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26 Jul 2023

Our latest case study tells the wonderful story of how artisan techniques weave their way into the courses we teach at the school, demonstrating that artists and creatives can learn valuable skills from our courses.

Before telling you more about how Edinburgh-based artist Joanna Kessel came to take our Venetian Plastering course, let’s start the story with mosaics. Our founder and lead tiling instructor Antony loves to work with mosaics in his spare time and often incorporates mosaic-work into our courses and has taught a few short beginners’ classes. As well as using mosaics for functional settings, Antony is also interested in mosaic as an art form.

Joanna studied in both the ceramic and tapestry departments at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1980s. She then went on to study tapestry within the painting school at the Royal College of Art in London. She first started working with mosaic in the early 1990s, undertaking several public art commissions for local councils, schools and hospitals as well as for private clients. Arts Council England and Creative Scotland Research and Development Awards in 2007 and 2010 were pivotal points for Joanna, and led her to re-connect with her studio-based practice, and in 2009 she set up Edinburgh Mosaic Studio. She now combines her own studio practice with teaching, research and commissioned work.

Antony and Joanna first met in 2015 at her studio when Antony was sourcing tiles for his mosaic work; and in 2016 she helped him source tiles for a restoration he was carrying out on a mosaic floor at St Cuthbert's church. They've kept in touch ever since through their mutual love of mosaic-work.

As well as mosaics, Joanna also has a keen interest in the wall surface treatments used in Venice and is an admirer of Italian architect Carlo Scarpa—who has inspired and informed her work for many years. Aware of Joanna’s interest in this art form, Antony contacted her to let her know we were launching a series of courses in Venetian Plastering, as he knew it would interest her. Joanna jumped at the opportunity and joined us for a week in June to immerse herself in learning the technique. Below, Joanna shares some of thoughts on the course and how she plans to use her new skill.

Tell us about your interest in Venetian Plastering
I first became aware of Venetian Plastering whilst in northern Italy on a Creative Scotland funded research trip into contemporary mosaic back in 2010.  The research led me to the work of the internationally revered Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa.  Scarpa’s use of gold leaf mosaic, concrete and stucco lucido had a major impact on the development of my creative practice.  I have worked with concrete and lime mortar previously but not stucco lucido, so when Antony mentioned that they were offering this specialist Venetian Plastering course I was keen to sign up and find out more.

joanna kessel with sample board
What did you find interesting and most-helpful about the course?
I found the entire course fascinating.  Rob was very generous in sharing his in-depth knowledge and was happy to answer our varied questions.  We tried out a range of materials and techniques to ‘get the feel’ for them, working on 600mm square boards (which we could take away as reference) and on walls.  It was great to get this range of in person, hands on experience - you learn so much through doing it yourself with a tutor there observing what you’re doing, ready to prompt you and give you guidance.

What expectations did you have before you started?
I was super excited to be attending the course and to find out more about the processes involved in this traditional, artisanal technique.  I was keen to learn and hoped that the experience would give me a greater understanding of the processes employed in Scarpa’s work. I had met Antony quite a number of years ago and knew about Trades Training School.  I liked the ethos and knew the course would give me a thorough grounding in this technique.

What did you think of the course structure?
I liked the pace of the course and it was really well delivered.  Following a brief introduction we were straight into practical work.  Rob demonstrated processes then we tried them out, building up our skills and knowledge over the three days.  The course length gave us time to test out processes and develop a good level of basic skill.  It took a bit of time to get to grips with the names of the products, which one gave what finish, but Rob’s explanations were always helpful and slowly it began to sink in.

How do you think you will incorporate Venetian Plastering into your work / life?
Right now I’m not sure how I will incorporate Venetian Plastering into my artwork but I found learning about the technique hugely informative.  I recently showed some miniature mosaics in a gallery with an old, patched, plaster wall and I enjoyed the interaction between the mosaic and cast concrete objects and the wall.  I can definitely envisage creating work where the wall surface becomes an integral part of the work. The course has made me want to re-visit the lime mortar technique I’ve combined with mosaic before, the materials are almost identical and now I’ve got a greater understanding of how they perform it’d be interesting to explore this further.  I know a couple of artists in Edinburgh who use fresco techniques in their work so we’re planning to catch up and discuss the various processes – there are so many creative overlaps.

What was your biggest take-away?
I left the course feeling informed and inspired.  The course was well worth doing.  It’s been a while since I’ve worked on a site and being at Trades Training School brought some of that back.  I really enjoyed the work ethos and atmosphere at the school.  I found it interesting to hear others talking about their work.  It reminded me how much work and dedication goes in to the development of these manual skills, how important traditional trades, artisanal and craft skills are and how the end products or built environments can enrich our lives.

Find out more about Joanna’s award-winning career on her website:

If you feel inspired, our next start dates for our Venetian Plastering courses are Mon 2 Oct & Mon 9 Oct 2023. Find out more here.

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