A Mosaic of Mosaics

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A Mosaic of Mosaics

by Natalie Bloniarz

Natalie Bloniarz


The aim of this project was to develop an understand the techniques and materials needed to create a mosaic and apply that to a new digital medium. Using my skills from AR 1101, Digital Imaging and Computer Art, and my experience from high school using the Adobe Suite, I aimed to create a modern mosaic in a digital format. Throughout this milestone I learned that much of the origins of mosaics are unknown and that mosaics can be made of virtually any material. The experience of creating the mosaic was enlightening into how difficult creating a cohesive and well structured mosaic could be.


A mosaic is, "something resembling such a picture or decoration in composition, especially in being made up of diverse elements."[1] A mosaic is made of just a few simple components: some form of tile made of any material, a base surface for the mosaic to rest on, and an adhesive to hold to mosaic to the base.

A Mosaic of Mosaics takes the traditional art of mosaics and then applies it to a digital setting. This involved looking into the elements needed to create a physical mosaic and what kind of properties make them effective materials. It also required a discussion of techniques needed to create a mosaic, and how they are used. Unlike a collage that just mashes photos together, the mosaic created is based on mosaics that I have observed across London. As opposed to creating a traditional mosaic I chose to experiment with a digital medium to see how the process would differ and what challenges this new method could create. I chose to use Photoshop to create the mosaic because of prior experience and I knew it would lend itself well to the functions needed for this project: cloning, resizing, compressing, and reshaping. I used my previous knowledge of photography to capture the mosaics that would make up my mosaic, but I used my newfound knowledge of mosaic techniques to create the mosaic.

Section 1: Background



This is the most important portion of the mosaic, as it is the most visible part of the mosaic. The tiling is the individual pieces of a chosen, or a variety of chosen materials, that are cut and shaped into rough squares. These squares are then adhered to a base to create an image or design. The oldest known mosaics are created from smooth pebbles of varying sizes, but this limited the precision of the artist to the available stones; pebble mosaics were popular with the Greeks and many of their mosaics are made from pebbles.[2] Eventually the Romans popularized tesserae, the style of mosaic made of individual square cut pieces of stone and shell.[3] The tesserae can be made of a variety of materials and have been as time has passed, and it is now how the majority of mosaic tile materials are sold. Stone was a popular choice of the Romans and is more durable than other materials and it can have natural variance within the tiles; though stone is durable, it is hard to create the tesserae.

The Byzantine Empire was known to use smalti, a type of enameled glass with pure opaque colors, a uneven texture, and it reflects light very well. Smalti is made by sandwiching two pieces of enameled glass together. A separate form of smalti is gold smalti, which consists of gold sandwiched between the two glass plates, it can also have many different textures, colors, and levels of reflective strength.

Another material is Venetian (Vitreous) glass, which has less intense colors than smalti and a constantly smooth surface on one side and groves on the other. Venetian glass is often used for more mundane works such as pools and bathrooms than the Byzantine smalti, and typically comes in a standard thickness. Ceramic tile is great for outdoor use, for when it is glazed it is incredibly weather resistant, and the tile comes in a variety of colors and can be made with specialized designed within the tiles. There are four main types of ceramic tiles: unglazed, glazed, patterned, and decorative.[12]

A more modern tile choice would be broken china, "Pique Assiette" a French saying that means 'one who eats from others' plates'.[17] This style is unlike most tesserae because it is not often in a regular shape and size. Stained glass is another option that resembles the Byzantine smalti, though is typically transparent as opposed to opaque; this can lead to the surface of the background to show through and it is a relatively fragile material depending on the thickness. It can come in a variety of levels of opacity, thickness, and textures making it a versatile tiling option. Mirror is an interesting material for its unique pure reflective quality, but it can be subject to tarnishing/patina over time diminishing its main quality. Aside from these main tiling materials there are many alternative options that can be experimented with like shell and recycled materials like buttons.[18][19][20] A mosaic can be made out of any material the artist desires, it depends solely on the desired appearance of the final product.


The tiling must sit on a surface for it to be stable and the different options for bases can have an effect on the tiling and adhesive choice. For mosaics that would be inside, plywood or Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) would be good because they are readily available. Furniture can also be used as a base for a mosaic, but the shape, material, and structural integrity must be taken into account to see if it can support the mosaic and if it is possible to adhere the tile to the furniture. Pottery, cement, and cement backer board are great for outdoor projects due to their durability. Metal can be used for both outdoor and indoor mosaics but warping can occur due to temperature variation. The porosity of the base material will have an affect of the type of adhesives that can be used, and that must be kept in mind when choosing a base. These are just a few example base materials, but others such as glass or mesh, can be used to create a more custom work of art.[27][28] Similar to choosing a specific tile type to use, the base choice depends on the desired appearance of the mosaic.


