Jim Price’s Yosemite Mosaic is an excellent example of how photorealistic mosaic art does NOT have to be rendered in a uniform grid of pixels.
For an example of a gridded mosaic where tiles are used as pixel, look at the impressive black and white mosaic another artist Mark made of his grandson peering through a telescope. Note the contrast of styles between these two mosaics!
While the tile-as-pixel mode of working is very effective and straightforward for beginners, it limits the artist stylistically because tiles in a grid do not vary in shape and direction, and you can’t do things like arrange tiles in concentric rows around figures to suggest motion. You also can’t use different sizes and shapes to suggest the texture of surfaces. All you have is a grid, and the process of laying tile is all a matter of putting the right color in the right cell.Alternatives to Grid Designs
You have more opportunity for stylistic flourishes if you work in a mode similar to stained glass artwork and used pieces with irregular shapes based on the figures being rendered, which usually means larger pieces –but not necessarily. Artist Lorna Ball’s stained glass mosaics are good examples of using small pieces to create realistic textures (bird plumage, tree bark).
I really admire the mosaic Jim Price made of Yosemite because it is photorealistic yet not pixelated, nor does it go to the opposite extreme and render in large pieces like commonly seen in stained glass artwork. Instead, the image is rendered in small tesserae (tiles), and the tile is used in rows that follow the lines of the figure being rendered. Rectangular tile is placed in staggered rows like the classic “subway tiling,” but it is not one uniform set of rows. Instead, different areas and different figures have their own set of rows at a different orientation from those row sets in adjacent areas. To see what I mean, look at where the tops of the cliffs (vertical rows thrusting upward) meets the sky (horizontal rows).
Every element of the composition works well with adjacent areas and objects and contrasting andamento (direction of rows) helps define areas as separate elements. It is clear Jim thought about the row schemes for different elements very carefully and spent a lot of time executing it.Artists Comments
I wanted to do something big: (24” x 44”). This mosaic took me 20 months to complete, working approx. 3 hours a day using 3/8” tiles. I estimated 13,000 cut pieces. One of my toughest challenges was picking the tile colors. I learned to make do when I could not find all the exact colors I wanted. Grout was also challenging, picking the correct colors – it’s amazing how important grout is and how it affects the overall look of the piece. I used 2 grout colors, grey for the sky/mountains and a medium brown for the rest.Let the Background Be Background
Note that Jim does not make contour lines around the clouds but instead renders the entire sky (clouds and all) using one system of rows of rectangular tiles that define the clouds impressionistically. This is just what the sky needs. The alternative would have been to render the clouds and the surrounds sky with flourishes of different sets of curved rows, but that would have given the clouds too much visual interest and made them look more like elements in the foreground.Wheat Field with Crows
Jim Price made this mosaic master copy after Van Gogh’s painting of the same name, and I think it is good example of the emotion and energy that stylized artwork is capable of and why many people value that type of art over straight realism.
Nearly all of Van Gogh paintings beg to be copied as mosaics because the paintings themselves are already mosaics of heavy brushstrokes that make expert use andamento to convey a sense of motion. Everything dances in a Van Gogh painting, even in his still life paintings, but “Wheat Field with Crows” was a particularly good choice for interpretation.Wheat Field With Crows mosaic after Van Gogh by Jim Price.
Jim made his Wheat Field With Crows using Italian stained glass and says he has the cuts to prove it. I believe him.Working With Stained Glass and Alternatives
Stained glass can form razor-sharp edges and slivers when it is cut, some colors more than others because the metal oxide pigments alter the physical properties of the glass. Molded glass tiles such as vitreous and the sintered recycled glass variety are a lot less sharp when they break and don’t produce as many daggers and needles, and so they are better choices when working with children, especially since you can choose to work with whole uncut tile or mostly uncut.
