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Designing in Ceramic Tiles

a lucrative craft for graphic designers

Jennifers signBefore, I mentioned the prospects of designing custom tiles as a lucrative side-line for graphic designers and illustrators. Consider the uses of this craft and your imagination begins to conjure all kinds of potential clients. From signage to architectural applications, the design and building industry has budgets for such a durable product -- especially when the custom design can be applied to business and marketing. In the private sector, this is a luxury that the rich will continue to pay for -- and pay well. A visit to your local tile shop will give you some idea of the prices artistic tile will fetch. Some Italian designs I researched ran as high as $75 for a single 8 x 8 inch tile -- which needed to be used in a "set" of 6 or more. Custom designed is generally not available, except from boutique tile makers like Jennifer.

The sign shown at right, (enlarge) is roughly 28 inches by 36 inches, and would potentially bill out at $1,250, and could run anywhere upwards to $3,000 depending on your location and your clientel. I heard of one wealthy homeowner who put $20,000 into a custom backsplash for the kitchen. Again, the real justification for this kind of investment is it lasts forever, and requires no maintenance beyond a wash from time to time.

Designing the signs

If the tile is not to be embedded into masonry, then it can be created as a stand-alone object. All you need is a work area large enough to lay out all the tiles together for transferring your image before glazing. If you don't want to use a wood frame, which would be the easiest way to go, then have your local steel shop fabricate your frame for you. I gave a quick call over to my local steel fabricator, Excel Steel, and obtained a finished price of $78 for a 28 x 36 steel frame from half-inch angle with a steel mesh background. The frame is welded and a steel mesh used for masonry is spot-welded in the back to hold the tiles. A quick visit to your local tile vendor brings unglazed, fired tiles -- 8 inches square for about $2 each, and a bag of mastic for about $12 -- and you're in business.

Painting in Glaze

Glazing is the process of coating the surface of the tile with a thin layer of glazing compound. After being fired in a kiln, the compound will melt and flows out to form a hard, glass-like coating. Glazing seals the porosity of the tile making it extremely hard and completely waterproof. In liquid state, glaze can be thinned and painted onto the surface of the tile, in dozens of colors and texture effects including glossy, metalic finishes like gold, silver or brass -- and they're all available from any self-respecting crafts vendor, or industrial ceramic supplier.

You lay out your tiles, pencil in your design, and paint away. Designs can be printed onto tracing paper in your computer printer from "tiled" illustrations or drawings. Once on tracing paper, simply pounce the design, or use a Saral transfer paper (available at most graphic design purveyors like Charrettes or my favorite Dick Blick) to get the outlines of your art transferred to the tiles. Once patterned, the tiles are painted and fired separately. Since you probably don't have a kiln, then you'll need to locate a source in your local area. Check the schools, and universities first. Or, perhaps your friendly local potter can help you out. (The right project with the right client could pay for the kiln up front!)

Once glazed, the tiles are put together in their frames, usually embedded into a bed of mastic, or tile cement. Now it's permanent, and beautiful.

pictorial tiles

Ideas and Resources

Blue printed tileThe first place to look for inspiration is history. A thousand years of tile artistry awaits you with some rather special inspiration. This ceramic tile was produced in England. Don't forget, you can also print or dye-sub onto tiles as well. (See this excellent example of printed tile from 17th Century Holland.) in the library, history books or many of the books from Dover Publishing, like the Decorative Tile Designs CD-ROM and Book, or Tile Designs book and CD-ROM. You can check the Publishers' Warehouse Loading Dock for dozens of samples from these books to get you started. Also, for working reference materials, just search your computer for the word "Tile" ... chances are you've got lots there already like these pattern samples from the Adobe Photoshop folder. Also search for guides and tutorials on making patterns. I've put several pattern files in Adobe Illustrator, along with the above mentioned pattern samples into the "Clip Art" department of the Publishers' Warehouse. You can download the vector files there!

If making your own seems a little too much, you can always catch up with Jennifer at her studios, Jennifer Roche Custom Tile, in St. Augustine, FL. She can do a wonderful job for you... and more! If you want a little more inspiration, just visit the Jennifer Roche Custom Tile web site and check out her portfolio. I think you'll enjoy it.

Now, this article could go on and on, deeper into the craft -- but I'll let you discover all that on your own. Hopefully I've given you enough to give you a good start. If you do try your hand at this art form, please, don't forget to send in photos, so we can share with all the other DTG readers!

Thanks for reading...

Fred Showker
      Editor / Publisher: DTG Magazine
      User Group News Network, and Photoshop Tips & Tricks


See my previous story: Signs of Southwestern charm

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