The Glass Painter as Storyteller

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The Real Glass Painting Podcast: Episode #1

Today is February 12th, 2013 and our topic for today is the glass painter as storyteller – though not, I hasten to add, in the familiar sense of using coloured glass and paint to depict a parable from the Bible for example.

No, not in that sense at all. I am not at all concerned with the stories which stained glass windows tell – but rather with the story which the glass painter herself tells when she stands and paints.

OK, so some folks grumble glass painting is hard. And they say it’s hard because, when things go wrong, you can’t correct them.

You trace a line, you’re stuck with it.

You paint a shadow, you’re stuck with it.

You cut a highlight: again and always – you’re stuck with it.

Of course there are some advanced things you can do with oil or glycol or extra washes, but, generally, and I guess we’ve all been there the best option is also the most brutal. Namely, to rub out and start again.

Often that’s the only game in town.

So, like I say, some people grumble and find this hard.

I’ve even heard them say that it’s unfair.

And when you look around at how other people work, well, they maybe have a point.

For sure, other people often have it easy with their work. So it’s no big deal if they make a mistake or change their mind.

Like the potter for example. He can shape and re-shape his clay. And carry on until the shape is right.

And the sculptor: she can add bits here, remove them there. She can walk around her studio, stand back, make innumerable adjustments until she’s got the form exactly as she wants it.

And the writer: the writer’s life is just so easy, – so easy, it could make a glass painter green with envy.

See, if the writer works by hand (which not many of them do these days) they can rub things out or add things in or draw arrows to show this paragraph should go here and that one there. Easy!

And if they use a computer, they’ve got Backspace, Delete, Cut, Copy and Paste – I mean, what more could they wish for?

Never mind spelling errors, never mind grammar, never mind poor style, never even mind the facts.

Never mind moving an event from one chapter to another.

Never mind changing the tone of a dialogue from funny to tragic and back to funny again.

Heck, the writer can even play God with people’s sex.

They can just put down whatever comes into their pretty little heads without a care in the world

Yes, the writer can bang out their 500 words a day then go and hit the whisky and get laid or whatever it is the modern writer does, then change it all tomorrow.

But the glass painter – he only has to trace one wrong line, and that is it.

There’s no going back. No rubbing it out. No saying, “Oh, I think I’ll move it there and see how that looks …”

It’s like this. If a glass painter paints a smile, then a smile it is, and a smile it always stays. Whereas the writer – the writer can hit Delete and change it to an angry frown.

And like I said, some glass painters grumble and say it’s hard. And I guess they have a point. Kind of. And I say “kind of” because – surprise, surprise – I see it differently, very differently indeed.

Because actually, we glass painters – we who work with incorrigible marks – we’re actually very lucky.

We’re so lucky in fact, I’m almost surprised it’s not illegal.

And I know we mostly only do it in the privacy of our studio but all the same if others knew how fortunate we are, you know what? I think they’d grumble. I think they’d say it’s we who have it really good. I reckon they’d envy us.

OK so someone grumbles that, with glass painting, when it’s done, it’s done: there’s no going back, you can’t change anything.

Me – and I hope also you (if not now, then soon) – me, I reckon the great thing is, with glass painting, when it’s done, it’s done. Yes, the great thing is, there’s no going back, you can’t change anything.

Reason is … if you’re fortunate and work hard enough, and become that kind of person, you get to grow the frame of mind which learns to live with the finality of each and every brush-stroke.

You learn to get it right first time.

And this is wonderful. So wonderful in fact, I consider it a privilege.

You see, I wonder if the writer – for all his modern luxuries – isn’t really some kind of wimp.

OK I mean the writer as I’ve portrayed him (not a war correspondent, for example), I mean the kind of writer who doesn’t face commitment with every single mark he makes. (A monumental mason, by contrast: now there’s a writer who commits.)

Now those of you who still suppose the glass painter’s life is difficult, can you imagine what it’s like for the writer to live with all the uncertainty which comes from knowing you can always change things?

Can you?

And do you really think it’s something you would like?

Would you?

