5 True Tales of Resistance, Compromise and Cosmetics

A glass painter's rant!

“You should see us when we get going!”

Yes, indeed, wind in my sales and fire in my belly.

It’s all because David and I get so annoyed when people compromise their true standards. (You should see us when we really get going! It’s quite a sight – brushes flying everywhere.)

Here then are those 5 true stories …

1. Apprenticeship at Hardman’s

I was doing my apprenticeship at Hardman’s in the early part of the 21st century.

At the tender age of 40, I’d been employed to do anything that anyone else was too busy or too important to do.

Now, in traditional studios, there’s a hierarchy.

The master painter paints the faces and hands.

Beneath him – yes, it’s usually a “him” who presides at the top like this – there’s the painter who does the feet and maybe (just maybe) also some drapery.

And so it continues right down to the person at the bottom … who paints the borders.

And then, outside the paint room, you find the people who cut the glass for the painters, the people who put the windows together and solder them, and (right at the bottom)  the people who cement and polish them.

Thus the traditional studio, where the people who actually ensure the window is water-proof and fit for purpose are regarded as the lowest of the low

(What a great way of motivating your staff!)

Well, even at the start, I wasn’t full-time in the cement room. Oh no, me, I was also cutting glass and leading up.

And we had a huge job on, with a ridiculous time-frame.

It was something stupid like having a month to make perfect copies of a set of 19th century Hardman’s windows, all 40 square yards of them, for export to a wedding chapel in Japan, whose owner was probably a terrifying gangster and prominent politician.

And two of the painters were away on holiday, while another one was ill.

So me and a fellow apprentice, name of Diego (great talent), were “seconded” as trainee glass painters.

We weren’t allowed in the paint room, of course. That was the “holy of holies” – not for the likes of us. But we were grudgingly told that we could “try to make ourselves useful” by copying the yards of borders that needed doing: towers and foliage and so forth. (Even to this day, I can do towers and foliage with my eyes shut.)

  • Problem number 1: no brushes, since we’d been hired for other, more menial, tasks.
  • Problem number 2: a severely cash-distressed studio owner.

What to do?

“Damn it,” I said. (I really did.)

“I don’t care how cash-distressed the owner is.

We’re not just getting the brushes that we need.

We’re getting brushes for all the painters.

And on top of that, make sure it’s the very best brushes that we get. Yes, the very best brushes for all the painters.”

(Such was the state of apathy and demoralization in the studio, that even the master glass painter himself had been hobbling along for months with brushes which had long since lost their spring. But that would be another story.)

And that’s how the cash-distressed owner was obliged to spend £200 on the very best brushes for everyone involved in painting this project.

A small sum in return for what the owner got. The work was finished on time. And it looked excellent. And yet it took a voice-raising show-down to force the owner to open his wallet. What can one say?

2. The BBC

Some of you in the UK may have seen a recent programme on BBC television about making and painting stained glass windows. It was part of a series devoted to crafts in the 21st century.

Well, the token glass painter didn’t do terribly well. This was a shame, but not completely unexpected.

Let’s step back 6 months …

There was a “knock-knock” in our e-mail post box, and here was this message to us (word for word):

Call me back, thanks, and I hope you can. I am working with the BBC on a stained glass project, and I require reference books on this subject, moving through all the stages, i.e. how to start mixing paint, what you require, tools etc.! And matting, badgering, highlights, traced lines – everything. The budget is low, so I’d like to be advised to buy the right books. Please advise – thanks.”

I duly rang the person back.  Let’s not go into too much detail here. But suffice it to say they didn’t have the budget to buy the e-book. And they definitely weren’t going to spend any money of their own. All they wanted was free information. So they took the free downloads (right-hand column, a little way up) and off they went.

6 months later – embarrassment on national TV. A wasted opportunity for the glass painter in question. What can one say?

Postscript: David and I don’t have a problem with “free”. We are perfectly willing to give our time for free. We write to you. We answer your questions. We’re interested in the work you do.

If anyone writes to us with very particular circumstances, we will always do what we can for them.

But we can’t and won’t waste our own time – and yours! – helping people who won’t invest in themselves.


Do you see the theme which is emerging here?

