Mosaic Door Insets with and without value contrast

Value Contrast in Mosaic

There’s a reason art instructors recommend working in monochrome or black and white before working in color.

The reason is that contrast in value (light versus dark) is more important than contrast in hues, and it is easier to learn mastery of value contrast before you complicate the process with different hues.

I am self-taught, and so I find myself relearning fundamentals all the time, but I have heard some highly-skilled painters and some highly-trained artists say the same thing.

Art is about paying attention and seeing and “listening” to the art as it evolves. An artist is always learning and relearning by definition.

My mosaic inset project has reminded me of the importance of value contrast.

The headline photo in this article shows two different version of three subjects.

The three mosaics on the bottom were made with little or no contrast in value, and those on top were made later and make better use of value contrast.

Mosaic Door Inset Magic Number 3
Mosaic Door Inset Magic Number 3. A man and a woman had a little baby…

They are also more elaborate in design and include things like highlights or shadows, the usual roles of value contrast.

The mosaics on the bottom were made initially when I was still getting accustomed to working so small with tiny pieces, but even then I had enough skill to have made more elaborate designs.

I hate to admit it, but I made a conscious decision to keep the designs simple for a couple foolish reasons.

The first reason is that I told myself that I needed each iconic image to be as simple as possible to stand out as being a symbol, but that was foolishness.

Images always stand out better with contrast in value.

Mosaic Door Inset Seashell
Mosaic Door Inset Seashell. Light and dark contrast is key. Hue contrast is insufficient. Elements like shadows and highlights create verisimilitude and visual interest.

Planning Cuts

The second reason was that I was focused too much on creating good teaching examples of how to lay out tile with minimal cutting, using as many whole tiles as possible.

Note that by “whole tiles” I am not counting the initial cut to expose the cut surface. I am referring to pieces that didn’t require any more cuts.

It takes some thinking and puzzling to figure out how to render something without cutting each piece to size and shape, and this is particularly important when the mosaic is small and the pieces are tiny.

The novice mistake is to start cutting tile and work until you hit a detail that is too small to be rendered in the piece size you have been using or too small to be cut and handled.

Plan your design. By “plan” I mean spend some time thinking after you draw you draw your pattern. Think about how the tile will be laid out and “flow” in rows. Think about places in the design where pieces need to be cut thin or small.

You want to find a solution for these most problematic areas, ideally a solution that builds these areas out of pieces you know how to cut consistently.

If you spend five or ten minutes cutting pieces of that shape and size, and you find that you can’t do it without wasting most of the pieces as unusable scrap, then you need to rethink your design and redraw it if necessary.

Note that all six of the mosaics in the photo are what I consider designs that were well-planned in terms of building the image from as many whole tiles as possible and from as many “easy to cut” shapes as possible.

Mosaic Door Inset Eld Symbol. My symbol diagram of how celestial calendars are made.
Mosaic Door Inset Eld Symbol. This is my boyhood symbol of how celestial calendars are made from stakes/poles and lines of sight to setting points on the horizon.

Unusable vs Usable Scrap

There are three types of scrap: slivers/crumbs, odds, and usable scrap, which is pieces that can’t be used in a particular place but could be used elsewhere.

This latter type of scrap is common and to be expected for detailed work. Most of your cuts won’t be the right size or shape you need for a particular point in a mosaic, but that’s OK. Many of these pieces will be perfect for other places or use in other mosaics.

PRO TIP: Cut up 5 or 6 pieces and use the piece that fits best instead of cutting until you have a piece with perfect fit. Tolerate a certain level of error to create an incidental grout gap based on imperfect shape rather than artificially spacing tiles.

Mosaic Door Horned Owl Inset
Mosaic Door Horned Owl Inset. I consider this mosaic to be a great example of building a mosaic image from as many whole pieces as possible. More importantly, the few cut pieces are standard shapes/cuts, and no detail is rendered from thin slivers or awkward cuts.






2 responses to “Value Contrast in Mosaic”

  1. Ferdinand Quinones Avatar
    Ferdinand Quinones

    Thanks for the lesson on contrast, Joe. I continue to learn from each of your short lessons. One idea that you do not mention, perhaps because your more educated and experience artist skills, is to test contrast of images or works first with a water colored sketch. Easy to view the contrast before the challenge of the actual mosaic.

    1. Joe Moorman Avatar
      Joe Moorman

      Hi Ferdinand,

      That is an excellent suggestion. Quick “studies” in a faster medium before attempting the main work are something the masters did all the time, particularly sketches.

      The problem I encountered using paintings as studies for mosaic is that paint can be blended and shaded, but tile cannot, and I would always start blending and shading instead of doing the quick study I was supposed to be doing.

      If you stick to the goal of seeing what the colors look like together, a quick small painting with water colors or acrylics can be useful.

      BUT, the thing about mosaic is the limitations of the color palette, and it’s best to start thinking in terms of what colors you have available in tile.

      I have found that laying tile on the pattern loosely and playing around with different combinations by trial and error is the quickest way for me to work out a color scheme.

      I recommend people do that without the glue anywhere in sight, locked up if needed, but I think most novices feel an urgency to start gluing things down.

      I tell people that the more you “play around” in the beginning to figure things out (rows and colors) the faster the work goes overall.

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