Mosaic projects

Making a mosaic hour by hour

The Lemon Tree Mosaic Project

making a mosaic hour by hour
Me and the finished lemon tree mosaic before grouting. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

This is a photo gallery showing the process of making a mosaic hour by hour.

Or: Why Kenyans make such good runners. 

If you were to ask me if I’d like to meet for coffee. you might notice a flicker of panic cross my face. Rest assured, the panic is not about the thought of spending an hour or so in your company. There’s nothing I’d like better. But my moment of hestitation will usually hide a rapid calculation as to whether that hour, short but infinitely precious, can be spared from my latest mosaic project. If I were to try and explain why an hour matters so much, I think you’d probably assume I was thinking of excuses or had become slightly unhinged. ‘What’s the big deal?’, I can almost hear you thinking. Surely, in the space of day with all the time it contains, I can spare one mingy little hour for a simple cup of coffee.

a mosaic project hour by hour
Lemon tree mosaic design by Constantinos Gallis. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church

Behind the panic there is also an befuddled internal monologue in which I attempt to articulate the importance of that hour. But if I say it out loud, the words sound unconvincing and fall flat. So to circumvent the need to explain myself, I decided to keep a photographic record of a mosaic under construction. I wanted to show you what’s really involved in making a mosaic – not just the work in progress shots and photos of the finished piece but the nitty gritty of the whole process. Continue reading

Mosaics for special occasions

mosaics for special occasions
Matt and Hellie’s wedding mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

A special occasion is approaching…

There’s a special occasion coming up, so what do you do? Buy your dearest friend a set of cut glass goblets to celebrate his wedding? Wrap up a bottle of perfume to give to your mother on her 70th birthday? Select a stuffed toy when your sibling has her first child? How special does that feel? The goblets will end up at the back of a cupboard, the perfume will be saved for other special occasions (but how many will there be?) and I can guarantee the stuffed toy will be added to the great pile of cute animals already arranged on a high shelf in the child’s room.

mosaics for special occasions
Detail from Angie and Perikles’ wedding mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaics for special occasions

But a mosaic…well, mosaics are ideal for special occasions. They are hard to forget or neglect or even to squirrel away in the back of cupboard. They say that the recipient matters  in just about the clearest, plainest, most eloquent language there is. You could hire a plane and write a message in the sky or build a neon sign to flash out your words but the letters will evaporate and the sign will grow rusty and malfunction, whereas as the years roll by a mosaic will quietly carry on saying it’s thing.

mosaics for special occasions
Christian and Rawan’s wedding mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

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How to make a mosaic fragment (the Greek way)

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Stork ‘fragment’. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

We’ve all heard a lot about Greece recently. About bailouts and debt restructuring and summit meetings and ministers’ sartorial preferences so now seems a good a time as any to write about how to make a mosaic fragment the Greek way. It seems particularly appropriate because political events of recent weeks have highlighted the fact that the way things are done here is sometimes a little unexpected to put it politely (verging on the bonkers would be another way of putting it) and this mosaic making method is equally unexpected if not downright baffling.

In a nutshell, the way I was taught to make mosaics here in Greece was more or less the classic reverse method except that the tesserae are laid on cotton, not paper, and the finished piece is cast.  Not just when the mosaic is intended for a floor or stepping stone, but always. Most people who make mosaics in reverse do so using paper which strikes me as infinitely more sensible, less fiddly, and about twenty times more practical because it’s twenty times lighter. Look at the work in progress posted by the Southbank Mosaics, the Hackney Mosaic Project (scroll down to ‘Works in Progress’) or Gary Drostle. They all use paper and there’s not even a suggestion of the messy, grusome business of casting.  Who wouldn’t? Well, the Greeks obviously. But why? That, I’m afraid, I can’t tell you. Continue reading

How long does it take to make a mosaic?

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Five black and white birds. 96cm by 63cm. Direct method on mesh.

