Mosaic is actually an ill-defined term that can have several meanings. However, if we must be technical and insist on having a definition for the art form, it would have to go something like this –
“Mosaics is the technique of attaching numbers of discrete colored pieces of a particular material onto a prepared surface, in order to create the appearance of an image or pattern, when the assemblage is viewed as a whole”.
This unholy mouthful could encompass a vast range of artistic disciplines – from priceless baroque gold and jewel-encrusted tabletops to trendy, modern, cut-and-paste photomosaics – but also be applied to candies pressed into cake icing! However to most of us, when we speak of mosaics, we are usually thinking of more permanent work, made from hard materials, cemented or glued firmly onto solid surfaces. Coming easily to mind would be the enduring ancient Roman floors, where myriads of tiny blocks of marble and polished stone were arranged eons ago, to create rustic scenes and bold, evocative images of ladies at leisure, gods and charioteers – always surrounded by distinctive geometric borders. Or possibly we might be picturing brilliant panels set up on a huge scale, where the luster of glass and ceramic is used to throw light about and dominate the wall of a public building, making it alive with a contemporary artist’s passionate view of life in the modern world.
Modern artists, working in the traditional style, use hard blocks of stone, glass, or a range of modern materials, cut into tiny tiles that are still collectively known by the original Latin name of tesserae. These tesserae are cemented or glued firmly onto a solid surface, using one of a host of modern adhesives – or for the purist – just ordinary cement mortar. Quick-setting grouting paste is used to add stability, by filling the gaps between the tesserae – but the grout can also enhance the visual effect by adding another dimension to the work. Grouting can be executed with a strong hand, using dark or bright grouts, to emphasize the mosaic builder’s technique, or it can be muted and unobtrusive, so as to not interfere or distract the viewer’s eye away from imagery and the flow and shading nuances of the tesserae. The end result of traditional mosaic techniques is to create art that is permanent and practical because it is hard-wearing, waterproof, and stain-resistant – thus needing little effort to maintain and keep bright and clean.
Mosaics are a great way to embellish a drab wall or garden path, by bringing color and light to an otherwise uninteresting area. Brightwork is cheerful and creates interest – but on the other hand, more subtle techniques, using slight variances in the colour and texture of embedded natural stone, may also be used with great effect, when the scale is large enough, to channel the emotions and to create a mood. Actually, embedding river pebbles in a paved courtyard or wall, in order to create interesting patterns, was one of the earliest techniques, adopted by both Ancient Babylonians and also by the Greeks who followed them. Nowadays, working with mosaics is a craft that can be learned by all – including even very young children. Whatever your age, if your mosaic is made with love and care, it is a way of leaving a little part of yourself to be displayed and enjoyed for many years to come – maybe even for several generations after you are long gone.
The two principal traditional techniques of creating mosaics are the “direct” and the “indirect” methods – each of these specific disciplines is best suited for a particular set of different applications and locations. Unfortunately, this article is not the place to go into detail about these and other mosaic methods – of which there are many. However, these particulars can be found on my website.
One last word – do not be deterred, if you do not consider yourself “artistic” in the true sense of the word. You don’t need to start from scratch – there are many ways of carrying out this craft in an easier and partly directed way. Patterns and instructions are easy to find and prepared kits are readily available for the beginner. You can find them at most craft shops and also on-line. There are many levels at which you can find your entry into this exciting craft or art form. However, it is important that you take time to read up on the topic beforehand and gather up all the useful information and tips you can, learning from others, and avoiding the pitfalls. Planning is essential and unfortunately, an ill-planned and messy mosaic can last just as long as an excellent one! If you want to get the most from this rewarding and absorbing hobby you must prepare yourself well. But most of all, remember that practice makes perfect – so start soon!