Free mosaic resources and information. Workshops in Greece and Scotland.

Mosaic techniques – choosing the right method.

mosaic techniques
Direct method mosaic on marine ply. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Direct or indirect method mosaics?

When you decide to make a mosaic, you first have to decide which mosaic techniques you are going to use – the direct method (for a simple ‘how to’ project using the direct method, follow this link: or the indirect method.

mosaic techniques
Direct method mosaic made on mesh and applied to stone. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

The direct method involves putting the mosaic pieces, or tesserae,  directly onto the base (which could be wood, stone, concrete, ceramic etc), grouting the completed piece and that, more or less, is that. Alternatively, you can apply the pieces onto fibre glass mesh as I did for the mosaic floor which means the finished work is light and transportable and also bendable so that it can be applied to rounded surfaces. The mosaic on mesh is fixed to its final substrate using tile adhesive (indoor or outdoor as appropriate) and grouted on site.

mosaic techniques
Indirect mosaic ‘fragment’ which has been cast in concrete. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

The indirect method is slightly more complicated. The tesserae are fixed upside down with water soluble glue onto brown paper. Once the mosaic is ready, there are two things you can do: 1. Put a frame around it, pour a concrete mixture into the mould and wrap the piece in plastic to make sure the concrete sets slowly, without cracking. When it is fully set and rock hard, you turn the  mosaic over, dampen the brown paper, pull it off and, voila, the true face of the mosaic is revealed! OR 2. Pre-grout the back of the mosaic, and then it’s all ready to be placed wherever you like, much like a bathroom tile.

Why, one might ask, would you want to use the indirect method when the direct method seems infinitely easier and has the huge advantage of allowing you to see the mosaic as you work and it evolves?

The direct method

Think table tops, garden pots, kitchen trivets, mirrors – (almost) any surface can be mosaicked. Shop dummies, skulls, shoes…I’ve seen it all. Spain’s Antoni Gaudi was the king of the direct method:

gaudi mosaics

But plenty of other people use it too:

mosaic mirror2
Mosaic mirror from
from Mannequin Maddness

And here’s a rather tame (or lame, as my children would say) flower pot by me:

mosaic techniques
Mosaic flower pot made using the direct method. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

The advantages of the direct method are:

  • 1. You can see what’s going on as you make the piece.
  • 2. You can correct mistakes as they occur because they will be apparent as you work, as long as you do it quickly before the glue has set.
  • 3. You can go mad covering all sorts of surfaces and use an enormous range of materials from conventional tesserae such as glass and ceramic, to bottle tops, found objects, buttons and beads.
  • 4. You can make direct method mosaics on mesh and transport them to whenever they are going to be installed which means they are lighter and easier to handle.

The indirect method.

mosaic techniques
Indirect cast mosaic based on detail from the Nilotic Mosaic, Pompeii. Mosaic and photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The copy (above) of a detail from a Pompeii aquatic mosaic (in the Naples Museum) is made using the indirect method and so is this:

mosaic techniques
Indrect cast mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

The disadvantages of this mosaic technique are hard to ignore:

  • Placing the tesserae reverse side up means that you cant appraise your work as you progress. This shouldn’t, in theory, be a disadvantage but it’s hard, if you are working on a largish piece, to have a sense of how the mosaic is developing. There is nothing worse than spending days making a mosaic, casting it and then waiting several more days for it to cure, only to remove the backing material and find that there are things you’d like to change. However, this particular disadvantage only applies if you are using natural materials which have differently shaded sides.
  • If you are using the mould method, the completed piece will be extremely heavy so transporting and hanging them is difficult.
  • Faffing around making a mould to go around the mosaic to hold the concrete adds an extra layer of complication to the mosaic making process.
  • Mixing concrete is not everyone’s cup of tea.

    mosaic techniques
    Indirect mosaic cast into a metal frame. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics.

BUT there are a few very good reasons for choosing the indirect method which are:

  • The completed mosaic will be entirely flat, so if you are using tesserae which are different depths and need a flat surface then this is the the method to use. Obviously, it’s perfect for floors.
  • You can easily undo mistakes. The tesserae are stuck down using water soluble glue so all you have to do is wet the pieces and they will easily come off the backing material and can be reapplied once the backing has dried out.
  • With the mould method, the completed work will be extremely solid and durable. You are essentially making a slab of concrete with a mosaic embedded in it, so as long as you make sure that you get the right mix of sand and concrete (not difficult) and that the cement dries slowly (be patient), it will set as hard as rock and be completely weatherproof.
  • You can make mosaic ‘fragment’ pieces. This, in my view, is where the method really comes into its own.
mosaic techniques
Mosaic ‘fragment’ made using the indirect method. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Click here for a tutorial on how to make a mosaic fragment like the one above.


  1. Excellent web site you have got here.. It’s difficult to find
    high quality writing like yours these days. I
    truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  2. Hi, I like doing my mosaics using the reverse method as my tesserae are not of uniform depth. i have always stuck them onto brown paper but sometimes the paper wrinkles (either when gluing on the tesserae or when concreting) so the finished result isn’t flat. Do you have any top tips? Do you always stretch the paper?

    1. Hi Helen – many thanks for your question and apologies for the late reply. I am relatively new to using the reverse method on paper as for years I did it on stretched canvas which was the way it is done in Greece. I know what you mean about the paper wrinkling and am aware that some people recommend stretching it but I have never done it that way myself. I find that if I allow for some leeway in the design and if I cut the paper (once the tesserae are stuck) into smallish sizes which are easy to handle then the problem doesnt occur but of course I also make sure that the paper is as flat as possible (preferably ironed) when I work on it and hold it down firmly with masking tape. I hope that helps. Helen.

  3. John Malet-Bates

    Excellent introduction and guide. We need to re-tile a house (flats) entrance part open to weather part under porch so reckon the direct method more likely. London, W2. Do you quote for such or recommend someone who can. Must replace original material like-for-like or similar Victorian design.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *