A Plan of Attack

Yes, indeed, as I was just saying, we’re often asked how to paint particular things. For example:

  • A hand
  • A horse
  • Waves and clouds
  • A dove

But maybe there’s a strange assumption here.

After all, is there just “one correct way” to paint a hand, a horse, a dove, waves or clouds (or whatever)?

Surely not.

One glass painter might use one set of techniques, and another glass painter might use a very different set of techniques. And both their painted objects – using very different styles – might be absolutely lovely.

Now there’s an interesting point which is a little bit hidden here. So let’s dig it out.

If, using different techniques, both their objects can be beautiful, this suggests that it’s the graceful skill of their respective performances which is particularly important here.

Whatever they actually did, they did it skillfully.

(Of course, the objects must also be “recognizable” – and I promise we’ll have a great time discussing “accuracy in stained glass painting” on another occasion.)

There are many ways to acquire skill, careful repetition being perhaps the most important.

Nothing magical in that: just practice, perseverance, attention.

But maybe some people think that their mere possession of the “recipe” (or technique) – especially when it’s been given to them by a master glass painter – should immediately confer the talent.

That’s clearly not the way things are. – Which is so self-evident, that maybe you feel “short-changed” right now …

But wait! That’s not the “helpful idea”!

Imagine, please, a cook who is attempting to make the world’s best quiche lorraine.

The thing is, with an ambition like this, our cook here gets terribly worried and hot and upset and uptight and anxious. (Perfection is such a terrifying thing to aim for.)

This state of agitation means they keep forgetting where they are, what they’ve just done and so forth.

Consequently they don’t remember what ingredients to use, and what order to use them in. And they also forget what temperature they last used to bake the quiche, and for how long.

How can they ever improve?

They can’t – unless they write things down in advance, and then follow the recipe “to the letter”.

Yes, exactly – the cook needs a recipe. And a bad recipe is often better than none at all. At least a bad recipe is a starting point. If it doesn’t work out, it’s always possible to look at the individual instructions, to adjust them, and try again.

And that is the helpful idea. You see, professional glass painters write down the sequence in which they intend to perform a series of techniques.

If the professionals always do it, then maybe that’s something which helps explain their professionalism?

So always have a plan of attack.

I remember once teaching someone how to highlight, and I suggested making some pencil lines first on the design to see what they looked like first.

After all, if you do pencil on paper, you can always rub them out if you don’t like them – a great advantage when considering where to place your highlights!

This person replied, “I can’t possibly do that. It would destroy my sense of exploration”.

What can one say?

If someone wants to “explore” and is prepared to run the risk of ruining their work, that’s their call.

Me, I’d usually prefer to make a plan. And I’d already have done my share of “explorations” on paper first, or even on small sample pieces of glass.

And I don’t reckon that plans destroy the artistic integrity of the process. They just help us to acquire grace and skill more quickly than we otherwise would if we were bumbling around, trying this and that, and then forgetting which brush we’d used, and when, with what medium and paint, and so on.

Here’s a sample plan (of nothing in particular):

  1. Undercoat
  2. Copy-trace main lines (make a note of what you call the “main” lines)
  3. Strengthen the main lines
  4. Paint an overcoat to soften the main lines
  5. Reinstate and re-shape some of these lines (note down which lines)
  6. Pick out main highlights (use a pencil and mark these on the design as needed – no explorations right now please!)
  7. Soften some of the highlights (note down which)
  8. Mid-tones on reverse (say where)
  9. Paint an overcoat to soften the mid-tones on the reverse
  10. First firing at 1250 Fahrenheit / 675 Celsius
  11. And so forth …

It really doesn’t matter if this plan transpires to be rubbish. The point is, it’s a plan. If something doesn’t have the desired effect, we can make a note of what went “wrong” and change it. Then we can use the revised plan and paint the glass again. And again. And again as needed.

Believe me: the experts all do it. I know they do. So, if you don’t already, we suggest you do.

This has just made me think of 2 related point which we can talk over the next few times, namely:

  1. A quick way of getting really proficient at a particular series of steps within a given plan
  2. And, yes, what counts as accuracy and precision in stained glass painting / when to be critical and start again, and when to push on and see what happens at the end …

So next time I’ll tell you another thing the experts always do.

