Sunday, December 18, 2011

How to make a Sgraffito Concrete Tile

How to make this 'Sgraffito' concrete tile...

I put that 'Sgraffito' in quotations for a reason: I didn't glaze this tile and then scratch through the surface like real Sgraffito. I love Old School, but who wants to work that hard these days?

My finished tiles will be applied to an exterior wall. I made the prototype tile out of plaster, then cast it in concrete and simply painted the raised relief. If the client goes for the sample tile I showed them (above) then I'll make two hundred more from a rubber mold. Way easier than real Sgraffito.

This post was going to be a whole big stink about Islamic Geometric ornament, the Alhambra, 3-D Rapid Prototyping etc. etc., but I'm going to have to get to that later. In the meantime, artist Mark Kusek turned me on to this incredible website for an enormous stack of free Islamic pattern drawings which made me realize that the topic is already well covered. Thanks, Mark!

"Taqshir, or 'peeled work,' in which glaze is scraped off negative areas of the mother tile to leave behind a shiny pattern in low relief" (Louis Werner).

Taqshir is most often used on black glaze with the exposed terracotta base of the tile being allowed to weather naturally, contrasting with the glaze even more beautifully as time goes by. In Spain, the same technique is called Esgrafiado, and commonly incorporates geometric designs. No doubt the Moorish influence spreading North. In Italy it's Sgraffito, but you knew that already because you Googled it and that's how you found me.

The photo above is staggeringly beautiful in it's complexity, but don't let it deter you: With simple vector drawings (or even regular digital photographs) there are companies out there who will take your 2-D artwork and produce 3-D glazed ceramic tiles using computer technology. In other words, your simple black-and-white ornament drawing could be used to manufacture the panel above.

Photo-Form's automated process cuts out a lot of the labor

Photo-Form® is a company that can translate two-dimensional artwork into three-dimensional relief tiles. "Utilizing [their] patented process called Photo-Cast®, [they] can create bas-relief tiles from any type of two dimensional image."  (source) They can even cast using concrete or glass.

Awesome! Why didn't I use this process to produce my own tile? I'm greedy and I want all the money for myself...and I needed to color the raised areas.

Ready to make another huge mess in the Studio

Fig 1: My drawing of the ornament for the tile
Step 1: Lay out your Design 

There are a couple of ways you could create the prototype once you have your drawing laid out. Instead of sculpting it out of wet clay, I decided it would be closer to real Sgraffito if I first created a flat Plaster of Paris tile and then scratched down through the surface to reveal my geometric design in relief.

If Islamic geometry is your thing, I posted a ton of great geometric reference designs here.

Fig.2: Make sure that seal is secure around the edge!
Step 2: Make a Master Copy

I made an 8" x 8" x 1/2" Plaster of Paris tile using a frame of plastic rulers that I cut and taped/glued to my cutting board. I used the cutting board as a guide because I needed to be sure my finished tile would be perfectly square. 

Once my plaster tile was dry, I skimmed on a couple of coats of Kolcaustico Venetian Plaster, for a super smooth and hard surface. You could easily omit that step, though.

Fig 3: Transferring the design to the tile

Then I covered the back of my design with chalk then drew over the outlines, transferring it onto my plaster tile. Always make sure you 'hinge' your drawing along the top edge of the tile with tape: Lift up one corner and look to be sure you didn't miss a line. If you forgot a line or two, a hinged drawing means you don't have to worry about re-aligning it when you drop it back down on the tile.

Fig 5: Use dental tools or utility blades to carve your design

Step 3. Make a Rubber Mold

Once you have finished carving your plaster model it is time to make a rubber mold. I love Smooth-On products. They have a simple two-part system to create rubber molds that couldn't be easier to use. Their rubber comes in a huge variety of formulae for different applications, so give them a call if you're confused by the selection. I chose this product with a hardness of 30, which gave me the flexibility I needed.

Next, lay your carved plaster tile back down on the cutting board. It's a good idea to seal around the base of the tile with a thin seam of caulk. This will ensure that your poured rubber doesn't bleed underneath it. Now, make a walled frame around your tile (just as you did to make the plaster tile in Fig. 3), this time allowing an additional 1/2" space all around. In other words, if your tile is 8" square like mine, then make a 9" square frame to pour the rubber mold. Important: Seal the edges and corners of your walled frame!

The video above gives a simple demo.

Paint your tile with at least two coats of Super Seal, then spray the whole set-up (including the walled sides of your frame) with Universal Mold Release. This is important to do, as Urethane rubbers have poor release properties in general, so your cured rubber mold will be really tough to peel away without it. For additional preparation at this point, Check out Smooth-On's concrete casting essentials list.

Mix the rubber compound according to directions and carefully pour it into your frame to a depth of at least 1". Once the rubber has cured you can peel away your new mold. If you have done everything correctly, you will have an exact copy of your original and can making many castings with your rubber mold.

