Let’s face it

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Pictured above: Oliver Budd with the remake of his father’s John F Kennedy mosaic mural

Oliver Budd has the last word, providing some top technical tips on creating portraits in mosaic.

By Oliver Budd

Portraits in mosaic? “Hardest game in the world”, as the Fast Show protagonist used to say. Well, possibly not as hard as portraying feet in mosaic (below), that is tricky! 

My “andaments”, or early training period, involved an extreme challenge. I was instructed to draw a face; the portrait would be generated from a drawing or a photograph. Greyscale was best as it helped to visually explain the tones. The panel was approximately 300mm X 300mm and I was given three pots of flesh-coloured Smalti mosaic (below). Light, medium and dark along with other ancillary colours for lips, ears and, of course, hair (not required on my current self-portraits!).

By the end of my first day working on this task, my father took a broad plasterer’s tool and scraped the finished work into a plastic tub with the harsh words, “wash the mosaic clean and start again in the morning” (so no wastage at all!).

After a few days I had something worth looking at. The trick was to apply the mosaic with the lightest areas first, then the darkest, and finally fill in with the mid-tone. It sounds formulaic, but you can apply the theory to any form of complex colour groups, as well as flesh tones, and it will always work as long as you keep those three colours/tones pure. 

This all sounds quite simple but the portrait will never look right until you have completed the whole face. Then, if it looks wrong, you’ll need to start again!

In those three flesh tones (applicable to all skin colours and any colour version you might wish to employ), I introduce at least two-to-three close tones of the same colour. This sophisticates the image, giving it a less stark appearance.

Orsoni in Venice creates great Smalti flesh tones as does Dona in Florence (tinged a bit yellow for my taste) but if you’re working in vitreous glass then you must be a bit more inventive (below left). Or if you’re working with marble, even more so (below).

The andimento (mosaic coursing) is crucial when creating a portrait. It aids the viewer in that the contours of the facial planes lend credence to the structure of the portrait and the recognisable shape of a face (below).

Over the centuries, mosaic portraiture has become quite sophisticated. When the Byzantines had a go (below), they used mostly small square tesserae and the faces were quite crude. Their medium was also limited colour-wise, so they could only employ what they had to hand. In later years, glass mosaics enabled a greater variation and chromatic palette; oblong tesserae aided andamento (the flow of mosaic pieces), the flowing lines that give the best suggestion of physical structure, and so we get to where we are today. We have a good palette, a huge range of materials and the previous attempts of mosaic portraitists of many millennia to guide us.

So, on the face of it, I think we’re good to go!

Web: buddmosaics.co.uk
Instagram: @buddmosaics