Good Desperation, Bad Desperation, and – a Powerful Illusion

The life and times of a 21st century glass painting studio

In 2004 I set up a studio with one partner, David. This was a design and glass painting studio, which, having run through more embarrassing names than we can remember, we christened “Williams” (after David first, because he could paint) “& Byrne”  (after me, because I could copy).

Glass painting: it’s not an easy way to make a living.

But it is a great way.

I don’t mean women, cigars in bathtubs full of champagne, and private jets.

Though the last time I flew to see our client on the shores of Lake Geneva, I tried to board the airplane with a glass cutter in my pocket.

That was … fun.

A stained glass Saint Francis

Not an easy way to make a living, but …

Yes, it is a great way, and we haven’t just survived, we’ve also done quite  well: we’ve made some gorgeous windows, and also made some money.

And quite a few people over the years have asked us how we did it. – Because they too want to make a living by painting glass.

So … from time to time I want to talk with you not just about techniques – how to mix your paint: how to hold your tracing brush: how to blend: and so on.

I also want to talk with you about running a studio, about making it succeed. Because if it doesn’t succeed, it definitely won’t be fun.

Remember Doctor Johnson’s words?

“Birth and death are inevitable, so you might as well enjoy the interval“.

Know what I mean here?

And it really doesn’t matter if you’re working completely on your own, or maybe with one or two others, or even with 10 people. Because there are 19 points, maybe more, that I managed to isolate when I thought about this that really are important – whatever your set-up.

And I don’t mean any of this smugly.

I’m not a bit self-satisifed. In fact I’m more than happy to list the mistakes I made – just don’t blame me if the list goes on and on … and on. But let’s leave them for another day.

For now, here’s where I’ll start …

1. Good desperation

The first thing that was important may strike you as a bit of a laugh, but I am deadly serious.

Is is: how desperate are you?

The more desperate you are, the better you are likely to do.

You may have heard the phrase – “burn your boats” – about somebody burning their boats, I mean not being able to turn back once they have started something.

This, in fact, relates to the story of Hernán Cortes who conquered Mexico with 500 men or so. The Aztecs, who ruled Mexico at that time, had countless thousands. Anyhow when Cortes’ men were getting faint-hearted, he burnt the boats on which they came. In other words, they had no choice; they had to go ahead.

Well, that was my situation in 2004.

Let me explain …

Five years earlier, I’d left a successful job in business. And, after a year spent doing every part-time art course I could find, I got a job with an old English studio called Hardman’s.

The hours were long. (It wasn’t unusual to start at 8 in the morning and work through till 8 at night, and sometimes even 12.) But I was keen to learn. Desperate to learn, and that’s my point: I wouldn’t let anything stand in my way. And so I endured four fast, mad years of learning everything I could. I didn’t really have a choice: it would have driven me – literally – mad to continue working in an office. Like I say, I was desperate. Which was all to the good.

David was desperate too. He was Hardman’s studio manager and chief designer. He’d done this for 15 years, and was beginning to realize he’d had enough of doing another owner’s bidding.

Consequently, we used our lunch-breaks (when we had them) very wisely, and made good plans.

We needed plans because we did not have any money.

Looking back, I think that’s just as well. More desperation, you see. Nothing to fall back on. No one to subsidise us. No spare fat to take us through the winter. We had to plan. We had to be realistic. We had to be hard. Hard on ourselves, hard on our clients. And we had to be very, very good.

I think it’s terribly difficult for people who have a lot of unearned cash, and I always hope that doesn’t happen to anyone I like.

Well, we certainly didn’t have any cash (earned or otherwise) behind us. Which meant that ‘Williams & Byrne’ didn’t really start out in Stanton Lacy in autumn 2004. No, ‘Williams & Byrne’ began life in a damp cellar, measuring no more than 12 feet by 8, during the long, cold winter of 2003.

This cellar was all we could afford.

Thankfully, even though paint-eating slugs destroyed two whole church windows we were making – they were attracted to the sugar in the unfired gum Arabic; I hope they died of lead-poisoning … – the client paid up (of course we had re-made the windows!), and we had enough money to get the lovely quiet studio where we are now.

Since then, desperation has helped us more than once. It has focused our minds. It has kept us on track.

OK so in one sense you must be mad in this day and age to do the kind of work we do (we and you): I mean, factories in China can turn out kiln-fired computer-printed windows in less time than it takes me to load my tracing brush …

Fine! So, yes, we’re mad. And desperate – and we won’t be distracted: and this is a great advantage. I wouldn’t have things otherwise. In this sense, I wish you just the same.

