This Is How Mosaics Are Made

This Is How Mosaics Are Made

Mosaics

The earliest mosaics, as evidenced by Pre-Columbian art, were made of shells, pieces of semi-precious stones, and even mother-of-pearl inlays. However, these humble beginnings soon led to the grand mosaics of Mesopotamia and, from there, into Ancient Greece and Rome. While how mosaics are made has changed over time, one thing remains constant: The final result is still a work of art that is visually spectacular and that seems to defy the ravages of time.

#1 Lay Out a Foundation with a Substrate

Substrates, the underlying layers used to hold up the final design, has been made up of many different materials in history. Pre-Columbians might have used clay or paper with a gum adhesive, but today much stronger adhesives are used to keep the mosaic in place. For architectural mosaics in Byzantine, the ancient Romans had a four layer method that was quite intricate, which included broken bricks, lime, and powdered clay. 

Things are much simpler now! Today's substrates are usually cement board or flooring and then some mortar or adhesive. It makes it just as easy to put up a mosaic on a wall or even a fireplace surround (as seen in this photo), since you aren't building up a monstrous substrate.

#2 Collect or Create The Tesserae

In the past, the tesserae (the small cubes made of stone, glass or other material) were created on the job sitea at the same time when you were creating the mosaic. So, if an artisan wanted a particular color, they could pick up a block of marble and chip off tiny tiles from it just when they needed it. later, the design could also be laid out somewhere else and the tiles glued onto a fabric in a backwards manner to transport it whole to the job site. After removing the fabric from the face that was laid down, it would be ready to be grouted. However, both these processes are really laborious and subject to human error.

Instead, today you can get tesserae laid out on a grid and then lay the entire grid down and grout it into place, without the need to remove the backing. For example, this Hestia border, from the Tunisian collection, can be brought fully laid out already and thus easily replicated across whatever length at the job site without it varying too much in design.

#3 Lay Out the Final Design

As was viewed in the previous video, an ancient artisan might create the design by coloring it into the clay mix on the top layer at the job site. Then, they would lay the tesserae on top one by one. You can still create custom designs one tile at a time, but you don't necessarily have to do it in wet mortar at the job site. Artisans can lay out a mosaic design in the shop with adhesive and then transport it to the final destination where it will be installed later, after the glue dries. That's probably how this feature wall was created.

#4 Grout Your Masterpiece

The grout an artisan uses can be used to enhance the final design. Darker grout colors help lighter tiles pop out. Or, if you want a subtle effect a dark grout with a dark tile makes a perfect background too. This design uses a dark grout for both. It makes the white flowers pop and the dark brown background recede, for a very elegant look.

#5 Wipe Down and Cure

After grouting, the mosaic needs to be wiped down so that the tiles can reflect as much light as possible without a layer of grout covering them up. The entire design needs to cure for a few days before it will be waterproof and solid. If you've used glass tesserae then the light will really bounce across the design in delightful ways! This beautiful still life was created using glass tiles from the Glow collection.

#6 Use of Modern Age Tools

One extra note should be made in this process of mosaics. Today we have diamond blades to cut hard materials like stone into tiles. We also have the waterjet, which produces a thin stream of water under pressure that will cut through stone in a very precise way. Both these tools have allowed stonemasons to create even more intricate designs with astounding precision, like this waterjet medallion.

The waterjet, in particular, can create fantastic, interlacing curves, to produce stone mosaics that would have been impossible with other methods. This may seem like a simple design, but without a waterjet, it would be near impossible!

Mosaics: Simpler Than in the Past

So, that's how mosaics are made. It is true that mosaics are still somewhat time-intensive to create, but the process itself is much simpler. You don't need a heavy substrate, like the ones used in Ancient Rome. Designs can be created off-site and then brought to a luxury home or business and suffer little damage. There are many more materials to choose from for tesserae and color choices for grout have grown too. Modern tools like the waterjet have made cutting intricate curves in hard stones, like marble, as easy as using a butter knife to cut butter.

The process of making a mosaic has gotten simpler, but paradoxically, the designs have gotten more intricate. Mosaic artworks are no longer just for public offices, but can be in the home of anyone that wants one. They are still highly customizable, although not all custom designs have to be done entirely one tile at a time and by hand. There are pre-cut waterjet designs and grid borders that are already created and just need to be grouted into place. By mixing and matching designs, you can still come up with a custom piece with half the work!

About the Author

Nelson Londono founded Artsaics in 1998 after learning the ins and outs of designing custom artistic tiles and stone mosaics. The New York-based surfacing company specializes in producing stunning artistic tiles & stone designs with fine natural stone from around the world. Nelson and his team's passion lies in working with their hands, heads and hearts to make each and every space a unique reflection of self expression. You can learn more about Artsaics here.