bird mosaics

mosaics of birds

How long does it take to make a mosaic?

Five black and white birds. 96cm by 63cm. Direct method on mesh.

I know it’s a niggly silly question, like asking how long is a piece of string or the price of love. But actually it’s a question that’s often asked and, if I’m honest, I’ve always rather wondered myself. How long does it take to make a mosaic? I’m up there, in my little studio at the top of the house, in a happy trace, making my latest mosaic and utterly oblivious to the hours passing. Sometimes I look up and realise two hours, three, have just vanished and my lovely precious time is gone and I must rush downstairs, fling on something presentable, and dash off to school to collect the boys. And so the days go by. Sometimes the hours are more, sometimes less. Sometimes I can ignore the unwelcome intrusions of the outside world, at other times the world comes and seizes me by the scruff of the neck and drags me reluctantly back to attend to it’s affairs. Continue reading

Little mosaic birds from ancient sites

Irresistible mosaic birds

I cant resist little mosaic birds from ancient sites. They keep popping up all over the place, looking a bit goofy, prone to gangliness,  unsure of themselves, and often with a neglected, somewhat forlorn air which only adds to their charms.

Andulusia, Spain.
Black and white bird from Andalusia, Spain.

Take this fellow below. You walk into the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna expecting to spend the next few hours with a crink in your neck marvelling over the Byzantine mosaic wonders overhead and the first thing you see on the threshold is this bird. Just sitting there minding it’s own business, knowing that no one is going to pay it any attention, but cheerful none the less. One’s heart melts.

Basilica di S. Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

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Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy.

 Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: Getting there

Bird mosaic, Aquileia, Italy. 4th century, AD.

We set out easily enough from Trieste. We typed ‘Aquileia‘ into the GPS, checked it against the map, congratulated ourselves that we only had an half hour drive and set off in a cheery mood. Fast forward to an hour and half later, insert a lot of rude words and we arrived. Everyone was so annoyed (with the GPS, with each other, with Italy, with driving across the whole of Europe and back) that they had to stay in the car to recover some sort of equilibrium but needless to say I leapt out because here I was at last: Aquileia, once a great city, one of the greatest of the Early Roman Empire, hugely important and hugely wealthy and hugely rich in mosaics. A squabble with Kate (the GPS lady) wasn’t going to stop me.

Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: History

The city itself was destroyed by Atilla the Hun in the mid 5th century AD and so it was abandoned, become overgrown and was largely forgotten. A sad end, but the good thing was that no other city rose in its place so the ruins of Aquileia now constitute the most complete example of an early Roman city in the Mediterranean world.  Another good thing is, that for all his sacking and pillaging, Atilla left the great Basilica of Aquileia still standing – today a World Heritage Site with some of the most beautiful mosaics I have ever seen.

Bird mosaics of Aquileia, Italy: Photos

The floor of the basilica is so covered with mosaic decoration of such astonishing variety and originality from a wonderful aquatic scene, to patterned expanses and unusual animal details that I am not even going to try and show you the half of what I saw. This post just covers some of the bird mosaics and others will follow:

My personal favourite:

Two birds on a branch, mosaic, Aquileia, Italy. 4th century, AD

Mosaic solutions: fixing, finishing and an idea

 Mosaic solutions: fixing and finishing

Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki, Greece. Mosaic fixing, finishing and ideas.

Lovely, eh? A row of hearts from the Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki, Greece: – in case you are one of my subscribers, then these are for you!

Today was a day full of busyness with very little achieved. You must have those days. I had quite a collection of irksome little mosaic fixing and finishing jobs which needed to be done and so mosaic making itself had to take a bit of a back seat.

First of all there’s this critter:


Not a great work, by any means, but I made it because I am experimenting with all sorts of things: edgings, grouts and finishings and I had an extra bit of marine plywood lying around, so why not? It’s a direct method mosaic using tile adhesive so that the tesserae are pushed into a bed of the mixture and they ‘self grout’ – in other words the adhesive squidges up around the pieces.

I wanted to experiment because of this:


Which looks like a disaster, but it’s not. It was another experimental piece made in the early days of trying out this new (for me) technique – some tesserae fell off the corners which are always sensitive spots. I just scraped back the dried adhesive where the tesserae were missing (as seen in the photo), made some new mixture and replaced the missing pieces. What it did do, however, was set me a-thinking about new ways to edge mosaics.

First of all, when I made the critter above I added glue to the tile adhesive mixture when I was setting the edging pieces which worked like a dream with the result that the tesserae along the sides feel as firmly embedded as its possible to be.

Another option is to have frames made for your backing boards. I did this for two marine plywood boards that I am currently preparing. The frames are made to the depth of the tesserae so that there is no danger of pieces accidently being knocked out. I have also decided to gesso the wooden frames instead of painting them directly with emulsion as I normally do. These now have three coats of gesso:

Mosaic edging - 3

And the idea

The point of this is that I am thinking about whether to paint the frames in a more interesting way than just plain old emulsion. I have all the paints and brushes from icon painting so it seems like something worth trying.  In which case, I will do the decorative painting after mosaicking (as opposed to before as I usually recommend) and will protect the finished work by covering it with masking tape and paper. What about doing something along the lines of this from an 18th century moghul miniature?


I had  previously tried putting larger square tesserae along the edges of the board, gluing them in the normal way and then grouting the whole piece which works if you are intending to grout the mosaic at the end, and is also extremely durable and solid. I must say I’m rather pleased with this idea:

Mosaic edging - 2

Finally, I bought some lead edging strips from The Mosaic Workshop with self adhesive backing which is meant to be strong enough for outdoor use, so I will let you know how I get on with that.

Meanwhile in Greece, I am off to see the National Theatre’s Othello tonight on one of those video link thingys.





Direct method mosaic technique: the higgledy piggledy look

Achieving naturalness in direct method mosaics

I have been having a go at making direct method mosaics onto wood, using cement based adhesive as opposed to glue. The idea is that I want to recreate (at least a fraction of) the higgledy piggledy immediacy of many of my favourite Roman/early Byzantine mosaics. Looking at them, one can almost sense their original makers crouching over their work, one on one side, one on the other, pushing tesserae after tesserae into the soft substrate. As I imagine them, the Roman craftsmen work fast, with the sun beating down, sometimes choosing stones that fit perfectly, other times cramming them in a little too closely. They run out of a certain hue, call to their assistants to fetch more,  get up to stretch their legs and then resume their labour at a slightly different angle. I am constantly drawn to these early masterpieces because of the real sense of many hands at work and because of their entirely human imperfections. The more technically exact works, like many of the famous mosaics from Pompeii, leave me totally unmoved.

My own attempt to be more higgledly piggledy  is prompted by the fact that I was taught how to make mosaics by Greek mastercraftsmen who were themselves heavily influenced by church decoration and iconography. Their work  had the precision of necessity: one wouldn’t want a saint’s nose to be out of joint or a dragon’s snarl to be translated into a wry grin by a piece of smalti gone awry. I am trying to rid myself of this over exactitude and regain a bit of spontaneity. I’m just playing around, and enjoying it.

Here is a detail of a mosaic in the Palazzo Massimo Museum of Rome which I love. You can see the higgledly piggledyness that I am talking about in the background andamenti around the bird:

Fav Rome Bird_ed

 And here is a detail of an ungrouted leaf mosaic I have just finished, not quite the same thing, but I’m trying:

black and white leaves detail