Sunday, 8 April 2012

Elephant No. 189: Eggshell Mosaic

I saw this technique while browsing online a couple of weeks ago, and thought it might be interesting to try around Easter. Given its popularity as a children's activity, I'm sure I must have tried this in elementary school, although I don't really remember.

Mosaics have been around for millennia as a decorative form, using everything from rocks and seashells to the square tiles we think of today. It is hard, however, to know when eggshell mosaic began, due to the fragility of the material. Most sources associate the first true eggshell mosaics with Italian Renaissance artist Gaddo Gaddi (1239–1321).

According to Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1551), Gaddi was originally a painter who created large-scale works for chapels. Following one such creation in Pisa, apparently suffering from burnout, Gaddi returned to his Florence home to rest. To amuse himself, he began making mosaics from eggshells, some of which ended up in churches and some of which were presented to the king. 

None of Gaddi's eggshell mosaics are thought to have survived, although the rather crabby 1864 book A History of Painting in Italy by J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle suggests that there is an eggshell mosaic in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence attributed to Gaddi. If truly the work of Gaddi, the book suggests, "it would leave the impression that the author was one of those old artists who combined all the defects of art in its decline."

During the fifteenth century, Italian painter Cennino Cennini wrote an artists' manual which included a section on eggshell mosaic. His method involved glueing white crushed eggshells over a drawn figure, then painting it, gilding it and varnishing it. In this case, it's less a mosaic than a textured surface for paint, given that a true mosaic generally involves the laying down of already-coloured bits.

It's hard to know what happened to eggshell mosaic over the next five hundred years or so. It was likely revived during the Victorian period, when virtually every known artistic or craft technique popped up again. However, the first real mentions of eggshell mosaic after the fifteenth century don't occur until the early twentieth. The method then was the same as the one mentioned by Cennini, involving glueing eggshells onto a surface, then painting them. It remained a somewhat desultory craft for decades, at some point evolving to include pre-dyed eggshells glued into a mosaic pattern.

Columbines by Karen Blackerby, using dyed eggshells.

Today, there are an astonishing number of websites on eggshell mosaic, offering tips for everyone from children to established visual artists. I only say astonishing, because I had no idea it was such a popular decorative art. A quick online search turns up everything from jewellery and other small decorative items, to vases and wall-sized murals, in designs ranging from very simple abstracts to elaborate works of high realism.

Peacock Dress by Sherri Lindsey.
Photo: Jed Schlegel

The technique is relatively simple: break an egg (dyed or not), remove the inner membrane that lines the shell, glue the pieces onto something, and finish with colour or simply varnish it as it is.

For today's elephant, I decided to make a fairly small eggshell mosaic using non-dyed shell. It's a good idea to give eggshell mosaic a firm support, so I was originally going to glue the bits to a small piece of wood. Then I decided a rock would be more interesting.

I chose this relatively flat (on one side, anyway) piece of jadeite, scrubbed it clean, and left it out in the sun to dry.

The eggshells need to be cleaned and dried ahead of time, so I had done these a few days ago. 

To prepare eggshells for mosaic work, they first need to be soaked in water until the membrane lining the shell peels away easily. It will have the texture of wet tissue paper, and if it won't peel, you can also rub it off with your thumb. The main reason to peel off the membrane is that, if you don't, the glue will stick to the membrane, but not to the shell. Soaking can take anywhere from an hour to 24 hours, depending on whether the egg was cracked fresh, or hard boiled. Fresh is faster.

Once the membranes are peeled off, the eggshells need to be rinsed in water and dried. Because eggshell is a porous material, give the shells a good 24 hours to dry.

Next, I took one of the medium-sized pieces of shell and broke it into smaller pieces. The least destructive way to do this is to place the shell convex side up, and gently press into it with your finger or thumb. Because the shell is curved, it will naturally break. You can do this as many times as you like, to make pieces as small as you like. Because the shell is infinitely curved all across its surface, it will break into tiny pieces if that's what you want.

