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.
What I can tell you is that this is such an unquestioned orthodoxy in Greece that any attempts by me to find out why this was so during the days that I was learning how to make mosaics in Thessaloniki and Athens were greeted with derision. I remember asking my teacher if I could try the paper method and was told that it was ‘for children.’ I was puzzled then and remain so now. The only explanation I can think of for this loyalty to the reverse, cast method is that it is perceived as somehow more authentic and closer to the way the Byzantine masters did things. Moreover, as mosaic making in contemporary Greece is largely restricted to the reproduction of icons, it could be that mosaicists stick to the method because it’s the one sanctioned by the church.
I know this sounds a bit far fetched but many things dont entirely make sense in Greece and people here do have a marked fondness for outdated ways of doing things – hence the argy bargies in Brussels conference rooms that we’ve all been reading about. I also know that it doesn’t really stack up to claim that the reverse, cast method is somehow more authentic. Look at this photo of an original 11th century substrate displayed in the museum at the Monastery of Osios Loukas:
The hand and the individual tesserae have been painted onto the substrate, presumably as a guide for the mosaicists so that they could work fast and efficiently, pushing stones into the wet surface directly. In short, they weren’t lugging around huge hunks of cast concrete.
Be that as it may, this is the way I learnt how to make mosaics and I want to share it with you because I’ve never come across an alternative method for making a mosaic fragment which is embedded into its substrate the way these are. So here goes….In keeping with the whole Byzantine thing, I chose to do a rough copy of a mosaic fragment of the Virgin Mary which is in the Benaki Museum, Athens.
How to Make a Mosaic Fragment
Part One: Getting started
You will need:
- A piece of marine ply wood slightly larger than the size of the mosaic you want to make
- A piece of well ironed cotton cloth 8-10cm larger than the board. The cloth should be flexible without being stretchy. I used to tramp around the backstreets of Athens looking for exactly the right type of cloth as dictated by my teachers, but now I just use Ikea’s cheapest sheets.
- Tacks and a hammer
- Tracing paper if you are doing a reverse image.
Next, choose your tesserae and start ‘dry’ laying – laying the tesserae to check the effect before glueing.
Part Two: Laying the tesserae
You will need:
- A very small saucepan or coffee pot
- Ordinary, general purpose flour
- A teaspoon
- Water soluble glue
- A jam lid
Part Three: Making the Mould
You will need:
- Four batons of wood, a few centimetres longer than the sides of the mosaic. The batons I use are 2cm by 2cm, are made of pine and can be used multiple times. www.mosaic-workshop.co.uk sells a mosaic paving stone casting frame which would come in handy if you dont want to make your own: http://www.mosaic-workshop.co.uk//FRAMES-BOARDS-MIRRORS/Mosaic-Frames-Boards/Mosaic-Paving-Stone-Casting-Frame/prod_119.html
- A stapler gun
Part Four: Casting the mosaic fragment
This is where things get complicated. It tooks months of very patient manoevuring in my mosaic class to be given the ‘recipe’ for making a mosaic fragment which is a carefully guarded secret here in Greece. Unfortunately some of the ingredients are a bit weird and hard to come by but I think it will be useful to have the formula and see if you can substitute other materials if you can’t find the exact components.
You will need:
- Two medium sized plastic mixing bowls
- Measuring cups – old yoghurt pots are fine
- A mixing spoon
- An ordinary paint brush
- White cement
- Fine grain sand
- Brick dust
- Volcanic ash
- A piece of firm wire mesh slightly smaller than the dimensions of the mould
- Pliable wire
- Weights – stones, bits of marble, anything heavy
- A large piece of plastic sheeting big enough to generously wrap the mosaic in.
First, cut a short piece of the wire and make a ‘handle’ for the wire mesh by threading the wire through the mesh and twisting at both ends.
The official recipe: One part plaster, a quarter part white cement, one part fine sand, one part brick dust (I would advise using less) and half a part volcanic ash. Mix the ingredients thoroughly with water to form a firm consistency, neither watery nor too solid. Similar, if you dont mind me saying so, to the consistency of a cow pat.
Take a generous quantity of this mixture (let’s say a sixth) and put it in a separate bowl. Add water and keep stirring until you have a more liquid version (like Minestrone soup) of the same thing.
Then wrap the whole thing up in the thick plastic sheeting with more weights on top and leave for at least three days. More wouldn’t hurt.
Part Five: Finishing the Mosaic Fragment
Now’s the time for the moment of truth. The really disconcerting thing about using the reverse, cast method is that you can never be completely sure what the finished piece is going to look like so you might need a strong whiskey to sustain you.
At last. It’s done. As you can see from this tutorial on how to make a mosaic fragment it’s all a bit of a faff. A few days later I noticed some hairline cracks in the plaster around the mosaic which could be easily remedied but I’ve run out of steam right now. So here is the finished thing:
I’m off to the UK tomorrow for a month and a bit so you wont be hearing from me until I get back. Have a great summer!