Christine Brallier has been creating art since childhood and hasn’t stopped! She grew up in Los Angeles, CA studying art and music through high school. Then, after years as a preschool teacher, she received her M.A. in psychology, focusing on children and art therapy. In 2005, she discovered and fell in love with the art of mosaics. Her award-winning art has been published in several mosaic technique books and her mosaics have been installed in public spaces in California, Texas, Kentucky, and the Australia Zoo. Her first children’s book, The Night Before Christmas, illustrated with her stained glass mosaics, was published in 2013. She now lives in Santa Barbara with her husband, son, and two cats.
Here is Christine showing her stain glass mosaic process:
For my book, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, I started with the simplest of thumbnail sketches, small (3 inches) and quick, just putting the idea down, what I want happening and the general feel of the scene.
Next I do a ton of research to gather the elements for the picture. I found a chair online that I liked and used a photo of our Christmas tree as a reference. I had my husband pose for the Dad (who will be behind the tree), and also for Santa so I could get his hand and body position just right. I print out a rectangle in proportion to the eventual book page (in this case, 5×8”) and draw a line down the middle so I avoid putting anything important there that will get swallowed by the binding later. Then I like to either cut out my reference photos or draw the different elements on tracing paper so I can move them around to get the composition I want. I have to be very aware at this stage of the size things will be once the design is enlarged. For instance, I had to draw Santa close up rather than his whole body because I wouldn’t be able to cut the glass small enough for the detail his face would require. In this case, it resulted in a stronger design than originally envisioned.
Here is the final line drawing right before enlarging it to 15×24”. The tree, the Dad, and the cat were too small and detailed to add at this point so I add them later. The patterns on the chairs and rug, the photos on the wall, and other details would be decided when I got my glass out and could play with the colors.
Here the design is now blown up to 15×24” and I can add the tree with all of its ornaments, the Dad, the cat and a mouse!
In preparation to mosaic, I first tape the large design down to a board. I then lay plastic wrap over the design and then fiberglass mesh over the plastic wrap and tape it all down. The glass will be glued to the mesh and the plastic wrap keeps the glue from sticking to the design below. I work this way rather than gluing the glass directly to a board so that I can easily make changes as I go. I will later transfer the mesh to a board.
Now the fun part, cutting the glass! Santa’s face was tricky because it was so small (about 1 ½ inches here). The pupils were only a few millimeters in diameter. I spent a lot of time on his face to get it just right and redid it many times over. This still isn’t the finished result but I moved on to the rest of him while I thought about what I would change later.
One of the things I do before cutting glass for a particular section is draw direction lines for how I want the glass to flow (the andamento of a mosaic). Cutting glass is so time-consuming that I need to work this out in advance rather than figure it out as I cut. I can also play with values and shading at this point.
I don’t usually color my thumbnails or designs since I like to experiment with the glass itself to see what looks best. The one downside to that is there can be unexpected problems down the road. In an earlier page I had made Santa’s toy bag green. When I got to this page, however, I realized that his bag would disappear sitting in front of the Christmas tree, so I had to change the color. (This meant, of course, that I had to go back and change the color on a few other pages I had already done.)
Throughout the book I not only put my family and our cat in it, but also added personal things wherever I could, like my husband’s guitar, the stuffed reindeer Santa is holding, and every ornament on the tree!
If there was ever anything that didn’t look quite right to me, color wise, I could cut bits of other colored glass and lay it over what I didn’t like to see if it worked better. This again saved time and allowed me to see at a glance if it would be an improvement or not. The green in Santa’s coat bothered me for several mosaics until I tried the blue and loved it immediately. Once again, I had to go back and change the color on all of the previous Santa pages, but it was worth it.
I used photos of our cat, Raymi, as reference for most of the pages, but didn’t have one of her in this position so found a photo online of another cat to model after and then added Raymi’s markings. I had intended to have a separate storyline of a mouse on every page, but after cutting glass for this one, I realized it was just too small to really get much personality out of it so I eliminated it.
I decided to use some of my older mosaics throughout the book as the art on the walls. It made it more personal, as well as allowing for more detail.
I simply used photos I had of the art, glued clear glass over them and stuck them right in!
Here is the mosaic prior to grouting. You can see that I redid Santa’s face to have fewer pieces (and not quite so pink!) and I think it looks much better.
At this point I un-tape everything and glue the mesh to the board.
Once it’s dry, I spread grout all over the surface, pushing it into the gaps in between the glass.
I then wipe off the surface grout and wa la! It’s done!
I had a few more questions about the process before we get to the interview:
What type of tool do you use to cut the glass?
I use a glass scorer to break the large sheets of glass down into more manageable pieces, and then I use wheeled nippers to cut them into smaller pieces. The average size piece of glass I use is about ½ an inch but can be bigger or much smaller, depending on the level of detail I need.
Do you cut each individual piece or do you have broken pieces that you try to fit into the design and then cut the rest?
I cut each individual piece into the exact shape to fit. Sometimes one piece can take several minutes! I’ve had the tiniest pieces (the size of a grain of rice) take a half hour to an hour even – because it’s so small, I don’t always get it right the first time and then have to re-cut it many times over.
Can you use any colored glass?
Since my mosaics won’t have light coming through them like stained glass windows do, I prefer to use opaque stained glass, which is non-transparent and also happens to come in some very rich, beautiful colors!
What about the glue? What type should you use? How much should you use – a little? A lot?
The type of glue depends on the other materials you are using in the mosaic, as well as whether it will be an indoor mosaic or an outdoor one. I suggest that if anyone is interested in experimenting with mosaics, that they take a beginning mosaic class or find a book on mosaic technique. For this book project, I used Weldbond glue. (Weldbond should not be used for exterior mosaics.)
Can you see the glue through the glass?
It depends on the glue. Some glues dry clear while others don’t. If you’re using opaque glass like I am, then it doesn’t matter.
Do you use any old type of grout?
Again, there are several types of grout that are used for different applications. However, I prefer to used a sanded grout for all of my projects.
How long do you wait to make sure it is dry enough to continue?
There are different waiting times for different glues. I usually wait a week for the glue to dry before going ahead and grouting the mosaic. Other glues you can grout the next day.
How sturdy is the finished piece?
As long as you use the right materials for the job (or you don’t drop it!), mosaics are not going to fall apart.
What type of board do you use? Wooden? Could you adhere it to glass so you could see through it? Have you ever done that?
There are so many different bases you can use – wood, cement board, and yes glass, too. You can mosaic over so many things! You can get ceramic or wooden or concrete sculptures and mosaic over them. I have used all of these as a base for a mosaic. Some of the bases need to be sealed beforehand, so again, a class or book is vital if you want your mosaic to last. The only mosaic I made on glass was a little glass ornament to hang in front of a window. Eventually I’d like to do a larger mosaic that way. Mosaic artists like to joke that they will mosaic over anything that doesn’t move!
Now for the Interview Questions:
How and when did you start illustrating with stained glass?
I had always been curious about the process of mosaic making so in 2005 when I found a mosaic kit at a local craft store, I bought it. I knew immediately that I had found my medium! I am very detail oriented and I loved the process of cutting the glass into small pieces and putting them together to make something beautiful. It’s a very tactile process that keeps me present and in the moment, which is very relaxing. And then I will discover something fun about a color combination or a different way of cutting the glass and all of a sudden it becomes exciting! It is a spectrum of emotions when I work and I love it.
Did you do any traditional art such as drawing or painting before that?
My mom was an artist and encouraged me to create things from a very young age, so I’ve always drawn, painted, collaged, you name it. I was always making cards for people for all occasions. I remember once making individualized Valentine cards for every kid in my 4th grade class. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up so most of what I created was at home or in school, though I do remember taking an adult life drawing class when I was about 13. I was an art major in high school and continued to take art classes after I graduated.
I also love to cross stitch. It is a lot like mosaics in that each tiny stitch makes up the whole. It’s a meditative process, too. The last one I made was for my mom. It’s pretty big and took about eight years to complete. I finished it right before she passed away last year, so I was able to show it to her.
