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Discover the tesserae

A look at the different mosaic materials and their qualities

Mosaic art is a unique art form which combines skilled craftsmanship with creative design and a very physical construction, fixing one block of colour next to another, it is a true architectural art.

Knowing the right material to use is the first thing the mosaic craftsperson learns, here are the main materials and their uses and qualities.

Marble and Travertine

Stone was the first mosaic material, probably evolving from simple pebbles pushed into mud floors to solidify them. Pebble mosaics have a strong tradition in themselves and can be seen in many cultures.

Stone mosaics usually use marbles and travertine for their variety of colours. The natural differences in the stones give them a beautiful variety and the colour palette is limited but naturally harmonious. The surface texture of stone mosaics can be extremely varied ranging from a mirror polish surface to deeply riven and textured finishes.

Glass Smalti

Hand made opaque glass enamels are perhaps the Rolls Royce of mosaic materials. Know traditionally as Smalti this handmade glass is hard but not brittle, each hand made glass plate is formed from the furnace and then annealed. This material comes in an amazing and exquisite range of thousands of colours. This is the material you may have seen adorning the Cathedrals of Europe. The glass is traditionally cut with a hammer and the riven side is placed face up, giving a unique and rich texture to the mosaic. Variants on Smalti include the 24 carat Gold Smalti, produced by layering pure gold leaf between glass layers and large flat plate glass enamel known as Piastrina which can be used to great effect in modern designs.

Machine made glass

You may already be familiar with the machine made vitreous fired glass tesserae, often used in swimming pools. They are mostly found in the 20 x 20mm format and are cut down from this for mosaic artworks. The colour range is bright and fairly good and the material is strong and durable. Unlike the handmade glass the finished surface is completely flat and when put next to the handmade glass can seem hard but in the right hands the material can work well.

Machine made ceramic

Ceramic mosaic divides into two separate groups, the standard ceramics and the high fired porcelains. Standard fired ceramics are not often used in mosaic due to their relative fragility however porcelain has many uses particularly due to their great strength.

Glazed Porcelains can be used on interior and exterior walls and can come in a range of colour options.

Unglazed Porcelain usually come in a more muted but harmonious colour palette. Unglazed porcelains are particularly tough, heat and frost proof and many are suitable for floors, with good slip and impact resistance it is also a good material for walls, pools and three dimensional forms.

Hand made ceramic

There are a variety of handmade ceramics that can be used in mosaic projects, from bespoke elements to production ceramics. One of the most interesting is a handmade irregular porcelain, called Litovi, this material is made very much in the style of the Smalti. Litovi has a wide colour range and an irregular riven surface.

Other materials...

In the contemporary context there is a whole range of other materials being used in mosaic. Though caution should be used in the application of these materials they can bring their own meaning and relevance to an artwork. Examples of non standard materials used in mosaic art include: sea shells; nails; coins; fired photos; found objects; domestic ceramics; toys; recycled glass; bottle caps… the list goes on.

Are you planning a site specific artwork?

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Artist Gary Drostle has been creating award winning site specific artworks from his London studio for over 30 years.

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