how to make mosaics

The secrets of using thinset for mosaics by Julie Sperling

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Drinking from a firehose: flood prone yet drought stricken. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling
Guest tutorial by Julie Sperling: Using thinset for mosaics

I am delighted to present a guest post (my first) by award winning Canadian mosaicist Julie Sperling about using thinset for mosaics. Julie’s work stands apart in being both fiercely beautiful and intelligently polemical. In her hands mosaics move out of the decorative realm and into a hybrid world where art meets politics meets activism. Using a wide range of tesserae and found objects from the traditional (smalti and limestone) to the unusual (grafiiti paint layers) and the bizarre (flue damper), Julie explores the subject of climate change and our human response to it through mosaics which make your heart sing and your thoughts linger.

using thinset for mosaics
Dialogue, the Burden of the Message. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling

How does she do it? you ask. I have often wondered. No one (probably least of all Julie) could precisely explain the process by which she interweaves her materials with the subject matter to create works of art but Julie’s work is impressive on many levels, including its sheer technical virtuosity. In many of her mosaics the substrate is part of the piece rather than just a surface to be mosaicked. It’s a pause, a space, a frame, it allows her to open the work up to infinite suggestions, to make emphases, to change direction and to add permutations and explorations both on and beyond the ‘canvas’. See how she does it here in Heat (Each Decade Hotter Than The Last) where the central ‘graph’ is separated by a perfectly balanced border of thinset:

using thinset for mosaics
Detail from Heat, Each Decade Hotter Than the Last. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.

Thinset (or mortar) isn’t an attractive word or in most people’s books the most appealing aspect of mosaics, but in this blog post about using thinset for mosaics, Julie shows us how this most mundane of substances can be used to create stunning effects. Many thanks Julie!

using thinset for mosaics
Flip the system; Amplified Change. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.
 
Julie’s tutorial: Using thinset for mosaics

Before we start, a caveat: This is what works for me, but it is by no means the only (or best) way to do it. It is the method I have learned through trial and error to compensate for my complete lack of palette knife skills. So proceed with caution, take it with a grain of salt, use at your own risk, etc.So, how do I get the thinset in my mosaics smooth, both between my lines and tesserae and in the background?

First, my go-to implements for the task: an array of paintbrushes, spatulas, and palette knives, as well as water and a rag. And don’t think I only use the brush/blade end! Anything is fair game, including fingers.

using thinset for mosaics
Julie’s thinset smoothing tools. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Now, if you want to save yourself work, make sure your initial bed of thinset is as smooth as you can make it. Just like taking a good photograph to start will save you time and frustration in post-production, touching up a smoothish surface is much easier than trying to fix an area riddled with bumps and ridges and lumps later on. A pass or two with a clean palette knife (wiped with a damp cloth) will make your life much easier. Admittedly, though, I usually skip this part or, at best, make a half-hearted attempt to get a nice smooth bed. Why? Because I’m not really great at using a palette knife and because fixing it later doesn’t particularly bug me.

Smooth thinset in between lines and tesserae

When I weave my lines, I like the thinset to be smooth, especially where there’s more open space. I have no reason for this other than personal preference. Once I set my tesserae into the thinset, I leave them for a bit before attempting to go in with my various implements to smooth it out. I’ve found it’s far easier to work with the thinset once it has set up a bit—it’s less sticky and far more compliant. I just pat it / brush it as best I can, mostly with a dry brush or other tool (or, more frequently, the blunt end of a tool).

both-ends-of-brush-2

using thinset for mosaics
Patting and brushing the thinset into place using both ends of the paintbrush, once it has set up a bit. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes the thinset dries shiny and smooth. I don’t particularly care for this look, so I will take a slightly thinner mix of thinset at the very end (when I’m cleaning up the background) and just dab it into the small spaces, being very careful not to get any on the tesserae.

using thinset for mosaics
The shininess of this dry thinset really bugs me, so I always go back and fix it. Photo: @Julie Sperling
using thinset for mosaics
A steady hand and a small paintbrush. Dabbing a bit of thinset onto the shiny part is an easy albeit nerve-racking fix. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Smooth thinset as the background

I save this step for the very end. I spread my thinset on the background, usually in stages (I find doing one side at a time works well for me). I try not to put it on too thick (because then it just squishes around when I try to smooth it with my brush) or too thin (because then the roughness of the substrate comes through).

using thinset for mosaics
Covering the background with thinset. No need to be careful or make it look pretty, because it gets fixed with the damp foam brush. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Then I take a foam brush, wet it with water, and squeeze the excess out with my cloth so the brush is just damp—this is very important, because if your brush is too wet you risk getting white splotches on your thinset once it dries.

using thinset for mosaics
Make sure your brush isn’t too wet. Trust me. Photo: @Julie Sperling

I lightly brush the thinset with my damp brush to smooth it out, taking care to keep my brush strokes going in the same direction. I find that shorter, quicker strokes work better for me. When too much thinset accumulates on my brush, I rinse it, wring it out in my cloth, and keep going.

using thinset for mosaics
A barely-damp foam brush is your best friend when smoothing out your background thinset. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes I have to switch to a smaller brush to work closer to the tesserae, but normally I can make it work by angling my foam brush this way and that to follow the curves of the outer tesserae.

