thinset

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).

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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.

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