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Making a mosaic hour by hour

Making a mosaic hour by hour


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

The Lemon Tree Mosaic Project

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.

making a mosaic hour by hour
The garden niche before the mosaic. Photo: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

Salmon fishing with sweep nets in the River Earn, Perthshire.

The following, therefore, is an hour by hour log of making a mosaic. The rules I set myself were simple – from the moment I started the mosaic to the moment I finished, I would stop every hour on the hour and take a photograph. It didnt matter what I was doing – cutting, tidying, sticking or collecting materials – I would wait for the timer on my phone to go bing bing and I’d stop whatever was happening right then and record the moment. I also recorded fragments of whatever I was listening to on BBC Radio 4 which I have inserted as italicised headers throughout the post.

making a mosaic
Preparing the mosaic for installation. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

Petition to ban Donald Trump from the UK 

Sometimes the light was poor and often I wouldn’t spray the stones with water to show their true colours so they have that dull, milky look which is how they are in their natural state before sealant is applied.

lemon tree mosaic
The stones in their natural pre-sealant state. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

Eucalyptus in some parts of the world is a pest 

The point, as i hope you will see from the photo gallery of making a  mosaic below, is to reveal in detail exactly how a mosaic is made and specificaly how much can be achieved in an hour. I hope it illustrates more than words could ever do, how slowly mosaics move forward. It’s a bit like watching the grass grow or paint dry but knowing the grass will only grow and the paint will only dry if you are there to help it along.

gallis plaque
Gallis, the name plaque. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

Saudi Arabia executes a Shia cleric. 

You become (or at least I become) utterly enrapt in the mosaic I am making. I feel an urgency verging on desperation to be up in my little studio, alone with my mosaic and the radio. I charge through the day’s tasks, rise at dawn to walk the dog, stuff the clothes in the washing machine when my arm aches too much to continue working, exist on lentil soup for a week – all so that I can sit for hours on end getting little bits of stone to do my bidding. Once I am at work I enter a different zone. A great peace descends and nothing matters except the positioning of the next tessera …and the next.

lemon tree mosaic
Work in progress, detail of the trunk. Photo: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

I killed a moorhen this afternoon

But it would be disingenuous not to admit that part of the appeal of mosaic making for me is the enormous pleasure of listening to the radio. I love the randomness and eccelecticism of it. In the space of a few hours in December I discovered how much money goes to charities from Christmas cards, the nature of gravitational lensing (but dont ask me) and ways to clean up big cities.

making a mosaic hour by hour
The designer, the dog and the mosaic – the Gallis family at home. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

British Chamer of Commerce ‘gutless’ to delay decision about expansion of Heathrow

The project was a mosaic of a lemon tree for an outdoor niche. The proportions were 157cm by 54cm. The mosaic was made on mesh in five parts using the direct method and the original design was drawn by the client’s amazingly talented 14-year-old son, Constantinos. I just pared it down to be a bit more mosaic-y and substituted the roots for the name plaque because there wasn’t room for both.

making a mosaic
One half of the lemon tree is half finished. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

Legalism in Imperial China. 

So here the whole process of making a mosaic is revealed. The designs are made and everything is ready. On your marks, get set, go……

making a mosaic hour by hour
Starting gun. Designs ready.. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Making a mosaic. Part I: the name plaque.

Women and slaves considered subhuman. 

I started off with the easiest bit, the name plaque, but must have been in a bit of a trance because I got quite far into the border before realising I’d been using the wrong colour combination and had to start again.

lemon tree mosaic
Seven hours into the lemon tree mosaic. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

Making a mosaic. Part II: The main section

Homeless young people using night buses to sleep

After the plaque it was time to move onto the main section of the mosaic, starting at the base of the tree and working upwards:

 Pixies in a tatoo parlour 

Once I started the main body of the mosaic there are exciting landmarks to strive for and move past – the end of the first lemon, the first few leaves, working out how to lay the tree trunk…and then the mosaic settles into its own rhythm and the changes are scarcely discernable as time moves on. Fourteen hours, 15, 16….marking the passing of the hours is as random an act as writing down what I was listening to because time ceases to exist when I make mosaics.

Sunken Spanish galleon in Columbia – who owns the booty?

As you can see, I was on a jaunt to top up on my marble supplies when the 23-hour timer went off.  And then at 26 hours I was poring over the quality of the newly purchased marble (see below). There is an amazing (and often alarming) variety of tone within one colour which is understandable given that this is a natural material but sometimes the differences are so great that the stone is scarcely useable.

26 hours
26 hours. Fretting about the quality of the marble. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Closure of Forth Road Bridge costing 600,000 GBP a day. 

Anyway, I forge on:

Where to find a good dog trainer

At 33 hours I am finishing the main body of the tree:

33 hours
33 hours. Finishing the main body of the lemon tree. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

Making a mosaic. Part III: the final section

We saw colonialism as almost analogous to communism.

Now it’s time to start the last section. You might notice that Hour 35 has mysteriously vanished. I have tried multiple times to upload it, but no matter how hard I try, it wont oblige but I am sure by now you can fill in the blank.

Romance on a train to Cornwall. 

The end is tantalisingly in sight. I make a quick nip back to the marble supplier to replace the poor quality stone (Hour 47) before heading towards the final hurdle:

And so we come to the last lap:

Oxford were the better team and deserved to win.

And 45 minutes:

and 45 minutes!
45 minutes later and the lemon tree mosaic is finished. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

Now what was that you were saying about coffee?

Coming up: Looking at mosaics: the mosaics of Rhodes, Greece. 


