Mosaic artist Amanda Anderson is inspired by nature and wildlife, but it is color that drives her work.
“I love color, the more vibrant the better,” says the British artist, who lives and works in the West Midlands, creating sparkling, whimsical, eye-catching mosaics of birds, tigers, botanicals and more, using glass, tile, and bits of patterned pottery. “Color is one of the most important elements in my mosaics,” she says, but nature informs her designs. “If I hadn’t gone to art college, I would have studied zoology.”
Her father, who she says was “an accomplished amateur painter,” taught her to draw and to make creatures from driftwood and shells, and her mother adored gardening and “knew all the names of the flowers and birds.”
Anderson, who grew up in Wolverhampton, a semi-industrial city in the West Midlands, studied art and design at Birmingham City University, then moved to Liverpool to study Fine Art, mainly sculpture, at what is now John Moores University (where John Lennon once studied).
She loved the 3D format and began working in metal, welding and forging pieces with moveable joints, “inspired by the plants I kept in my room.” Her degree-earning showcase featured abstract botanical forms suspended in cages made of delicate fishing line – think 3D rectangular spider webs — or in glass water tanks, where she had to balance the weight of each element to create her composition.
After graduation, Anderson returned to the West Midlands, worked part time at an art gallery, and rented a studio, where she introduced color into her work, making large foam structures painted in rich hues.
She also began teaching workshops, which she still does a few times a year, finding joy in not just teaching others, but also being inspired by her students.
“I enjoy passing on the things I have learned over the years. It’s lovely to help someone who begins with little confidence, surprises themselves, and makes something they are proud of. I get inspired by the students, which helps reflect on my process and look at my own work from a new perspective.”
An introduction to mosaics
After leaving the gallery, she and artist friend Johanna Potter established a community arts business, aided by a government business incentive program established to help curb the area’s then high unemployment.
Participants received mentoring and a small yearly income, which helped Anderson and Potter create a business plan, open a bank account and “concentrate on growing our business.”
The duo volunteered at a psychiatric hospital, working in the occupational therapy department teaching residents various art forms. The art produced in these sessions was so inspiring, she says, that they created mosaic paving stones for the facility’s courtyard garden. With an Arts Council grant, the pair expanded the project to other areas, “involving people from all areas of the hospital community.”
“We worked on it for over a year, teaching ourselves the art of mosaic as we went along,” says Anderson, who then began experimenting with mosaics in her studio. “The first mosaic I made was 3D — two birds looking in opposite directions, one sitting on the other. It was my first move away from abstraction.”
The bird shapes were cut from a thick polystyrene sheet strengthened with Modroc (plaster impregnated muslin), attached to a base, covered with pieces of brightly colored ceramic tiles, and grouted in black. But 3D mosaics are “time consuming and heavy,” so she shifted to wall art, using high-quality 18mm plywood as a base.
To create her pieces, Anderson starts with black paper (so she can see how colors will look with black grout) and begins placing her tesserae in a desired design.
“Once I’m happy with the design I draw around it and create a template. It’s important to plan ahead and visualize the finished work because once the base is cut and the tesserae stuck down, it is difficult to change.”
“Mosaic-making is time-consuming, not something you want to scrap and start again because you didn’t get the preparation right.”
A typical piece, ranging in size from 11 to 44 inches and weighing about three pounds, takes between three and 10 days to make, depending on size, complexity, and whether it is a new design. Pieces typically sell for $200 to $2,000.
“When I have a design that excites me, I enjoy repeating it, experimenting with small changes. Some designs I have only made once, others I return to quite often.”
Anderson may cut several bases at one time, using a jigsaw, but when putting together the mosaics “I like to concentrate on one piece of work at a time.” Grouting — her least favorite part — is also done in batches.
Anderson’s mosaic work “is joyous and colorful,” says Lynne Atkinson, who has shown Andersons’s work at The Whitehouse Gallery in Scotland since 2017 and loves the “jewel-like quality and original style” of her art.
“While Amanda undoubtedly takes influence from traditional mosaics and art from around the world, there is something unique about her approach,” Atkinson says. “Her self-proclaimed ‘graphic approach’ gives them a very contemporary feel.”
Learning the business ropes
The business side of art can be challenging, Anderson notes, but that early mentoring was so valuable she advises creatives to find business courses that teach skills such as creating a business plan, marketing, pricing, and how to find your customer base.
“When you start a business it’s important to plan how much money you need to make to cover your costs and pay yourself, and how you can grow without compromising too much on your creative values. I don’t like the money side, but you must be practical.
“Marketing and networking aren’t things most creatives enjoy, including me, but if you want to sell your work you need to make time to do it. Use social media, apply for exhibitions, contact galleries, let people know about your work, what you do, and how it’s made. Talk about your work honestly and authentically and, most importantly, get good images.”
Her biggest lesson was “learning to value my work more, and charge for the time and skill required to make it. I have also become more selective about what shows and exhibitions I do and don’t yes to everything. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making things you think will sell rather than what you want to make. I found the confidence to stop doing this and found I sold more.”
Anderson started selling her mosaics at small, local design and craft fairs before moving to more “prestigious” shows in Manchester and London. But while her work got good reviews, she sold nothing at her first big show.
“My work was too large and expensive,” she explains. “I learned the importance of research, checking out the quality of the event, the work of previous exhibiters, visiting the shows to see if my work fit, looking at the prices others charge, and asking lots of questions. I also learned to mix price points and have a few smaller, affordable pieces.”
She also takes commissions, which requires robust customer communication.
“I talk it through with the customer. I ask questions — who is it is for; what is important to them; what it must include and what can I improvise; what is the size and budget. I produce detailed colored sketches so (the buyer) has a good idea what the finished work will look like.”
“Commissioning a mosaic can be a big investment so I want to get it right.”
Today, Anderson’s work can be found in U.K. galleries, on her website, and in hospitals, libraries, and schools, including a peacock mosaic at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota; The Springfield Project in Birmingham; Holy Trinity Church Hall in Bilston in the West Midlands, and five mosaic birds as part of a larger memorial for children killed in a fire at Grenfell Tower fire flats in West London in 2017.
While her work has evolved over the years, her process hasn’t changed much. “The cutting of the tesserae and the way I apply the grout is more polished, but I still work in a direct way, sticking the tesserae directly to the substrate, and finish with black grout.
“Experimenting with color and pattern and working on new designs is the fun part of the process,” she adds. “But even the more monotonous aspects such as edging the mosaic or cutting a large amount of repeated shapes can be quite meditative.”
“Mosaic making is a slow process and requires patience, so you need to embrace the reflective rhythm of it.”
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com