Accuracy – For and Against

I’m an absolutist soul in a pragmatist’s body. On the one hand, I always want to prepare and make everything as perfect as it possibly can be. In this spirit, everything must be completely right or it won’t do. Indeed, not even my best is good enough, and I’m forever rubbing clean and re-painting pieces until I’m absolutely happy and exhausted even if no one else would have seen what I had seen to make me discontented.

On the other hand, part of me thinks accuracy is vastly over-rated – that (on the whole) glass painting isn’t like manufacturing a mechanical clock: so, for many images, their constituent strokes can in some sense be in “the wrong place” yet what emerges from the whole, with light shining through it, is … beautiful. No other word will do.

And in that spirit I think one can be damned by accuracy.

Just so – I’m a huge admirer of John Singer Sargent, and whenever I’m in Edinburgh, I go straight to the National Gallery and pay my to “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”.

And yet, see here …

Just look at Lady Agnew here and read what Sargent wrote:

“Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend"

“Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend”

Yes: “Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend”. You see my point: accuracy but no friends – damned by accuracy.

All the same, you can’t abandon it – not unless you have the titanic, world-transforming technique of Salvador Dali who could do pretty much as he pleased:

“I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject. Rather does the person grow to look like his portrait”

“I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject. Rather does the person grow to look like his portrait”

Right: “Rather does the person grow to look like his portrait” – I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemies. (Maybe more to the point: I wouldn’t be able to earn a living …)

For me, and maybe you feel this also, glass painting is rather like an anxious dance, sometimes holding accuracy close, sometimes leaving it at quite a distance.

Which brings me to Francis Bacon, so many of whose paintings shock me so much, I won’t put anything here except some words of his:

“ … one knows that by some accidental brush-marks, suddenly appearance comes in with a vividness that no accepted way of doing it would have brought about”

And if I had to make a choice, I’d say – with glass painting – it’s that vividness (your viewer gasps and is enchanted) which really counts.

Therefore, I drink a toast to those “accidental brush-marks”.

All the same, because of the fast-drying nature of the medium, no one gets that without – technique. Thus, the particular brush-marks themselves may be in some sense accidental … but there is nothing accidental at all about the skill with which the brush and paint themselves are used.

So now I wish you happy painting – with as much accuracy as you need to bring that vividness to your own work …Stephen Byrne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 thoughts on “Accuracy – For and Against

  1. Well said. I raise my virtual glass to your toast, and to accidental brush-marks everywhere. May they never cease to amaze and amuse us.

  2. Wow, very well said, and what very coincidental timing! I have been putting off finishing a few final pieces for my window, due to the lack of accuracy that I feel they have. I was just thinking about how I shouldn’t be so caught up in the details and let the strokes be themselves. I too suffer from the “not perfect enough, so wipe it off”. Then I think about whether a few wayward strokes are really going to be noticed by the viewer, which more often than not is…no. So I let them be, and remember that it isn’t manufactured glass, it has the sense of the human touch, perfect or not. Even still, people I show my glass often think it is screen printed or digitally transferred regardless of what I think have flaws! I don’t know whether that is a compliment or not! Anyway, thank you for your fine words of encouragement!

    • Hello Rhyce,

      I’m glad this message is timely.

      And if anyone’s painting a stained glass face, please do remember the heart-felt words of Billy Hughes:

      “When having my portrait painted, I don’t want justice – I want mercy“.


  3. I strongly believe that no matter if one is striving for realism, or even some degree of abstraction, one absolutely needs to have an understanding of human anatomy. All too often I see work being done which makes me think the subject is the result of a bizarre genetic experiment gone horribly wrong. I’m not referring to stylized faces, but work where the painter has strived for realism.

    The human face is a beautiful, complex, curious, and challenging subject to render well. I have always admired Sargent, and his technical virtuosity is a marvel to behold. The ability to sketch or paint a convincing face may require hundreds or thousands of hours of drawing from life and practice, practice, practice! Not everyone can be successful at it. I’ve had my share of less than wonderful results, and when all is not as I envision, out it goes, and I start again. Sure, accidental strokes here and there can be quite charming, but as I say, if you have not drawn a lot from live models and don’t understand the underlying anatomy, you may never achieve the level of skill necessary to become a credible glass painter.

    • Can’t fault you there except to go further: you say “or even some degree of abstraction,” and I’d say (though you would too I imagine): how can anyone “abstract” if they can’t “concrete” first? I’ve never understood glass workers who say they only do abstract, as if figurative were beneath them when actually figurative is all too difficult. Which it is. Like you say: hundreds or thousands of hours of practice. And the same piece often painted many, many times.

  4. Sargent’s work is so wonderful, and I can fully understand his frustration while striving for perfection. Too often I will grow resentful towards a particular brush stoke or line, scrub it away, and then spend the next several hours attempting to lay the perfect line. This rarely results in success, and more often than not I end up realizing that, no matter if the line is perfect or not, if it has that emotional quality that can only be achieved by a hand-painted line, then it achieves the desired result. Not saying I can lay any line in some vague way and it is acceptable, but perfection can lead to sterility, and what we are doing is working with our hands, not programming a robot to execute a sequence. Glad to know I’m not alone in my painting of the same piece over and over and over again until it has that “awe” factor.