Clients and their needs vs. designs and what they say

I don’t draw.

Well, I can’t draw well.

I just copy.

And if anyone reckons I’m supposed to be ashamed of that, well, no one comes down hard on a violinist who plays Bach beautifully but who can’t compose

So don’t anyone pick on me here! ( – As if any of you would.)

Of course it’d be completely different if the violinist tried to pretend Bach’s music were his own.

But I don’t do that either. (OK that means it never was a “secret” as such – I just wanted to lure you here under false pretences. I’m like that.)

All I do is copy the designs which David prepares.

Well, I copy some of them.

The fine details of human faces still elude me.

(But I’ll not give up trying!)

So maybe it’s actually not too much of a risk to spend some time talking with you about stained glass design.

And the reason is, there is a useful moral at the heart of this newsletter – so it applies to people whether or not they draw.

Which means it applies to me, and maybe to you too.

Here’s the story …

The tycoon and his challenge

Well you maybe remember how we were summoned to London’s notorious Soho district to see this tycoon who’s rebuilding a mansion on top of the best hill in London?

Millions of pounds he’s spending. Tens of millions.

I mean just on the decoration.

And it’ll show.

Oh yes it’ll show. But not just any old how: it’ll show in a particular way to those who know.

See – the tycoon’s determined that nothing should look new. Everything must look original, as if it’s been in the mansion for hundreds of years.

Now maybe you also remember how, to get this commission, he challenged us to get back to him in a week with two pieces of forged and ancient-looking glass.

That was the thing: it might have been done just yesterday (which in fact it had been) but it had to look old.


Weary, even – like me when I look in the mirror at 5 a.m. before I’ve had my first cup of tea. You know what we English are like … (Extraordinarily beautiful once we’ve had that cup of tea.)

And we did exactly as we’d been told.

We’d already seen how all the other craftsmen were trying to please the tycoon by sending him their best samples …

And he just threw up his arms in tycoonesque rage because all their best samples looked new!

If you’re ever in a situation like this, I reckon it’s best never to try and please – just strive to understand and show it.

Which we did. First we painted two samples then roughed them up so they looked old.

Then we silver-stained the two samples and also roughed that up.

And sent them off.

And got the job.

A 25% commencement payment arrived the very next day.

In the beginning … were the designs

Having delighted our bank manager, naturally our next task was to please the client and prepare the designs.

Well, to be accurate, this was David’s task. (Yes, because I can’t draw. It’s not a secret. Whoever said it was?)

And as a measure of how well David accomplished this task, consider this point.

The tycoon and his wife are at blows with one another over 99% of the other craftsmen’s work … but they are in complete agreement over David’s designs.

They love them.

I don’t mean this boastfully because here’s the important point …

Those designs which the tycoon and his wife have fallen in love with – they’re exactly what they want.

BUT – BUT – BUT – wait for it – those designs are completely useless for us.

And I mean completely useless.

It would be a disaster if we tried to trace and shade from them.

A complete disaster.

See we as glass painters – and that includes me even though I “just” copy – can’t get the right instructions from them.

The designs work perfectly as paper-based designs in their own right – as if the images were designed only for paper – but they would fail as instructions to anyone who tried to interpret them on glass.

Now let’s take this apart …

What we’re charged to do is to design and make 16 panels in all.

Each panel is about a square yard in area / just under a square metre.

And they’re skylights – 16 stained glass skylights for the tycoon’s dining room.

So let me give you a rough idea of one scale design that David prepared:

stained glass skylight

The tycoon and the tycoon’s wife are happy – but we couldn’t paint stained glass from this

Consider the fine beast in the centre.

Up above, you can see the design the tycoon saw.

It’s not much like the clean and fresh design we’ll use:

stained glass beast

The tycoon wouldn’t like this, nor would his wife – but it’s great for what we have to do: namely, paint on glass

So here’s my point. You’re reading this because you’re interested in glass painting. And even with a vast resource of skill (such as David definitely possesses), it’s essential to understand how some images just can’t be rendered onto glass.

I’ll say that again.

Some images just can’t be rendered onto glass.

They need to be re-drawn and re-interpreted before the glass painter can figure out what it is he/she must do.

