The tiny blocks or tiles used in making mosaics are still known by the original Latin name – tesserae (sing – tessera). In the modern world, the mosaic artist may select his/her tesserae from a wide range of natural and purpose made synthetic materials. This article will briefly describe some of the options available to the artist or craftsman, for the facing medium of a mosaic artwork. A later article will describe the choices available for grouts and adhesives.
The Ancient Romans were the first nation to exploit the mosaic art form on a large scale. They used mainly natural stone or sometimes pieces of baked tile or polished marble. With a fairly limited palette of colours, their craftsmen created many magnificent mosaic artworks, embellishing walls and floors, that remain as bright and clear today as when they were first created, even after the passage of some two thousand years. In those days, cutting the stone into even square cubes to make the tesserae must have been a laborious task. Today natural stone is cut commercially by diamond bladed saws to supply the artist with very even and relatively inexpensive mini tiles, which can find application for a multitude of purposes – however some artists prefer to use natural rounded pebbles, to provide the specific effects they are looking for.
Vitreous glass tesserae are the cheapest and most widespread mosaic tiles in common use and are used in great numbers by builders and tilers for common tasks such as shower bases and swimming pool edging, but these useful mini tiles can readily be adapted for artistic craftwork. They are usually supplied on a backing sheet of light fabric mesh or even of paper, from which they are easily detached with warm water. Each vitreous tile is usually 20mm square and is extremely durable and almost totally stain resistant. Clear glass tesserae are more expensive and are used for special effects, wherever light plays an important role, similar to stained glass. Broken glass from bottles is often specially tumbled with or without abrasives to give a sea worn look.
Smalti are opaque glass tiles, made by a traditional casting and cutting process in Italy, and are considered by connoisseurs to be the supreme mosaic materials. They come in an almost infinite range of brilliant colours. The molten glass is stained with minerals and may have gold or silver leaf incorporated within them to give incredible sparkle. They were originally developed for use in Church art in the Byzantine era especially for icons and were used throughout the medieval and renaissance periods to produce magnificent art for the cathedrals of Europe..
These are commercially available and are used extensively in modern craft work.
Ceramic Mosaic Tiles:
These can be bought from craft shops and builders merchants and are sold either on cards or loose and are not too expensive. The range of colours and textures is immense. You can save money by cutting your own from reject wall tiles or from broken crockery.
Nowadays it is fashionable to create attractive show pieces, using squares or strips of reflective metal, such as brass, copper, aluminum or stainless steel to create the mosaic effect. More traditionally gold leaf and silver were once used in Church and Palace art – sometimes in conjunction with gemstones and semi precious stones.
Plastics and Resins:
There are thousands of modern materials such as sheets of plastic material that can be cut or cast into tesserae blocks for use in mosaics or in the case of resins the tesserae are formed by being poured into molds. Resins are useful as reflective metallic filings and thin foil strips are easily incorporated to give a sparkle effect.
I hope this short discussion of materials was helpful and will have demonstrated that the modern mosaic artist need only be limited by his/her own imagination in making the choice of materials preferred for this fascinating art form.