I know it’s a niggly silly question, like asking how long is a piece of string or the price of love. But actually it’s a question that’s often asked and, if I’m honest, I’ve always rather wondered myself. How long does it take to make a mosaic? I’m up there, in my little studio at the top of the house, in a happy trace, making my latest mosaic and utterly oblivious to the hours passing. Sometimes I look up and realise two hours, three, have just vanished and my lovely precious time is gone and I must rush downstairs, fling on something presentable, and dash off to school to collect the boys. And so the days go by. Sometimes the hours are more, sometimes less. Sometimes I can ignore the unwelcome intrusions of the outside world, at other times the world comes and seizes me by the scruff of the neck and drags me reluctantly back to attend to it’s affairs. Continue reading

Set in stone: a bespoke mosaic for a family wedding.

Thomas and Lucy's wedding mosaic

Mosaic inspiration: trying out ideas

The thing about mosaics – maybe the thing about life – is that the way things start out is not often the way they finish. Great seeming ideas morph into other entirely different ideas. Plans alter. Decisions get shelved and new ways forward reveal themselves. So it was with this mosaic which I made for my nephew, Thomas, on the occasion of his marriage to his girlfriend, Lucy. [An aside: that beautiful shawl was made by my mother.]

Thomas and Lucy leaving the church
Thomas and Lucy leaving the church

I wanted to make something which was entirely personal, a bespoke mosaic, which would fit them and only them. To set their lives together in stone, to seal their happiness and their future with glue and grout and wax. The original thought was to make a personal version of the Madaba map in Jordan, which is on my list of top ten favourite mosaics. I would put in streets and houses which had relevance to the couple but knowing that this was an ambitious plan and had the potential to be a disaster, I sat down to make a scaled down version based on a village in Scotland. Continue reading

The Story of C. and her Un-Swept Floor Mosaic

Inspiration for the Un-swept Floor Mosaic

For a long time I have been wanting to make my own version of the famous ancient un-swept floor mosaic motif. It’s a wonderfully whimsical design of the debris from a Roman feast strewn carelessly over a dining room floor. Animal bones, fruit peel, shells and nuts are among the things that have dropped from the banqueters fingers and remain there still, fixed in stone. My version would use both the remains of these long forgotten feasts and items from a modern life to tell a story.

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Continue reading

On making a wedding mosaic

fresco

I once had a stroke of inspiration. Once. A dear friend offered to teach my son classical civilisation GCSE out of the pure goodness of her heart and refused to accept money. I knew that I could have put a gun to her head, and she wouldn’t have changed her mind so making her a mosaic as a small token of my immense thanks was my only option. So one day I sat down at my desk and within half an hour the drawing was ready. Things don’t usually work that way for me. I sweat and toil. I scrunch things up, fiddle about, flick through endless books without looking at what I’m seeing, surf the net for ideas, draw things and rub them out, getting increasingly exasperated until, after many trials and too many errors to count, I finally end up with something I can tolerate. But not this time.

Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki, Greece. Mosaic fixing, finishing and ideas.

It was to be a mosaic inspired by the fresco (top) of Flora, goddess of flowers and spring, from the ancient Roman villa of Ariadne. It’s one of her favourite things and I discovered it through her. I took the flowering plant, its lightness and fragility, which is very similar to a plant in the park where my friend and I walk, and came up with a sketch which I actually liked first time round. It would have been an understated mosaic that made best use (or so I hoped) of the stone’s muted colour range, particularly the whites and light greys, but then my friend announced that she was going to get married.

Low Ham Roman Mosaic

Well, it seems to me that you really cant get married without a wedding mosaic and unless I was going to make two mosaics, which might have been a little excessive, the fresco/park mosaic wasn’t right for this occasion. A mosaic of a couple snogging in the woods wasn’t quite the thing either, so back to my desk I went with my drawings and rubbings out and book flicking. I wanted something which was for them, which was about marriage and their life together, that was joyful but not excessively coochy-coo-ish. It was a hard one and here it is:

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Here’s why:

  • Leaf-hearts on border (see mosaic above from the Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki):  a very common motif in ancient Greek designs. This is Greece, they are Greek, hearts are for love. That was easy.
  • Pomegranates on border: pomegranates symbolise prosperity and marriage, among other things. They also symbolise death, but that’s fine too. Birth, marriage, death = stages of life.
  • Birds: I had to get the park in there somewhere and birds are free to fly away.
  • The plant. It’s one of those life things – the plant grows, life grows, you grow. You get the idea. DSCN5319
  • The birds are standing on shared, solid ground. Solid. Shared. That’s marriage.
  • There are few black speckles in the background. They are they because I like them for design purposes but I also like the symbolism of them in a wedding mosaic – those black spots that life, and marriage, inevitably contain.

