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Mosaics and Painting
Whether a mosaic panel hangs in a museum, a gallery, or even in our living room, we are driven by our intuitive perception, common wisdom, and ingrained habits to view it as another painting. This risks missing what is special to the mosaic, what makes it a unique art form. The intrinsic properties of stone - or any other material used -- are what make a mosaic unique, and these properties are not to be found in paint. In what follows, I will discuss three aspects that distinguish mosaics from paintings and that render our painterly criteria inappropriate when applied to mosaics.
The following introductory distinctions are not meant to establish a scale of value. Both painting and mosaic are wonderful art forms that have given us thousands of years of pleasure. In each medium, the artist chooses the effects he wants to create and consequently privileges certain properties of his medium. And as with any art form, an understanding of the artist's craft infinitely enriches our viewing pleasure.
1. Materials and surfaces
A painting is done with paint (or pencil, charcoal, ink, etc). It is therefore two dimensional. Some contemporary artists try to use acrylic, oil and gesso as a sculptural medium to add texture to their work, but the possibilities remain limited. But once the artist starts using three-dimensional materials, it's a whole new game, most probably, listed as mixed media.
Pebbles, gravel, river stones, were the precursors of "found objects" and indeed the first known tesserae. Soon, mosaic artists learned to shape their material into small stone cubes. Fast forward a few centuries, and we see mosaic artists fashioning glass in a similar manner. Fast forward again to contemporary times, and not only do artists use stone and glass, but they see no limit to what else they can adhere to their substrate. Today we can find mosaics that include fabric, metal, found objects, pieces of hardware, in short, just about anything. Each tessera, whether conventional or not, is three-dimensional, each has a different texture, and each reflects light differently. Even the traditional stone and glass can stand on the substrate so that their smooth, polished surface shows, or, on the contrary, so that their fractured side shows and their uneven or sometimes crumbly texture becomes part of the final work.
The artist's talent and indeed the richness of the mosaic draw on the arrangement of these materials, on the orchestration of their properties. When we speak about "composition" in a mosaic, we are referring to the composition of the materials as much as to the forms, lines and colors. We notice juxtaposition of textures, andamento (flow), cuts and size chosen for each tessera. In addition, the play of reflective and non-reflective materials, that is, the play with light, can create spectacular effects. Composition in a mosaic therefore refers to the composition of the materials and the andamento as much as it does to that of forms, lines and colors.
In addition the play of reflective and non reflective materials, that is, the play with light, can create spectacular effects. Often, we can even list light as one of the primary raw materials of a mosaic. (Such is the case in many Byzantine mosaics that hang in dimly lit churches.) In short, the selection of the materials, their layout, and their interplay are the bedrock of the mosaicist's art.
Painters blend their pastes on their palette to create just the color they need before it goes on their canvases. They can derive stunning effects from gradation and overlay of paint. Mosaicists do not have this option. Their colors are "found," just like their materials.
Instead of blending the colors on a palette before applying them, they juxtapose them directly on their substrate, and rely on the viewer's eye to affect the needed blending. The final result depends on the skill and the imagination with which the mosaicist marshals these juxtapositions, and anticipates the way the viewer's eye will blend them.
With all the factors that affect a mosaic, the work can easily become cluttered. The motif is therefore not necessarily essential. At times it may seem superfluous, since even a monochrome mosaic can be extremely rich and complex. A motif is therefore best left simple, reduced to its most elementary characteristics, so as not to overburden the eye and detract from the viewing pleasure. The tendency of the mosaic artist will be to edit the motif (be it figurative or abstract) and to replace some of the lines and forms found in a painting with effects of texture, andamento, and light.
Design : JBk