  1. Jane

    Thank you for sharing Helen. May I ask if it is cement-based adhesive that you are using to fix your tesserae to the mesh? If so, can I ask if you butter the back of the tesserae to fix them to the mesh or smear adhesive onto the mesh? I’m just wondering about the best method, as I imagine that you install the mesh into cement based tile adhesive onto the wall at the end and you don’t want excess adhesive on the back of tesseare to compromise the final fixing of the work? Your help on this would be gratefully received as my experience of installation is very limited. Thank you, Jane

    1. Hi Jane, no I dont use cement based adhesive to stick the tesserae to the mesh – all I use is a plain old PVA type glue which is designed for outdoor use and which I get from a builder’s supplier and which I have found to be utterly reliable. The one I use here in Greece is called Atlacoll 37 but I assume there are equivalent brands in your country. I have written a simple tutorial about the method I use for making a mosaic on mesh which you can find here: But alternatively I have also written one about installing a mosaic which I think will answer your questions. In brief, yes, you set the completed mosaic into cement based adhesive in the same way as you would as if you were tiling a bathroom and then grout it at the end but as I confess in the blog post, I am much happier if someone else does it for me and I think if you can possibly yet a professional tiler to help or someone with experience it would give you peace of mind. All the best, Helen.

  2. Thank you for writing this post and demystifying the actual process. It’s an amazing discovery for me that you lay the background almost along with the main elements. Isn’t that unusual?
    What do you use to seal the mosaic? Did you grout it at all? Didn’t you have to keep cutting the stone squares into smaller triangles or trapezoids to fit them in? Or did you do that with the big cutter all at one go?
    You can trust me to always come up with questions 😉

    1. It’s always lovely to get comments and your questions are particularly welcome, Jyoti! I am not sure whether it is unusual to lay the background at the same time or not. I started doing it because I got bored with plain old opus tessellatum and found that I was usually spending as long on the background as I was on the main design so I figured I should just go for it and make the background just as interesting. 🙂 It’s true that you do have to keep cutting by hand to get the right fit – it’s rare that I dont nibble or cut each piece separately but I am used to that and dont even think about it. As for the sealant, I use a product called LTP Mattstone Natural Finish Impregnating Sealer which I buy from an upmarket tile supplier when I am over in the UK. It’s a great product but for the softer stones I often have to apply it three to four times. The mosaic is then set into the wall with tile adhesive as if you were fixing tiles in the bathroom, then grouted, and finally waxed. There are lots of stages! All the best, Helen.

  3. Rob Calfee

    Hi Helen,

    Love your blog and mosaics. Quick question. What colors/types of marble are you using for this mosaic and the direct mesh blog post? I’m especially interested in the background material but knowing the types you used for the whole project would be great. Those colors are fantastic.

    1. Thanks for this. I use Greek stones which I buy in Greece and therefore they have Greek names. I am not in the studio at the moment but if you are still interested I can find out and let you know? The colours are lovely, aren’t they? 🙂

      1. Rob Calfee

        Hi Helen,

        That would be great. I’d be forever grateful. Have you written a blog post on choosing marble and colors? I fret over using the right type and colors. I just bought a wet saw to cut my own rods so I’m poring over tumbled marble tiles online. Whatever you use for the “white” marble is very nice. The mosaic above is beautiful. Oh! Couple more questions, what size do you cut your tesserae? And what do you usually use to do the cutting? I’ve been bitten by the mosaic bug. Your blog has been very inspirational!


        1. I’m glad to hear you have been bitten by the bug but be warned that it wont let you go! I cut the tesserae to roughly 1cm square and I have a cutting ‘machine’ to do large quantities of cutting. It is a levered blade which comes down over another blade, needing very little exertion to cut through the rods. However, I hit upon the brilliant idea of asking my marble supplier to cut the stone to .5cm thick so actually I can cut everything I need with nippers if need be. The ‘white’ stone is called Crema Marfil and my supplier is called Costas Ventouris and he is based in Athens. He is hard to get hold of and often doesnt respond to emails but persistence will pay off. His address is: and his telephone number is: 0030 210 803 0952. I havent written a blog post on choosing marble and colours – that’s an idea for some time down the line! I hope this helps, Helen.

  4. Veronika

    Dear Helen,
    I am so amazed by your mosaics. They are just beautiful.
    And thank you for sharing all your information.
    I am planning on making a mosaic for our doorstep. But I just cannot find the right material.
    Could you please tell me where you get your stones? And how you cut them? I did not find a Costas Ventouris. Is there maybe a website? Or shall I just write him an email?
    Also can I buy them cutted in small pieces, or do you cut them all by yourself?
    I would be very happy if you could help me find the right stones. I am so looking forward on making my own mosaic. Even if I am aware that it will not be perfect, I just like to make it by myself….Big Thanks, Veronika

    1. Hello Veronica, Many thanks for your kind comment. As you mentioned, I get my stones from Costas Vendouris who can be a little hard to track down. If you are in Athens it is easy enough but getting hold of him on the phone is hard but worth persisting. His phone number is: 0030 2108030952 and his email is: . You buy the marble in rods and then cut them down to size yourself. For the lemon tree mosaic I was using marble pre-cut by Kostas to .5cm thick. Hope this helps! Helen

    1. Hello Rachel. I use Winckelmans unglazed ceramic – they are called Cinca is you are in the States. They are frost proof and slip proof and are extremely hard wearing and designed for heavy traffic. You can buy then at Mosaic Workshop in the UK or Wits End if you are in the States. I dont know about other parts of the world!

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