Why Studying Mosaics Helps Painters to Discern Colour

When I was learning to paint icons with Aidan Hart he gave us the principle of learning to paint in a particular style: 'copy with understanding'. This is true regardless of the style we wish to learn. For example, I am now focussing in the classes I teach on 13th century gothic images of the School of St Albans. I use the same principle: I look carefully, I try to understand what the artist was aiming at and then I copy. Even the great masters get things wrong and occasionally you can errors. On these occasions we don't copy the errors but try to have in mind the ideal that the artist was aiming for and correct what is there. In order to be able to make such a judgement you either need to be very knowledgeable about the tradition, or have a good teacher who can point such things out to you. The motto that Aidan used was 'think twice and paint once'. In other words, study carefully and think before you paint.

One thing that is sometimes very difficult to ascertain is how the colour and tone effects of a painting have been achieved. Usually what we are seeing are the combined effects of multiple transparent washes and glazes of all sorts of different tones and colours. To help us, Aidan encouraged us to look at old mosaics. The reason for this is that you can see how, for example, a flesh tone has been mixed because each constituent colour is present as a pure-coloured tessera.

Also, I can see more clearly than in a painting devices that artists use to describe form. For example, if we look at the mosaic of St Apollonarius below then we can see that the mosaicist has used all the devices that a painter is told to use on the face, but they are more obvious. So the line defining the upper lid is darker than that defining the lower eyelid. There is a dark red line between this and the eyebrow, which is the line where the eyeball goes back into the socket of the skull. There is a red line that defines the deep shadow between the hairline and the brow. Similarly, there is a red line below the end of the nose. All of these things are present in painted faces, but often they will be translucent to some degree and so the effect is more subtle and this makes it more difficult to discern what the artist did.

This mosaic, by the way was in the reliquary of a monastery that I visited recently in the US. I was told that it came originally from Ravenna! Whatever the details, it is a great piece of work.




New Mosaic, OId Technique

Mosaic-Christ-Cardiff-small1Here are some photo's of a new mosaic just installed in Wales, designed and made by Aidan Hart.  (H/t David Woolf) I have taken the them from his website, here. Aidan's photos give us a sense of how it was produced as well as the what the final product looks like. The church, St Martins is an Anglican church in Cardiff on a town street and the mosaic is on the exterior. I like this - we must not underestimate the power of beauty and the face of Christ especially to draw people in to God. I found a photo of the church before the mosaic was placed there on the internet, see below. I hope the congregation will not think it is undignified that it includes in the pawn shop nextdoor. I personally think that the juxtaposition of the mosaic and shop emphases how we must think about beauty reaching out and touching people in the everyday activities of life and competing with all the advertising and other imagery that is out there. The method that Aidan used, if I have understood him correctly, is the 'Ravenna' or 'double reverse' method that involves putting tracing the design onto a temporary wet 'putty 'base (a slow drying mortar or plaster) and then placing the tesserae into the putty so that the artist can see the design developing as it would be seen eventually. Then a piece of glued linen is stuck to what is now the open face. The mosaic is turned over (carefully) and the putty is removed. This leaves a reverse image stuck to the linen. So far, all of this work is done in the studio. Now the mosaic, is placed into the mortar in situ. This means that the linen is facing outwards and the tesserae are pushed into the wall. Once this has set, then the linen is removed and the side of the tesserae that is open to the air is cleaned and you have the final image.

I remember that when I was in Aidan's classes he always used to stress how valuable it was for painters to study mosaics if they wanted to discern what colours contributed to particular effects, for example, flesh colours. Sometimes when you study paintings it is difficult to discern exactly what combinations have produced the final colour because with paint one wash is placed over another and you only see the combination, but can't see what is below the surface and has contributed to that effect. With mosaic, however, tesserae of pure colour are used to created a pixelated image and the combined effect is created in the mind's eye. So for example, a green effect might be created by having no green tesserae at all, but rather by having alternately pure blue and pure yellow tesserae sitting next to each other. When I gain a general impression I will 'see' green, but when I examine particular areas closely enough to resolve individual tesserae, I will see only blue and yellow. As painter, I can look at this  and create that particular green in my icon by using a the same blue and yellow  but in alternate transparent washes.






Above: work in progress - putting the tesserae into the base putty


The reversed image stuck to the linen, with the base putty removed and before being placed into its final position on the church