Part II: Books, forums and experiments
(For Part I – my guide to online mosaic courses and tips please follow this link: http://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaics-miscellaneous/online-mosaic-courses/)
This post is both a source of information about teaching yourself mosaics and a resounding bell-ringing shout-out. Since I can’t go to the top of a building with a megaphone it’s the next best way to say that self taught mosaic artists are one helluva inspiring bunch. Until I started a discussion about teaching yourself mosaics on Contemporary Mosaic Art I had no idea that there was a whole sub-category of mosaicists out there who have sat down and quietly and doggedly taught themselves everything they needed to know to pursue their artistic vision. Their work and dedication says much louder and clearer than I ever could that great things can be achieved, creative wonders realised, beautiful mosaics materialised without the help of classes or formal training.
I can’t claim to be a self taught mosaicist myself as I attended weekly classes here in Greece with mastercraftsmen who specialised in the making of Byzantine-style icons. But I was frustrated by the limitations of the methods and approaches of the teachers (only the indirect method was used, no tessera could be larger than a match head, no spaces were allowed between the pieces) and went home and experimented. I read mosaic books and followed step by step projects, I endlessly visited ancient mosaics in museums and sites and I made an awful lot of mosaics which I am glad that I will never had to see again.
It turns out that almost all of the respondents to the online discussion about teaching yourself mosaics followed a similar path to mine, using books, forums like CMA and practical experiments to learn mosaic techniques and expand their skills while others took online courses. What struck me while reading the stories of individual mosaic journeys, is how determined and focused the artists were – they had found something they felt drawn to and were utterly commited to pursuing their goal.
Reasons to teach yourself mosaics
Some people decided to teach themselves mosaics because they had no other option – because they lived too far away from mosaic classes to make regular attendance a possibility. Others because they wanted to expand on the skills they already knew or to explore new territory. In the case of Jyoti Bhargava living in Gurgaon, India, however, it wasn’t just a question of not having mosaic classes nearby but of battling against different cultural attitudes and a lack of access to materials as well as hands-on information. Both stained glass and ornate floors have long been incorporated into Indian interiors, Jyoti wrote, but the work tended to be done by lowly paid labourers and wasn’t treated seriously as an art form.
Jyoti dug deeper and discovered mosaic workshops in India but they seemed to be new enterprises and only offered basic techniques of cutting, adhering and grouting. Fortunately, she then came across a newly established mosaicist in her region and volunteered to help cut the tiles and from then on she rolled up her sleeves and threw herself into the task of learning about mosaics by reading, scouring Amazon for tools, experimenting, joining Facebook groups and using internet resources. She set up her own Facebook group, Mosaic India, to share projects and tips and started writing a mosaic blog.
At the other end of the self taught spectrum is Solly (John Sollinger) who is based in Oregan, USA, and makes intricate glass mosaics which take three to five months to complete. Solly actively wanted to learn mosaics his own way and explore the art without intervention from others: ‘I am self-taught. I did not read books (and still have not done so) or learn online. I did not realize that it would be a mosaic journey when I started, but my path has been one of trial and error. I have since learned much from others on this CMA site, but I still follow my own ways.’
Ways of Teaching Yourself Mosaics
Mosaicists far and wide were so helpful and willing to share how they taught themselves mosaics that I want to pass on their experiences for anyone who is thinking of taking the teach-yourself route. There are four main do-it-yourself ways to approach mosaics:
A less common approach is to get yourself a mosaic kit: ‘I started making mosaics in 2005 when I found a small mosaic kit at a craft store. I had always wanted to learn but didn’t want to spend a fortune on materials, so this kit was perfect since it had everything I needed for about $15! The instructions actually told me to use a hammer on vitreous glass so that is how I first learned,’ wrote glass art mosaicist Christine Brallier who has since gone on to have her work installed in public spaces and to write a children’s book with mosaic illustrations.
1) MOSAIC BOOKS
As it happens, Jyoti has recently written a post about mosaic books for teach yourself-ers so if you want specific recomnendations then take a look at her site.
When asked which books people used and liked, the same names come up again and again: Martin Cheek, Sonia King, Tessa Hunkin, Emma Biggs and Bonnie FitzGerald.
J. Elizabeth Wright from Georgia, USA, a self taught mosaic artist who is now teaching mosaics herself, summed up the book preferences shared by many: ‘My first book was a Martin Cheek book, Design Sourcebook and I’ve continued to purchase his books through the years. I also like The Encyclopedia of Mosaic Techniques by Emma Biggs, The Complete Mosaic Handbook by Sarah Kelly, Bonnie Fitzgerald’s Guide to Mosaic Techniques and Making Mosaics by Angelo Cangemi. I am so happy that mosaic books were available to help me with my learning journey!’
Design sourcebooks of all kinds are very helpful and if you are interested in ancient mosaics nothing beats buying at least one of the weighty (and sadly rather expensive) reference books for Roman mosaics which have detailed, colour plates providing an invaluable source of inspiration and a super-handy resource to study the way tesserae are laid.
2) MOSAIC FORUMS
It goes without saying that nothing beats the online world of Contemporary Mosaic Art. It’s a network of more than 2,000 mosaic artists who each have their own page with a biography and photo bank. But CMA is also a fantastic source of information about anything mosaic related from exhibitions and mosaic courses to mosaics people have encountered while travelling. One of it’s many great features is that it posts discussion topics so that members can offer advice or share tips on particular issues.
Terry Nicholls, a self taught mosaic artist from Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada wrote: ‘to my delight I found that they are a very generous and sharing group of people who don’t mind answering questions and providing opinions. I learned a great deal from them and continue to do so. I thank them for their time, patience and expertise.
Casey Shelley, a self taught artist who responded to the discussion about mosaic self-teaching on CMA, worte that she signed up for one of Sharra Frank’s online classes and found the Facebook group offered as part of the course was a great help: ‘..we can ask her questions and share information amongst ourselves [in the groups]. I’ve found [them] very helpful. I really felt like I better understood her mosaic process in such a way that I could do it, too. (In my own style, of course.)
Being a self taught mosaic artist almost inevitably involves throwing yourself in the deep end and making a lot of mistakes. Several of the respondents mentioned this experimental stage of their learning process and particularly their horror of trying to figure out grouting on their own: ‘Figuring out how to grout was the hardest and every time I finished a piece, I would dread that process. I would have loved to have someone SHOW me how to do that part. Thankfully I realized that practice would make it less stressful and it did!‘ wrote Janet Farwell on CMA.
4) ONLINE RESOURCES
From online courses to Pinterest and mosaic artists’ sites and blogs, the possibilites for mosaic learning through the internet are extremely diverse. Val McCarry, a mosaic artist of 15 years standing from Ontario, Canada, uses online resources to develop her own style:
I still consider myself a self taught mosaic artist because I have not had formal training. Primarily after books, I use the internet to study the andamento of artists I like and learn from their work. Looking at their technique and then trying it for myself. I feel that this is how I have created my own style, which by the way, is still evolving and hopefully always will be.
Melanie Burns from Alaska, USA, has a similar approach:
I’m completely self taught and have never taken a course in any kind of art. I studied at a lot of mosaic artwork online to see the different styles of laying tile as it related to the design to get going. As I go on, I continue to develop my style.
The main point, however, about teaching yourself mosaics is that it never stops. I made this fish to explore the effects of using an alternative colour for the defining line around the main design. For some reason, probably because I didn’t want the fish to seem suspended in a cream bubble, I didn’t quite close off the line at the tips of the tail. I grouted it today and can see that it doesn’t work. Another one to chalk up to experience!
COMING SOON: Making Roman mosaic copies.