The picture below is terrible, but you can see how small my pieces were. The tiniest ones are smaller than the head of a pin.

For glue, I used Aleene's tacky glue—which is essentially a very thick white glue.

For tools, I used a couple of toothpicks, and a pair of cross-locking tweezers. These types of tweezers are great for grasping tiny things in a fairly gentle way. I got mine at an auto-body/hardware store for about five dollars, but you can get much more precise and expensive ones, if you're so inclined. I've shown them from two angles for readers in other parts of the world, where these may have a different name.

To begin, I squirted out some of the glue onto a piece of waxed paper. Many people suggest coating the entire surface to be decorated, but I didn't want glue anywhere except directly under the eggshells, so I opted to dab glue on each tiny piece.

I picked up the first piece with the tweezers, dabbed the underside, and placed it on the rock. I hadn't drawn anything on the rock itself, so I was winging it.

This is what it looked like when I had glued on the first few pieces.

After this, I worked fairly quickly to glue down the rest. A few tips if you decide to try this:

1. Toothpicks are not only good for adding glue; they're also good for nudging the bits of shell into place.

2. It's not a bad idea to give each piece of shell a tiny tap on top with a toothpick, to make sure that it's properly seated in the glue.

3. If you prefer, you can glue down a larger piece of shell, and press into it when it's already in place. This will break the shell up further without having to fiddle with tiny pieces. I didn't do that here, but it looked pretty effective online. There are many tutorials about eggshell mosaic, but I found this one quite helpful for the basics.

It took me about 20 minutes to make the final elephant. The photograph below shows what it looked like right after I glued the last piece. To remove the excess glue, I twisted a tiny bit of dampened paper towel around a toothpick and dabbed at the glue until it was gone. I knew the glue would dry clear, but I figured it would also dry shiny, and I didn't want the look of excess glue.

The final photograph below shows what it looks like cleaned up and completely dry. While it was drying, the glue between the pieces of shell was white, and I was a bit concerned that I'd end up with ugly white blobs. It dried quite nicely, however. Apparently you can also sand the final piece to smooth everything out, but I decided to leave well enough alone.

I'm pretty happy with the final result. I also like the fact that it's on a piece of rock, both because this means it isn't entirely flat, and also because there something rather satisfying about attaching something so fragile to something so durable.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Hard as it may be to fathom, people once believed there was a bird large enough to fly off with an elephant in its talons. Known to history as "the elephant bird", Aepyornis maximus grew to a height of three metres (ten feet), weighed about 400 kilograms (880 pounds), and had eggs as big as a metre (three feet) in circumference.

Roc carrying off an elephant.

Limited to the island of Madagascar, the elephant bird has been extinct since at least the seventeenth century, although Étienne de Flacourt, French governor of Madagascar in the 1640s and 1650s, recorded frequent sightings of elephant birds. Marco Polo also mentions exceedingly large birds he saw in his travels to the East in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

There are four Aepyornis species, the largest of which is Aepyornis maximus. Although many accounts by sailors suggest gigantic flying birds—including those who mentioned seeing elephants carried off—Aepyornis, like the ostrich and cassowary, is flightless. Their inability to fly may have hastened their extinction, as there is historical evidence that they were killed for their meat and for their eggs. Another possibility is the introduction of diseases via chickens and other fowl brought to the island by colonists.

Interestingly, the legend of the roc or rukh in Eastern tales such as the One Thousand and One Nights may have referred to sightings of the elephant bird, as well as the African Crowned Eagle, which was large enough to carry off lemurs. H.G. Wells also wrote of the elephant bird in a short story called "Aepyornis Island" in 1894.

Today, there are a number of partially fossilized Aepyornis eggs in museum collections around the world. In addition, the Musée national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris has a reconstructed skeleton on display.

Aepyornis maximus skeleton in the Musée national d'Histoire
naturelle, Paris.

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