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"Portraits are the litmus test of your mosaic skills."

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

The focused study and rendering of a unique personage continues to be one of the most enigmatic and complex subjects available to artists. We all have an innate desire to record our faces and those of our loved-ones. In a way, we are confronting our own mortality when we do this, and the process of making a portrait makes us examine those intangibles that lie beyond the superficial, lateral gaze of our everyday lives, shifting our gaze to a deeper, vertical focus.

Mosaic has been co-opted to translate and reproduce artworks done in other mediums, such as paintings and drawings, reinterpreting them into glass and stone. Mosaic is also an architectural surfacing material, as well as having industrial and ‘craft’ applications.

All of the above have relegated it to a subservient status and detracted from its vast potential as a means of artistic or personal expression.

Lucio Orsoni, world renowned mosaicist and head of the historic Smalti production atelier in Venice, has long maintained that one must THINK in mosaic to create great work, not translate designs from other mediums. He says “ In mosaic portraiture, you not only use your materials to ‘render’ or ‘paint’ in glass and stone, you also exploit the grout gaps between them to describe the contours and features of a face. Other fundamentals of the mosaic process are used too.”

Of portraiture in mosaic, Carol Shelkin says: “When I am thoroughly familiar with my subject, I look at how light falls on the face: I see shapes instead of actual features. The connection with my subject is never far from my thoughts, but now I see the contours of shapes and shadows; I see light and dark, colour and form. The face is almost consumed in abstract thoughts of development.”

Ella Centre is a dementia respite care centre in Haberfield, Sydney.
Ella Centre Community mosaic design expressed the grief felt by 'losing' a loved one to Dementia.

So, creating a portrait in mosaic goes way beyond simply making or reproducing an image or a design in the medium. Portraiture pushes the mosaic into the realm of the intangible- getting a likeness, play of light, shadow, form, expression, mood, skin tones, structure and highlighting. Here, those who have had a formal training in art, will be at an advantage, since the disciplines of studying the human body in life drawing, working with colours, and the ability to really LOOK or really SEE a subject, all come together in making a successful portrait and an intuitive sense of knowing what works, and what doesn’t work. Irit Levy says: “I keep asking myself whether we can really define borders in today's art. Every mosaic that I create is mostly mosaic, and by that I refer to its materials. Nonetheless, all my previous art experience hides deep inside my mosaic art. I try my best without brushes and wet paint to create a rhythm that will communicate my mood.”

Having said that, every human has an innate creativity woven into their being. For some of us, it is numbers, or medicine, logic, or construction- the ability to sell a product, or networking and event management.

But being engaged in a fully creative process such as visual art, music, singing or dancing has been proven to stimulate our brains. We were all pretty creative as children. We were uninhibited back then, but somewhere along the way we were told to put those things aside to concentrate on “more important” things. We were led to believe that while our coloring pages were nice, they weren’t going to get us a job that paid enough to support a family or paid the mortgage. So, we packed up the crayons and broke out the computer. We stuffed our creativity away like a box in the attic, never to be seen again. Well, now it’s time to find that old box, dust it off a little and see what’s inside. We need to open up our creativity again. It has been packed away for so long, this isn’t an easy chore.

One of the best ways to unlock your creativity is to consistently work in an art studio within a social, group situation. With an experienced teacher to guide you and the exchange of ideas and techniques between participants, it is a realistic expectation that ‘practise makes perfect,’ and your creative skills will improve every time you engage with them!

So how do you create a portrait in mosaic? Guilio Menossi sounds rather intimidating when he says “You can’t lie or cheat. Portraits are the litmus test of your mosaic skills. From the thousands of colours available, you must know exactly which ones to choose; you must also attend to andamenti, shading and cutting technique. And, most important, you must read the subject’s soul.”

1) Conceptualisation: Do some thumbnail sketches to decide on the format of the base for your portrait, and the composition it is going to be situated in.

2) Drawing: When you draw or transfer your portrait onto its base, it may be difficult to get a likeness, even at this early stage. Try not to get discouraged, and rather rely on really looking at your reference to achieve this. By virtue of the time that it takes to do a mosaic, one develops a unique and intimate relationship with the subject in a way that no other medium permits. The actual assembly of a mosaic portrait demands that you give detailed scrutiny to the way every shard of glass or ceramic relates to every other in the overall composition.

mosaic teeth
Always show teeth very indistinctly. Otherwise, they look like they have big gaps between them and give the portrait a cartoony, geeky look!

3) Portrait pointers:

Highlights: Very strong, very important in the eyes & makes them come alive.

On the tip of the nose- really brings it forward. Lips: usually one, on the bottom lip. (top lip is usually in shadow)

Muted highlights: on the forehead, chin, cheekbones, bridge of the nose, lips.

Shadows: Deepest at the top of the bridge of the nose, where the eye sockets are. Nostrils, and under the nose.

Muted shadows: Jawline, cheeks, sides of nose, under lips. Across the eyes under the top eyelid.

Teeth: Can make or break a portrait: always show teeth very indistinctly. Otherwise, they look like they have big gaps between them and give the portrait a cartoony, geeky look!

4) Mirror, Mirror:

Keep a mirror handy and use the structure and play of light and shadow on your own face as a reference, whilst doing any portrait.

5) Anatomy: Always be aware of the underlying structure of the human skull when putting together a portrait. Feel your own face to ascertain what aspects and angles of it go backwards and come forward, and what muscles lie under the skin to give the face its form and expression.

6) Colours: As a general rule of thumb, warm colours come forward, (reds, yellows, oranges, browns) cool colours recede. (blues, greens) Your neutrals, such as white and black are for highlighting and shading/underlining or hair. A colour such as purple, is a great transitional colour to use between your warm and cool colour spectrums...

But just like the rigid glass or ceramic shards used in a mosaic portrait, ‘rules’ are made to be broken, aren't they?

Part of the joy of looking at art is getting in sync, in some ways, with the decision-making process that the artist used and the record that's embedded in the work.

Chuck Close

Reference materials:

Mosaic Fine Art Portraits, by Irit Levy and Pam Givens.Available from

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