Artist Apryl Howard sent me some pictures of her recent Arizona Sunset Mosaic, and it is the exception to several “rules” I have recommended over the years. It is also a great silhouette landscape that captures the color of light and is worth seeing merely for inspiration and ideas for your own artwork. Continue reading
Contrast is a good way to create visual interest in your mosaic, and when contrast comes in the form of highlights and shadows, it also creates verisimilitude (the appearance of being real). Highlights and shadows can be as simple as shading the edges of a figure and leaving the center lighter so that the figure looks rounded instead of flat. Or you can be more ambitious and model the folds of fabric and clothing using contrasting regions of light and dark tile.
Highlights On Garment Folds
Artist Claudia Benavente’s mosaics are a great example of making images more “real” and visually interesting using highlights on folds of garments and hair. The gold background of the nativity scene below was made using our silver leaf imitation gold mosaic glass.
Texture From Mottled Colors
Notice how the stone blocks in the above mosaic are not made from one gray color or even two grays. Instead, the artist uses perhaps six or seven different colors so that the blocks have texture. Think about how much more interesting these blocks are with their mottled colors than if they were made from one color.
Hair and Vegetation
Hair and vegetation are also opportunities to breath life into your work. Instead of making monochromatic shapes or silhouettes to represent these elements, show the internal details.
Light and Dark / Warm and Cool
In my opinion, the Guggenheim museum owns several billion dollars in abstract paintings that aren’t nearly as interesting as the background of this mosaic. Just look at it, and you want to touch it and feel the texture created by the mottling of warm colors with light and dark colors. Notice how the cool blues and indigos of the horse’s nose and eyes contrast with the fiery red background. Notice how this mosaic looks more intensely red with the other colors mixed in than it would have if it were solid red. Contrast is the key to many aspects of visual art, including color intensity.
Yosemite Mosaic Landscape
Limitations of the Grid and Tile as Pixels
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.
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.
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.
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:
Stylized or Photorealistic?
Mosaic is usually used to make stylized images, meaning images that are simplified in certain ways, and that is done because the constraints of working with tile that only comes in certain colors and can only be cut so small forces the artist to simplify the details. Think about how ancient Roman mosaic faces and figures are outlined like cartoons and how scenes are composed of 6 to 8 colors, and you will know what I mean. I strongly prefer this type of art because it is a dialog between the symbolic and visual aspects of the artist’s mind, and it produces a lot of quirky and interesting details that would never be possible in mere realism.
BUT, it is important to remember that you can use mosaic to render images in a naturalistic or photorealistic way even if you can’t find tile in all the colors you think you need. First, you can use two colors in place of one. For example, if the teal color you think you need is not available, use small pieces of blue and green tile positioned closely together and rely on the eye blending the two colors together.
Another means of working photorealistically is to make a monochomatic mosaic or a black and white mosaic, such as Mark did using our 8mm recycled glass mosaic tile when he made the mosaic of his grandson peering through a telescope.
Note that Mark’s mosaic doesn’t use concentric rows of tiles to convey a sense of motion such as seen in the andamento of most stylized mosaics. Rather, the tiles are treated as pixels in a grid, which is how most though not all photorealistic mosaics are made. The alternative to gridded pixels is to use large irregularly-shaped pieces in a mode similar to stained glass artwork.
Patterns For Mosaics Made From Photos
I didn’t ask Mark how he made the pattern for his mosaic, but I know how I would do it:
I would take the photograph I wanted to use and convert it to a black and white image using Photoshop or another photo-editing software package.
Then I would enlarge it to the actual size I needed and print it out in sections, and then tape these together on my work table.
Then I would would cover this pattern with clear contact paper, WITH THE STICKY SIDE STICKING UP.
Then it just a matter of positioning tiles over the pattern and filling in the design.
The only question is: Do I put the tile right side up or upside down?
If the mosaic is relatively small. I can spread adhesive on the backer and then press the backer onto the mosaic. In that case, I would want to position the tile upside down. Of course, this reverses the mosaic design from left to right as if in a mirror. Complete instructions for working in this way are given in my blog article Using Contact Paper To Transfer A Mosaic Design.
TIP: If you don’t want the above method to reverse your design from left to right, then reverse your pattern from left to right in the photo-editing software that you use to make the pattern.
If I would like to work with my tile right side up so that the mosaic is not reversed, then I can use clear mounting tape or opaque mounting paper to pick the mosaic off the contact paper and then press it onto an adhesive-covered backer. This method is commonly used for laying up large mosaics such as murals. Instructions for this method are given in my blog article Mounting A Mosaic On Clear Adhesive Film.
To Grout Or Not To Grout?
Grouting can totally change the look and feel of a mosaic, and so this question can be critical for photorealistic work depending on the colors and grout gap used. You can minimize the visual impact of grout by making sure that your grout gap isn’t too large. For most mosaic tile, the recommended grout gap is 1/16 inch, but for 8mm and 10mm tiles, use a grout gap of 1/32 inch.
For dry indoor mosaic, you can mount the tiles so closely together that they touch and simply not grout the finished mosaic.
You should also test grout colors before you apply them to the mosaic. The “test” can be as simple as taking some of your tile to the building material store and holding them next to different color swatches in the grout aisle.
For his mosaic, Mark did exactly what I recommend: he glued some of his tile to a scrap piece of plywood and grouted them with different grout colors to see what they looked like in situ.
If that seems like a lot of extra work, the simple truth is that it isn’t. An experiment like that can be done in 15 minutes of gluing one night and 15 minutes of grouting the next, and what is that compared to the amount of time spent on the mosaic itself? Before you dump concrete on something you spent a month creating, make sure you are using the right color concrete.