This is the material that will determine if the mosaic will last across the testament of time. Location is a major factor when determining the adhesive because the adhesive must change based on what the mosaic will be exposed to: water, physical weathering, temperature changes, and so on. Cement based adhesive is one of the most versatile options as it has a variety of setting times based on composition and is waterproof. Silicone is a good choice for glass, mirror, and other non porous material mosaics. It is especially good for mirror mosaics because it is clear and won't damage the silvering on the mirror tiles . Tile mastic can be used for vertical mosaics because of its string bond that occurs rapidly after placement, though it can break under pressure and exposure to moisture. Craft glue, such as school glue or PVA, comes in both water-soluble formulas, which is good for mosaics made using the indirect method, and non-water-soluble, which is good for interior mosaics only. Thin-set is a mortar made of portland cement, silica, sand, and other moisture absorbing materials and it has adhesive properties similar to cement needing only a thin layer to create a strong bond.[29][30][31]


The final items needed to construct a mosaic are the tools. Planning tools such as paper, pencils, t-squares, and compasses can be used both before the start of the assembly of the mosaic to illustrate a design, and during assembly to help create guides and notes on the base about placement and coloring. Tile nippers and cutters and vital for shaping and trimming the tesserae,and based on the tiling different strength and edge shapes may be needed. A scoring tool is another item that can be used to cut tiles, first by creating a line for the tile to break across then applying pressure to crack the weakened tile. Screwdrivers, tweezers, and potter's needles, are used to maneuver single tiles and not disturbing the surrounding area. These are just some of the basic tools, but many others can be used and it is up to the creator of the mosaic to determine what tools to use.[32][33][34]


Direct Method

An example of the direct method[35]

Now onto the assembly of the mosaic. The easier of the two main techniques, the direct method involves pressing and adhering the tesserae directly onto the base material. This is best for mosaics that require the right-side-up of the tesserae to be visible to the artist such as mosaics that use intricate shading, as the level of precision needed is incredibly high. The texture of the mosaic can be easily manipulated using the direct method as the tile pieces do not need to be completely identical heights, textures, or sizes to ensure a secure application. This method is also useful for three dimensional mosaics to allow the artist to compensate for the curves and lines of the base. The direct method also allows for immediate results and an easy way to measure progress.[36][37][38] A common practice is to complete the direct method onto mesh, so that the mosaic can then be adhered to the base via the mesh rather than the tiles. This can help to eliminate any difficulty that may arise from adhering the chosen base material and tiling material, such as the bond not solidifying.[39]

Indirect Method

An example of the product of the indirect method[40]

This method is useful for larger designs, as the artist can create sections of the piece and just have to assemble the larger pieces at the end. The indirect method also allows for a controlled environment when creating a mosaic that will be outdoors rather than being limited by factors such as temperature and humidity; it also allows for modification before the finalized design because the adhesive before it is applied to the base is removable. The base for this method is typically paper or mesh, the mesh allowing for more flexibility in the design because it is easy to cut away any undesirable pieces. The mesh differs from other materials used for the indirect method in that the tiles are placed finished side up, glowing the artist to view the final design like the direct method. This can also be done with the face tape method that uses clear tape to hold the mosaic together with the finished side visible until it needs to be adhered. The reverse method is the more complicated of the three major indirect method techniques as it involves working in reverse, therefore creating a mirror image of the design. The tesserae are placed onto a surface on the face that will be visible and then adhered together from behind to a temporary base. The mosaic is then flipped and applied to the base, and then the temporary base is removed. [41][42][43]

Section 2: Deliverable

About the Mosaic

For my mosaic I decided to use a completely digital medium, akin to a collage. The tiles of my mosaic are photos of mosaics, one taken by me and the other three from the internet, that have been shrunken down to a relatively consistent size. I then took my digital tesserae and using Photoshop, I created the image above. The digital medium I used allowed for more experimentation than would have been allowed by the traditional physical mosaic, as I could move photos whenever I wanted and undo my mistakes. I also had an unlimited supply of tile possibilities at my fingertips via the world wide web if i needed a new tile. I also used a combination of the two techniques as some of my designs such as the leaf design I created separately on a separate layer and placed them into the piece; I used the direct method for the outermost set of white tiles directly placing each tile in its position. A digital medium also provides the advantage of creating a clone of an image allowing me to speed up the creation of my mosaic, by only having to create half of it and then duplicating and mirroring the image. One other major advantage was the lack of precision needed to accurately shape the tiles; Photoshop can ensue that my tiles are even and shaped exactly to fit thee hole it was being put into. I used a monochrome palate inspired by the mosaics on the floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum and around the city. This also inspired my heavy use of geometric patterns like the concentric circles and the repeated use of right angles.