2. Bad desperation

That’s enough about good desperation. Now I want to tell you when desperation’s dangerous. It happened like this …

The other day, a rich client brought us a 19th century window he’d purchased at an auction.

I say he’s rich, almost unimaginably so. But I need to be clear with you he’s earned all his money. He’s worked hard to succeed. And he’s careful with his money because he knows how he’s earned every single penny of it.

Which is why he likes buying stained glass at auctions.

Mostly, no one knows what price to put on it. There isn’t an established market. The price really is whatever someone is prepared to pay. Which means it’s very easy to pick up windows that you and I would describe as “priceless” – and just pay a few hundred pounds.

Needless to say, they’re often in a shocking condition: missing pieces, shattered pieces, perished leads …

Ah, yes, skillful work is needed to repair them.

Even where you choose to “strap over” cracks (rather than re-paint the piece), you must choose the lead carefully, then shape it and maybe bond it to the glass, then solder it beautifully to the leads around it. And not “just anyone” can do this. It takes skill.

And as for re-paints: well, you need real talent and knowledge to be an expert forger.

But here’s the point. If you know you’re stuff, it’s maybe just a few days’ work.

And if there’s not much work around, maybe some-one’s inclined to say, “Hey, it’s easy enough. And I know the original piece was cheap. So even though it’s taken me 30 years to get where I am, I can’t charge more than what he paid for it. Besides, I need the money …”

Fatal words.

Yes, we all need money. And like I said, I’m glad to admit we’ve never had the means to be complacent.

But that does not mean we’ll under-price the work we do. Nor should you.

(I also need to say, we never charge different clients different rates. Another important point.)

Anyway, under-pricing is one of the worst things you can do.

It’s almost as bad as not doing a proper job.

Under-pricing is awful.

Frankly, I’m a stubborn so-and-so, and I’d rather go bust than have anyone under-pay us for the best work which they will get from us.

And what happens if they don’t want the best work: “Can’t you ‘bodge’ it?” No, I can’t! And there’s the door

So there were David and I, listing all the repairs to this client’s three-hundred pound but incredibly beautiful and badly broken window.

And we were soon in the several thousands.

And d’you know what? I didn’t care. I wasn’t embarrassed. Nor was David.

Do you know this story …

The British art critic John Ruskin once accused the painter James McNeill Whistler, of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

(I guess Ruskin didn’t like Whistler’s style …)

Whistler then sued Ruskin for libel. This was way back in 1878.

Anyway, when a lawyer asked whether two days’ work justified that picture’s high price, Whistler curtly replied, “No. I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”

Skill and confidence (not desperation): admirable, wholly admirable.

Note: I wouldn’t advise anyone being as brazen as Whistler with an alpha-male client like the ones we tend to attract. All I mean is, it’s good to remind yourself of the value of your skills. Because it’s very easy to forget the sweat and tears it took to acquire them. Which easily leads to fearfulness and underpricing – what a disaster …

3. The illusion

Yes, the sweat and tears it takes to learn this ancient, honourable work of kiln-fired glass painting.

Probably like you, I was first attracted to it by the sheer richness of the colours.

You look at colours like you see in some churches or other ancient buildings, and you feel like something has touched your soul.

And here we all are, privileged each day to work with colour which, if we do our work right, will touch other people’s souls.

“Do our work right”: that’s the thing.

Because your eyes will always tell you one thing in your work-shop, when it’s only after years of experience that you will learn how sometimes you must ignore your eyes and trust your intuition.

Fact is, as I’ve said before, most stained glass faces are painted on brown or green glass. (Or maybe a light amber.) And if someone makes the mistake of painting them on clear glass, then most likely the daylight will bleach away the carefully painted lines.

So take a look at this picture:

Now can you believe this:

Square A is the same colour as square B.

The same colour.

You want the proof? Then see here.

OK so my point is (again) the vast experience and self-confidence you must possess as a glass painter – specifically, now, when choosing your colours.

Get that wrong, and you’re in trouble. Big trouble.

And if anyone “makes light” (no pun intended) of what you do – “Come on, all you’re doing is just choosing nice bits of coloured glass” – challenge them with the Adelson test, above.

It’s because our brains our hard-wired like this – and therefore jump to conclusions – that, as a glass painter, you often need to stick everything on an easel and see how the colours react with one another.

Stained glass Saint Martha on the Easel

Saint Martha … on the Easel

Sometimes you don’t just need to check the easel – you also need to make a prototype and take it along to wherever it’s eventually going. Because that’s the only way to see how the colours will really look.