And the point is, if you’re having problems with a design, yes, maybe it’s you (to put it bluntly) or maybe it’s the design.

See I’ve had so many e-mails from people sending photos of their cat or brother, or wife, or child – asking advice on how to paint these images onto glass.

And do you know what I say?

I say: “Re-draw the image first“, that’s what I say. Always.

And it was just the same when we painted St. Francis and St. Martha at the start of this year.

We had a fresh, bright water-colour paintings which the clients loved. A lot of work went into them. (There’s a tour right here.)

And then we also had a simple pencil sketch to guide us when we traced.

stained glass design for a face

“I’m not talking to her!”

And so too with designs for a large house called Hampton Hall (a topic for one of our three films): the client saw and approved one version David made for them, and we used another version as the basis for our painting:

The Diamond Lights of Hampton Hall

What the client likes is not always as what you, the glass painter, need

Some images, as they are, just cannot work on glass.

And if, like me, you cannot draw, then someone else must do the drawing or we must pick a different image to paint on glass, one that lends itself to glass …

Heaven knows, there are surely enough of those in the world for all of us.

So always think: “Can this image really be painted on glass?”

And if you don’t see how, yes, maybe it’s you (so please do ask us) or maybe it’s the image.


Thanks for your time!P.S. This all goes back to an e-mail discussion with a new and wonderful friend – Jack – who found this site in May and who wasn’t phazed at all when I said, “I’m not an artist, I’m just a technician/copyist” (or what-have-you).

The thing is, who says someone has to be able to paint faces (for example) in order for them to be considered a “really good” glass painter.

It’s often more than enough to find the kind of thing each of us does really well. I’ll settle for that.

P.P.S. I don’t take it lightly that I can’t draw. (Sometimes I despair.) All the same, I respect and celebrate David’s vast talents. Which he’s given his life to acquire. Maybe it’s my tribute not to pretend I can do the same.

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8 thoughts on “Clients and their needs vs. designs and what they say

  1. Hi Stephen and David,

    I myself draw (pencil, charcoal or chalks) and paint (acrylics or glass paints/enamels) and I always say to myself and others these are two or three mediums are completely different! Completely!! So when I visualize a glass painting design for a client, it often starts from scratchy pencil drawings and searching for icons or symbols related to the animal, face or whatever. Once happy with the idea, I re-draw for the glass painting – if you like, I think in ‘glass paint’ on glass, rather than pencil on paper. I will probably always work like this it feels like a path of discovery each time.

    Recently I made my own website and attributed certain works of stained glass (not the painted bit because that is soley me – the constructing leaded bit) to the people who I worked with (namely Michel Varin and Michel Martin). I collaborated with them from the design stage and worked through with them. That’s OK. And I was so surprised though to receive an e-mail from a lady who had brought me a pencil drawing of a hare and the kind of border she envisaged for the stained glass. I’d had to change the hare to make it work for glass and also the border (which had bevels in it, so it also had to be changed according to the widths which were available). Then the lady accused me of putting something on my website which was not ‘my idea’ – even though she had not ‘collaborated’ with me on the design for glass and the making of the piece. I ate humble pie and apologised for offending her unintentionally – I didn’t feel it was fair to her or me to write collaborated with … so I removed the hare from the website. It is not always easy to please every one. I work hard to do so but somehow there is always someone … somewhere …

    Anyway, I diverted from the path of to draw or not to draw, and I believe you both compliment each other – so continue whatever it is that works!! And don’t feel bad, Stephen, about not being the one who draws the images – copying really does have its place … That’s also really how we learn from others.

    Well, enough from me I look forward to receiving my DVD which has been dispatched already. So keep yourselves warm, keep the drafts out, wear layers to trap the warmth and drink hot chocolate to keep moral high.

    Bye for now!

    • Hi Annie,

      Thanks for an exquisite, charming and entertaining comment. I really like the idea you mention of “re-drawing [on paper] for the glass painting” – I’m sure that gets even closer to the heart of the matter than I did in my post: thank you. Even though glass painting is not a performance art as such, there is a sense in which it is a performance: we all must rehearse and prepare for the performance of painting the piece we’ll be happy with.

