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Keeping the Art in Reproduction Art Tile

Art made by the people for the people, as a joy to the maker and the user... ~William Morris

Six William De Morgan reproduction tile panels.  Left to Right: William De Morgan blue peacock, Winged Seahorse Panel, Tree of Knowledge (with William Morris), Fantastic Bird, Winged Gryphon, Peacock and Salamanders from WilliamMorrisTile.com

William De Morgan reproduction tile panels
Blue Peacock, Winged Sea Horses, Tree of Knowledge, Fantastic Bird, Winged Gryphon, Peacock and Salamanders

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Morris's Quandary

Art is the most spiritual and the most revolutionary of enterprises. Morris's quandary was this: He espoused medieval craftsman values and at the same time, long before his socialist years, sought to improve the quality of life and make art available for all people. At the same time, he hated the poor quality of mass-produced goods and furnishings that flooded the market. He improved upon the medieval tilemaking process, developing better methods and dyes, while providing a good wage and exemplary working conditions for his time. We've improved on his methods further with advances of our time, but the values endure. Each tile is created individually, handled individually with attention and care.

In that spirit, I've modified Morris's methods further, with ultraviolet light resistant colors and polymer glazes, while remaining true to the spirit of his vision and the color palette that was available to Morris & Co., the cobalt blues, cadmium yellow and so forth. None of the tile here is stocked or mass produced. Nothing is off-the-shelf.

Tile was one of the earliest media that Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. explored. Pre-fired tiles were imported from Holland and painted by Morris himself, as well as others in the Morris & Co. circle, then fired again. Many of these original tile designs later made their way to implementations in stained glass and textiles.

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Our art is the work of a small minority composed of educated persons, fully conscious of their aim of producing beauty, and distinguished from the great body of workmen by that aim. ~William Morris

About My Reproduction Tile

Originally, I only made reproduction tile. It's been a decade since I started doing this and images taken from my website appear on auction sites to sell small tiles based on enlargements of those web images. So I've moved away from exact reproductions a bit, while staying true to the original designs. You may see a different background or color combinations offered. If you want an exact reproduction of Morris or De Morgan tile, rather than a true-to-original design, ask me if you have any doubts.

The largest part of my tile is based on William Morris, and Morris & Co designs, primarily those by William DeMorgan, Edward Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, and John Henry Dearle, but also Kate Faulkner, Jane and May Morris, and Lucy Faulkner. I have design-true restoration tile and also tile based on early Arts and Crafts (English Arts & Crafts and Glasgow Arts and Crafts) themes: the natural world, myth and fairy tales, medieval motifs, and the immanence of spirit in the natural world. Yes, really.

Like Morris, I follow my interests. I have a life-time love affair with myth and fairy tales, and illustrations. Going down such rabbit holes leads me to find interesting candidates for tile, such as a Walter Crane / Edward Burne-Jones collaboration based on The Earthly Paradise. Like Morris's circle, I sometimes take a design for one media, for example stained glass, book illuminations, or textiles, and transform it for tile.

The Nitty Gritty Details: How We Make Our Tile

The process is not far different from William De Morgan's Painted Paper technique. Early tiles were produced by pouncing, a painstaking process that required marking the outline of the design with pinpricks, then brushing with a contrasting colored powder. Colors and glazes were then painted on the Dutch blanks by hand. As projects became larger, this was unworkable. The Membland tiles panels, mentioned above, were installed side-by-side in upstairs bath at Membland hall; with each panel consisting of 63 tiles, alignment of patterns was a significant concern. Morris's Membland design was executed by William De Morgan; for Membland, De Morgan moved quickly to the painted paper technique using his own blanks for each tile:

The pattern (its leading lines only) was drawn in strong black lines on tracing paper and this was pasted onto a sheet of glass. On the other side of the glass was fixed (temporarily) a square of thin paper and the glass, easel fashion, was set up in front of a widow. The lines of the pattern were easily visible on the thin paper and the painter proceeded to follow him with his pigments, filling up the rest of the pattern according to his discretion as to the intensity and so forth of his colouring, a coloured tile or drawing at his side dictating to him the effort required (Halsey Ricardo, 'Technical Note on the Manufacture of De Morgan Tiles and Pottery' in Catalog of Works by William De Morgan in the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1921).

The finished copy was placed face down on the surface of a tile blank, adhered with sodium silicate and sprinkled with powdered glaze and placed in the glaze kiln.There the pigment fused with the glaze, becoming imprinted on the tile, as the paper burned away.

As with De Morgan's method, each of our tiles is individually pressed, and designed with individual care and attention. Besides the minor differences that just happen, we introduce minor variations between tiles.

Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are a sign of slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading ... (John Ruskin, The Nature of the Gothic)

My Process

The specifics of my process are not dissimilar to De Morgan's painted paper process:

  • I recreate the image through a scan-print-paint-polish-rinse-repeat process until I get an image of the size and resolution that works for what I have in mind. This is by far the longest part of the process and can take from a few days of to two years in the case of the Membland or the Days of Creation angels. Eventually, I have one or a series of images I am happy with and can use for actual tile. The original image can be tile design such as the De Morgan Parrots, original Morris fabric such as Golden Lily that is based a fabric swatch from the Huntington Library in San Marino, an original tile photo, or a combination such as Membland.

  • The tile is cleaned and sprayed by hand with a polymer coating. (A polymer is a very long chain of molecules that moves very slow, and is usually very stable. These come as blanks for convenience sake. (What is polymer?).

  • The tile is placed face down on a design painted or printed (sometimes both) with ultraviolet-resistant pigments.

  • The tile is placed under pressure and simultaneously heated to a low firing temperature. This causes the colors to vaporize and fuse with the underlying polymer glaze.