If you do work with stained glass, it is important to remember that nothing else will prick your fingers faster or more often, especially the tiny crumbs and slivers of stained glass that hide on work surfaces. That’s why you keep a vacuum handy and periodically clean off your work area.Italian Versus American Glass
Our stained glass is all American made. I haven’t noticed much difference between American made and the limited number of sheets of Italian glass I have used as far as cutting it and handling it. As far as looks, I have seen sheets made in both countries that were too exquisite to cut up, but it seems like the Italian manufacturers try to make most every sheet swirled to that level of perfection. It seems like a lot of extra money for not much return if you are cutting the glass up small for mosaic art.The Artist
Jim Price lives in Southern California. He has been a graphic artist for 53 years and tried every medium of art before realizing that mosaic was his true love. Contact the artist directly:
Recently artist Jill Miller emailed me wanting some advice about choosing colors for a mosaic table top she was making, and the design she was a chickadee bird with holly leaves and berries. From her photos and a description of the colors she wanted to use for the border of the round table top, it was obvious that she wanted to use muted colors instead of intense colors. I was happy to help. I thought her project was a great example for how to choose colors for backgrounds and making sure there was adequate contrast between the different elements.Chickadee design for mosaic table top with some candidates for background color. Note how the faint moss green selected for the holly leaf does not adequately contrast the underside of the bird. Notice how the same can be said of the muted brown tile directly under the bird. The orange tiles do contrast the bird, but it is problematic to have a background color that is more intense than the colors of the figure in the foreground. Also, cool colors are usually used for backgrounds because cool colors recede while warm colors come forward visually.
Whether muted colors or intense colors are used, it is still important for there to be contrast in the colors that define different elements, else the elements don’t stand out from one another.
TIP: You don’t have to glue tiles down to see if they are the right color. You don’t even have to position them carefully. Just spread them roughly where they should go, take a break, and then look at the mosaic later. The loose tiles will either contrast the image enough to make the figure stand out, or they won’t. Your fresh unbiased eyes won’t lie to you. Don’t try to rationalize a color that doesn’t work based on some design you have in mind. Listen to your art. Look at it and really see it.Color Study Version 1 Mosaic Color Study Version 1 with intense green vitreous used for holly leaf. The problem with the vitreous green isn’t that the color is too intense but that it is grainy while the other colored tiles are glassy. Also, the green is a little more intense than the color scheme Jill had in mind.
Each work of art is just one version of many potential variations that could have been made with the same design. While it is not critical that you stay true to your original vision, it is important that you don’t have competing versions trying to exist in the same composition. The most important thing to stay true to is the design that is taking shape and making sure that color choices are internally consistent.Color Study Version 2
Most beginners are so eager to begin work that they start gluing down tiles before they are sure they have the right color. Usually they don’t notice that they don’t really like the color until they have spent an hour or so mounting tiles in glue. If that happens, all is not lost. Put on some work gloves and safety glasses and scrape up the tiles with a screw driver. Soak them in water to remove glue residue. If the glue has already hardened for several days, you may break some tiles while scraping them up. If so, use a vacuum to pick up sharp slivers. Moistening the tiles for 30 minutes with a cotton swab dipped in water can help soften glue, but it can also increase the risk of creating gouges and delaminations in plywood backers.Color Wheels and Complementary (Contrasting) Colors
Color wheels are an artist’s tool for choosing complimentary colors, which are pairs of color “opposites” that provide maximum contrast to each other: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple. Those are the main pairs of opposites, but the hues in between also have opposites. For example: blue-green and red-orange. Color wheel charts position all of these opposites directly across the wheel from each other, which makes it easy to see what the optimal contrast would be for any given hue.
You can see some color wheels by searching Google for “color wheel” or “complimentary colors.” Some are more in depth than others. I like the ones that also show different options for value, which is the relative lightness or darkness of the color.Intense Colors and Contrast
Contrasting colors are important because they make images stand out. Look at these great bird mosaics made by Phil Lamie’s elementary school students, Notice how these mosaic take full advantage of contrast between intense blues and warm oranges. Notice how the cool blues are usually in the background and the warm colors are in the figures in the foreground. In the case of the blue bird, notice how the blue in the bird in the foreground is more intense than the blue of the sky in the background. Value and intensity can be used to make foreground images stand out from backgrounds, as the blue bird mosaic demonstrates. All of these bird mosaics are visually striking because they follow basic rules of using color.
In my article Stained Glass Mosaic Art, I explained how stained glass can be cut up into small pieces and used like conventional tesserae or cut larger and used to define entire elements as is done in a stained glass window. In the window mode of working, one single piece of variegated glass is used to render an element, say a tree trunk for example, and whatever shading or detail is provided by the swirls or bands in the glass. Contrast that with conventional mosaic mode, where the shading or detail is built from different pieces of glass, and together they render the tree trunk.
The objection to working in the conventional mosaic mode is that most artists don’t want to lose all the visual interest of the swirls of color by cutting them up. Canadian artist Lorna Ball demonstrates that it is possible to use stained glass cut up into small tiles and not lose the visual interest provided by the variegated colors of the glass.Grey Owl mosaic by Artist Lorna Ball demonstrates that mosaic is a fine art where individual style can be expressed as fully as in painting.
