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.
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 …”
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:
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.
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.