Mosaic Fine Art

The following text discusses some of the reasons why original mosaic work is underrepresented in the US, especially when compared to the prevalence of mosaic in Latin America, Mediterranean countries, etc.

The Undiscovered Fine Art

Mosaic is as versatile a medium as oil painting and lends itself to an infinite variety of stylistic treatments. In fact, the vocabulary of mosaic technique is so complex that it was possible for archeologists to determine how many unknown artists worked on a mosaic mural unearthed at Pompei simply by the signature style used by each artist. Why then is original mosaic so underrepresented in the United States?

Original mosaic art isn’t commonly seen in the US for several reasons. Significantly, these reasons have little to do with the capacity of the medium to express an artist’s individual vision and style.

Mosaic as Architectural Application

From the very beginnings in ancient Greece, mosaic was used primarily as an architectural element like fresco painting or bas relief sculpture. Being heavy and immovable, great works of mosaic art could not be transported to galleries or readily exchanged. Thus, a culture of collecting and speculating on mosaic art did not develop the way it did for fine oil painting over the last few centuries. The marketplace did not cultivate demand, and artists pursued other media.

Mosaics are Time-Intensive

It is no coincidence that most grand works of mosaic date from periods when slave labor was plentiful. A mosaic can take weeks and weeks to complete, while it is possible to complete an accomplished oil painting in a single afternoon. Mosaic involves cutting stone or glass or ceramic materials, and hand setting pieces that are often tiny.

Cost and Availability of Mosaic Materials

Oil paints and brushes are not cheap, but at least these materials are offered by local art supply stores. When mosaic materials are available in the US, they are usually expensive, and the selection  is extremely limited or not suited for making detailed images.

Architecture in the US

Most housing in the US is made of wood-frame construction. Consequently, mosaic is better represented in southern Europe, Latin America, North Africa and other parts of the world where buildings are typically constructed from stone, cement or masonry. In the US, would-be mosaic artists aren’t exposed to the media.

Mosaic as Craft

In the US, craft is a devalued term, and for good reason. When someone who has never worked with their hands becomes disenchanted with their career, a craft is often pursued as an outlet.  While the patient amateur is perfectly capable of producing amazing work, all too often the effort is half-hearted, even frantic, with speed of completion being the driving concern. Mosaic is generally regarded to be a “craft” of this sort because it is “quick” and “accessible”. After all, nearly anyone  can glue broken china to a flower pot in a few hours, and this sort of quickly-executed mixed media  seems to be the only form of mosaic art seen in the US. (Keep in mind that this criticism is particularly severe considering that the author is a self-taught mosaic artist who loves mixed media  mosaic.)

But what about more serious efforts at mosaic? Is mosaic art any more accessible than oil painting? To the contrary, it is easy to argue the opposite may be true. Mosaic can be unforgiving, particularly to the novice attempting a figurative picture, and a firm grasp of the image to be portrayed  is required because details cannot be added later by the light stroke of a brush. Also, it is not nearly as easy to create a desired color by mixing component colors, at least not until the artist becomes more experienced with the materials and learns how to create color gradients. In short, mosaic, like oil painting, has intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, and there is a vocabulary of techniques that need to be mastered before an artist can take full advantage of the media.

Planning and Investment

Due to the investment of time and materials required, and certain entrenched attitudes, mosaic  tends to serve as a second-hand medium where artisans reproduced existing works of art. Mosaic isn’t commonly thought of as a medium of exploration. However, stone and other materials have a language all their own. When the design process takes place in the media itself, the results are unique, powerful and expressive.

Joe Moorman
Riverson Fine Art