Note the bark on the trees in the mosaic below. Sure, a single piece of swirled glass could be used for the trunks, but could any swirling no matter how beautiful capture the texture and dimension of the bark facets as well as Ball’s separate slivers of different colors do?Up Through The Trees mosaic by Lorna Ball captures the essence of looking up from the forest floor. You can almost hear the birds up above in the canopy.
Lorna’s work also demonstrates an important point about using stained glass cut up into small tile: just because the tile is cut up small, it doesn’t have to be cut up into similar shapes and sizes. Notice in the mosaic below how the black tiles in the branches of the trees are completely different in shape and proportion from the white tiles in the tree trunks and from the yellow tiles that render the leaves:Autumn Trees mosaic by Lorna Ball makes successful use of different shaped tesserae.
The slender black tiles used for tree branches might make you wonder if the conventional mosaic style and the conventional stained glass style can be hybridized, and the answer is a qualified yes. For example, the above scene would have looked odd if the leaves of the canopy and forest floor were rendered in their tiny tiles and the tree trunks were replaced with single pieces of swirled glass. There has to be stylistic integrity throughout the composition, or the odd element will stick out like a sore thumb. The styles are simply too different. Look at the following mosaic by Natalija Moss as a reminder of how different these two stylistic modes are:The Major mosaic by Natalija Moss.
What if the blue strips of the background were rendered in smaller blue tiles in a conventional mosaic manner? Could the face still be composed from large pieces? No, the background would have more visual detail than the figure in the foreground, which is the exact opposite of what is needed to make the figure stand out from the background.
Artist Lyn Richards sent me some pictures of the mosaic bird bath she made this past summer, and it is worth showing off. The floral design and the colors used in the mosaic were inspired by Van Gogh’s painting “Irises.”Mosaic bird bath by artist Lyn Richards makes good use of contrasting colors and a Van-Gogh-inspired floral design that help integrate the bird bath with its surroundings. Note the use of an ordinary concrete stepping stone as a footing/base to keep the mosaic work separated from the soil. This is recommended because the acids in decaying organic matter slowly rot stone, concrete and grout. Material List for a Mosaic Birdbath Concrete Base
To make a mosaic bird bath such as this, you could use a ready-made concrete bird bath from a lawn and garden center, or you could make an original concrete sculpture if you are looking for something with a less conventional shape. Lyn used a ready-made concrete bird bath that came in two sections: a base column and a bowl.Thinset Mortar and Tools
Thinset mortar should be used instead of adhesive for attaching the tile. A complete list of tools and materials for mixing thinset and for applying it is given in my instructions for using thinset mortar with glass tile. (Note the instructions were written for doing extremely detailed work, so I might make thinset seem much more difficult to use than it really is.) I have also written a page for how to keep your hands clean when using thinset.Glass Mosaic Tile
Glass mosaic tile in non-porous and so water can’t get inside it and freeze and crack it all to pieces. This makes glass superior to stone and ceramic tile when used outdoors. You can use any of the glass we sell. Lyn’s mosaic was made from different brands of 3/4 inch vitreous glass tile, metallic glass tile. iridescent glass, and stained glass.
To find out how much tile you need, you can divide your shape into component surfaces and use our mosaic tile estimator. What do I mean by component surfaces? For estimation purposes, Lyn’s bath can be thought of as cylinder topped by a disk. The surface area of the cylinder is A = D*Pi*H, where D is the diameter, and Pi is 3.14, and H is the height. The surface area of the disk is A = Pi/4*D*D. Note that this time D is the diameter of the bowl and not the pedestal base. Remember to multiply the surface area of the disk by a factor of 2 because there is a top and a bottom.