Any more questions? Smooth-On has a free PDF doc called How To: Make Molds and Castings.

Fig. 6: Preparing to make my concrete tile

Step 4. Make a Concrete Cast

Concrete Decor magazine is a fantastic resource for Industry and Artists alike. It's full of great information, videos, links and products. Be sure to dig around on their site before you get going: Concrete is a complicated process.

I tinted my concrete using powdered concrete pigments (Fig.6/2 above). You must mix these into your dry mix before you add water (Fig.6/1). What kind of concrete you use depends upon the application. The first time I tried to make a concrete tile I used so much aggregate that my thin tile just crumbled in my hand. My tile will not be walked on - it's for an exterior wall - so I figured I'd use Cement-All which dries really quickly, is good for casting, and has very low aggregate so dries smooth.

I also added concrete hardener to the water (1:1) before adding it to my dry mix (Fig. 6/3 and 4)

Remember to spray a coat of Universal Mold Release to the rubber mold before you fill it with your concrete mix (and each time you make a new copy), and make sure that your mold is on a perfectly flat surface.

My finished tile
I painted the raised elements of the design to match a carpet swatch sent by my client. Sgraffito walls are scratched down through a glaze layer revealing a different color underneath, so painting on the raised surface of your tile is not a bad idea. There is a fair amount of debate as to what kind of paint you can and cannot use for painting on concrete, so I'm not going to make a specific recommendation but just say that you might want to read up before you tackle this part. There are plenty of free online resources that will guide you.

Consider sealing your tile for longevity, depending upon it's application. Will it be inside or outside? Will there be heavy traffic on it? I was concerned about the sheen of the sealant (anywhere from Satin to Gloss), and also that it would change the colors of my tile, so I didn't use any this time. Check this site out for some sealant considerations.

Oh, I almost forgot; here's the geometric drawing I made... have fun!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Chinese Fables and Indian Yogic Art

"When Lao-Kung felt that his end was approaching, he asked that all his pupils gather around him that he might once more see them and bless them ere he set forth upon that voyage from which no man has yet returned.

"And so they came and found the old painter in his workshop. As usual he was sitting before his easel, although he had grown much too weak to hold a brush. They urged him to retire to his couch where he would be more comfortable, but he shook his head, saying unto them, 'These brushes and these paints have been my steady companions throughout these many years. It is fitting that I should be among them when the time comes for me to depart.'

"'Master, we are sad at heart when we contemplate your fate. For you have no wife to weep over you and no sons to carry you to the grave and give offerings to the gods. All your livelong days you have worked and slaved, from earliest dawn to the setting of the late sun, but the grubbiest money-changer in the meanest market has accumulated greater material rewards for his unworthy labors than have ever come your way. You have given with both hands and mankind has quietly taken whatever you offered. Has this been fair? Have the Gods shown you any mercy? Has this great sacrifice on your part really been worth while?'

"Then the old man raised his head and his face became like that of a mighty conqueror at the moment of his greatest triumph as he answered: 'It has been more than fair and the reward has vastly surpassed my highest expectations. What you have said is true. I have neither kith nor kin. I have spent well nigh a hundred years on this earth. Oft I went hungry and more than once, if it had not been for the kindness of my friends, I would have been without shelter or raiment.'

"'I surrendered all hope of personal gain that I might the better devote myself to my task. But in following the inner voice that bade me follow my solitary path, I have achieved the highest purpose to which any of us hope to aspire.'

"Thereupon the oldest of the pupils addressed him haltingly. "Master," he said in a whisper, "as a parting blessing, will you not tell us what the highest purpose may be to which mortal man can aspire?"

"A strange light now came into the eyes of Lao-Kung as he lifted himself from his seat. His trembling feet carried him across the room to the spot where he stood the one painting that he loved best. It was a blade of grass, hastily jotted down with the strokes of his mighty brush. But that blade of grass lived and breathed. It was not merely a blade of grass, for within itself it contained the spirit of every blade of grass that had ever grown since the beginning of time.

"'There,' said the old man, 'is my answer. I have made myself the equal of the Gods, for I too have touched the hem of Eternity.'

"Thereupon he blessed his pupils and they laid him down upon his couch and he died." [source]

 [All illustrations this post are from Ajit Mookerje's Yoga Art ]

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mission Possible: Italian Grand Tour

"Excuse me sir; which way is Leonardo's Statue of David?"
Your mission should you choose to accept it: Travel all around Europe, that's it. For two hundred years starting in 1660, the mission of young men of means was to tour the classic sites of the Old World and bring back what they learned, but sometimes they found a bit more than they bargained for.

My own European Grand Tour involved run-ins with the police of Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia and had absolutely nothing to do with Art or Culture whatsoever, but that's a story I'm going to keep until we meet sometime for a beer.