Did you study art in college? If so, what college did you attend and what did you study?
I attended three city colleges before I got to Antioch University where I received my M.A. in psychology with a focus on children and art therapy. Meanwhile I was taking life drawing and painting classes (watercolor) through Santa Barbara City College’s continuing education program and The Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Have you taken any stained glass classes?
There weren’t any local classes when I first started so for the first few years I taught myself through books and online learning. I then joined SAMA (Society of American Mosaic Artists) and have attended the annual conference for the past six years where I have taken workshops on technique, design, business, and large scale mosaic mural making.
What was the first art related piece where you were paid for your work?
In 2006 I went out to dinner with my family at a local Outback Restaurant. As we were waiting to be seated, I noticed two small tables holding chips and salsa. They were so plain and I thought how fun it would be to cover them with mosaic in some Australian themes. I spoke to the owner about it and he loved the idea! And that was the start of my mosaic business.
What type of job did you do right after you graduated?
Throughout grad school I was doing paid internships as I accumulated hours towards my MFCC license. I continued to do so after graduation, working with several organizations at once in the areas of child abuse, domestic violence, and anger management.
What was the first contract you received to do a piece of art for children?
It wasn’t an illustration job but a mosaic for a children’s park.
How did that come about?
I was looking for opportunities online when I found an article about a small local team building a park for their neighborhood. They were looking for people to purchase and hand paint tiles to go on three pillars in the park. I was just starting out and trying to get my business out in the world so I wrote them offering to donate a small mosaic for the backside of one of the pillars. They agreed and let me do whatever I wanted. I ultimately decided to do the entire backs of all three pillars, about 22 square feet! I then applied for and won a grant which paid for all of my materials and a lot of my time.
Was The Night Before Christmas your first book?
How did that contract happen with Brownian Bee Press?
I had always wanted to illustrate a children’s book but didn’t have the confidence in my painting abilities to ever pursue it, though I continued to dream about it! After a couple of years of making mosaics, however, I found I had confidence in creating something beautiful and suddenly had the idea of illustrating a book with my mosaics. I had never seen it done before and thought it was so clever and original. When I went online to see if I could find a book published in this way, I found another mosaic artist, Barb Keith, had done so through her publishing company, Brownian Bee Press. We became friends and she offered to publish my book for me when I was ready.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate that story?
My family and I were reading the story Christmas Eve as we always do when I got the idea of illustrating it and personalizing it with my family and our cat. I loved the idea of continuing our tradition and reading MY version each Christmas Eve!
How long did it take you to finish?
It was four years from start to finish, though I did have other projects and commissions going on at the same time. However, I was meticulous in logging my hours and found that each mosaic took between 60 and 135 hours to make.
Are you planning on illustrating another book using your stained glass technique?
Yes! I’ve also been experimenting with seed beads and enjoying how tiny they are and how challenging they are to work with – a book illustrated with seed beads could be interesting!
Have you framed any of the glass pages to hang in a window?
No, the bases of the mosaics are not glass, but board, so the light does not show through them. They are meant to hang on the wall only. Though that does give me a whole new idea to consider…
Have you done any stained glass using the traditional stained glass methods?
When I was in the 8th grade, I made a small stained glass piece, maybe 5×7”, of a fox. I still have it! I wasn’t too thrilled with the soldering process, or I would probably still be making them. I sure wish now that we had made mosaics instead!
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Definitely – I’d love to create the whole package, all me. That would be very satisfying. I’m working on ideas now.
Have you done any work for children’s magazines?
No, but it is something I’d like to do.
Do you have an agent to represent you? If so how did you connect? If not, would you like one?
No, I don’t have an agent. It’d be fun to see what an agent and I might create together!
What types of things do you do to market your work?