Now I like writing, and I also write professionally (I get paid for it), so don’t think I’m knocking writers or writing just for fun.

All I’m saying is, the fact you can’t correct mistakes in glass painting is – from one important point of view – a blessing.

That’s why I propose to you that the writer (OK: not the war correspondent or the monumental mason) is actually a wimp.

I propose to you the writer has no balls: he’s a gelding, a castrato, and for the sake of a quiet life – the really big shift happened when he stopped writing by hand or with a typewriter where mistakes still hurt and moved to the computer – then, just like the boy in the fairy-tale, he wasted his inheritance for a handful of beans.

Yes, beans.

Maybe these are ordinary beans, or maybe they are magical.

The point is, the writer doesn’t know.

The point is, no one knows until the writer has finished all the fiddling and fretting and worrying and nit-picking and whatever it is he does with his words, with his precious words, with his little darlings who never sleep but always cry out to him at night like irritable children who are now too tired to settle.

As one man wisely said: “The really hard part about writing a novel is … finishing it”.

Yes, the writer is a gelding, he has no balls. He prevaricates. He procrastinates. He finds it hard to finish.

Fact is, he quivers like a neurotic sponge.

And it’s a tragedy.

For consider what the writer came from … what he was before … his previous incarnation.

Do you know?

He was a performer. Yes – he was a storyteller.

He spoke, and people listened.

His words counted, every last one of them.

As storyteller, he learned to seize hold of people’s attention and how to keep it, because his livelihood depended on it.

He learned which words to use, he learned the rhythm of his sentences, he learned the ways in which the tales developed …

And if the story-teller stumbled in his narration, he knew the townsfolk would jeer, or that the king would have him tortured and (if he was very, very lucky) maybe also killed most horribly …

Alright, so I exaggerate, but like I said I want to put the case as clearly as I can so you see the incorrigible permanence of glass painting for what it is – a blessing, a virtue, an opportunity for you to develop real presence, real conviction, real attention … which qualities of character will spread out into the other areas of your life, because our minds are influenced by the tools we use each day. Oh, yes, they are. Our tools do shape our minds.

So of course you’ve looked at stained glass windows in a church and lost yourself in all the glorious detail.

And you already know how each picture tells a story and that, long, long ago, when people couldn’t read, their souls were nourished by these parables in coloured light …

Yes, each picture tells a story.

Now think on this.

Your inability as a glass painter to correct a line or shadow, your consequential ever-growing determination to get things right first time, this puts you in the very finest company: it puts you in the company of ancient storytellers who knew how to enchant their audience with their character and conviction and sheer skill.

It’s a wonderful heritage.

So be proud of it. And shout it from the roof-tops that yours is a profession where you must learn to get it right first time.

And as scary as this sounds, it’s really not that hard.

All you must do is learn to paint the line you mean and not a different one.

OK, so maybe I do come from the no-nonsense Ernest Hemingway school of glass painting.

But Hemingway’s advice to writers was spot on. He said:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

And he also said:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

Which is spot on again.

And that’s why – as a storyteller: as a performer: as a glass painter – you must rehearse.

Yes, rehearse.

You must wear out your brushes, exhaust your paint, make blunt your palette knives until you’re trained up and ready to go.

Indeed, the central mystery of glass painting is this: rehearsal is the only way to get it right first time.

And how you do this is something we’ll talk about on another day.

Thanks for listening and God bless.


Stephen Byrne

Oh and if you’re wondering who said the writer’s hardest task was actually finishing his novel, that was also Ernest Hemingway.

Because that’s what happens – you can’t bring yourself to finish – when your craft – or your tools – degenerate to the point where everything can always be corrected.

You never learn to do it right first time.

You never need to …

So hush those grumbles. Now do you see how fortunate you are to be a glass painter?

All you have to do is trace one lovely line.

Just trace the loveliest line you can.

You see how to do that now.

And then … and then you trace another one.

And another …

And another ….

And another …

Your comments

OK, so I exaggerate my case against writing with a keyboard.

What do you think about making mistakes, concentrating and starting again?

Over to you.

Say here …