MASTERCLASSES: The satisfying art of pattern-making

MOSAIC; With a terracotta pot, a heap of ceramic tiles, a pair of clippers and a pot of adhesive, Dinah Hall embarked on the ancient skill of mosaic- making. Guided by an expert, she found herself unexpectedly gripped MASTERCLASSES
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JOCASTA INNES does not believe I have never done anything remotely decorative in my life before. How can you write about interiors for 15 years, she wonders, and never have so much as lifted a paint brush or sniffed at a tin of crackle glaze? But then this is the difference between journalists and writer-doers. Jocasta Innes, author of innumerable books on decoration, starting with Paint Magic, which changed our perceptions of paint, is definitely one of the latter. Journalists, of course, just stand around making snide comments about other people's creative efforts. So really it is only fair that Jocasta Innes now has a thriving chain of shops selling all the specialist stuff you need to decorate your house (called Paint Magic after the book), while churning out hundreds of best- selling books, appearing on television and generally being rich, happy and creatively fulfilled. While I am still poor and unfulfilled.

But here is my chance, perhaps rather late in life, to turn things around - at least on the fulfilment side. I am here, at Paint Magic's north London headquarters, to learn the art of mosaic which, apparently, is the "buzz" thing in decoration at the moment. (And as it is Jocasta, the writer, not me, the journalist, who says so, I'm prepared to believe it).

Jocasta's latest book, Trade Secrets (Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 9.99), has a chapter on mosaic which starts, fairly dauntingly, with details from Greek and Roman ceilings and floors. However, when it comes to the how- to section we are not expected to create perfect 3-D pictures of Jesus: there is a rather more attainable pot covered in broken tiles which may not fill anyone with awe in 2,000 years time but will do for starters.

Actually, the terracotta pot Jocasta provides me with isn't even a pot, it's a kind of saucer - easier to cover as it doesn't have such pronounced curves. Also laid out on the table are a few sheets of tesserae (the small glass or ceramic mosaic tiles used round swimming pools), some larger blue and white bathroom tiles, plus a tile cutter and pair of special tile clippers. The tesserae come from Edgar Udny in Tooting, south London, a specialist tile shop that normally deals in bulk orders for swimming pools and sold her the small quantities with barely concealed irritation.

Jocasta predicts that in a few months' time (possibly even tomorrow if enough of you readers are fired with enthusiasm) they will be cursing her name, just as Bollom's, the spec-ialist paint manufacturers, did after Paint Magic first came out. Enthus-iastic home decorators kept coming in asking for recherche products. Of course, you don't have to risk the wrath of Edgar Udny (though personally I would say it's worth it for the wonderful gold-leaf glass tiles): using tesserae is quite expensive and, as Jocasta points out, you are restricted to a colour spectrum tilted towards swimming pools (Middle Eastern ones, presumably, in the case of the gold leaf). You can buy interesting kitchen or bathroom seconds much more cheaply from good tile shops; or start saving your broken china.

On Devon cottages it is quite a common sight, Jocasta says, to see broken handles and teapot spouts stuck around the doors in a kind of vernacular mosaic, "though personally I find it rather sinister when you've got bits hanging off the wall like amputated limbs," she adds.

When you think about it, quite a lot of rather dotty, or at least eccentric, people have gone in for mosaic. There was a chap in France in the last century known only as Le Facteur (the postman) whose entire life was spent, when not delivering letters, building an extraordinary architectural fantasy out of bits of broken china. A La Ronde in Devon is an 18th-century 16- sided house built for spinster sisters, Jane and Mary Parminter, who spent years decorating one of the rooms in an incredible shell mosaic.

Jocasta Innes prefers mosaic when it is used as in integral part of an interior - in a wall alcove, for example. As outdoor art, it is better suited to sunny climes: Jocasta cites the work of Gaud, who was responsible for Barcelona's riotous Parc Guell "where colours and shapes flow over rounded seating and surfaces like a surreal herbaceous border".

This is beginning to make me nervous, particularly as it is now time to get down to business. Jocasta brings out a stack of postcards as "inspiration". Pompeiian and Greek works of art, no less, more intimidating than inspiring as far as I'm concerned. What does she think I'm going to do? "Right, first of all you need to draw out your pattern." Pattern? Me? "Um, I thought I'd do something rather more... er... sort of abstract, you know, kind of organic... I'm really not a pattern sort of person," I add pathetically, trying to make it sound as if pattern is for mathematical, anal kinds of people - not hang-loose, creative types like me.

In fact, though pattern does have a mathematical aspect, it appeals directly to the human instinct to beautify practical things, says Jocasta. Pattern- making, she believes "is one of the most undervalued sources of simple happiness there for the taking". The appeal of mosaic, "stems from the immense pleasure there is in making something real, solid and handsome from fragmentary or insignificant materials". She also describes creating order from chaos as "strangely healing".