For now, just make the time to write down the sequence of techniques that you plan to use.

Until then and always,
All the best,

Stephen Byrne

P.S. Another really big advantage of writing down a plan is that it gets it out of your head. That way, it’s not muddling and cluttering your thoughts.

That way, you can bring a better quality of attention to your actions. This is turn will improve the rate at which your strokes acquire skill. It is so!

To paint stained glass, everyone really needs a clear and focussed mind. And here, writing down a plan is a simple way of getting closer to that end.

And of course yet another advantage is that, by writing down your strategy, you objectify it; thus you can often improve on it even before you lift your brush – which is much better than realizing half-way that something is impractical!

P.P.S. Here’s a useful post plus a short video where you will see an excellent example of a “plan of attack”. Maybe you haven’t seen it yet? Maybe it’ll make different sense now. Anyway, it’s right here.

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10 thoughts on “A Plan of Attack

    • William,

      Your firmness of resolve does you proud.

      May I just say that the time will certainly come when, in order to get better at undercoating, you will need to practice copy-tracing and strengthening.

      The reason is, the next stages after undercoating will reveal more to you about how the undercoating must itself be done.

      So please bear that thought in mind. Repetition has a vital role, but something is also repetition when we also go a little further than the time before.

      All the best,

  1. As in any project, there is an inherent process to which one should aspire. When anyone seeks to circumvent the process, the results are never quite as successfully accomplished as they would have wished.

    Years ago when I was a novice insurance salesman, my manager always insisted that I should “plan my work and then work my plan”.

    Your suggestion here merely echoes and amplifies my former manager’s suggestion with a force that we all should consider and reckon with.

    Thanks for your continued support of those of us who struggle daily with the thrill of glass painting and many other endeavors. These endeavours all work best when we “plan our work and work the plan”.

    Carl Trimble
    Dallas, Texas

    • Hello Carl,

      Thanks for your comment. I myself find it intresting how there are so many insights which can be transferred from business when it is properly done to craft when it is properly done. I imagine it’s because both activities are part of how we choose to lead our lives.

      All the best from us here,

  2. Stephen,

    “Inherent process” is a concept is a discipline that transcends the content of the endeavor. No matter which trade, skill, profession, there is always an underlying process necessary for success.

    Learning, knowing, and applying the underlying processes is incumbent upon all who strive for excellence, no matter the pursuit.

    Thanks again,
    Carl Trimble

  3. Hello Stephen,

    Have you ever considered working with a spray gun – that is, for your shading needs? I believe that most of the studios here use that type of approach.


    • Hello Rolf,

      It’s something we want to explore in the future. As always, though, it would need to be driven by the demands of the design (as opposed to simply being a technique that we adopted because it enabled us to cut down on painting time). And we simply haven’t designed anything yet that calls for it. And yet I know that, once we experiment, we’ll find a need that it can answer. So roll on the time when we can! And thank you for returning the idea to our attention.

      We were thinking of experimenting with propylene glycol as a medium. Do you happen to know what studios typically use?

      Thanks, and all the best,

  4. Stephen,
    I was taught to paint in a similar fashion using Reusche D1368 water-based medium mixed to a honey-like consistency. And a few drops of ethylene glycol (antifreeze) would alow the paint to slide of the brush better.

    Deborah Coombs, who is from England, was exposesd to this type of painting while teaching under Walter Lieberman at the Pilchuck glass school here near Seattle. They were painting on vessels, and she started using this paint in her flat stained glass pannels. While back east a Chemist nammed Warren Porter was concerned about her exposure (and her cats) to antifreeze (which is deadly to cats). He suggested using propylene glycol which would have the same characteristics (and the cats should leave it alone). It seemed to work well for her because her painting is very spontaneous, and the paint can be manipulated with various brushes & tools such as rubber , wooden sticks ect.

    It is important to take proper precautions and also to vent your kiln when you fire.

    If you need more information, please let me know.
    Kelley Mooers

    • Hi Kelley,

      Thanks so much for your comment which will be so useful to a lot of glass painters.

      For our part, we’ve done a few experiments with propylene glycol, and certainly look forward to doing some more. Your point about its usefulness with particular reference to Deborah’s painting style – spontaneous – will strike a chord with many readers here, of that I am sure.

      Thanks again.

      All the best,