This post will look at how contemporary mosaicists are creating work ‘which uses the medium of mosaic, but not to make us think ‘that is a mosaic’ but to make us curious, to amaze us, to unsettle us, to take us, in short, by the scruff of the neck and say: ‘Look, look and look again. I have something interesting and exciting to say.’
The time has come to look at the world of contemporary mosaics, at the mosaic innovators of our time: the explorers, the risk takers, the convention-shatterers, the beauty-creators. They’re there, they’ve always been there, hiding in plain sight, being exhibited, winning awards, attracting acclaim and attention – but only in certain circles. Continue reading →
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.
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:
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!
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I recently signed up for a lime mortar master class in Edinburgh and as I sat down to write about it, I felt a door gently click open. I left the writing and went back to my current mosaic project – a house warming commission of a tree; an oak for Ireland with roots winding around the frame for the roots of family.
And as I worked, ideas began to creep in through that open door. At first they were hesitant and kept their distance and then they grew bolder and came to lie at my feet. The simple act of signing up for a lime mortar master class to be taught by Dagmar Friedrich of Spilimbergo and Joanna Kessel of Edinburgh Mosaic Studios had let in a whole new world of mosaic inspiration.
As with all inspiration, however, the ideas had always been there, but they were translucent, hovering things which would occasionally try to land and take hold but were mostly batted away by current projects, domestic duties and more familiar, easier ways of working. But as I read what the lime mortar master class entailed, about the gathering of materials – of stones, marble, porcelain and glass, sea worn glass, ceramic and fireclay – and how I would learn to mould the lime substrate, to make it textured or smooth, and then take the materials and press them into the surface, the ideas began to grow larger, to gain substance and to gather around me.
There’s a special occasion coming up, so what do you do? Buy your dearest friend a set of cut glass goblets to celebrate his wedding? Wrap up a bottle of perfume to give to your mother on her 70th birthday? Select a stuffed toy when your sibling has her first child? How special does that feel? The goblets will end up at the back of a cupboard, the perfume will be saved for other special occasions (but how many will there be?) and I can guarantee the stuffed toy will be added to the great pile of cute animals already arranged on a high shelf in the child’s room.
Mosaics for special occasions
But a mosaic…well, mosaics are ideal for special occasions. They are hard to forget or neglect or even to squirrel away in the back of cupboard. They say that the recipient matters in just about the clearest, plainest, most eloquent language there is. You could hire a plane and write a message in the sky or build a neon sign to flash out your words but the letters will evaporate and the sign will grow rusty and malfunction, whereas as the years roll by a mosaic will quietly carry on saying it’s thing.
Until a few days ago I was a mosaic maker with a dark secret. My mosaic workspace was a horrendous mess: tesserae jumbled together in yoghurt pots, bags of marble rods dumped on the floor, books shoved unceremoniously onto shelves, sketches tucked into nooks never to be seen again, and pencils and tools scattered randomly in miscellaneous containers. All this might be shocking enough for you tidy tesserae folk out there, but I don’t want you to think kindly of me as a disorganised, flighty type with higher things on my mind than colour coordination. No, the awful truth is that I was not only perfectly aware of my shambolic way of working, but I positively revelled in it. No longer. You will be relieved to learn that I am now an entirely new person and it’s all thanks to you.
The transformation happened as I sat down to write about mosaic studios. When I came up with the idea, I thought it would be a straight forward matter of asking mosaicists from the online community for their help with supplying photographs and then it would all flow smoothly from there. But I quickly discovered what should have been obvious from the beginning – mosaic studios are more than just spaces where we work. They are private places, refuges, hideouts, sanctuaries, inner sanctums, and spaces generally of much greater importance than what goes on within them (although that’s pretty bloody important too). Continue reading →
Mosaic bloggers and social media users I never miss
In this second part of my two part series on Writing a Mosaic Blog I am going to tell you about my favourite mosaic bloggers and social media users. The reason for doing so is three fold:
a) to celebrate those people out there who are already writing, sharing and enthusing about the mosaic world,
b) to call all mosaicists not already on social media to join up now! and
c) to mark my two year mosaic blogging anniversary by acknowledging other bloggers and social media users who have been an inspiration, font of knowledge and/or source of amazing photographs and information.
It wouldn’t be practical to name all the people who I regularly follow on various kinds of social media so this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. It’s more like a ‘selected highlights’ of some of the mosaic bloggers and social media users whose contributions have caught my eye over time and triggered a sense of gratitude, awe or both for their ideas, reflections and tips. There is, as you will see, a bias towards those who share my interest in Roman mosaics or who work with stone but I must stress that I also hugely enjoy the work of mosaicists working in other medium (see photo at top of the page). My list of mosaic bloggers and social media users isn’t necessarily the same thing as a list of fellow mosaicists whose work I admire (although it might be tempting at some point to write about them too) but it is just a way of calling attention to one part of the great mosaic community – the part that is willing to share whether it be their work, their photos, their trials and tribulations, their news, or just their sheer passion for this art (or is it craft?!) form. Continue reading →
Not so long ago I wrote a post about why I started making mosaics and called on everyone out there – fellow mosaic obsessives – to tell me what attracted you to the medium and what keeps you here, painstakingly cutting and placing, when you could be making big bold statements with fantastically coloured acrylics or stroking clay into marvellous shapes. Mosaics are limited. The palette is what it is – you cant stretch it out by adding a dot of this and a dab or that and mistakes once made are in many cases hopelessly irredeemable. The materials are often expensive, the time taken to produce even a modest work is ludicrous and the horror of being required to dump dollops of gloopy grout over your completed masterpiece is enough to deter all but the most committed. So why do we make mosaics? I told you why I do (a mixture of mosaic making being a compulsion which I cant control and the necessity of finding occupation in a new country with no language to express myself) and now it’s over to you….
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Helen Miles Mosaics
I learnt how to make mosaics with Greek masters of the craft in Thessaloniki and Athens who taught using traditional methods with a focus on Byzantine iconography. Later, I become fixated with Roman designs and now my aim is to preserve the simplicity and directness of early mosaics while creating pieces which suit our modern lives.