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.

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A mosaic made using the reverse, cast method. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

What I can tell you is that this is such an unquestioned orthodoxy in Greece that any attempts by me to find out why this was so during the days that I was learning how to make mosaics in Thessaloniki and Athens were greeted with derision. I remember asking my teacher if I could try the paper method and was told that it was ‘for children.’ I was puzzled then and remain so now. The only explanation I can think of for this loyalty to the reverse, cast method is that it is perceived as somehow more authentic and closer to the way the Byzantine masters did things. Moreover, as mosaic making in contemporary Greece is largely restricted to the reproduction of icons, it could be that mosaicists stick to the method because it’s the one sanctioned by the church.

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Modern mosaic on outside of a church, Kifissia, Athens, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

I know this sounds a bit far fetched but many things dont entirely make sense in Greece and people here do have a marked fondness for outdated ways of doing things  – hence the argy bargies in Brussels conference rooms that we’ve all been reading about.  I also know that it doesn’t really stack up to claim that the reverse, cast method is somehow more authentic. Look at this photo of an original 11th century substrate displayed in the museum at the Monastery of Osios Loukas:

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Placing of tesserae painted onto 11th century substrate. Monastery of Osios Loukas. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The hand and the individual tesserae have been painted onto the substrate, presumably as a guide for the mosaicists so that they could work fast and efficiently, pushing stones into the wet surface directly. In short, they weren’t lugging around huge hunks of cast concrete.

Bird, fragment.  Based on a 6th century mosaic from Madaba, Jordan. 28cm x 23cm. Marble, stone, millefiori with pebbles cast in metal frame. Indoor or outdoor.
Bird ‘fragment’. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Be that as it may, this is the way I learnt how to make mosaics and I want to share it with you because I’ve never come across an alternative method for making a mosaic fragment which is embedded into its substrate the way these are. So here goes….In keeping with the whole Byzantine thing, I chose to do a rough copy of a mosaic fragment of the Virgin Mary which is in the Benaki Museum, Athens.

How to Make a Mosaic Fragment

Part One: Getting started

You will need:

  • A piece of marine ply wood slightly larger than the size of the mosaic you want to make
  • A piece of well ironed cotton cloth 8-10cm larger than the board. The cloth should be flexible without being stretchy. I used to tramp around the backstreets of Athens looking for exactly the right type of cloth as dictated by my teachers, but now I just use Ikea’s cheapest sheets.
  • Tacks and a hammer
  • Tracing paper if you are doing a reverse image.

Next, choose your tesserae and start ‘dry’ laying – laying the tesserae to check the effect before glueing.

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Choosing tesserae. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Part Two: Laying the tesserae

You will need:

  • A very small saucepan or coffee pot
  • Ordinary, general purpose flour
  • A teaspoon
  • Water soluble glue
  • A jam lid

 Part Three: Making the Mould

You will need:

  • Four batons of wood, a few centimetres longer than the sides of the mosaic. The batons I use are 2cm by 2cm, are made of pine and can be used multiple times. www.mosaic-workshop.co.uk sells a mosaic paving stone casting frame which would come in handy if you dont want to make your own: http://www.mosaic-workshop.co.uk//FRAMES-BOARDS-MIRRORS/Mosaic-Frames-Boards/Mosaic-Paving-Stone-Casting-Frame/prod_119.html
  • A stapler gun
  • Vaseline

Part Four: Casting the mosaic fragment

This is where things get complicated. It tooks months of very patient manoevuring in my mosaic class to be given the ‘recipe’ for making a mosaic fragment which is a carefully guarded secret here in Greece. Unfortunately some of the ingredients are a bit weird and hard to come by but I think it will be useful to have the formula and see if you can substitute other materials if you can’t find the exact components.

You will need:

  • Two medium sized plastic mixing bowls
  • Measuring cups – old yoghurt pots are fine
  • A mixing spoon
  • An ordinary paint brush
  • Plaster
  • White cement
  • Fine grain sand
  • Brick dust
  • Volcanic ash
  • Water
  • A piece of firm wire mesh slightly smaller than the dimensions of the mould
  • Pliable wire
  • Weights – stones, bits of marble, anything heavy
  • A large piece of plastic sheeting big enough to generously wrap the mosaic in.