Yes, this is all time and effort.

But you’ll regret it if you don’t.

Just before I go, let me tell you one last instructive story.

Last year we made a large, abstract window for a public building in the City of Hereford. Now the particular window was already glazed, but glazed with frosted glass. This had been paid for and installed before we got involved. Anyway, the plan was, to glaze our abstract stained glass on the inside of this frosted glass. OK. So we made a prototype and took it along …

Frankly, the frosted glass made our glass look like lavatory glass.

So we said the owner had a choice: re-glaze the window with plain glass (£1,450 plus sales tax), or find a different studio.

We stood our ground. We knew we had the experience. We knew we were the experts. The owner understood this.

And we were right.

Best,

Stephen ByrneP.S. If there’s anything you want to know more about – or ideas you want to share – please use the handy box below.

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31 thoughts on “Good Desperation, Bad Desperation, and – a Powerful Illusion

  1. Your story reminds me of the fellow with the leaking toilet (or whatever you all call it on your side of the pond).

    He had called in several plumbers to work on and fix the problem; all to no avail and who had charged him the sum of $25.00. Finally, in desperation, he challenged one more plumber with the stipulation there would be no payment unless and until the leak was fixed. Whereupon the plumber duly worked on and, finally, the leak was fixed.

    The owner asked for the bill and was presented an invoice for $100. The owner responded in anger that this was unwarranted and wanted an itemized invoice.

    The plumber replied: “For fixing the toilet, $25. For knowing how, $75. Balance due: $100.”

    Your point as well as this is that our accumulated knowledge has an inherent value beyond the actual work effort.

    One has to think highly of himself – or no one will.

  2. Stephen,

    I have to say one thing. Thank you for sharing your life experience with us. You know that people will pay money to learn what you say in your posts.

    But knowing you and David adds more to my personal experience both as a glass painter and as a human living, and sharing things with others on daily basis.

    All I can say is thanks for sharing this with us!
    Hassan

  3. Thank you for sharing these stories. You’re on an amazing journey! Most of all, it’s great to hear from someone who actually adores what they do for a living. Gives one hope.

  4. What a good experience, reading about your disasters turning into successes. I have a problem–I usually underprice my panels. Perhaps courage is lacking, or really believing that my work is worth asking a good sum in exchange for 30+ years experience working with glass. You have faced a lot of interesting issues…paint-eating slugs? I cannot imagine.

    • Catharine,

      We must talk more about under-pricing, about fair costing, and about over-charging: these are big, important topics.

      Best,
      Stephen

  5. I very much enjoy your stories, tip, experiences and sharing of knowledge. I’m looking forward to the next parts of the “secrets” of running a studio. I am fortunate to have my own cellar, which is quite a bit larger than your original 8 by 12 work area! I’ve only been working with glass for about 4 years, and only part-time, so I’m not sure I have enough good desperation. But, as the economy keeps changing, so may my level of desperation! I’ve been told I do not charge enough for my work, so the upcoming information you share will be quite helpful to me in that area.
    Thanks so much for being so open with us online.
    Regards.
    Gen

  6. Dear Stephen,

    I enjoyed reading your story and understand the difficulty of starting up a studio from scratch, especially when you have no funds to begin with. In the near future I will attempt to start one in Sydney with a couple of friends – neither of them paints but they have knowledge of paints and other aspects of stained glass.

    In the meantime, please have a look at the latest SGAA magazine-summer edition on page 132 (Quirkiness in Australia). Some of my works have been published. I am self-taught in painting on glass. Please leave a comment.

    Thanks and cheers,
    Ivan Liew

  7. Hi Stephen and David,

    I enjoyed your article about desperation. I am often guilty about under-selling myself. My sister Anne has no problem in that department, and has taught me well how to value my abilities and charge for them.

    Thanks,
    Mary

    P.S. Your quote about, “Burn your boats” – that is funny because here in the USA, we say, “Don’t burn your bridges.” All means the same thing, but I have never heard the British version.

  8. Very inspired by your post as ever and it has helped me see that the issues that I have with starting out are nothing new at all with determination/desperation being a jump that we fall or clear.

    Now – just a nosy question: do you think things might have been different if you and David had tried to go it alone rather than starting up together? Did you both find it easier to keep going with that mutual encouragement/desperation? I hope you don’t mind me asking but I see lots of people trying to go it alone and wonder if the partnership can make a difference.