  • The tile is removed and cooled. The polymer coating hardens further. For some tiles, they're immersed in water as soon as they're removed to halt any further color changes. But the color changes are nice, and can vary with the weather. My favorite blues are those made early in the morning, when the air is crisp and the tiles cold to start.

This method is also reminiscent of the traditional delftware technique, in which raw clay receives a "biscuit" firing, then coated with the tin-glaze to prepare it for pigment. It was then fired at high temperature so that the pigment fused with the underlying tin-glaze.

The process is individual. I rarely make more than one or two tiles at a time.

Cheaper is, well.... Cheaper

I often find my tiles on ebay or zazzle being sold at a price that's a fraction the materials I use. I spend weeks, and in few cases years, bringing tiles back to life. Ans since I make the web images large, their tiles look pretty good.

A tile's quality will be no better than the quality of the materials used to produce it. Morris complained about the quality of the Dutch blanks imported. He never opened a box of cheap Chinese imports with an uneven glaze and emitting fumes that sent them immediately to the garage. There's a wide variation in the quality of polymer coatings determines and colors and finish, and their corresponding cost. Even with the best materials, variations in color and quality exist among the final tiles and not every tile is suitable for installation. (I pass our rejects on to mosaic artists.) Where the process becomes automated and soulless, quality suffers.

I chose this method over hand-painted tiles because it gives us the accuracy we want in a quality medium, while staying true to Morris's ideals in not exploiting third-world children to produce quantities of "hand painted tiles" in a color-by-number fashion without pride of workmanship.

I'm guessing anyone who would be happy with something that looks like a Morris, but is a cheaply made mass-produced Morris design has already moved on from this page. But just in case, here's a summary of the Morris and Co. process and some things one might want to look for.

Early Morris and Co. Tile-Making Process

Early Morris tiles were "pounced" -- the original design was traced and then holes punched in the tracing paper and some version of charcoal rubbed through the holes, and then the glaze painted in.

In his later days, De Morgan's designs were taped onto one side of a glass, with thin paper taped to the other side. Local Italian artists then painted glazes onto the paper, which was then sent back to his Fulham tile works in London. The individual tiles were then wrapped in the paper. When fired, the paper burned away and the glaze baked into the tile itself. Although the materials are different, this individual tile method is very close to how we make our tiles.

Color

Aside from the lack of soul, there is no small amount of mass printed "art tile" on cheap imported blanks with possibly toxic fumes from the coating. Not to say that the original cadmium yellow glazes and leaded stained glass were non-toxic. Although color itself changes over time, no matter what the medium, there's no way to know how long the colors on cheaply manufactured tiles will stand up. I've tested mine by leaving them in direct sunlight for a Northwest summer out in the elements day and night, which you aren't supposed to do. I did not notice any significant fading, although the reds did not "pop" as much as they had originally.

Image Integrity

Forest mural illustrating overlapping grout lines

The Flat Image Problem

When tiles are laid out and mass printed, it is a two dimensional process. Morris and De Morgan tiles, even with the paper method, were wrapped around the tile, so that the color extended slightly onto the sides of the tile. A mass-printed art tile will have squared-off edges and the entire side of the tile will be white. To hide this, they must be grouted all the way to the top of the tile. Since grout shrinks as it dries, the white may still show and need to be repaired. That's actually possible with any tile that starts from blanks, because large tile printers use the flattest tiles possible. The finished product looks like a flat picture with lines in it.

The Lost Detail Problem

Another problem, and I think a serious one, is that a two-dimension printing of an image on tile undermines the integrity of the art. In fairness, this can happen with any bad grouting job as well, where the grout covers important parts of the tile. To illustrate, I've made two 'Forest' examples to illustrate the difference:

In the first image, you are still able to read the words on the scroll. The entire section is on the tile. Color extends onto the side of the tiles from the adjcent areas of the tapestry, but I've made adjustments so that those parts of the image are not lost in the grout line. This first image also illustrates the limitations of the medium: No matter what you do, a mural may break in the middle of face. Adjusting for this requires attention to each individual tile, not a mass process. When I work from an original panel that has this problem, usually because it has been removed from its original installation and placed on a movable panel, I have to extrapolate the missing part and recreate it. I do this for each and every tile.

Mass-produced art murals lose part of the image to overlapping grout lines. Sometimes, it does not significantly detract and is even part of the charm. But losing part of a face or an inscription is significant. I've made the grout lines dark in the lion image to illustrate this, but what happens is that the part of the image that lies between the grout lines is lost -- text is unreadable, the lion acquires a case of "ogre eye", and there is no dimension to the tile. So if you see one of my larger murals with a great deal of detail and you wonder why it is so expensive compared to something you might find on ebay (including tiles based on my work), it is not just that I use more expensive materials but also that matching and preserving the details on a large mural takes time in execution, and in the several several to many dry runs to get a working prototype. This makes the mosaic artists who inherit my rejects very happy.

Early and bad attempt at fourth angel on one-inch at mosaic tile

Tiles on mesh always lose integrity, as one of my early attempts with the Days of Creation fourth angel makes all too clear.

Sometimes, this is not so noticeable or is worth the trade-off. For example, the one-inch tiles are the only tiles I have that will stand up to serious outside temperature fluctuations.

Limitations

Like everything else, much of the quality in a thing depends on the materials that go into it. We use the best materials, but pressed and hand painted tiles will not stand up as well in constant daylight as well a single color glazed clay or maybe even a Talavera tile. Given some forethought to where they will be installed, they stand up nicely. At this writing, the Fairy Tale Panels are standing up nicely installed in stair risers in Texas and North Carolina and I am considering 'The Forest' tapestry as a backsplash in our own utility room, where there are moisture fluctuations. Check the site map for links to the current installation instructions.

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