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7 Steps to Mosaic Art Success

I had dreamed of going to Italy this summer to see historical mosaic art. Instead, that money went toward a bathroom remodel. So I took a basics workshop at the Chicago Mosaic School, the only classical and contemporary mosaic training school in the United States. In an afternoon, I got my Italian art fix and discovered a new way to be creative.

These are the seven fundamentals of mosaic making:

Keep it simple Our instructor talked about the ancient art form’s guiding, fundamental design principle, andamento—the flow of a dominant line pattern that breaks up the space. Think of simple, thick, black-lined images like those in a preschooler’s coloring book—a flower, fish, fruit, leaf, number or geometric pattern. This principle is easiest to execute in simple designs. I chose an image of stylized grass because it reminded me of a fun family weekend at the Indiana Dunes. I sketched it on a piece of paper the same size as the surface the mosaic will cover, in this case a 4x4-inch tile. 

Pick your materials  I learned that classical mosaics, like the replicas of ancient Roman and Byzantine works displayed at the school, used hand-cut, square and trapezoidal shaped pieces called tesserae in Italian. By contrast, contemporary mosaic designs, like those in the school’s public art gallery, often incorporate multiple materials and varying shapes of glass, tile and stone in layered, dimensional artworks. We could take either approach. In addition to glass, we could pick materials like small shells, pebbles, buttons, beads and other found objects.

Use the right tools To cut glass, we needed stained-glass art tools, including a glass cutter (to score glass sheets), running pliers (for breaking glass sheets into straight-edged pieces) and wheel nippers (for shaping pieces and cutting circles). It's also essential to wear safety glasses when cutting glass. Other tools that would come in handy include a metal spatula to spread thin-set mortar and tweezers and a dental pick (or toothpick) to mark patterns in mortar.

Go big “Glass is brittle and temperamental, rarely behaving the way you want. This fickleness is part of the mosaic design process, and why learning with big pieces is easier,” says instructor Casey Van Loon, a senior stained-glass artist at Botti Studio of Architectural Arts in Evanston, Illinois. I chose a combination of cut glass and found objects (beads and a button) to create dune grass against an energetic background of paisley-imprinted glass resembling a stormy sky.

Color outside the lines As long as you keep the design’s rhythm created by the dominant andamento pattern, don’t be afraid to go outside the lines of your original drawing; the piece shapes delightfully influence the final design. I placed pieces on my paper image to complete the core design, then worked on the background. For first-timers, the easiest way to do a background is a method called crazy paving—filling the surrounding space with randomly shaped pieces.

Get set Our instructor demonstrated how to apply thin-set as mortar on the base surface. With a spatula, I spread about a 1/4-thick layer of thin-set, enough to hold embedded glass. Before placing the tiles, I scratched in my design outline with a dental pick.

Go with the flow As we transferred the pieces from the paper pattern into the wet thin-set, we were encouraged to feel free to turn pieces upside down, invert them or overlap them; the mortar stays moist and malleable while you experiment. I layered pointy cut glass pieces and spiky green beads to create dune grass and was amazed how repositioning a single piece resulted in a whole new design possibility.

My classmate Linda Rodriguez, an elementary school art teacher in Glenview, says, “I like the accidental part of the mosaic-making process because it makes you stay flexible and open to different options.”

The three-hour class zoomed by as fast as the frequent El trains outside the sun-flooded, loft studio’s windows. After taking this basic training and buying tools, glass and thin-set ($60) sold in Tiny Pieces, the retail store inside the school, I’m ready to make mosaics at home.

And now I know just what to do with some of those extra tiles from our bathroom redo.

The Chicago Mosaic School, 1806 W. Cuyler Ave. in the North Center neighborhood’s Ravenswood Arts District, offers classes for beginners to master mosaic artists. The Mosaic Basics workshop I took was $75, including instruction, materials and use of tools. (773) 975-8966; chicagomosaicschool.com

Fish mosaic is a replica of a 4th-century Roman mosaic of stone and marble, originally from a floor in a North African villa; face mosaic is the contemporary work Il Poeta by Verdiano Marzi; gold-pieces mosaic is the contemporary piece Sole by Marco DeLuca. 

Read more of Kit’s travel adventures at www.KitTravels.com.