Making mosaics – general

Making Roman mosaic copies

roman mosaic copies
Copy of a Qasr Libya fish. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Roman mosaic copies – why?

It’s not unusual for me to look at an ancient mosaic in situ or pore over the details of one hanging in a museum and seriously wonder if there’s any point in what I’m doing. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs. That’s me but, I mean, really? Why bother? Why go to the effort of doing my own designs when I could just make Roman mosaic copies? After all, the Romans have pretty much covered it: gorgeous colours, exquisite patterns, arresting designs, grandeur, domesticity, humour, tenderness, you name it, the Romans have done it mosaic-wise. Done it on a massive scale. Done it so well that thousands of years later we still admire their workmanship. It’s enough to make you feel like a paltry foot soldier, dusty and dishevelled, scampering to keep up in the wake of the mighty Roman armies.

Heraclea Lyncestis
Central panel from the Basilica of Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo:@ Helen Miles Mosaics

And yet. There’s always an ‘and yet’. And yet when I surf the internet or click absent mindedly through social media, time and time again I am stopped short by modern examples of Roman mosaic copies. They keep cropping up: students’ copies of the famous fish skeleton from the Vatican’s Upswept Floor; multiple versions of Pompeii’s Cave Canem; endless backward looking doves perched on basins; gods and goddesses, peacocks, still lives, hunting scenes. It doesn’t matter that we are surrounded by dazzlingly fast high tech machines and can eat a pineapple for lunch which has been flown overnight from the other side of the world, Roman mosaics still have a firm hold on our collective imagination. Continue reading

Even the Romans did it: making mosaic mistakes

Little bird, Ravenna, Italy. The inner bands of colour in the outer circle have three different variations. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with. (Vincent van Gogh)

It’s confession time. I am going to be writing about making mosaic mistakes and most of them will be mine. It’s not an easy thing to do. It makes me squirm. I dont like to think of all the wasted hours. Of the mosaics I made in the early days and then stuffed to the back of the cupboard, took out to the bins or sold for a pittance at craft fairs because they taunted me with their awfulness. But it’s important to remember two things: one, that everyone makes mosaic mistakes (admittedly, some more than others) and two, one person’s mistake can be another person’s success. Mosaic is a forgiving medium. Mistakes are often invisible to an outside eye or only add to the hand made-y-ness of the work. And of course if you are using the indirect method mistakes can be easily rectified. One of the nicest backhanded compliments I ever received was to go into a friend’s house and find one of my mosaics which I’d discarded by the roadside, proudly sitting there on a bathroom shelf. Continue reading

Seeing eye to eye: ancient mosaic faces (and one of my own)

Roman mosaic, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Roman mosaic, Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

You know what it’s like. I know you know. That moment when you open the oven and find your lovingly prepared cake has failed to rise, peer into the washing machine to discover the white wash has turned an alarming shade of pink, or herd a bunch of fractious children up a hill in the sizzling heat with the promise of an ice cream at the end, only to find you’ve left your wallet in the car. Well, I am sure you also know that mosaic making has it’s own such moments. Except they are not really moments. They are long wasted hours when you look back and think: darn, drat and bother it (to put it politely). So it was when I had a go at making a mosaic face.

Taking inspiration from ancient mosaic faces

I know I’ve told you that my thang is ancient mosaics but, hey, lets say it all over again. I cant get enough of them in all shapes and forms from vast basilica floors to little fragments behind museum glass, but I have a particular fascination for ancient mosaic faces. One reason I like  them is that sometimes they are a bit wonky which is charming and gratifying at the same time. But for all the wonky faces, like the one above, there are others which are stunning in their precision and authenticity. This melancholy woman from Pompeii is a case in point. Continue reading

So many pieces, so much time: a mosaic explained.

The mosaic making process: pre-grouting

How many tesserae does it take?

There we all were sitting around a day or two before the wedding chatting about this and that. We might have been doing our toes at that particular juncture or pouring out another bottle of wine as we happily anticipated the Scottish-Palestinian wedding on a Greek island. When the subject of presents came up I went to get the wedding mosaic and the company (bless them) made suitably appreciative comments. Then the conversation drifted to other things and the mosaic sat there amongst us, until one friend, leaning back in his chair, said: ‘Two thousand five hundred.’