I am online everywhere I can think of and post regularly – my web site, of course, Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram, Goodreads, etc. I send postcards, maintain an active blog, and send out a quarterly newsletter. I joined SCBWI early this year and attended my first conference in New York. I also haven’t missed a SAMA conference in the last six years. I have done book signings, readings, craft shows, and art exhibits of the mosaics created for the book. I’ve sent my book to reviewers and approached other bloggers and illustrators. Basically, I make myself and my art visible wherever I can!
Do you have a studio in your house?
Yes – I love working at home.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
My studio is filled with creative things that my family, friends or I myself have made, including my childhood art, my son’s art, and a painting by my great grandfather. It is all hugely inspirational and just makes me feel good to have it around me. I feel connected to the people who created it. I also love having photos of those I care about nearby.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I divide my work time up into drawing, writing, making mosaics, marketing, and online research. The amount of time spent on each one depends on the priority of the day. During the holidays I’ve been marketing more than creating art since my book is a holiday book.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I do tons of research as I draw much better with photo references. If I try to draw a dog, for instance, it will not be very proportional or accurate. If I see a real dog or a photo of one, then my drawing will definitely turn out looking like a dog! For my book, I had to research pretty much every element, or I used items around the house as reference. I also took photos of my family and our cat and worked from them.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Absolutely. I still am in awe at the reach of the internet, the connections and friends I’ve made all over the world, the visual portfolio so readily available to others. I love it! Nearly every opportunity and success of mine has come to me because of the internet. And with so much more ease than if I had done things without it.
Do you use Photoshop to enhance the photos you take of the stained glass?
No, I do not. The photos I take are unaltered. It is a challenge to get a good photo of a stained glass mosaic, however, and I do often take 25-50 photos before I am satisfied. For my book I hired a professional.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I’d love to write and illustrate many, many wonderful, beautiful books with fun story lines. I’d also love to do a huge mosaic installation maybe in a park or hospital, somewhere with lots of children visitors.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two public art projects: one will be installed at my local hospital’s chapel, three panels totaling 24 square feet, inspired by my mom and the flowers she loved. The other is for a children’s hospital in Central California, a 2×3’ mosaic of a rabbit in the desert.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
As I work with stained glass, not too many artists will relate to my materials list, but process-wise, what I like to do is design and draw very small. I find I see and take in the whole picture easier and have much more control over what my hand does! And because I love detail work, this method works best for me.
Any words of wisdom on becoming successful as an illustrator?
Tenacity! Everybody says it, but it’s so true – just keep going. I work every day on something that will expand my business. Maybe it’s drawing, maybe it’s marketing, maybe some of both. Be true to who you are and what you love. That way what gets created is guaranteed to be original and interesting! When I look at my business, I haven’t accomplished everything I want to yet, but I still consider myself a success. I’m happy with what I’ve created so far. I just keep looking forward and asking, what’s next?!
Below: In 2012 I was invited by SAMA (Society of American Mosaic Artists) to be the lead artist for a community mosaic project that would be created by approximately 100 SAMA members at the annual SAMA conference and donated to a nonprofit, The Nest, in Lexington, KY. The design, which I titled Ready to Fly, is of goldfinches surrounding a nest of baby birds in the branches of Kentucky’s state tree, the tulip poplar, while one of the birds is flying away. The design is meant to symbolize the families in crisis who come to The Nest for support and guidance. Using the resources and encouragement The Nest provides, the families develop the skills and habits needed for a healthier lifestyle. When they feel confident and self-sufficient, they are ready to fly. Society of American Mosaic Artists a mosaic triptych for the local non-profit The Nest.
Spreading the Grout
Waiting for Installation. If you have time take a few minutes to read the horrors that Christine faced getting this job done. Here’s the link: http://www.cbmosaics.blogspot.com/2012/03/sama-2012-lexington-ky.html –
Above: All Done – Below: Close-up
Thank you Christine for sharing your mosaic process and journey with us. Please let us know about all your future successes. We’d love to cheer you on. You can see more of Christine’s work on her web site: http://www.cbmosaics.com or see more of her process on http://www.cbmosaics.blogspot.com.
If you have a moment I am sure Christine would like to read your comments. I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!