What are mosaics? Part one of a three part blog on the place of mosaics in contemporary art.
PART ONE: WHAT ARE MOSAICS? FIVE THINGS THAT THEY ARE NOT
Joan Eardley‘s paintings are urgent; running-to-catch-the-last-bus kind of urgent. They are full of rushed energy, of stops and darts, turns and returns. They grapple and wrestle and finally heave the beast to the ground. There is no diffidence in them. There are scribbles and swirls and drips and blotches and slap-it-down-on-the-table flashes of pure, gorgeous, rich, deep (so deep you could sink) colour. You can see why she stuck to her two beloved places – the Scottish sea and the Glasgow city streets, why she didnt feel any need to tramp around looking for new subjects to paint. ‘It seems silly to shift about,’ she wrote and so, standing still, she found everything she needed right where she was.
If their urgency means they are unruly and dishevelled, that only makes them more compelling. They are piled and layered and flung. I wandered around the current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently with two reluctant teenage boys. ‘How can you keep looking?’ one asked petulantly. The other had already disappeared. ‘What are you looking at, what do you see?’ 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.
This is a photo gallery showing the process of making a mosaic hour by hour.
Or: Why Kenyans make such good runners.
If you were to ask me if I’d like to meet for coffee. you might notice a flicker of panic cross my face. Rest assured, the panic is not about the thought of spending an hour or so in your company. There’s nothing I’d like better. But my moment of hestitation will usually hide a rapid calculation as to whether that hour, short but infinitely precious, can be spared from my latest mosaic project. If I were to try and explain why an hour matters so much, I think you’d probably assume I was thinking of excuses or had become slightly unhinged. ‘What’s the big deal?’, I can almost hear you thinking. Surely, in the space of day with all the time it contains, I can spare one mingy little hour for a simple cup of coffee.
Ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church
Behind the panic there is also an befuddled internal monologue in which I attempt to articulate the importance of that hour. But if I say it out loud, the words sound unconvincing and fall flat. So to circumvent the need to explain myself, I decided to keep a photographic record of a mosaic under construction. I wanted to show you what’s really involved in making a mosaic – not just the work in progress shots and photos of the finished piece but the nitty gritty of the whole process. Continue reading →
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.
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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 →
You know what it’s like. I know you know. That moment when you open the oven and find your lovingly prepared cake has failed to rise, peer into the washing machine to discover the white wash has turned an alarming shade of pink, or herd a bunch of fractious children up a hill in the sizzling heat with the promise of an ice cream at the end, only to find you’ve left your wallet in the car. Well, I am sure you also know that mosaic making has it’s own such moments. Except they are not really moments. They are long wasted hours when you look back and think: darn, drat and bother it (to put it politely). So it was when I had a go at making a mosaic face.
Taking inspiration from ancient mosaic faces
I know I’ve told you that my thang is ancient mosaics but, hey, lets say it all over again. I cant get enough of them in all shapes and forms from vast basilica floors to little fragments behind museum glass, but I have a particular fascination for ancient mosaic faces. One reason I like them is that sometimes they are a bit wonky which is charming and gratifying at the same time. But for all the wonky faces, like the one above, there are others which are stunning in their precision and authenticity. This melancholy woman from Pompeii is a case in point. Continue reading →
(formerly Athens, Greece)
Take a look at what I'm working on now by clicking on my Instagram icon below
Join the Mailing List
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.