With all that going for it, it would seem churlish not to have a try at pattern-making, so I come to a compromise and draw a kind of abstract sun motif with wavy tentacles coming off it - not exactly Pompeiian in its complexity, but not bad for someone whose last creative effort was potato printing at the age of eight. Now what I should really do, explains Jocasta's assistant Sarah, is to make a template of the design and set up the pattern on card first. But, as well as being creatively inhibited, I am also lazy and impatient (not ideal qualities in a mosaicist), so they let me move on to stage two: drawing the pattern with a pencil straight on to the terracotta, which had been sealed with diluted PVA adhesive. Again, it would probably have been a good idea to do a few measurements and use a compass to get the sun slap bang in the middle of the saucer but I am eager to get on to the exciting bit and am sure I can sort of botch it together as I go along.

The next stage is to cut the tiles into tiny pieces. First, Sarah shows me how to use the tile cutter: it has a circular blade that you run along the length of the tile. Then you gently clamp the cutters on top of where you have scored and break the strip off neatly. In theory. In practice, it takes a few messy breaks before you get it right. Now you have both the bigger tiles and the little tesserae cut into strips, it is time for the clippers. With this fiercely sharp Japanese tool, you just nip little squares and triangles off the strip. I can't begin to describe how pleasurable this is - unless of course you share a delight in cutting your toenails with clippers: it is about, ooh, 10 times as much fun.

With a pile of little mosaic chips in front of you, it is time to assemble the pattern. Working a small area at a time, you need to get some idea of where the pieces are going to go by placing them on the neatly worked- out design on paper - or in my case, on the rough scribble. They don't have to fit exactly together; the fragmentation is part of the charm, and the grouting fills in any gaps. But nor do you want huge spaces between them. I create a rough circle of the gold, finding that the pieces that shattered into shards on my first go with the tile cutter come in useful for filling in gaps around the circular edge.

To transfer from the design to the saucer, with a palette knife you apply just a small amount of Unibond (a tile adhesive and grout in one), thick enough to bed the pieces in firmly. When that is covered you add a little more, working in roughly a square inch at a time.

This part, laying the mosaic into the adhesive, is enormously satisfying. Jocasta is right about it being therapeutic: I can feel myself becoming a nicer person already. I can also feel my fingers becoming thumbs. You really need tweezers to place the mosaic pieces accurately. Grouting has to be done as you go along, particularly on larger pieces, otherwise the bits of mosaic can dislodge. To do this you just put a splodge of the Unibond on top of the mosaic and with a damp cloth spread it into the crevices: don't worry about it smearing the tiles as you can wipe them over with a soft cloth as the grout is drying. Grouting is pretty satisfying too. I feel a bit like a dentist filling cavities: it's nice to realise there is some pleasure in their job.

I digress, but it is an extremely long business this making of mosaic and your mind tends to wander. It is also extremely compulsive. I can quite see why the Misses Parminter remained spinsters. The last thing you want to do is to break off to make tea for the kids or spend time with a husband...

At last, after hours and hours, my work of art is finished. Objectively, I have to say it looks like an ashtray from a cheap Italian restaurant, but this is only the beginning. I have great plans for the bathroom, and as I am threatened with divorce if I embark on them (now, why should anyone object to a shell mosaic around the window?) it looks like I shall be left in peace to carry them out.

MOSAIC FOR BEGINNERS

Before you start, you will need: a ceramic or earthenware plate or pot; a pencil; PVA adhesive and brush; tiles - white, glazed and patterned; tile cutters (or hammer if you want irregular pieces); tile clippers; a tin of Unibond; palette knife; cloths or rag.

If your pot is unglazed, seal it with diluted PVA. Leave to dry.

Draw your design, transferring it to the pot with the aid of templates if it is complicated (but beginners should keep it simple).

Cut tiles into strips - or smash them, sandwiched between newspaper, with hammer if you are working on a pot that requires larger or irregular pieces. Clip to size with clippers.

Working on small areas, apply Unibond with palette knife to the pot (or with special grouting comb for larger pieces) and firmly press mosaic into the adhesive.

Grout as you go along, when tiles feel reasonably secure. Work the Unibond into crevices with a damp cloth. When it is nearly dry, wipe excess grout off the surface of your mosaic with a clean cloth or sponge.

