Okay everyone, I have been just dying to show you my latest mosaic work! I couldn’t do it until now, though, because it was a Christmas present for my family and I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. The present has been opened now, so I can finally share my most ambitious mosaic to date with all of you!

Before that, though, I want to share some other exciting mosaic-related news. Cindy Fisher, who you may recall was the instructor I met at Arrowmont who got me all fired up about mosaics, has graciously invited me to assist her at a workshop at Penland School
of Crafts
 this summer! I will be there helping with her two-week mosaic course from June 8-22. I have never been to Penland before, but I have heard nothing but good about it and can’t wait to go! For those unfamiliar, Penland is a nationally known craft school, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It’s similar to Arrowmont, hosting workshops taught by nationally known artists year-round.

Now, back to the mosaic. As I mentioned, this mosaic was intended as a Christmas present for my parents, who had a specific spot on their wall they complained was too bare. Getting the hint, I set out to make a mosaic for the spot.

The dimensions of this project were 18 x 24, larger than anything I had yet attempted. My parents, like me, are nature lovers, especially of birds and blossoms. I pulled out my big drawing pad and made a sketch of three chickadees on a dogwood:

Now, I wanted to do this mosaic in the indirect method, which involves laying the tiles (tesserae) down on sticky contact paper and then eventually attaching those tiles to cement board. This means that the side facing up when you lay the glass on sticky paper will eventually be the back, the side that gets stuck to the board. So, the face down sides of the tiles will end up showing, and the image will be reversed. I liked the image in this orientation so I traced a backwards copy of it to work from, so the final mosaic would have this same orientation.

After that was done, I began laying the tiles. Cindy taught me to always lay the foreground first, from the most detailed and important elements to the least. I figured the birds were the #1 item, so I began with them.

Notice the I’m laying the ridged back side of the vitreous tile face up, because this side of the mosaic will eventually become the back. It’s easy to forget this at the beginning and end up having to flip some tiles! Another helpful Cindy tip is putting the little white “shines” in the eye, to give them some life. Chickadees don’t really have a grey spot over their eyes, but I was forced to add one in order to differentiate the eye from the rest of the head.

Here’s the completed center bird. I wanted to give the impression of the wing and tail feathers being glossy, so I snuck some white tiles in.

The three birds, completed. Next I began on the blossoms:

I added lots of different colored green “crumbs” for the centers of the blossoms, and some subtle pinks for the tips. The most challenging part about the flowers was trying to portray them from all different angles, how they’d appear on an actual tree.

Here are the completed birds and blossoms. The only remaining foreground at this point were the branches and leaves, which were a very fast part to complete:

Next I deliberated for a long time about the background. It might seem like the background is the simplest part, but I actually find it to be the most challenging. Contrast is one of the most important parts of a mosaic, and I think movement is, too. So I kept those things in mind as I deliberated. If I just laid dark green tiles in the background like a row of bricks, I’d achieve neither one of these things, since the leaves and twigs would get lost in the dark green color, and the brick structure would take all the lovely organic-ness out of the foreground.

I wanted to give the impression that there were leaves and sky behind the dogwood tree, with all the shifting shadows and light that come through tree branches. I had a lot of dark colors in the foreground, so it became apparent that the background would have to be somewhat light so the birds would “pop.” here is what I began with: 

I laid some large pale green pieces to act as background leaf clusters. Then I added various blues, greens, and some ivory for the muted sunlight. But, something felt lacking. Then I realized: I had put in all highlights and no shadows. The background needed some strategically placed darker areas.

That felt much more satisfying. I eventually also began to add in some pinks, to help pick up the subtle pink tips of the dogwood blossoms. Here is the completed layout:

I’m still not sure I got the “shifting shadows on the leaves” effect, but I consider it a successful background overall. So, I prepared for the messy part: setting and grouting!

To set the tiles onto the cement backing board, I prepared some white thinset and spread it on the board with a notched trowel. Then I flipped the thinset-coated board onto the tiled surface. I don’t have any pictures of that for you, since it takes two hands to drop the board onto the tile and plus I didn’t want thinset on the camera. So use your imagination and we end up with this:

So now, the image has been reversed, and the smooth sides of the vitreous tiles are now showing. Obviously, we are in need of some grout, since the white color of the thinset is breaking up the image something awful.

I used medium gray grout for this image. Then, I painted the exposed border a nice warn green. Here’s the final result!