Mosaic Tesserae: A Basic Guide
What is it and where can you find it? From shabby chic to exotic—tesserae is limited only by your imagination. Glass, china, tile, crystals, natural stone, metal, square, round, thick, thin, shiny, matte—the possibilities are beguiling.
What Is It?
Tesserae is a name for the objects that you glue onto a substrate in order to create a work of art called a mosaic. I discuss some of those objects here. The tesserae you choose for your creation are limited only by your imagination.
Vitreous glass tiles are manufactured and so have a uniform shape and size. Molten glass is poured into trays and fired. The ridges on the underside help with adhesion to cement. A standard size is ¾” square. These can be nipped into smaller shapes. Vitreous glass tile comes in every color imaginable. Some of it is metallic or iridescent. The blue tile in the first two photos is Sicis tile, a gorgeous shimmering reflective tile. Isn't that department store window fabulous?
Ceramic tiles are less expensive and can be glazed or unglazed. The glazed ceramic tiles have a colored glaze applied to the top of the clay and then the tile is fired to a high temperature in a kiln. The unglazed or body glazed version has the color mixed into the wet clay. They vary in size from oversize floor tile to colorful Talavera, to swimming pool tile, and even tiny tile. Ceramic tiles can also be nipped into smaller shapes.
Mirror tile is an inexpensive way to add great depth and sparkle to a mosaic. It’s available from all mosaic suppliers and from individuals listing on online auction sites. The coating on the back of mirror tile can be damaged by certain adhesives. Use a neutral adhesive that will not react with the silvering on the back of the mirror, such as GE Silicone II. It is available in a small tube.
Smalti is an expensive glass tile fired in large slabs in a kiln and then hand cut with a hammer and hardie into small cubes. The irregular finish makes them a wonderful reflector of light and this material is best used working straight into cement. It is produced in Venice and sold by color and weight. It is traditionally cut into smaller pieces by the artist using a hammer and hardie but it can also be nipped with wheeled glass nippers.
Gold Smalti is made with real gold and silver leaf embedded between two layers of glass and fired twice in the kiln. This is usually the most expensive tile. The magnificent mosaics in cathedrals in Europe were made using smalti.
Stained glass is a wonderful choice for mosaics as it is usually uniform in thickness and so provides a flat surface. It can be transparent (cathedral glass), translucent, or opaque, and comes in every color and with many interesting designs. It can be cut into smaller sections by scoring with a glass cutter and then breaking with a grozier, or it can be nipped with wheeled glass nippers. It can provide areas of both large and small tesserae pieces for variety and contrast. You can buy large sheets of stained glass at stained glass shops; however, for mosaic artists, here’s a tip: most shops have a scrap bin where they sell leftover pieces of glass from projects for a minimal amount of money. If stained glass is your tesserae of choice, check out Oceana stained glass, occasionally for sale on eBay. It’s the crème de la crème of stained glass, no longer manufactured and treasured for its hand-made, unique color and pattern.
Glass beads come in all sizes and colors; some are smooth and some are faceted. You can buy them in bulk or you can raid necklaces and bracelets. If you carefully position a glass bead between the two wheels of a wheeled nipper, with each wheel firmly pressed onto the hole of the bead, you can break them perfectly in half and have two pieces of tess. A note of warning: round glass beads will often roll right off when you grout. You may have to finish your grouting and then re-glue the bead and smooth the grout around it.
Glass globs, gems, or nuggets are drops of molten glass, flat on one side. They are inexpensive and a few of them can add interest to a mosaic.
Dichroic glass adds amazing flash to your mosaic; you might want to search eBay for dichroic cabs.
Polished stone, pebbles, and minerals such as granite, marble, turquoise, and slate can also be found online and used for mosaic material.
Broken China (Pique Assiette)—Colors and design are limitless and can add wonderful texture and contrast to mosaic work. As you progress, you will develop favorites and begin to collect a variety of broken china. You will learn which pieces will work best for you. For example, I do not use pieces made in China. I have learned to steer clear of the extra thick, heavy pieces that are difficult to nip.
You learn to take note of where the design is positioned with regard to the footer on the back. You note the curvature of the plate and whether it will work for you. The edge of the plate is usually thinner than the rest of the plate. You may begin to look for plates that have a design on both the rim AND the center. The ideal plate might be a porcelain plate from Europe that has a gorgeous rim design with deep colors such as fuchsia or royal blue rimmed with 24K gold, and a beautiful design in the center. The porcelain is strong yet thin and easy to nip. Another might have butterflies or flowers that work into your design. An ideal plate might have a small chip in the edge. Then you don’t mind breaking it to bits.
However, you might come across a beautiful old plate with a stunning design rimmed in gold and your instinct will tell you that it might have some significant worth. With our wonderful resources today, you can jump on the internet and do some research. Over time, you will learn the trademarks on the back and what they mean.
Here’s an example: I bought two beautiful plates for 99 cents each at a thrift shop. They featured lovely hand-painted insects, delicate moths and butterflies. As I held them toward the light at an angle, I saw that they were both in pristine condition. I did a little research on Google and eBay and found that they were Herend and worth much more than I paid for them. Herend is a porcelain manufacturer in Hungary that specializes in luxury hand painted porcelain. I cannot bring myself to break a treasure such as this even if I only paid 99 cents for it! I sold the two plates on eBay for $50 each. That’s why the best finds, in my opinion, are beautiful plates that have a little damage on the rim. You might consider selling undamaged pieces on an online auction site. It is possible to come across a plate or bowl worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars at a thrift shop.
