The Perfection Trap

Recently I came up against a frustration that I thought was worthy of writing about as it was a good lesson for myself.

From the moment I saw them in person, I’ve always been in love with the famous Byzantine mosaic portraits of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora that face each other in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. I am in good company; these are many peoples’ favorites however my desire to do reproductions of them has haunted me for years and I have finally embarked on doing so.

As I worked on Justinian I was for the most part pleased until it came time to lay the considerable amount of gold in the figure, halo and background.
There was something bugging me about what I was doing that was not capturing the soul of this mosaic for me.
The andamento was correct and clear and I was staying as true to the original as I could. But there was something wrong; and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.

So I started consulting with my friend Luca in Ravenna who works with Luciana Notturni and her associates who were my teachers.
Luca started pointing out “less regular shapes, less regular shapes, you must mix up the size and dimensions and angles of the shapes”

Luca reminded me of my roots in Ravenna where Luciana Notturni encourage us not to use perfect cuts so as not to make it look machine made but hand-made.
Now, I teach my students that the way you lay the tesserae is much more important than having perfect cuts, but in my own practice I had lost sight of this and wasn’t practicing what I preached!
I teach andamento principles and cleanliness so much that I had forgotten this until His Majesty the Emperor appeared on my easel.

I was trying to stay true to the original as much as possible but I had forgotten somewhere along the way the charm and personal character that imperfect cuts lends to a piece. These in particular.

Also over the years, as I had become better at cutting,  become more experienced and regularly taught andamento to my students in a very clean way,  I had drifted away from this principle.
In my own work I tend to work very clean and consistently, and…(I can still hear Luciana and Annalisa’s voices in my ear “too tight Michael”)
Even when I was doing reproductions I was using the existing andamento lines of the original,  but cleaning them up and making the interstices much more consistent.
This made them clear for the eye but change the look in character of them a bit.

I think in our modern, technological, super clean precise world there is a tendency to strive for surgical precision. I don’t think this is wrong, I just think for me it removes some of the human element from the character of the work.
For my own work I think it may be a matter of me sensing when it is more appropriate to be super clean or strict,  and when it’s more appropriate to be a bit looser and imperfect. For me that often depends on the subject or idea and how I can best illustrate that subject or idea. More of a "feel" rather than a rule. The lesson for me was that, at least for reproducing ancient and Byzantine mosaics, staying with the looser and imperfection of the cuts and laying was the way to go. That’s where part of the character, beauty and charm of them lie.

For instance this very clean-cut border has MUCH less character in my opinion than... 

...this version, which is much closer to the original.

But when it came time to lay the gold in the background I worked with the existing andamento lines but cleaned them up in my usual fashion and found that it looked terrible.
Totally missing the character of the imperfect cuts and imperfect laying lines of the original.

After consulting with Luca in Ravenna, even when I tried to consciously vary the shape of tesserae I found myself laying in clean lines unlike the original.
It ended up looking more like some Venetian styles where everything is perfectly fit together,  than it did the Ravenna style the original was done in. This resulted in it being clean and correct, but completely unsatisfying style-wise or character-wise to me.

My friend Michael Photopoulos, who works a lot with iconography, compared the looser Byzantine Ravenna styles to a textured velvet; meant to be seen from a bit of a distance. As opposed to some more modern Venetian styles to silk; that look perfect and seamless even up close. I like that comparison.


So after struggling some more in the studio and talking to a couple of other colleagues, I discovered that to get that look, it involves a conscious effort to actually try to cut irregular pieces and lay them slightly irregularly.
So I set to work purposely pre-cutting irregular shapes. More than once I had to laugh at myself when I found myself hesitant to lay the tessera and reaching for the hammer to adjust the cut to fit more smoothly! It was almost compulsive at this point!

Set it, Adjust it, Leave it. As my colleague Lawrence Payne says:



It took a conscious effort to not adjust it and get it out of my hand and laid in the approximate background andamento with not such clean interstices. BUT in the end I was absolutely thrilled with the stylistic outcome and had to go back and roughen up what I had already cut and laid the previous day. There’s way more to do but I’m staying with the rough cuts for the background. Another advantage of working the gold looser is that you have the ability of tilting the tesserae slightly in various directions as the Byzantines did to reflect the available light from many directions.


For myself I had to take a lesson to beware of the perfection trap. I think that sometimes with too much perfection you may sacrifice the human element in the look of a mosaic. We want to see YOU and YOUR hand. Not a machine’s perfection.

I like to say "Strive for excellence, not perfection. There is a difference."