As always, remember to inflate your estimate by 5 to 10% to account for cutting scrap and to provide a cushion for error in your estimates. I have always found that it is much better to have tile left over than it is to not have enough. Suppliers sell out from time to time, and the next manufacturer batch might not match what you already have, or at least match exactly. Also, leftover tile serves as inspiration and material for future projects.Finding and Transferring Patterns
Lyn used Van Gogh’s painting “Irises” for her pattern. She drew the outline of the shapes (blades and petals) onto the concrete using a pencil, and then she went over that drawing with a black Sharpie marker when she was sure she had her lines correct. This is recommended: Don’t use the marker until I work out my lines by trial and error using a pencil. If your pencil drawing gets to be a mess and you need to start over, you can “erase” it by wet sanding it and wiping it off with a rag.To create a sense of depth and shading, Lyn used multiple shades and hues of green for the leaves of the irises instead of one color. Choice of Colors and Visual Interest
Note how Lyn used multiple shades and hues of green to make the blades of the iris leaves instead of using just one type of green. This creates shade and depth and visual interest and makes all the difference in the world. Monochromatic color fields are boring, and they take just as long to tile as a more interesting mix of colors. Note the solitary pea green blade of new growth and how it stands out from the other leaves, which are a mix of darker and bluer greens. Similarly, the petals of the irises are made from multiple cyan blues and ultramarine blues instead of one color, and this makes them more lifelike and more visually appealing.Andamento and Visual Interest
The background of a mosaic is an opportunity to add visual interest to the scene and should never be “bricked” up like the tiled wall of a shower. Andamento is the visual flow of a mosaic created by arranging the tile in rows, and it can make the background of your mosaic as visually interesting as the figures in the foreground.Lyn’s strong use of andamento creates a sense of motion in the background. When used to its full potential, andamento can make the background as interesting as any figure in the foreground, as demonstrated here.
Observe how Lyn used multiple related hues for the background instead of one color. Also note there is not a single whole tile mixed in with all these cut pieces. Why not? A uniform square would stick out like a sore thumb among all the irregular pieces.Cutting and Attaching the Tiles
Thinset is concrete that hardens over time. I can usually get three hours out of a batch, and I often work in sections, usually completing about 1 or 2 square feet per session, depending on how detailed my work is. Lyn found it useful to have her tile cut up in advance of a session, but you can always make incidental cuts as needed while you are attaching tile. Again, my thinset instructions explain the details of how to handle and use the mortar to attach tiles. Tip: partially crushed liquor boxes make great cradles for holding heavy pieces of stone and concrete while you tile them.Removing Sharp Edges
A marble file or a rubbing stone can by used before the tile is mounted to remove any sharp edges. After the tile is mounted, it is a little more difficult to remove sharp edges, but gently rubbing the surface of your mosaic with a rubbing stone can help a lot.Grouting
Before grouting, you should clean off any excess thinset from the face of the tiles. Scraping this off will also make any loose tiles fall off so that you can reattach them before grouting. You should wait a day or two before grouting to let the thinset harden. Black grout is best for making your colors stand out. Lyn used a combination of black, gray, and brown grouts, and she blended these to get the exact color she wanted. A few days after your grout hardens, you should buff all the grout haze off and seal the finished mosaic with multiple applications of a silicone-based tile and grout sealer, such as available at any building material store.Lyn Richard’s mosaic bird bath at home in her garden.
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.This impressive mosaic bar by artist Wendy Schroeder has a strong figurative design for the glass tile mosaic portion, which is integrated with the other materials and features making up the bar. Notice how well the rounded river stone mosaic works with the glass tile mosaic in spite of being different in texture and color and how the river stone mosaic helps tie in the sink and draining board. Also note the use of thick stone tile to make a border and cover the side edges of the bar top. 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 artist Wendy Schroeder working on her mosaic bar top. Note that the rounded river stone mosaic is yet to be installed around the sink as are the thick stone tiles used to cover the edge of the bar top. The photograph gives a good overview of the figurative elements. Note the abstract swirls running between the lily pads. The abstract swirl illustrates how curving andamento can be used to interact with figures in a mosaic 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.A walnut cutting board and brass bin cover are built into the mosaic bar top. Note the thick stone tile used to cover the side edges of the bar top and how these stone tiles form a border around the glass 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.“And that’s not all! If you act now, we will include custom lighting!” As if a successful mixed-media mosaic project that worked well with existing room decor were not enough of an accomplishment, Wendy built in custom fiber optic lights BENEATH the glass of the mosaic. My initial emotional response to this piece was pure artistic envy: “Someone has outcrazied me, and I feel threatened.” 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.The outlined patterns used for creating mosaic designs are referred to as “cartoons,” and these can be drawn directly on the backer to be mosaiced if the surface isn’t currently in use. Usually you have to lay up the mosaic design in advance on mounting tape or mounting paper or fiberglass mesh because the surface to be covered is being used during the time it takes to lay up the design. Mounting The Tile Mounting tile on a large project is a time consuming process that ties up real estate in your studio for an extended period. It isn’t practical to pick up and store everything after each working session, so it makes sense to find a room or work surface that can be occupied for the length of the project. All that being said, small mosaic plaques can be made quite easily on a shared table provided you vacuum after work sessions and keep materials stored in trays.
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.