A Modern Mosaic

NBMosaic V1.png

A Comparison

Unlike a physical medium, a digital medium has limitless possibilities. For this mosaic my tiling is made up of pictures of mosaics. The pictures used for this mosaic specifically are of monochromatic mosaics similar to a Roman stone mosaic. I chose these pictures because of their color schemes, especially the pure white and black images to be able to create a sharp contrast.


The final image in the gallery below was my main inspiration for this mosaic, as it has a simple geometric pattern and a monochromatic color palette. I have seen mosaics similar to that final gallery image across London, from museum walls and floors to store entryways; because of the common appearance of this style of mosaic I tried to replicate the elements I observed: a dark and thick border, repeating shapes, and large sections of the same color were the specific elements I chose to focus on. For this design, I chose the size of my tiles to be different in each major section to create movement and a stronger division of each section. The border is darker than the surrounding tiles, but not the darkest element of the mosaic; I kept the border at a medium darkness to have a wider range of grey shades rather than a pure black and white mosaic. In terms of repeating shapes I decided to create a leaf shape and concentric circles. The leaf pattern pays homage to the mosaics on the stairs of the Victoria and Albert Museum and I thought an irregular shape would add more complexity to a relatively simplistic design. The concentric circles are a reference to the first image in the gallery of images I used, as it has a clearly defined circle and then a circular element inside of that circle. I chose to create large sections of solid color blocks to achieve the same effect of the mosaics I observed, which was a harsh visual contrast and subdivision of the areas in the mosaic.

To more onto the base and adhesive, I chose to use a grey background for my tiles to rest upon. I chose this color to replicate the appearance of concrete which is visible in some of the more worn mosaics I have seen. The base rectangle is only visible in a few places because I personally favor a tightly packed mosaic over one with a larger space and more base visible between the tiles. Another reason for my choice of base was that for the sections with small gaps between the tiles it would mock the appearance of grout. The adhesive holding the mosaic together is the merging of each individual image layer in Photoshop; this is almost as permanent as a physical adhesive due to the, albeit large, limit to the number of times a user can undo an action. To shape my tiles I used the crop tool in Photoshop, not unlike using tile cutters to shape and resize tiles. All of the tools I deem necessary to create a digital mosaic can be found in Photoshop: crop, clone, and merge. Photoshop served as my entire studio when creating this mosaic in that it held all of my tools and materials, in a clean and organized manner.

In terms of techniques the digital and physical methods of creating mosaics are very similar. For the border portion of the mosaic, I created it in a separate file and later placed that file into the main mosaic. This is a direct translation of the indirect method from physical to digital, as the physical method involves creating the mosaic offsite and then placing the pre-created piece into place. The remaining portion of the mosaic was created using the direct method, adding image by image into the file, placing them in the correct position, and then merging the layers to cement the mosaic together. I tried two techniques to create the concentric circles the first of the two was rotating the tiles to create the illusion of a curve. This option was inefficient and I did not have enough skill to achieve the desired effect, so I decided to maximize my digital advantage by creating a rectangular block and cutting the circle from that block. The latter attempt to create the circles allowed me to achieve a perfectly round edge to my tiles, a task that would be incredibly difficult by hand.


Throughout this milestone I learned about mosaic, and the materials and tools needed to create one. I then applied this knowledge to a digital setting (Photoshop) and compared how it is different from the traditional methods. I can confidently say that the process of creating a digital mosaic is much more forgiving than a physical mosaic. I would have loved to use more of my own photos, but due to having to look up at most of the mosaics the distortion made the tiles appear lopsided. It would be interesting to now to make a physical mosaic and be able to compare those experiences in a more than theoretical setting. It would also be interesting to see how digital enhancement of the images used to create the mosaic or a change in the color palate could change the mood of the piece.


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