    Thanks for sharing your stories,
    Angela

    • Hi Angela,

      David and I work very well together and neither of us would do as well on our own as we do, sharing the studio. There are many reasons: complementary skills, trust, direct talking, shared ambitions.

      So, yes, partnership can certainly make a difference.

      That said, I know many professional artists/makers who work extremely well on their own.

      But even they need someone to talk with and get objective feedback from.

      This is another good topic to say more about.

      Best,
      Stephen

  9. Just so right and so inspirational. I love receiving your newsletters and am right at the beginning of learning it all despite being over 60. I will do one of your painting courses one day when I feel good enough to start that bit!

    • I’m very glad you’re reading the newsletters and letting yourself get drawn into the true nature of glass painting (rather than the “master it in a weekend” approach): focussed thought and practice always pay off.

  10. Great story. I don’t know how many times similar things have happened to me. I went to put a bid on a couple of cabinet doors and when I sent the client the estimate she went crazy, saying she didn’t think it would be so much considering the size of the windows.

    I told her that it wasn’t the size, it was the design, cost of materials and my time and skill.

    Thank you so much for sharing,
    Angela

    • Interesting (and familiar), Angela! And again we must come back to this.

      As I know you know from your story, we don’t allocate prices “in a vaccuum” so to speak.

      But it is an easy mistake to suppose that we do (if only in a small sense).

      Yet there is always a context, there are always assumptions.

      Here your own client made a leap from the size of the windows to the size of the fee. And she was so sure of herself, she was shocked by reality.

      Which means that an essential part of establishing our fee is clearly articulating the context within which the client must see it. That (as well as the actual work itself) is also our job.

      Best,
      Stephen

  11. Just to add a little to this. Another danger of underselling yourself is that you set a precedent for future work. Once established it is difficult to raise prices to your worth. Just something to think about.

    • I agree. If one goes up, one has to change the context. By the same token, if one goes down, likewise.

      Some people say you must put in a high price at the start because it is easier to come down than it is to go up. I don’t agree with that. I think one can make a fool of oneself either way. That’s why I think it’s important to be clear with a client about what they’re getting for a given price. Once they’re happy about that, it’s often possible to make adjustments without anyone losing face or, indeed, taking unfair advantage of anyone else.

  12. Stephen, greetings!

    Is it possible to keep your day job and still be desperate for stained glass?

    When do you know the time is right to burn the ships?

    Thanks always for your spirtual and worldly advice!
    John

    • Interesting questions!

      Speaking personally, I couldn’t have continued working in the kind of way I had been doing.

      Nor, once I left, could I ever have returned.

      So when people say (as they sometimes do), “How brave to leave your secure and well-paid job”, I say: “Not ‘brave’ at all – just necessary; nor was it ‘secure’, because these things never are when someone else is in charge”.

      But it’s a different question and a different answer for each of us: we’re all at different ages and stages, with differing commitments, skills, ambitions, vision … I know plenty of people who balance their day job (which they may not like very much or at all) with their love of glass painting which they pursue in the evening or at weekends. It works fine for them like that. Truth is, most people probably have a thousand dreams of what they’d do if …

      I often feel it’s just a question of being practical, of doing our best, and of not harbouring regrets.

      Best,
      Stephen

  13. Hi Stephen!

    What a great story – and I’m so glad you guys stuck it out. It is great that you are happy to share both your experiences and also your well learnt talents with us. I get great inspiration from your tips and guidance and am planning on more glass painting once I have finished decorating the house. That promises to be far more rewarding.

    Keep up the great work and keep this wonderful art going for future generations!
    Eileen

  14. Dear Stephen and David:

    I am a beginner glass painter who – as you mentioned – saw a stained glass window and it touched my soul … they still do – sometimes bringing me to tears.

    So, just want to say thank you – thank you for being so sharing with all the information you and David have accumulated over the past 30 years! It is not often that an artist(s) do that so selflessly.

    Take care.

    • Hi Tish,

      It’s so unfortunate that the expression “win-win” is now so ‘naff’, hackneyed and sucked dry of all sincere meaning, one cannot say it without suggesting pretty much the opposite!

      Thing is, we love meeting new people. (Otherwise we’d come down with ‘studio fever’.)

      And we also ‘take stock’ of a huge amount, rather like keeping a diary – writing about techniques and adventures means we can take time to make sense of studio events.

      Another thing is it’s also invigorating to hear tales of other people doing well. Most mornings there’s something here or in my in-tray which makes me cheerful and proud (in a good sense) of our fellow workers.