Of course, for most people, carousing around and being waited on hand and foot seems like a luxury and, well, it is. The ability to breeze around Europe implies lots of free time and money. The traditional Italian Grand Tour was taken by pretty much everyone of means; aristocrats, intellectuals, the curious and bon vivants alike. Stendhal seemed to speak for a generation of over-indulged rich kids when in 1817 he wrote of his impending voyage: “Outbursts of joy, heart pounding. How crazy I still am at twenty-six! I’m going to see beautiful Italy!” I probably wouldn't have burst into flames like Stendahl, but I do know what he means. Viva Italia!

Antique map of Urbino, home of the famous Palazzo Ducale with it's remarkable intarsia studiolo
Grand Tourists passed through the Alpine wonderland of South Tyrol on their way to Italy
Hippolyte Taine wrote that "Venice is the pearl of Italy. I have seen nothing equal to it."

Grand Tourists were often drawn to Italy by Romantic notions of languorous evenings sketching under crumbling ruins. Pampered toffs from all over Northern Europe wore pot-pourri bags under their armpits and foreswore bathing for months on end to endure such physical hardships as dozing under trees and endless social engagements in Venice or Florence. Poor Rupert must be exhausted.

But while on one level it was all a "larf" to the English, they also took it all very seriously. Almost like doing military service. Young men [I'm not sure if any women were included in this rite of passage] galloped off as cultural spies to bring back all they could glean from the Old World to use as valuable fodder for Empire, King and Country.

Thomas Cole, 'The Course of Empire - Desolation', 1836
British historian E.P. Thompson explains that the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th Century was a very serious matter: If the British were to maintain control of their Empire they must be seen to be at the forefront culturally, and that meant studying the classics at their source. According to Thompson, "ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power."

"The primary value of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent. In addition, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music. A grand tour could last from several months to several years" New York Times

Giuseppe Agostino Vasi illustrated St. Peter's Basilica in 1774

18th Century street scenes of Florence and Rome

Rome was, of course, the main destination. Sure there was always Florence, which according to Kenneth Clark, was a "city of hard heads, sharp wits, light feet, graceful movement", but it was still Rome with all it's bustling humanity, "a city that is like a huge compost heap of human hopes and ambitions, despoiled of its ornament, almost indecipherable, a wilderness of imperial splendor", that enticed countless young suitors from England's shores.

An Assassination at the Porto Del Popolo
No wonder it struck travelers from England as a bit of a shock when they arrived. Charles Dickens himself seems to have been not a little grossed out when he arrived "travel-stained and weary" at the Roman gate of Porta del Popolo in 1844 (his few lyrical descriptions of monuments notwithstanding). Perhaps he came like the rest; expecting to learn Empire from the best, only to find a dissipated soup of Old and New.

Dickens complained in Pictures from Italy that Rome is filled with "a multitude of chattering strangers" and "narrow streets choked by heaps of dunghill rubbish." At one point, he turned a corner and ran right into the Dead Cart, with the bodies of the poor on their way to an unofficious dumping outside the city walls.

He seemed underwhelmed by other tourist destinations too, saying of St.Peter's Basilica that he'd "been infinitely more affected in many English Cathedrals when the organ is playing." The Jewish Quarter he described with casual anti-semitism as a "miserable place reeking of bad odors, but where the people are industrious and money-getting." He even called Bernini's monuments "intolerable abortions"! Ouch.

Beautiful Albumen Silver print of a panorama of Rome, 1885
"Italy and in particular the State of the Church had come out of the Napoleonic wars very impoverished. Pope Gregory XVI, then aged 80, was afraid of novelties and considered the railway an invention of the Devil. According to the French poet Lamartine, Italy was the "Land of the Dead" and for the Austrian Chancellor Metternich it was "a mere geographic expression"."(source)

Dickens went to bed that night "with a very considerably quenched enthusiasm."

I traced the traditional Grand Tour route in red on this antique map of Europe.
The traditional Grand Tour route was to travel from London by boat through Holland and Germany down the Rhine to Mannheim. Then hop in a coach to Munich, before crossing the border to Austria. Typically they'd travel on horseback or by foot over the Brenner pass into Italy, and on to Venice. From Venice the itinerary was to trace a meandering path through Vicenza, Verona, Mantua, Reggio, Bologna, Florence, Siena and then onwards to Rome and Naples.

I don't know, it all sounds pretty good to me. I remember my days traveling around Europe with not a care in the World as being some of the best of my life. All these old prints are making me want to hit the road again. Who's with me?

The famous Bay of Naples, and Sorrento

 "How I long to return to Sorrento,
To the lonely sea and sky,
I left my vest and socks there,
I wonder if they're dry"
Spike Milligan

Albumen photo (circa 1820) of an incredibly animated street scene in Naples by Giacomo Brogi
Ruth Orkin's classic 'An American Girl in Italy' speaks volumes about being a stranger in a strange land.