First, cut a short piece of the wire and make a ‘handle’ for the wire mesh by threading the wire through the mesh and twisting at both ends.

The official recipe: One part plaster, a quarter part white cement, one part fine sand, one part brick dust (I would advise using less) and half a part volcanic ash. Mix the ingredients thoroughly with water to form a firm consistency, neither watery nor too solid. Similar, if you dont mind me saying so, to the consistency of a cow pat.

Take a generous quantity of this mixture (let’s say a sixth) and put it in a separate bowl. Add water and keep stirring until you have a more liquid version (like Minestrone soup) of the same thing.

Then wrap the whole thing up in the thick plastic sheeting with more weights on top and leave for at least three days. More wouldn’t hurt.

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Wrap the fragment up carefully and secure with weights. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

 Part Five: Finishing the Mosaic Fragment

Now’s the time for the moment of truth. The really disconcerting thing about using the reverse, cast method is that you can never be completely sure what the finished piece is going to look like so you might need a strong whiskey to sustain you.

Tra la!

At last. It’s done. As you can see from this tutorial on how to make a mosaic fragment it’s all a bit of a faff. A few days later I noticed some hairline cracks in the plaster around the mosaic which could be easily remedied but I’ve run out of steam right now. So here is the finished thing:

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Mosaic ‘fragment’ of Virgin. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

I’m off to the UK tomorrow for a month and a bit so you wont be hearing from me until I get back. Have a great summer!

 

 

 

 

 

8 Responses

  1. Hi Helen
    I would love to be able to give my husband a mosaic of our wedding day. It’s our second wedding anniversary on 17 th August and as the theme is cotton I thought that it would be so
    very special to do this on cotton instead of paper. Can you tell me if this is something you would be interested in doing please? I can send you the photo in an attachment today.
    Many thanks
    Jane

    1. Hi Jane, I am so sorry that I missed this message – you must have thought it was awfully rude of me not to reply. I was away all summer in Scotland with no laptop and couldnt access messages on my site so this is just to send my apologies and to say that I hope you had a wonderful wedding anniversary. Mosaics take quite a long time to make (and I was travelling) so the only comfort for me is that I wouldnt have had the time to make one anyway, but if you are interested in something for your third anniversary please let me know! Thanks, Helen.

  2. Just enjoying catching up on some of your entries. Recently, we visited the Chedworth Roman Villa, near Oxford, and were impressed by the mosaic floors there. Incredible how they endure, really.

    1. I am dying to get to Chedworth but somehow or other I never seem to manage it. I agree that one of the satisfying things about mosaics is how they endure but and come down to us virtually unchanged from the day they were made.

  3. Hi Helen – I do love your site – really user-friendly and lots of humerous anecdotes. I just wanted to ask – you mentioned that you varnish unglazed tesserae prior to grouting- well, I have some unglazed tesserae ( purchased from Lawrence at Roman Mosaics Workshop) that probably need sealing – so did you use just ordinary varnish? I have some stone sealer ( can’t remember why I have it!!) and wondered whether that might do. Hope you don’t mind me picking your brains. Chris (from a wet and grey Cornwall)

    1. So sorry for the late reply – I’ve been away in (a very wet and grey) Scotland. In answer to your question, I used to use ordinary stone varnish but found it tricky to apply evenly and it leaves a shine which isnt entirely compatible with the whole natural look of stone and marble. I switched fairly recently to LTP Mattstone: Natural Finish Sealer for Floors which I found in Fired Earth (the shop) and then I finish it off with one or two polishes with Cobble Wax. I hope that helps and that I’m not too late to help. Helen (now in a hot and windy Athens).

  4. it’s never too late for good advice so I’ll have a go with that product – thanks. I’m such an impatient worker and just want to crack on with the actual mosaicing, I often spend more time cleaning up and finishing off because I haven’t properly prepared the work beforehand!

    My son’s partner is from Athens and they were there a couple of weeks ago, when the temperature was in the mid 30s. Nice…

    cheers,

    Chris

    1. I know what you mean, Chris. It is very tempting to just race ahead and then one always regrets it later. I am designing a fire surround at the moment and keep finding myself wanting to say: ‘that’ll do’ even though I know it wont, just so that I can start work.
      Yes, it’s been hot but now there are torrential rain storms and the streets have turned into streams. All the best, Helen.

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