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Make it or break it: a walk-through of how to make a mosaic

Have you ever stopped to ponder the finer details of how to make a mosaic? The millennia-old craft might seem simple to the untrained eye, however, mosaic designs involve an elaborate method of cutting stones and placing them in exactly the right position.

Mosaic design is an art form that beckons patience, perseverance and above all– the ability to see the bigger picture while attending to the smaller details– with the foresight that every little bit counts.

This blog post will outline the basics of how to piece together finely laid-out mosaic art patterns. From preparing the mosaic tile art to the final stages of tiling the pieces together, and finally setting them in place for their mosaic presentation—we’ll walk you through it all.

Mosaics for beginners

A mosaic is the decoration of a surface with designs made up of closely set, multi-colored and finely cut pieces of material, known as tesserae. Typically glass or stone, these pieces are adjoined and arranged in a way that form a cohesive image or mosaic pattern when viewed from a slight distance.

As is the case with any art form, there are a wide variety of methods and techniques to create mosaic designs. However, before you can begin making mosaics, you must first identify the image you wish to recreate. You can use anything from a simple cartoon, to an elaborate masterpiece. It all depends on your skill level, patience, and the amount of time you plan to spend making your mosaic.

However, if you consider yourself to be a beginner at making mosaics, it’s best to keep the design simple. Opt for your favorite comic, or a rough outline of a simple shape, or animal. At this level, it’s best not to get too complicated.

While mastering the art form will require a lifetime of commitment to achieve, as a beginner you can create beautiful mosaics with a bit of guidance, practice, and some elbow grease.

How to mosaic

It begins with the first step before selecting the material that you will ideally want to use to piece the mosaic together, which is to start drafting or visualizing the pattern of the award-winning design you have in mind.

Once you’ve zoned in on the mosaic art pattern that you would like to see elaborated into a full-scale production, you then take it to the drawing board – or in this case, the ground as mosaics artworks are usually assembled on a flat floor space.

There is an infinite sample space of mosaic patterns that you could dream up. If you happen to be an artist yourself, then the floor is yours to sketch one up. Otherwise, you also have the option of recreating an already existing art piece or abstracting on that artwork and spawning a derivative of it in mosaic form. But while making a mosaic could be a very basic process in itself, what it will always require is patience, and a great deal of effort, with a meticulous eye out for detail all throughout.

How to design a mosaic

While a master of mosaic art will normally use quality material in a mosaic design, as a novice it is advised that you start with cheaper material, such as cast-away ceramic tiles. You could even consider going back to even more ancient methods of using everyday stones or pebbles.

It doesn’t necessarily matter what material you use for the mosaic designs, but what you’ll most definitely need is your imagination before anything. While there is beauty in improvising a mosaic pattern as you go along, you also run the risk of losing the plot and conceiving something that isn’t easily reversed, so be resolute in what you’re trying to achieve with your depictions before actually getting started.

How to make a mosaic  

There are two basics methods of making a mosaic—direct and indirect. Both options are great for beginners, however they can get increasingly technical with skill and practice. In the direct method of making a mosaic, the tesserae are directly glued to the base and then grouted. The indirect method involves temporarily fixing pieces onto a removable base with the right-side down. After drying the temporary base is removed to reveal the mosaic right-side up.

The direct method is often easier for beginners as the right-side of the tesserae is always visible, which allows you to see the image develop in front of you—almost like completing a jigsaw puzzle.

The indirect method is reserved for experts and those who wish to achieve a very flat surface. The individual gluing and grouting involved in the direct method will inevitably cause uneven surfaces. For this reason, the direct method is best suited for wall panels, plaques, or three-dimensional objects.

Step one: Draw it out 

Once you’ve decided on your mosaic design, and application technique you can now sketch your image on your permanent or temporary base. This will serve as a  reference for placing the tiles. If you’re a beginner and using a permeant base, it’s advised that you use either plywood or a concrete board.

Bear in mind that when sketching your mosaic design, you’ll want to keep it as simple as possible. Think in dotted-lines used in coloring book as this is only an outline to serve as a parameter to your mosaic design pattern, not more. The colors, as well as more intricate patterns, will come to life once you’ve applied the tiles, so you need not fret too much about this part.

Step two: Collect your tiles

Once you’ve sketched your mosaic design, you can now begin selecting the tiles that will best compliment your design. Pebbles and glass are the two most commonly used materials. You can purchase a kit, or collect the materials yourself from around the house or in your garden.

Pebbles and other stones are the easiest material to use when it comes to making mosaics. However, if you wish to use glass as your main source of material, you’re advised to cut the tesserae using a wheeled glass cutter rather than a tile nipper.

If working with glass be sure to wear safety goggles to avoid injury, assemble the mosaic outdoors, and keep glass shards away from pets and children.

In addition to the material, you must also select the colors you wish to use in your mosaic. For a simple design, 2-4 different colors are recommended for a visually-pleasing design. If your design is more elaborate there is not limit on the number of colors you can use. However, keep in mind the color theory and opt for complimentary colors that will accent your space.

Step three: Glue it in 

After you’ve collected the mosaic tiles that you wish to use in your design, you can then proceed to glue the tiles to the surface. It is advised to prepare a variety of colors for contrasts but also not too many as you want to maintain some form of unity in the mosaic as a whole.

With your outline intact and the right amount of tiles sourced, you can then proceed with glueing the tiles to the surface, piece by piece. The trick is to be sure you don’t leave a gap equal or less than 1/8th of an inch.

You should use an adhesive that melds well and cures strongly. Water-based adhesives are preferred over solvent-based ones, as they bonds well to commonly used materials.

Step four: Think it out before you grout

Because it’s pretty tricky to change your mosaic design after it’s been set in place, leave it un-grouted for a day or two. You might be tempted to ‘fix’ the pesky uneven edges of your mosaic design. These, however are actually an integral element to the mosaic art form. Even the world’s greatest mosaicists leave edges irregular.

Crude edges or strange proportions could actually lend an aesthetic element to the artwork in its final assembly, and that is what adds to the charisma, as opposed to direct reproductions which might come off as pleasant to the eye but lacking in character.

Once you’re happy with your design, you can proceed with the grouting process. Be sure to choose a color that will pleasantly contrast with the tile colors you have chosen.

For example, if you’ve used white tiles, then you’ll want to use black grout for better contrast, and vice versa. This contrast is essentially what brings out the detail within the mosaic patterns you’ve created.

Other recommended colors are off-white or beige to really bring out the beauty in tiles.

One thing to bear in mind when applying the grout is that the color will most definitely fade as it cures, as compared to how the grout appears within the mosaic design when it is still wet.

Photo credit: helen miles mosaics

Patience is a virtue 

You’ll want to approach this whole process while keeping in mind that it is a tedious one. Spend ample time making your mosaic, as rushing the process will probably lead to a less than desirable result.

While you probably won’t become a mosaic-making expert overnight, if you’ve followed the four steps listed above you should be well on your way to being the proud owner of a custom mosaic.

We hope this blog post adds substance to your mosaic needs. For a vast variety of mosaics and services, please visit mozaico.

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Ghassan Khayyat

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