And that’s it! It really all boils down to working as neatly as you can from the start to save yourself the headaches later on, making sure your brush isn’t too wet, and being patient.

Continue reading

Eight easy steps to making larger mosaics on mesh

larger mosaics on mesh, fish mosaic, Helen Miles Mosaics
Detail of fish mosaic splashback. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Larger mosaics on mesh.

Part II of a two-part post on making mosaics on mesh.

Let me cast your minds back to February, 2014 when I wrote a step-by-step tutorial post on how to make a mosaic on mesh. Back then I was full of the joys of mesh and two years later I am still bursting with enthusiasm about the method. I love its versatility, and lightness and the way it solves the problem of making mosaics for faraway destinations, hard to reach places or awkward surfaces. It has all the advantages of the reverse paper method without the disadvantages of working in reverse.

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Installing the Unswept Floor Mosaic. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

The original blog post laid out the method for making a small mosaic and now its time to think about larger mosaics on mesh. Over the months a few people (to whom I am eternally grateful) have written comments in response to the post and it’s clear that people are interested in the method but that the first post doesn’t go far enough –  so this post about larger mosaics on mesh is for all those mosaic makers out there who are ready to take off and tackle bigger, more ambitious projects. Continue reading

Making Roman mosaic copies

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Copy of a Qasr Libya fish. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Roman mosaic copies – why?

It’s not unusual for me to look at an ancient mosaic in situ or pore over the details of one hanging in a museum and seriously wonder if there’s any point in what I’m doing. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs. That’s me but, I mean, really? Why bother? Why go to the effort of doing my own designs when I could just make Roman mosaic copies? After all, the Romans have pretty much covered it: gorgeous colours, exquisite patterns, arresting designs, grandeur, domesticity, humour, tenderness, you name it, the Romans have done it mosaic-wise. Done it on a massive scale. Done it so well that thousands of years later we still admire their workmanship. It’s enough to make you feel like a paltry foot soldier, dusty and dishevelled, scampering to keep up in the wake of the mighty Roman armies.

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Central panel from the Basilica of Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo:@ Helen Miles Mosaics

And yet. There’s always an ‘and yet’. And yet when I surf the internet or click absent mindedly through social media, time and time again I am stopped short by modern examples of Roman mosaic copies. They keep cropping up: students’ copies of the famous fish skeleton from the Vatican’s Upswept Floor; multiple versions of Pompeii’s Cave Canem; endless backward looking doves perched on basins; gods and goddesses, peacocks, still lives, hunting scenes. It doesn’t matter that we are surrounded by dazzlingly fast high tech machines and can eat a pineapple for lunch which has been flown overnight from the other side of the world, Roman mosaics still have a firm hold on our collective imagination. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Even the Romans did it: making mosaic mistakes

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Little bird, Ravenna, Italy. The inner bands of colour in the outer circle have three different variations. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

One must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with. (Vincent van Gogh)

It’s confession time. I am going to be writing about making mosaic mistakes and most of them will be mine. It’s not an easy thing to do. It makes me squirm. I dont like to think of all the wasted hours. Of the mosaics I made in the early days and then stuffed to the back of the cupboard, took out to the bins or sold for a pittance at craft fairs because they taunted me with their awfulness. But it’s important to remember two things: one, that everyone makes mosaic mistakes (admittedly, some more than others) and two, one person’s mistake can be another person’s success. Mosaic is a forgiving medium. Mistakes are often invisible to an outside eye or only add to the hand made-y-ness of the work. And of course if you are using the indirect method mistakes can be easily rectified. One of the nicest backhanded compliments I ever received was to go into a friend’s house and find one of my mosaics which I’d discarded by the roadside, proudly sitting there on a bathroom shelf. Continue reading

Gaudi bird – how to make a 3d mosaic

Detail from Antoni Gaudi's Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain.
Detail from Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain.

