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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.

Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. The wave pattern (second from left) has gone a bit wonky so have the lines and pattern below it. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The other good thing about making mosaic mistakes is that you (that means me) can learn from them. When I started making mosaics, I trained with craftsmen in Thessaloniki and Athens who were steeped in the Byzantine sytle and who only used the reverse method. If a tessera was more than a match head in size and the spaces between them were wider than a hair’s breath, I would be scorned for my sloppiness. Their approach to making mosaics is very different from the method I use now and I always felt frustrated by the restrictions of the medium as it was being taught to me and went home to experiment. It’s those experiments, before I knew the Roman rules of laying, before I had fully worked out the technical aspects of the direct method, which make me squirm now but which helped me to learn.

So, here we go. My mosaic making mistakes and what I learnt from them. They come in four categories:

* Designing* Cutting and Laying *Spacing * Finishing*

Mistake 1. Pan, from Pompeii
Pan and Hamadryad, Pompeii. National Archeological Museum, Naples. The border is a disaster especially the top left and right corners and there is no space between the design and border.

Making mosaic mistakes: designing.

I wont dwell too much on this one simply because I am not exactly a model of rectitude when it comes to designing my mosaics. I design them half to death. I obsess about them. I sketch them and them draw them to size. I measure and remeasure. I hang up the full size drawing on a door so I can see it from a distance. I leave it there for days so I can be sure that it wasnt one of those designs that seemed good at the time but looks dreadful in the cold light of day.

Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. The border swastika design goes bonkers. Is this a case of bad restoration? Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

An obvious way around the designing problem  is to use Photoshop and to scan in your sketches and then manipulate them to your heart’s content. Another way is to copy ancient or other designs. There are plenty of mosaic design books. There are endless photos to be pored over on the internet. It’s important to take time at this stage – not so much time as me, perhaps, but certainly time enough to think about the relationship between the main elements of your design, the border, the spaces between the elements, the overall balance of the piece and the tone and contrast of the colours.

I made this mosaic in a burst of impetuousness when I wanted to experiment with laying techniques and backgrounds and didnt have the inclination to dwell on the design. As you can see, my lack of planning, came back to bite me:

Design clashes with border. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Making mosaic mistakes: cutting and laying

There are all kinds of official ways to lay tesserae which unfortunately have Latin names just to confuse things. There is opus regulatum, opus tessalatum, opus circumactum, opus palladianum and opus vermiculatum. There are also all kinds of ways to cut the tesserae so that they obey the style of the particular opus you have selected – squares for opus regulatum and opus tessalatum, trapezoids for opus circumactum, a random mixture of off-cuts for opus palladianum and a combination of squares and trapezoids for opus vermiculatum. It is wise to pay attention to cutting and laying methods because otherwise you end up with something you might not like very much. This flower pot (which miraculously escaped the roadside treatment) perfectly illustrates how NOT to do things:

Garden pot illustrating how not to cut and lay mosaics. Photo and pot: Helen Miles Mosaics

It’s a visual mess. I should have tried to absorb a few of the rules before I started but I was too enthusiastic and excited about discovering mosaics to bother with any of that. This restaurant sign, on the other hand, was also made in those early mosaic days and although not a single rule is applied, it somehow works:

The Garden Station
The Garden Station restaurant sign. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Lesson Number One seems to be that if the design works, the mosaic will too. That’s what I mean about mosaics being a forgiving medium. Take this sign by the Hackney Mosaic Project : There is a huge variety in the cutting and laying techniques and again the ‘rules’ are blithely thrown out of the window but the result is lively and extremely visually appealing. Lesson Number Two: learn the rules and then break them.

T.Hunkin. Growing Kitchen. Hackney Mosaic Project
Growing Kitchen sign. Photo: Hackney Mosaic Project

Making mosaic mistakes: spacing

When I say spacing, I really mean measuring. When you design a mosaic which has a specific number of tesserae along the border as in this Coptic Bird mosaic, you want to be sure that all the sides have the same number of squares (six in this case).

Coptic bird mosaic showing poor spacing on the border. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

You’d think it would be simple enough. You measure your tesserae, you measure the length of the piece and you decide how many squares will fit taking into account the interstices between the stones and design your mosaic accordingly. There is a minor complication when using natural materials because the need to cut the tesserae individually from the rods of stone which you buy from the supplier means that there will inevitably be slight variations between the sizes of the tesserae. Slight, I say. Not colossal. You can use Roman Mosaic Workshop’s staff method to help with the layout and Bob’s your uncle. Except he isn’t mine. Look down the left hand side of the mosaic above and you can see that I had to add on an extra black ‘bar’ separating the squares because the spacing wasnt right. Here’s another example:

Safavid tile design mosaic with inprecise spacing. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

It’s a direct method mosaic using the riven side of the stone and a copy of a 16th century Safavid tile design. Admittedly it’s a very geometric design which relies on precision for it’s success. I measured it very carefully indeed but despite my best efforts there are inconsistences – places where I’ve had to widen the tesserae to make the pattern fit. Arrrrrrgh! Why is it so darn difficult? So what did I learn here? I am not sure. Probably only that precision is hard if you are using irregular sized tesserae. Surprise, surprise.

Making mosaic mistakes: finishing

Lots of things can go wrong here but the worst one is that your tesserae, so lovingly and carefully placed, later fall off. This can be because you havent chosen the right substrate or glue for the position the mosaic is in (outdoor mosaics need special care) but it can also be because you are just being idiotic as in this case where I didnt add any extra bonding agent to the thin set:

Edging tiles have fallen off because the tiling adhesive wasnt suitable for the task. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Grouting can also lead to problems if you arent careful. In my experimental stage I tried out all kinds of different colours. Here’s a simple leaf skeleton mosaic which I decided might be enhanced by a reddy brown grout. No, Helen, no. As you can see, the background tesserae almost disappear because the grout is too strong for the sublety of the natural colours.

Leaf skeleton mosaic spoilt by using the wrong grout. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

I also learnt the hard way that it pays to think about how you are going to frame/hang your mosaic before you start making it. In the old days, when I mostly worked indirect and cast the finished pieces in concrete, I would rush to make the mosaic and then find myself left with ugly concrete edges which would look dreadful when the mosaic was hung. The solution, so I thought, was to paint them but it’s a Golden Rule of mosaic making that you dont get paint anywhere near a finished piece and the result was invariably crooked:

Edge of the leaf design mosaic painted to cover the concrete. Not very effective. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

I am sure that I made many more mosaic mistakes along the way but my confessional mood is fading so I will leave you with this – something I also made a long time ago. It’s in reverse and cast in concrete. It’s nothing special – just a simple design with nice colours. That’s what it’s all about.

Thessaloniki floor design
Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Coming next: A visit to the mosaics of Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. 






  1. Julie Sperling

    Great post, Helen! Funny, I didn’t even notice the extra black bar in the bird mosaic until you pointed it out. I think so many of our “mistakes” go unnoticed by the untrained (and thus, thankfully, forgiving) eye, which you correctly pointed out.

    Now you’ve got me thinking about and reflecting on all my mistakes (or “learning opportunities” – ha!). I always struggle with how much to reveal with respect to my perceived mistakes vs. staying mum because I’m probably just being finicky / particular. But I do think it’s good to talk openly, at least on occasion, about where we went wrong and, more importantly, what we learned from it. So thank you for that!

  2. Bri

    Hi Helen,
    Thank you for this post. It was very interesting. I always see mistakes and flaws in my work, but I better call them learning opportunities indeed!

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