Recently, I stepped into a mosaic shop.
All sorts of mosaics were on display: historical scenes, religious symbols, buildings, animals, and replicas of well-known paintings. Some were glossy, while others were matte. Some were black and white, others vibrant.
But when I saw the mosaic making demonstration, one thing was clear: creating mosaics from scratch is hard. From inception to the final touches, a lot of thought, planning, and labor goes into creating each individual piece of work.
I had always wondered how mosaics were created, so it was interesting to see the process laid out (more on that later).
But first, where did mosaics come from?
The Origin of Mosaic Art
The mosaic art form originated around 3,000 BC in Mesopotamia, where cone-shaped clay was pushed into mud walls. The bottoms of the cones were different colors to create patterns and images.
Around 600 BC, the Greeks started to create floor mosaics. They first used pebbles of various shades and shapes, then incorporated glass and stones to produce more refined mosaics. They later produced regular-sized cubes, or tesserae, to ease the process.
Many of their early works focused on patterns such as repeated swirls, lines, and geometric shapes. Later, figures such as mythological subjects and scenes became the focal point.
Two techniques were employed. The first used tiny tesserae to create mosaics in workshops that were transported and glued onto the main site. Though time-consuming, this method allowed for finer detail and a greater realism to the work. The second, more common technique used larger tesserae to work directly on the site.
Sometimes both techniques were combined. For instance, an artist might use the first method to create a detailed scene involving people and animals, and then use the second method to act as a frame bordering the scene.
Though mosaics were evolving, they had yet to reach their peak.
The Proliferation of Mosaics
It wasn’t until the height of the Roman Empire that mosaics experienced an explosion in popularity. During this period, the Romans moved towards smaller pieces and more colors to form a painted look to their mosaics. Mosaics featured pastoral scenes, depictions of the gods, and patterns.
The Romans largely continued to use mosaics on floors, where they decorated villas of the wealthy, public buildings, and fountains. Since the Roman Empire had a vast reach, evidence of their mosaics can still be found from the northern regions of Africa to Britain. If you visit Pompeii today, you can see great examples of floor mosaics during that period.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, mosaics continued to evolve in the Byzantine era around the fifth to the 15th century. Mosaics moved from the floors to the walls. Images largely depicted religious characters and rulers.
Around this time, a new type of tile called “smalti” was developed. Smalti were opaque glass tiles often with a gold leaf backing. These pieces were set at different angles to catch the light, creating a beautiful sparkle effect from any viewpoint. One of the best examples of Byzantine mosaics is in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Mosaics were also used in Islamic culture around this time. Instead of featuring people and scenes, Islamic mosaics featured intricate geometric patterns and shapes, with some elements adopted from the Byzantines. Many of these mosaics can be found on the walls and ceilings of mosques.
Throughout the ages, mosaics have been used for different purposes, whether to show off wealth, enhance a building, or tell a story. No matter their original purpose, they have become important artifacts that give insight into a people and place’s culture, religion, and history.
What Mosaics Teach Us About Creating Lasting Work
Mosaics have been around a long time. Even though its use is not as widespread now, mosaic is still a popular art form that is continually changing in style and substance.
Here are a few takeaways from mosaic art:
1. Durability is an important consideration.
A variety of art forms were created during the Roman Empire, including sculptures, portraits, paintings, and pottery. However, many of these art forms have since been destroyed, such as figurines and pottery, or worn away with time, such as wall frescoes. So which art form has endured the longest?
If you guessed mosaic, you’re right. Some mosaics have lasted thousands of years. For instance, The Beauty of Durrës is the oldest mosaic in Albania, dating from 4th century BC. Since its discovery in 1916, the mosaic has become an iconic and integral part of Albanian culture. The survival of such works helps us better understand how people long ago lived, worked, and felt.
Durability doesn’t only relate to the physical nature of things, though. Durability also relates to creating something that future generations will appreciate and talk about.
Why do some pieces of work become classics, for example? Because they resonate deeply with others. They hit strong emotions and often cover universal themes that are relatable no matter the time period.
2. The beauty of work lies in its intricacy.
We generally see detailed, ornate objects as more beautiful than unadorned, plain items. We value the difficulty, effort, and time it takes to create a piece of work, and so we appreciate the final result.
Mosaics are labor intensive and challenging to create. Thus, the inherent difficulty in creating a mosaic plays a major factor to its popularity. For this reason, wealthy ancient Romans commissioned mosaics to show off their status and money.
Perception of difficulty matters as well. The smaller the mosaic pieces, the more lavish and intricate the final work appears. So if you can create something complex and tedious, or at least the impression of it, then other people will tend to place a higher value on it.
3. To avoid costly mistakes down the road, plan upfront.
Before the mosaic creation begins, the entire design is sketched out in detail first, down to the different shades and colors used. The material used to create the mosaic is laid out on top of the design and broken into small pieces. Once the mosaic pieces are created, the mapping process begins.
The artist places each mosaic piece onto the sketch, ensuring that all the pieces fit together and are color-coordinated. If done correctly, the mapped-out mosaic should look like the final result. All this is done before a single piece is glued on.
The concept of mapping out the process before you begin goes against the conventional advice to just “do something”. Before J.R.R. Tolkien set out to write The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he sketched, drew layers of maps, and jotted pages of notes first. Planning out the details beforehand made the rest of the process much easier.
Of course, there are always unexpected events and obstacles that pop up. But when you do the hard work of mapping things out first, you lower the risk of uncertainty later. This way, you give yourself the best chance of success.
Beauty is Subjective, Planning is Not
They say beauty is subjective. What one person sees as brilliant, another sees as unremarkable. There is more than one way to perceive the same object.
But planning, analysis, and work ethic are not. While one piece of work may not be a hit, going through the process over and over, seeing what went wrong and what went well, are vital to putting yourself one step closer to excellence.
If there’s anything we can learn from a thousand-year-old art form, it’s that people value the difficulty and complexity required to achieve something. Whether you set out to accomplish a milestone in athletics, science, arts, or any other field, it pays to do the hard work and keep improving.