Making a 3d mosaic – how to start

I cant believe that I fell for it again. It happens every time. I should know by now, but somehow I never learn. I thought I could rattle something off. I’d seen plenty of photos of Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona and thought it was all so easy. Just a few broken pots gaily slapped on and that I could rustle up a 3d mosaic over a morning or two. Helen, learn your lesson: mosaics AREN’T like that. You don’t rattle or slap or rustle with mosaics. They absorb and consume you and they also take far, far longer than you think. Continue reading

Five simple mosaic tips

(Take Two – I accidently posted this before I’d finished it)

The more we make mosaics, the more we find the methods and tricks which work best for us. These mosaic tips are some of mine – none of them are rocket science but somehow they often get forgotten in mosaic technique books and short courses.

In no particular order, let us begin.

Mosaic Tips: No. 1

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Lay the fiddly bits which fit into awkward spaces at the same time as the neighbouring tesserae so, if necessary, you can gently ease the neighbouring tesserae aside while the glue is still wet.

In the simple plant design above, it would have been much harder to lay the white background tesserae in the gaps between the leaves and the stalk if the dark plant tesserae hadn’t still been pliable. Continue reading

Making a mosaic on mesh – step by step

 

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My Unswept Floor mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

How to make a direct method mosaic on mesh, Part I

Truth be told, I am going through a bit of a mesh phase. I cant seem to get enough of it. Making a mesh on mesh is just so darn simple, convenient, versatile and all-round handy. The finished work is easily lifted from its base, doesn’t weigh much and is a total synch to transport. The ‘unswept floor’ mosaic I am working on above is just the latest in a string of mesh mosaics I have made in my new found enthusiasm for the method.

Here’s one that’s finished. See what I mean about it’s light weight, ready-to-go-ness? Continue reading

Making a Mosaic Trivet, Part III.

From this:

From this....

…to this:

....to this

 

Cutting, laying and fixing the mosaic

Now its time to get down to business and start cutting your tiles, laying the mosaic and sticking the tesserae in place.

Tools for making a mosaic trivet:

You will need:

  • Tile nippers
  • Tweezers (optional)
  • PVA glue

Mosaic tools - tweezers and nippers

The tile nippers are easy to find at most hardware suppliers – make sure they have the spring bit in the middle. They will cost around 12 pounds and there are plenty of suppliers in the UK who will send them mail order. Try:  http://www.mosaic-workshop.co.uk//MOSAIC-TOOLS/Cutting-Tools/Tile-Nippers/prod_68.html.

Some mosaic makers can live without tweezers, but I cant. I bought these tweezers years ago from a Byzantine arts supplier in Thessaloniki, Greece, which isn’t going to help you much here, but I would go the extra mile and try and find ones with that little bendy bit at the end.  In my view they are essential for allowing you to place small and fiddly tesserae with ease and accuracy.

The glue you can get anywhere. I use this big tub of the stuff which says that it sticks almost anything you care to imagine from ceramic to glass and it’s never let me down.

Direct method glue

Cutting method:

Making a Mosaic Trivet, Part III. How to cut a tile.

Cut the individual tesserae by holding the tile firmly between finger and thumb in one hand and the nippers in the other.

Place the edge of the nippers over the edge of the tile, no more than about three millimetres in and then give the nippers a firm squeeze.

If you place the nippers too far over the tile, then cutting will be much harder, if not impossible.

This is how NOT to do it:

Making a mosaic trivet: Part III
The nippers are too far into the middle of the tile – they should be on the edge.

To work!

1. Transfer or copy the mosaic design onto your board and then lay down the outline tesserae. The way you glue the tesserae depends on personal preference. Either a) put a largish blob of glue into a shallow receptacle, like a jar lid, and then dip each tesserae into the glue before laying it, or b) apply a line of glue to the board and press the tesserae into the glue in batches. I use method ‘a’.

Stick down the outline of the mosaic first.

2. Once the glue sets, you’ve had it, so it’s best to do the awkward filling-in bits at this stage too. The white triangle background piece in the photo can be fitted in neatly when the outline tesserae are still moveable and the same with the brown tesserae on the wings.

Also do fiddly filling-in bits now before the glue sets.

3. Next, fill in the main design,  again doing fiddly bits of the background if necessary as you work, as in the gap between the bird’s legs in this photo.

Fill in the main design.

4. Start doing the outline around your main design in the colour you have chosen for your background.

Making a mosaic trivet: in photos

5. Complete the outline around the main design features. I always like to ‘pepper’ my background colour with a slightly different tone to add interest.

Do a line of the background tesserae around the main design.

6. Then lay down a line of tesserae around the edge of the board to act as a ‘frame’ making sure that the natural straight edge of the tiles matches the edge of the board. Once you’ve done that, you can start filling in the background.

Mosaic the border all around the board and then fill in the background.

7. Continue until you have finished filling in the background area. The mosaic is now ready for grouting and finishing.

The mosaic part complete - before grouting.

Coming soon! Making a Mosaic Trivet: Part IV. Grouting and finishing the mosaic.