Andamento: an old subject with a new twist.

Andamento is the visual flow and direction within a mosaic produced by the placement of rows of tesserae. (From: www.joyofshards.co.uk) 

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Leaves and fruit. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics
Andamento – time for an update.
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Infilling detail. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

You might be forgiven for thinking that I am a bit of a traditionalist. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs has a distinctly tweed coat and brogues ring to it. And then there all my blog posts about ancient mosaics and precious few about their modern equivalents so really I wouldn’t blame you for being convinced that I wear knitted cardigans and have a deep fondness for Anita Brookner novels. But buried within this buttoned-up exterior lurks the heart of a rebel and when it comes to the subject of andamento in mosaics that rebel is chafing to get out.

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Cockerel. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

 

My andamento rebellion is one of those quiet ones that disgruntled children excel at. Not saying anything, perhaps. No screaming and slamming doors, maybe. But a pervasive presence and a body language that’s as clear as a siren that says whatever you have decreed is not well received and will just not do. You might not be able to see me but my arms are crossed across my chest, my shoulders are hunched and my bottom lip is protuding all because I feel that the opus-sayers, the shadowy figures who decide what is an opus and what is not, have apparently checked out and forgotten to turn off the lights.

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Lemon tree detail. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Andamento is fiendishly important. When you are designing a mosaic you need to consider the andamento alongside other elements in your work. It can’t be left as an after thought. It might not count alongside the American elections and the great European debate as a topic for dinner table conversation, but it is andamento which is the bones, meat and soul of a mosaic. Never mind the design – a design is a design – but pay attention to what is going on in the background of a mosaic and it is there that you will find the melody, the choreography, the spirit of a mosaic. Different opuses achieve different effects.

The types of opus

If you are looking at ancient mosaics (which I do a lot) this is the classic one. The pinstripped suit and briefcase one. It’s called opus vermiculatum and it’s the one where you lay a line of tesserae around the form of the main design to emphasise it. You can lay one line like in the mosaic below and then lay the background tiles in straight rows (called opus tessalatum or regulatum). The effect is calming. It’s not going to call attention to itself so the eye remains focused on the central feature of the mosaic:

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Opus vermiculatum and tessalatum. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Or you could start tapping your foot, let the trumpet trill and lay any number of lines like ripples in a pond (opus musivum) which brings more movement and liveliness to your mosaic.

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Opus musivum. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Another alternative is opus palladianum which is a fancy name for crazy paving or laying your tesserae of all different shapes and sizes in pretty much any way you like. It’s an easy opus to use because you dont have to worry too much about cutting. Just be sure to keep your spaces broadly regular and the result will be effective.

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Opus Palladianum. Photo and mosaic: @Marian Shapiro Mosaics

Then there’s also opus circumactum, a series of little fan-shaped flourishes which are wonderfully elegant, opus sectile which entails cutting the tesserae into precise shapes to fit together like a jigsaw and the rather obscure opus spicatum which is a herring bone pattern like this Byzantine-era brick work.

And finally, the delicately airy opus signinum where fragments of tiles, earthernware, pebbles or tesserae are set into a mortar bed:

signinum, domusromana.es
Opus Signinum. Photo: @www.domusromana.es

But, dear Reader, if you have been paying attention you will have noticed something a little suspicious about the opuses. They all have Latin names. What does that suggest to you? It suggests leather chairs, flock wallpaper and plumes of cigar smoke, that’s what. It does not suggest that the shadowy opus-sayers have looked up from their newspapers for at least one hundred years. So let’s do their job for them.

The new school of opuses

Opus opusum

Definition: the opus is the mosaic.

It’s a way of doing things that lets you escape from the rules and ‘ums’ and start all over again. It’s a game changer like the Renaissance or Darwinianism or the Theory of Relativity. It’s liberating, exciting, innovative and fresh. It’s putting a guetto blaster in that fusty opus-sayer reading room and turning up the volume. There are too many brilliant examples to list them here but the name that always comes to mind for me is Julie Sperling who uses opus opusum to make deeply beautiful and politically powerful mosaics about climate change.

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Opus opusm. Dialogue. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling Mosaics

Opus Drostleum

Definition: A mixture of squares and rectangles laid with all the panache of opus palladianum but with restricted shapes.  Named after Gary Drostle who uses it to stunning effect in his California Seashore Trail Mosaic Project.

Drostle opus.
Opus drostleum. Photo and mosaic: @ Gary Drostle Mosaics

Opus Fluctum. 

Definition: A way of laying undulating rows of tesserae as if they were mimicing waves but not limited to sea themes. The rows weave into each other using triangular tesserae. Gives a whimsical, light feel like summer breezes.

This is the one I go for. Opus Fluctum evolved as the result of experimentation and now I often use it as a matter of course. I found that I used to dread the background stage of laying mosaics and so I began playing with the andamento and Opus Fluctum keeps me totally immersed and fully engaged.

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Opus fluctum, detail, one. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics
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Opus fluctum, detail, two. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Opus Strictum

Definition: Used widely in Greek schools of mosaic. The tesserae are laid very close together (the closer the better) and the andamento is not given prominence. The effect can be painterly. 

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Opus strictum. Athens Mosaic School. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Opus Variatum or Biggsum

Definition: use of varied and contrasting background laying patterns in the same piece. A useful technique to visually divide a single work into distinct sections. Named after Emma Biggs who uses it to stunning effect in a number of her works including this one: 

emma biggs opus variatum
Opus variatum or biggsum. Photo and mosaic: @ Emma Biggs Mosaics

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Writing about andamento has reminded me that another whole blog post needs to be written on the use of colour, pattern and contrast in mosaic backgrounds. Consider this:

Boris Anrep. Sea Horse. Pleasures of life.

 

And watch this space!

 

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17 Comments

    1. Thanks, Christine, and I think you’re quite right. I want to write about expressiveness in mosaics in another post as I think many people feel that mosaics aren’t an expressive art so I need to prove them wrong!

  1. Jyoti

    I’m both thrilled and depressed with this post 😉
    Thrilled because it covers newer opuses than those covered in the books in my library, and depressed that with so many varied tile laying styles, my decision to decide on one gets tougher than ever 🙂
    Some day I’d discover how you found Opus Fluctum to be your thing! You do create beautiful effects with it.

    1. Some day indeed! This blog post was originally going to be dedicated to you because I started writing it in order to answer your question about my use of andamento but it kind of expanded into something else so I am afraid the original post will have to wait until another time but I promise you it will come. 🙂 Meanwhile, I hope that having all the options described makes it easier to choose an opus – it does seem rather odd that the old opuses had never been updated.

      1. Jyoti

        Thank you for the thought 🙂
        I look forward to the next post, whatever aspect of mosaics you feel inspired to cover. I don’t know if I’d imbibe your precision and fun waves but they sure fascinate me a lot!

  2. Great article Helen, but I would challenge you on opus palladianum being on of the easier ones. I actually think it’s one of the harder ones to do well and keep a nice even flow, consistent interstices and no distracting grout rivers. 🙂

    1. Thank you Marian! And thank you too for the reminder that palladianum is not at all easy to do well. One of the drawbacks in a sense of well executed mosaics is that they look almost effortless when of course we all know that they’re not. The only one that could remotely be described as ‘easy’ is tessalatum.

  3. Julie Sperling

    I love the way you think about and write about mosaic, Helen. Your contribution to the dialogue is invaluable and I always look forward to reading what you write. And I *adore* these additions to our lexicon. “The opus is the mosaic” sounds very McLuhan-esque: “The medium is the message”…

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