And here is the wedding mosaic in the making:

But now I have to work out how to say thank you, really, really thank you, for all her help with the GCSE…..

Making a floor mosaic – from start to finish.

Finished!

It’s finished!

Forty six hours, umpteen cups of tea and non-stop Radio Four later. Ask me anything about international affairs or Scottish independence or the weather in the home counties, the price of coal, how cancer cells behave, Esther Rantzen’s singing voice, Francois Metterrand’s thoughts on Thatcher, the latest survey about British women’s sex lives…Go on. Anything!

Even about how to make a floor mosaic. Here is how it happened:

Making a floor mosaic – the planning.

The idea was to make a 90cm by 90cm mosaic insert for a floor in a traditional stone house in the Peloponnese, Greece, which would be reminiscent of this mosaic from Crete. The direct method on mesh would be used:

Original peacocks from Crete.

There are lots of lovely mosaics out there of birds and peacocks:

peacock with flowers

So I sat down and looked at all sorts of photographs of ancient peacock-y type designs and thought about the floor and its size and the colours and started coming up with ideas:

Coming up with various designs.

The future floor owner liked this one but there was still some tweaking to do – he wanted stripy wings and the tail design to be like the original:

This was the one that was chosen, but it still needed a few extra tweaking - stipes on wings and closer to original on tail.

 

 Making a floor mosaic – the process

And here is the long suffering dog who was dragged out for cold, dark walks at 6am when he should have been curled up in bed so that I’d have the days free for mosaicking. As you can see, he isn’t very impressed:

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One fish, two fish, red fish…

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Here we go again – me and my new method. Its not new in any real sense of the word as everyone has been doing it for goodness knows how long, but it’s new to me and I like to flatter myself that it is just a teensiest bit new new as my mosaic books only have a version of it, rather than the method I use.

There’s not much to it really – take an MDF board, sand it, score it, seal it, draw your design on it and get mosaicking – the trick, as far as I am concerned,  is to use cement based tile adhesive with flex. I have tried my hand at mixing a quantity of your common or garden tile adhesive which the books recommend -the stuff that you use to apply tiles to walls-  and I find it crumbly and unpredictable when dry. I once got really excited and spent a fortune on smalti, quite convinced that I had found my true calling, and spent hours making a Byzantine-style plant, only to find that after a while (I cant remember how long) it all started falling off. The good thing was that the smalti just needed a quick brush and it was instantly reusable. The other good thing was that I just trying it out for my own satisfaction, but it would have been a horribly embarrassing disaster if I’d been making it for a commission.

Well, that little experience put me off using the direct method with cement adhesive for a while, and I reverted to tried and trusted tile glue, buttering the tesserae piece by piece and grouting the finished result on completion. All well and good except that I felt that the end product lacked a certain something. It didn’t seem to have the spontaneity or immediacy of Roman mosaics. It all looked just a little too neat and clean. And then, earlier this year, I was in the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki staring down at favourite mosaic of a duck which is taken from some long vanished church, and I had a sudden spark of inspiration. The point, or so it seemed to me, was that the early mosaicists pressed their tesserae into a wet surface giving the surface of their work a slight, but very pleasing, unevenness. This is what I set out to do.

This is the result. I thought about grouting it for a while but I worried that the brightness of the colours and unevenness that I was deliberately trying to achieve, would be lost. So I’ve left it ‘self grouted’ and I am pleased to say that it seems (after giving it a thorough scrub) as firmly set as its possible to be. Hurray! Success?