      Another thing is a professional blog like this one becomes a forum: at times, everyone, including me, gets to meet ideas we’d otherwise never glimpse.

      And as if that’s not enough, it’s also a big relief to admit to errors and get a proper sense of perspective on them. If others are entertained, and sometimes also get to see a grain of truth in our experience, that’s wonderful.

      So I can’t say “win-win”. Nor can I say “selfless”. But we are glad to meet you!

      Stephen

  15. My lovely wife, Lorraine, started our advertising and graphic design business, Cline Design, over 20 years ago. We have prided ourselves on making business decisions carefully, and we have done well. We are also small enough (2 people) to be able to make quick turns when needed.

    One thing we have always done is pay ourselves. However small the amount, that pay not only keeps bread on the table (and maybe a jar of peanut butter, too). It also proves that you and your skills have value. It proves you have worth.

    In these lean times, knowing one’s ultimate value can keep one plugging away.

    • Yup! We always pay ourselves as well, and have done from the start.

      Maybe that too, done correctly, helps with pricing because it can create a virtuous rhythm, rather like blood pumping through the studio’s body.

      Yes, of course, and taken too far, that discipline of self-payment could be damaging: imagine having the attitude, one had to sell “so many units”, or “so many square feet” e.g. of painted stained glass per month – it would kill the very spirit of the thing.

      On the other hand, as you suggest, it’s up to the maker to make sure that honest toil – talented work – secures rewards not just hereafter but also in the here and now.

  16. Hi Stephen

    I really do enjoy receiving your emails and all the information that you impart to us mere mortals!!!.

    Enough rattle – I am in my last year at Swansea Met doing my HNC in Architectural Glass (I am disabled so was unable to commit to full time so no degree just an HNC sadly) but I am struggling with knowing what to charge and how to charge for work that I will do in my studio at the bottom of my garden (luckily I have a big enough garden to have built a studio of an okay size to start with). It is not primarily glass painting I will do it is more design and build, sandblasting and slumping/fusing glass – the lecturers are very reluctant to impart the ways of how to charge for work and I really do not either want to over charge but more so under charge because that takes away your credibility straight away and when you are trying to start a studio and get a good reputation you need to get it right first time – (first impressions always stick) So you probably have been asked this sooooo many times but could you give me some sort of idea of how to go about working out what to charge – I have looked so hard on internet and books but they just say ‘what you believe your work is worth plus materials’ but until I know what my work is worth then how do I know what to do – one thing the lecturers have said is you can never charge for all your time that is spent on a project.

    Really look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

    Kind regards

    Sue Solomon

    • Hi Sue,

      More tips in our latest post!

      Best,
      Stephen

      P.S. “Never” charge for all the time one spends on a project – what a strange rule! But I’d rarely trust lecturers for good information about pricing. On a related matter, I was once shocked to learn how few professors at the London School of Economics had ever run a business … the number is extremely small.

  17. I am in love with color, and though I should have started painting on glass in the prime of my life, I am eager to learn this skill. I just hope I have enough time to learn something of the immense store of knowledge that this takes. It would help me immensely if you could put me on your email list. I have tried several times, but have never received a tip.

    I am working essentially on my own and in the dark, so please help.

    Thank you.

    • Hello Linda,

      I’m not sure what the problem was but of course I have added you to the list so you will definitely start to get our useful newsletters now.

      All the best,
      Stephen

  18. What an excellent article! Thank you for sharing your start-up story. Strangely enough, much of what you said has also rung true for me in my experience designing instruction as well as in in my craft hobbies.

    As with Sue, I’ve encountered difficulty knowing how to select an appropriate price which both appropriately reflects the value of the service/product and is affordable for clients. Thus it is great to have discussions like this.

    Most frustrating are groups wanting to benefit from my instructional consultant expertise but are unwilling to pay for it. Despite their current methods not working, they reject my advice because they would have to try something different from their traditional methods. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Unfortunately I haven’t yet learned how to spot problem clients before the project starts. It is not good when ignorance or bad desperation compels me into a project where I am pressured to decide between producing lesser-quality work, which I know will not fix the problem, or quitting. Sadly, too many potential employers/clients want a quick, cheap, don’t-really-change-anything fix, not a well-designed solution that meets the stakeholder needs.

    Do you take on any charity cases? If you have had situations where the cause was worthy but underfunded, how have you handled it? I do like to give back to the community by occasionally offering my services at a discount for charity organizations that can’t afford it. Some truly appreciate it and I feel good for making a positive contribution in disadvantaged persons’ lives. However, I can’t afford to do this too frequently.