture and design and theme to the bar. Even the modern stainless steel appliances are visually compatible with the bar top because it contains black and gray elements.
From what I have seen over the years, architectural mosaic projects that fail usually do so because the materials or colors or design of the mosaic are not compatible with the decor of the room as a whole. It means a lot for me to say that because I am a figurative artist who paints and mosaics for its own sake, and I hate the idea of shallow people buying a painting merely because it matches their sofa, but art is context and art is design. Things have to be balanced and compatible as a whole in terms of interior design for the artwork itself to be fully appreciated.
Drawing The Pattern Directly On The Backer
Another reason I wanted to show off this project is that Wendy got some good photographs of the work in progress, which is something I have been terrible about doing, at least in the past. One of her work-in-process photos shows how she drew her cartoon (pattern or outline) directly on the backer used for the mosaic counter top, which in this case is a plywood surface with some reinforcing underneath.
Mounting The Tile
Custom figurative mosaic work with glass tile means a lot of cutting, which is easy to do with a mosaic glass cutter, but tiny glass slivers are produced. These can be quite sharp and lie hidden on surfaces until you rub your hand over them. Keep your vacuum handy and cut over an old towel to contain these sharp slivers. Make sure you retire the towel after use or use it exclusively for mosaic.
Thanks Wendy! I really enjoyed showing off your project.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- Have children spend one or two sessions arranging tile into designs on these squares/trays.
- Have teachers or parent volunteers mix up and spread thinset on the stepping stones.
- 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.
- After the thinset has hardened for a day, grout the mosaics with more thinset or grout.
- 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.
Our shipment of hardwood bases for making mosaic coaster recently arrived, and I just now added them to our website. We have bases for making square mosaic coasters and round mosaic coasters, and these are great project ideas for someone wanting to make a mosaic miniature.
The coaster bases are made in the USA from cherry hardwood that has been cut out with a laser so that the sides have an attractive burnt wood finish.
In the product descriptions for these, I included some instructions for how to make your own mosaic design on them. My instructions emphasize the need to evaluate your design to make sure you don’t have any details smaller than the smallest piece of tile you can cut. To do this, I always find the smallest detail in my design and cut up some tile and arrange it to form the detail. If I discover that it is too difficult to cut the tile that small, then I know I need to change the scale of my design by cropping it or simplifying it in some way. This is important for creating mosaic art in general, but it is particularly important when you start trying to make mosaic miniatures like this. It just doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of time in the rest of the mosaic only to get to the most detailed part (which is often a key focal point in the design) and discover that you can’t render it very well because it is too small.
Here is my mosaic skull coaster again. I am reluctant to describe it as micro mosaic because this is really nothing compared to the insanely detailed work that the micro artists turn out. After all, this is a coaster, not a design on a pinky ring!