‘Two thousand five hundred pieces in the mosaic.’


A simple enough comment, but it took me aback. What a lot! I’d never thought of the mosaic making process in terms of numbers. I know making mosaics is slow work and I sit there hour after hour, day after day, often feeling that I haven’t progressed at all, but two thousand five hundred. Golly. Continue reading

An idiot’s guide to designing mosaics

Designing mosaics – the old way


The idiot being me.

Designing mosaics has never come easily to me. I toil and sweat over them and even when I have come up with designs that I am reasonably happy with (or at least can tolerate), there has always been at the back of my mind a sense that something was missing, that it didn’t have to be such a pained, angst ridden, protracted process. At various times, I attributed this to a simple inability to trust my instincts, to a natural proclivity to harsh self criticism or to the fact that I didn’t attend art school or receive any formal artistic training.


I would design something, tear it up, rub it out, start again and again and again and then finally come up with a drawing to scale which I’d hang on the wall and allow myself to come upon it at different times of day or in different moods and lights to see if I still liked it after stepping back from it, all the time wondering why I found it so darned difficult.

Having just finished one of the my most agonising mosaic design processes to date, I went away for Easter week to Pelion equipped with a new camera and a determination to learn how to take better photographs. I downloaded a Kindle book called (optimistically) How to Create Stunning Digital Photography by Tony Northrup and settled down to immerse myself in f-stops and shutter speeds. Designing mosaics was, for once, the last thing on my mind. Continue reading

Five simple mosaic tips

(Take Two – I accidently posted this before I’d finished it)

The more we make mosaics, the more we find the methods and tricks which work best for us. These mosaic tips are some of mine – none of them are rocket science but somehow they often get forgotten in mosaic technique books and short courses.

In no particular order, let us begin.

Mosaic Tips: No. 1


Lay the fiddly bits which fit into awkward spaces at the same time as the neighbouring tesserae so, if necessary, you can gently ease the neighbouring tesserae aside while the glue is still wet.

In the simple plant design above, it would have been much harder to lay the white background tesserae in the gaps between the leaves and the stalk if the dark plant tesserae hadn’t still been pliable. Continue reading

Direct method mosaic technique: the higgledy piggledy look

Achieving naturalness in direct method mosaics

I have been having a go at making direct method mosaics onto wood, using cement based adhesive as opposed to glue. The idea is that I want to recreate (at least a fraction of) the higgledy piggledy immediacy of many of my favourite Roman/early Byzantine mosaics. Looking at them, one can almost sense their original makers crouching over their work, one on one side, one on the other, pushing tesserae after tesserae into the soft substrate. As I imagine them, the Roman craftsmen work fast, with the sun beating down, sometimes choosing stones that fit perfectly, other times cramming them in a little too closely. They run out of a certain hue, call to their assistants to fetch more,  get up to stretch their legs and then resume their labour at a slightly different angle. I am constantly drawn to these early masterpieces because of the real sense of many hands at work and because of their entirely human imperfections. The more technically exact works, like many of the famous mosaics from Pompeii, leave me totally unmoved.

My own attempt to be more higgledly piggledy  is prompted by the fact that I was taught how to make mosaics by Greek mastercraftsmen who were themselves heavily influenced by church decoration and iconography. Their work  had the precision of necessity: one wouldn’t want a saint’s nose to be out of joint or a dragon’s snarl to be translated into a wry grin by a piece of smalti gone awry. I am trying to rid myself of this over exactitude and regain a bit of spontaneity. I’m just playing around, and enjoying it.

Here is a detail of a mosaic in the Palazzo Massimo Museum of Rome which I love. You can see the higgledly piggledyness that I am talking about in the background andamenti around the bird:

Fav Rome Bird_ed

 And here is a detail of an ungrouted leaf mosaic I have just finished, not quite the same thing, but I’m trying:

black and white leaves detail