      As a collecter of anecdotes about the foibles of our species, I also enjoyed your tale about the lady who believed herself to have been the creative source of the hare. When events like these happen to us, they sometimes hang around for a while and take time to shrug off. But I hope you feel now how even sharing a tale like that with the rest of us is something we can learn from, understand and even gently chuckle about.

      As for me, I’m both happy and unhappy about not drawing. Of course there’s a sense in which I’d like to do everything perfectly. In another sense, and – as I wrote before – with great respect and admiration for everyone who excells in a skill in which I fail – I focus on what I can do, and aim do to it better.

      All the best,

  2. Stephen,
    First, I am sorry to have been so busy in December to have parked your (and almost everyone else) emails till I could get time to reply. As you know there have been many things going on in my life lately.
    Secondly, to have had a conversation with you that sparked this discussion is truely an honor.

    You have put it so beautifully in the context of the violin player and Bach. As long as credit is given, is there anything from the antiquities period not a viable subject for expression in glass? (I mean those that can be used by redrawing them to be applicable to fired stained glass.) I feel that the artist of the original and the artisen of the current representation have many things in common. First the interest in the subject and the medium. Second, in the presentation for others to enjoy or be inspired by. Third, the feeling of satisfaction in creating a piece (representative of the subject and original artist) that you have completed. There will always be an instance where there may be contention on the creative genius of a piece. It is unfortunate, as the conflict detracts from the original concept of sharing something with which to bless others with beauty.
    Well, as you can tell (by the long response) I am back!!
    And as always, you and David are heavenly angels for all you do to share the art and craft. I applaud your work!

  3. On the wider subject of the tranlation of drawings to finished work. It is incredible how often when producing work for clients I can forget that the ability we “makers” possess (hopefully) to visualise a finished piece from a drawing doesn’t apply to those we make for. It is one of the skills that we can easily forget as it is about understanding rather than the actual process of making.
    As an example I was commissioned to make a set of surround panels for a lovely new oak doorway. ( just Leaded glass rather than stained I admit, simpler you may also think… ). I met with the client, we discussed type of designs, types of glass and colours. I made a number of designs and after making further adjustments a scale design produced was tentatively “agreed”. Glass colours were selected in agreement (using samples) but as they were still having difficulty in visualising the finished panels I made LARGER scale drawing with accurate colours. Still they could not seem to make the transition between looking at a drawing and how it would look. SO to decide it once and for all I made a full scale drawing of a large section of the panels, on acetate, with the colours painted on with (transparent acrylic liquid )glass paints so there was really no doubt as to the finished effect. OK, agreed this design with these colours. I thought that I had done everything reasonable (and quite a bit more) to help them understand and visualise.

    You’ve guessed it I made the panels, let in by the nanny, was just completing the fitting when the client returns and says “where is the red glass, I thought we were having some blue somewhere on them can you just change those colours in the middle of the panel please…..”

    Deep sigh and intake of breath.

    I left them to see how they felt after a few weeks over christmas. They spent time looking at it and when I returned several weeks later they had decided that they actually really liked it and that red and blue primaries would have been inappropriate. SO, happy ending, BUT whilst extreme in this case what it has taught me is never forget visualising is a huge part of what we makers do and it can be a huge step for some clients. Where glass painted designs are concerned even more so.

  4. I, too, have ridden the roller coaster of client visualization – or lack thereof. In fact, I have taken to making a partial or mini sample in glass to help in the clarification/ visualization process. That has made a very positive change in communication. When folks can see the glass and the transparency or reflectivity it just seems to elevate their understanding. Truly a picture is worth a thousand words but where glass is concerned, nothing speaks louder than light.

    I do not consider myself an artist. I feel I am more of a ‘compiler’ – a snip from here and an element from there building a design from component parts. My hat is off to David and his wonderful talent.

  5. Stephen greetings
    What ever happened to stealing. Will John Wilmot have us beaten in Rose alley for painting his visage?

  6. Dear Stephen,

    The thing is … if you were good at everything, there wouldn’t be anything left for anyone else to excel at!!!

    Being ‘bloody marvelous’ with most things is hard work on a day-to-day basis: I go and lie down in a dark room, then I close my eyes, and – the pictures are … amazing!

    I love receiving and reading your thoughts, ideas and take on life’s challenges – keep up the excellent copying (some people struggle to do even this).