SHOPS

Edgar Udny & Co Ltd, 314 Balham High Rd, London SWI7 7AA (0181- 767 8181): suppliers of mosaic tiles and tools. Paint Magic, 26 High St Arundel, W Sussex (01903 883653); 59 High St, Holywood, Co Down, N Ireland (01232 421 881); 116 Sheen Rd, Richmond, Surrey (0181-940 9799); 5 Elgin Cres, London W11 (0171-792 8012): all branches stock grout, tesserae, cutters and clippers

COURSES

Paint Magic will be starting mosaic courses after Christmas. Contact its head office at 79 Shepperton Road, London Nl 3DF (0171-354 9696)

BOOK LIST

Trade Secrets by Jocasta Innes (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, pounds 19.99)

The Technique of Mosaic by Arthur Goodwin (Batsford, 1985)

Decorative Mosaics by Elaine Goodwin (Charles Letts & Co, 1992)

BOOK OFFER

Trade Secrets by Jocasta Innes is offered to readers of the Independent on Sunday at a specially reduced price. Copies cost pounds 17.50 (including post and packaging), a saving of pounds 2.50. To order, ring credit card orders on 01903 732596 during office hours, or send a cheque made out to Littlehampton Book Services to PO Box 53, Littlehampton, West Sussex, BN17 7HE. The publishers aim to dispatch copies by return; but all orders will be filled within 14 days

SOMETHING FISHY

Since Roman times, fish have been a favourite subject with makers of mosaics. In the ancient version above, an oval frame contains a pair of fish oddly hooked on a single line. It is a detail from a far larger mosaic floor inside the Vatican.

The contemporary artist Maggie Howarth has created the fish pattern, left, for inclusion in a garden design scheme. She is creating her mosaic from pebbles instead of the square cut tesserae (from the Latin word for cube) used for the older floor.

MAKING A PATCHWORK MOSAIC

The most satisfying patchwork mosaic is made from flat ceramic pieces, smoothly bedded to give full value to riotous informal colour possibilities or, as here, a mix of blues and white for a Moorish or Chinese effect. Broken tiles are the perfect material.

1 The pots are first sealed with diluted PVA adhesive brushed on and left to dry. The row above includes different shapes and sizes, all simple in line. Choose solid vessels, without handles.

2 Draw your design on the pot with pencil. The aim is not to create a crazy patchwork, but to

use fragments to create an orderly pattern with colour contrasted with white (above). The next stage is to smash the tiles. Lay them between sheets of newspaper and hit them with a hammer. Don't get too enthusiastic, though, or you may make bits that are too fiddly to work with. A strong shape like the pot above calls for a strong, clear design. Use a fair number of largish pieces. Make strips with tile cutters, then snip them with clippers into small irregular pieces.

3 Stick these down one by one with tile adhesive, spread on with a palette knife. Finally, clean the completed mosaic, grout it and once again clean it thoroughly.

4 Flat tiles used on curved pots transform this common earthenware into fascinating objects.

AFTER THE DESIGN is roughed out, the back- ground shells are bedded in the white caulk a section at a time. The caulk is squeezed on like icing, then spread thinly (2-3mm) with an artist's spatula and each individual shell is pressed firmly down.

TAKE SOME TIME before you place the special shells that will form the main decorative pattern. The caulk takes 30 minutes to harden so this is no great problem. Tweezers are useful for adjusting the lie of a shell or for slipping tiny ones into gaps.

WIRING ON the coral topknot is a little trickier. Use brass screws, the smallest available, and brass picture wire, as they are rust-proof. Drive the screws in so just their heads project, making an anchoring for the lengths of wire that bind the coral in place.

AFTER SECURING the topknot with wire through the coral's natural holes as far as possible, squeeze grout around the twigs for extra stiffening. Then paint the visible wood of the frame with a colour picked out from the most vibrant shells.

FOR A SPARKLING FINISH, brush the secured shells with baby oil thinned with lighter fluid to bring up their natural colouring. This coating, the recommendation of the Norfolk artist Peter Coke, replaces the varnish that makes tourist souvenirs look like peanut brittle. Because the white caulk looked too clinical Jocasta Innes brushed a dilute of raw umber paint on the visible plaster interstices of her finished mirror (above).

THE FRAMEWORK OF SUCCESSFUL BEACHCOMING

Gathering shells on a seaside holiday is an almost irrestible pastime. Once back home, however, these little jewels of the shore rapidly decline into dull heaps fit only for attracting dust. Victorian ladies put their holiday scavenging to use making shell boxes, mirror backs, picture frames or even, in the case of the eccentric Misses Parrminter of Devon, covering a whole room. No one would go to quite such lengths nowadays, but shell mosaic-making is both simple and satisfying. To make a shellwork frame you will need: a ready-made frame, decorator's caulk, an artist's spatula, brass screws, brass picture wire, chisel and hammer, water-based paint, baby oil and lighter fluid, raw umber water-based paint, and - most importantly - a selection of shells. Make sure that you have a sizeable heap of similar plain little shells to form a quiet background against which your special shells will stand out.

Before you begin making your frame, it is a good idea to experiment with your materials first. In this dummy run, try fitting your chosen shells into your frame, without using adhesive. This will enable you to see if you have enough plain shells for ground cover - you need more than you might think - and how you can arrange your composition so that the colourful special shells stand out to best advantage. Some pattern, however loose and free-flowing, is more successful than a random assemblage. Other small beachcombing finds, such as coral twigs, can add extra textural interest.

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