Grout of Control: Creating Large-Scale Tile Mosaics

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Guest Author:  Mikah Berky

Mikah Berky is the Assistant Scenic Charge Artist at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and is sharing her story about creating two very large faux tiled mosaic walls.

At Oregon Shakespeare Festival, all of our shows are performed in rotating repertory. This season, we’re doing Henry IV Part One in rep with Henry IV Part Two. The scenic design, by Adam Rigg, called for two nearly identical mosaics. The mosaic seen in Part One is partially finished and by the time we get to Part Two, the mosaic is complete.

Apart from the obvious mosaic element, this project presented a couple other challenges. We had to paint the mosaic on muslin that could be applied to the wall once it was installed in the theater. The wall had to load in in pieces, but we wanted the mosaic to look seamless. So we had to make sure that during the process the fabric would stay flexible enough to roll for transit to the space. The set designer also requested that some parts of the mosaic have dimensional texture, because of the audience members that would be sitting right next to the mosaics. For an added challenge, the figure at the center of the mosaic needed to be a portrait of the actor playing Henry.

One of my favorite things about being a scenic artist is problem solving how to paint a project like this efficiently. I experimented with multiple techniques to try to create a tile effect in a way that was faster than drawing all the grout lines in by hand. We made stencils, we created a stamp roller with foam squares, and ultimately we discovered that neither of those options produced the best result. The tiles of a mosaic follow the line of the design, so the stencil and roller were too clunky to really be very helpful. They also were a little too uniform to mimic the irregularity of a mosaic.

Once I figured out the process, we got some research photos of the actor playing Henry, and tested the samples for flexibility; we were able to finally start in on the two mosaics. We are lucky enough to have a large enough paint frame able to hang both of the mosaics side by side. Having the ability to compare them side-by-side helped us make sure they matched as closely as possible. We hung the muslin pieces, starched them, projected the image of the mosaic on each one, and traced it in charcoal.

We painted each element in its main color and later came back with single square stamps to add variety and contrast with different colors where needed. Once the whole mosaic was filled in with color, without “grout”, we sealed the whole drop with two coats of Gloss Varathane, and keeping a wet edge was key. Next, we used 1/8” striping tape to follow the shapes of the design and created the outline of tiles in some areas. We knifed on a thin layer of Nova Matte Gel over the tape and pulled the tape while it was still wet to give us a raised tile effect. Matte gel, contrary to the name, dries clear and glossy. Once that step was complete, we began lining in grout with a flat grey color. In the areas where we had created dimension with the matte gel, we followed the tile pattern we established with the grout. The difference between sheens helped us further create the illusion of a dimensional mosaic even in places that had no actual texture.

If you want to see more about the process of painting the mosaic, check out OSF’s behind the scenes video documenting the process here:

 

Total, both mosaics took our shop about five weeks to complete, with an average of 2-3 Scenics working on the mosaic at a time. We were also juggling several other projects, so we did not have a full team on the project all of those weeks. Being able to invest that much time in the details of the project was a gratifying experience. The mosaic was really a collective effort; we could not have accomplished this project without having a solid team of scenic artists. The other painters who worked on the project are Gabriel Barrerea, Pat Bonney, Amanda Haverick, Sandy Phillips, and Jose Rivera.

 Mikah Berky is the Assistant Scenic Charge at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  She spent several years freelancing in Chicago before moving out west.  You can see more of her work at  http://mikahberky.weebly.com.

 

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