You might begin your collection of mosaic tiles from plates by discarding the white centers and focusing only on the colorful rims, but I suggest that you set aside the white centers of nice porcelain plates and save them for awhile because you might need white as a background or you might want to do a piece entirely in white – using white tile, porcelain, pearls, crystals, and mushroom coral, for example.
Many people think that a mosaic is created from shards made by smashing plates with a hammer. I don’t think you will be happy with the results. Tile nippers and wheeled tile nippers will give you much more control over the shape and condition of your tesserae.
The plates pictured illustrate this concept. I would carefully nip the square plate with roses, using Lepponit wheeled nippers, preserving each beautiful flower if possible. This plate, which sold for 99 cents at a thrift shop, is in perfect condition and might sell for around $20 on eBay, so a decision must be made whether to nip into pieces, or list it on eBay.
The next plate offers many different and wonderful tiles, such as a bird's nest, eggs, feather, flying bird, flowers, and beautiful text. This plate, which also sold for 99 cents at a thrift shop, is in perfect condition and might sell on eBay for around $30, so again, a decision must be made whether to nip this plate into tesserae or sell it online.
The third plate has many different tiles available, probably around 60 tiles from one plate. First, the center has a design of flowers and leaves. Then there is a border of green. And best of all, the outer border contains text that includes the terms Sweet Basil, Bay, Parsley, Sage, Coriander, Fennel, Pennyroyal, Spearmint, Chives, Garlic, Saffron, Tarragon, Marjoram, Thyme, Dill, Cayenne Pepper, Lavender, Chamomile, Rose, Rosemary, and Lemon Balm. An amazing diversity of tiles from one plate!
Costume jewelry is where the fun begins. Tons of costume jewelry pieces lie broken and tangled in dresser drawers and old jewelry boxes. You can find it sold as damaged lots on online auction sites, or occasionally at thrift shops and garage sales.
This can add spectacular interest to a mosaic piece. You can mosaic a gazing ball, beginning with a Styrofoam ball from the florist department of a craft store, and adding earrings that have lost their mate, along with old necklaces, pins and bracelets. Again, it is possible to stumble upon a designer piece that is worth much more than you paid for it. If you find a beautiful brooch in perfect condition, check the back for a name before you break off the pin and glue the brooch into your art. It could be an art deco designer collectible.
Finally, two 3D mosaic busts, depicting Artemis, the woodland goddess. These mosaics illustrate the use of many tesserae, pique assiette, semi-precious gems, stained glass, costume jewelry, deer antlers, broken pottery, and ceramic tile.
These mosaics also illustrate the possibilities of the SHAPE of tesserae. The breasts of both these creatures were covered with broken bowls that were the exact size and shape of the curve of the mannequins.
Then there are those pieces that are hard to categorize—Swarovski crystals, porcelain flowers that have a petal broken off, figurines, beach glass, salt and pepper shakers, bird statues that have lost a wing, glass drink stirrers, pieces of an old chandelier, metal belts, drawer pulls, decorative architectural bits, and even buttons, mother of pearl, horn, shells, ball chain and driftwood.
You can even break up glass bottles, especially square bottles, and tumble the pieces to smooth the sharp edges. For example, Bombay Gin bottles are a wonderful transparent aquamarine blue.
I always advise artists to evaluate the material before incorporating it into their work. You don’t want to include a metal piece in your mosaic that will rust (unless that’s appropriate to your design). You don’t want to use plastic that will crack or disintegrate. I don’t advise using natural materials unless they are tough and long-lasting. For example, check wood to see if it’s sound or rotten. Wash it well, scrub it with a brush, and let it dry thoroughly before use.
I advise against using any type of food material, such as pasta or beans. You may think you sealed them well, but time, the elements, and insects eventually find a way to destroy them. Consider what grout will do to the material. If you think it might stain it or be difficult to clean off, you will want to seal the piece or cover it with blue painter’s tape before you grout.
I like to mix it up when I create a mosaic, and I might include jewelry, ceramic tile, stained glass, broken china, mushroom coral, drapery glass, and figural pieces all in one piece of work. I hope you find an idea in this article that fires your imagination.
I have published an article which discusses the complete mosaic process, choosing a substrate, an adhesive, grouting, sealing, etc.
Where Can I find Tess?
First, the obvious places. Garage sales, estate sales, thrift shops, Craigslist, stained glass shops, online from eBay and Etsy, hobby and craft stores such as Michaels and Hobby Lobby, and even the big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes. Now, on to the more obscure places. When you get started in mosaic, let all your friends and relatives know. Otherwise you will hear comments like this: "Oh I wish I had known that you were into mosaics! I just gave away sacks and sacks of my great aunt's old costume jewelry to Goodwill!" "Oh, no! I just bought new dishes and I threw away my old set! It was a gorgeous pattern but some of the plates were chipped!" Word of mouth is amazing—you can be in the most unlikely place and suddenly be given a box of vintage stained glass or a brand new glass grinder or box of tools. I know; it's happened to me more than once!
As you learn and grow, you will develop preferences and become able to recognize what works best. For example, lots of the newer dinnerware is thick and doesn't nip well. It is made in China and is of inferior quality. It is not fired to a high temperature; therefore, it is too absorbent and not durable when incorporated into mosaic. You will learn the brand names and patterns of plates that you prefer and they will catch your eye when you are out shopping in thrift stores.
Find out where the stained glass shops are in your area and visit. Most of them have a box of scraps that you can dig through and they usually sell for about a dollar a pound. Stained glass scraps are perfect for mosaic work.
Finally, there are Facebook groups that encourage swapping or selling of supplies. Remember, word of mouth is one of the best ways to score some wonderful unusual tesserae. I have come home before and found an anonymous box of chipped plates on my porch because someone heard from someone in the neighborhood that a mosaic artist lives here.