10 tips for mosaic laying – Part I: Roman method (direct method)

The Roman mosaics are primarily distinguished by their simple aesthetics. Both regarding shapes of the tesserae and the nature and use of color. The more closely you look at them, the more you discover how wisely great effects were achieved with few shapes and colors.

As you might know, there are many different types of mosaics that have remained from the golden age of Rome. This post refers to the so-called opus tessellatum, probably the best known type of mosaics from the Roman period. Its name refers to the dominant form of stones – squares. Both geometric patterns and figural representations were often implemented in this style. And most decorative borders and backgrounds were made in this technique. I will point out the differences of other mosaic types from the Roman period including opus vermiculatum, mosaici a canestro, opus lapilli and opus sectile in other posts.

As I have already reported, we have been working on copies of Roman mosaics for some time. And the closer I look at the originals, the more I notice details and peculiarities. Some of them could help you copying a mosaic of these times or creating your own. So I would like to pass on to you today what I have recognized so far.

The examples here are details of mosaic copies from the school. The originals were found in Aquileia. In the photos you can see quite well the details of the andamenti. To point out the suggestions I make further down, I have added some images in black and white in which I have highlighted the suggestions marked in red at the end of this post. A good example of the interplay of shapes and colors is the fish in the asarathon in Aquileia. Look at the teeth and spikes of his body more closely.

10 tips for mosaic laying – Part I: Roman method (direct method)

Andamenti

Depending on the style and design of a mosaic, there are quite different types of andamenti. Gradients of lines and arrangements of stones that seem arbitrary at first glance often follow a logic, even in modern mosaics. So here are some peculiarities in the Roman mosaics.

1. Divide surfaces visually from outside to inside

The Romans divided the surface in the opus tesselatum visually from the outside to the inside. That is, the shape of a surface is traced with a line of tesserae. When this first inner frame is completed, the next inner frame is formed until the entire area is filled. (Note: I am not talking of laying here, but of dividing the space before laying.)

The concept of the framing line is omnipresent in the mosaic. It is on the one hand used to frame the background and on the other hand to optically separate the important parts in the image from the background. Like a small halo this line brings some balance into the picture. It also dictates how the rest of the room is divided in the image. Namely, with the same way as described above regarding small areas. In large surfaces, horizontal lines of squares usually fill the space.

2. Use squares, trapezoids and triangles to follow the andamenti

Where possible, the lines of the mosaic are built with squares (1). Depending on the curvature and taper of the lines trapezoids are used (2). Only where a line ends getting very narrow, it will be completed by a triangle (3). A “sdoppiamento”, the splitting of a line into two lines, is solved by dividing it in two (4) with tesserae which should not form a cross joint. This would catch the eye (see also point 6. “Don’t form cross joints”). As the sdoppiamento is a particularly sensitive area which should not attract too much attention, it is important to lay it in a harmonic way.

3. Avoid “steps” between the tesserae

There should be no large differences from tessera to tessera. To visually form a line the mutually facing edges of neighboring stones should therefore approximately have the same width.

4. Follow curves with trapezoids

In point 1. I briefly mentioned it already: In order to form a round shape – for example, the outer shape of a leaf – trapezoids are layed, their joint always forming a 90 degree angle to the inner line of the circle (5). Like the limbs of your fingers when you form an “O” with thumb and index finger. Where a “wave” breaks, the trapezoid is turned into the opposite direction (6). Sounds complicated? Look at the Roman mosaics more closely and follow your intuition. This will come all by itself.

5. Narrow lines using trapezoids

In order to let a line get more narrow, just put one trapezoid above the other (2). At the same time pay attention to the curves (see also point 4) to select the appropriate tesserae.

General Tips

These points also apply to other styles, not just for Roman mosaics. For the sake of completeness, I’d like to mention them here.

6. Don’t form cross joints

Not welcome, because they attract the view and therefore let the viewer focus too much: Crosses. Thus, tesserae forming joints in a cross shape. Like the joints you find in your tiled bathroom. Even if you can’t always avoid them: These are not pretty at all!

7. Provide a uniform joint

The central objects in the mosaic are layed beginning at their most important detail, from the inside to the outside. The background, however, should be layed from the outside to the inside to have a stable and clean border. Always work in an open way avoiding bottlenecks. If not you’ll have to invest lots of time inserting tesserae afterwards. Also avoid letting a row of stones stand alone in space, because it will have little support in the cement bed.

At first it is not easy to form a stable thin set while building uniform joints. Somehow, the stones don’t want to stay together. While at some place there is a big joint, in another it is too small.

Sometimes “bellied” tesserae are to blame pushing the neighboring stones away and forming large gaps. With a little practice you’ll find that this problem can be solved by simply turning the stone. As Yin and Yang in mosaics. Or you have to work on the stone again, making it “leaner”.

For good grip in the thin set, the tesserae should be layed into the cement with 2/3. Take care that no cement is pushed to the surface! This looks ugly and could soil the surface of the mosaic.

Also important is the cleaning of the border after each section in order to have a clean row when beginning the next part in another day. You can either carefully clean the mosaic border directly after finishing your work with a small spatula (while the cement is still fresh). Or you cut the slightly hardened cement away carefully with a cutter when you continue working on another day (after more than 3 days this will get difficult, though).

8. Form an even surface

The Roman mosaics were pavement mosaics. If you make a copy, pay attention to build an even surface. As a scale, a tile or a piece of wood is helpful. Stand up from time to time to look at your mosaic with a certain distance to control better.

9. Observe color mixes and gradients

With a few shades the pictor imaginarius (the artist who designed the mosaic) created amazing effects, patterns and shades. Look at mosaics from the Roman period more closely to understand how colors were mixed and gradients were made. A little visual distance helps to check your color mixing while working.

10. Don’t hesitate!

What I still find a little difficult is not paying too much attention to the many rules above. To just go on and be sure that at the end of it all will look beautiful. I tend to care too much about the shapes of each tessera. I’m sure at that time, the Romans didn’t. After all, as a slave executing the mosaic you had to lay the stones in a neat pace. What helps to be fast is a good selection of harvested material.

Were these tips helpful for you? Do you have something to add? Leave a comment below!

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Mosaik römische Technik - Hirsch Aquileia

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28 Comments

    • Thank you, Allan! It is really nice to hear that you find my guides useful! Let me know if you are interested in a certain subject!

  • Oh goody. Now I don’t have to enroll at La Scuola – I’ll just print this out and save the tuition. Truthfully, you make me want to get back into the studio today. I’ll be tweeting/FB’ing this great post that I am certain many will find useful. Well done.

    • Nancie, please enroll, we’ll have good times together! :-D Just kidding. Thanks for your feedback and for sharing the post! Enjoy your day at the studio!

  • Dear Miriam,

    Thank you so much. I have to echo the comments of the others – this is perfect. I really haven’t seen most of this published before, so your blog is an invaluable resource for the practical dimensions of mosaic technique. I can hardly wait for the next tutorials on opus vermiculatum, opus sectile, etc.

    Again, many thanks,
    Justin

    • Dear Justin, thanks for your kind words, they really motivate me to go on sharing. And it is really beautiful to see how you keep following the tutorials!
      Cheers, Miriam

  • We are mosaic students at the arts-academie of Wilrijk, Belgium, that works closely together with your school . Mr. Brovedani has visited our school several times and knows our teacher Gino Tondat very well. He was a former student at your school, in the 70’s.

    We would like to kindly ask you if you will allow us to use the “10-tips “- informations that you put on your website to translate them ito Dutch and to spread them around our fellow students.

    We hope to hear from you, wishing you the best,

    Hugo and Natasja Cleeren-Mulder
    Teteringen,
    Netherlands

    • Dear Natasja and Hugo,

      thanks for getting in touch. Very interesting that you study mosaic in Belgium. How is the academy called? Can you send me a link? I am just curious to discover… I have heard from Gino Tondat. He must be very talented.

      Yes, of course you may translate the tips and spread them out to your students. Please just put a copyright claim Ⓒ musedmosaik on the stamp and a link to my blog. And if you have a website I would appreciate if you added a link to my homepage. Thank you!

      I would just like to point out: These are no official 10 tips or rules we learn at school, but the post is a mix of everything the teachers tell us now and then here in school put into format by myself and added with some personal views.

      Best wishes,
      Miriam

  • Very nice and useful blog, Thank you Miriam.
    We are engaged in a mosaic in Moscow, Russia. We have virtually no academic literature on pridmet. What you read in school?

  • Miriam, it’s great to see that you are learning so many useful things in Spilimbergo. And it’s even better that you are generously sharing your time to make blog posts on what you are learning. Thank you! The experience in Spilimbergo must be amazing. I’ve visited twice and would love to have been a student there. Keep up the great work and best wishes.

    • Dear Julie, thank you! Yes, it’s really great to study here. Inspiring and very intense learning. If you visit the school again in future, come and say hello!
      Best wishes to you, Miriam

  • Miriam,
    I have just found your blog. It is wonderful. I attended the summer classes at Spilimbergo in 2013. It was great fun, a beautiful school. I had Laura Carrara, Dagmar Friedrich, and Valeria Manzo, and Carolina Zanelli for Maestra. I loved all of them. Thank you for the memories of my time at this wonderful school.

    • Dear Connie, I know all those teachers and totally agree. They are inspiring and have a lot of knowledge and you surely learned a lot from them.
      Really nice to have you on my blog. Thank you for following!
      Miriam

  • Hola Miriam!! me encanto tu pagina y he aprendido mucho.Soy Argentina y muchas veces tu sugerencias de productos están fuera de todo conocimiento en esta parte del mundo por ejemplo los adhesivos,igual trato de pensar en la forma de reemplazarlos.Gracias por ser tan generosa con tus conocimientos!!.Abrazo.

    • Dear Silvia, I am happy to hear that you like this blog. Let me know if you have particular questions or suggestions for this page and I will consider them when planning my next posts. All the best, Miriam

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