You remember that ghastly advertisement from L’Oreal: “Because I’m worth it!” Well, I saw a recent Facebook thread which said that this slogan summed up the very worst of modern values.

Yes, I agree, but that’s because it’s all to do with cosmetics, which are rarely even skin-deep.

By contrast, when it comes down to your timeless and focused devotion to the craft of stained glass painting, you are worth it.

L’Oreal has just done its best to contaminate a wholly noble sentiment.

And we don’t have to let them get away with it. That’s the point. The point is, you are worth it.

Here are a few more cracking good tales for you to enjoy. I wonder if you’ve had similar experiences?

3. The Architect’s Off-Cuts

Another true story. A round, red-faced man called at the studio and made a lot of swagger about how he was a prominent architect and was just refurbishing his Georgian townhouse with the very best of everything and could we please make him a “jewel of a window” using some off-cuts so as to keep the cost down?

“Off-cuts” are those bits of glass left-over from earlier projects.

Now, fair enough: people never want to pay more than they have to. That’s perfectly understandable.

But we are certainly better than his suggestion implied. It wasn’t a question of the money here. We never got that far.

It was the mere idea that, appropriate or not, we should use off-cuts for his “jewel of a window”.

We’ve actually no problem with using off-cuts. No doubt, if the project had gone ahead, we would indeed have used some off-cuts. But only if they’d been absolutely right.

This is all the same point: we designers / makers / painters / artists (or whatever we are) mustn’t ever allow anyone to corner us into a place where we will end up making something that isn’t worthy of us or the client or the building in question.

Yes, people have so many needs that it’s sometimes difficult not to get tangled up in them. But we’re not doing them any favours by making them something that is less than our best. And it’s not good for our reputation either.

4. Travelling

Someone making leaded lights about 200 miles away from us decided that we were too far to come for an intensive glass painting course at our studio.

They said:

If only you were closer. But it would take me a day to get to you. And then I would need to stay in a hotel or something. I reckon I’ll just find someone closer”.

I said:

That’s your decision. All the same, people travel to us from Peru, from New Zealand, from New Jersey, from Japan, from Canada, from Denmark, and even from Russia”.

But what can one really say? I mean, if they don’t believe in themselves enough to travel 200 hundred miles for a course that’s backed by hundreds of testimonials, that’s their business (no “sour grapes” on my part here since our courses are always fully booked many months in advance). It’s actually very sad – they are worth it, if only they could see it.

Maybe they were waiting for me to offer them a discount.

But that just proves the point.

5. A final tale of brushes – Oh, and paint

We’ve known people who will rather spend £3 pounds every month on a new brush which only lasts a few weeks than spend £10 on a really good brush that will last them a year or more and do the most fabulous strokes.

And people who’ll waste money buying an ounce of glass paint at a time when 4 ounces would actually last them 12 times as long.

Just always get the best you can afford.

Don’t “make do and mend” when it comes to your work. Yes, re-cycle and work frugally, by all means. But believe in yourself and invest in yourself. Invest in the whole centuries-long craft and tradition of making stained glass properly and respectfully.

All the same, because the world’s economy is in such a mess, there’ll inevitably be forces at work which will conspire to move each one of us away from where we should be and remain. Our advice is: don’t go there.

If you’ve got any tales of resistance, compromise or even cosmetics that you’d like to share with us, we’d love to hear from you, so please just post them right below.

All the best,


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25 thoughts on “5 True Tales of Resistance, Compromise and Cosmetics

  1. Well, Stephen, I hope you have returned to your calm and tranquil self now, after your ‘rather cross’ stories (well told)! But very well worth reading and taking note of – I’ve always gone for the best materials and agree there is no point hindering yourself at the start of any sort of project by using rubbish brushes etc.

    I am about to start a big project (for me) but no painting is involved here, just pretty patterns with gorgeous colours. So the very next time I start painting, I will look at my handsome brush and think of you, and David too, of course!

    Love getting your mails – sorry for the silly person who couldn’t travel a mere 200 miles; their loss.

    Many thanks for the support and time you give to me – it always feels personal!

    • Hmmm, Shelagh, if you look at your brush and think of me, I reckon you probably need a new brush!

      All the best with your next project, and please always say whenever there’s anything to swap ideas about.

      P.S. “Rather cross”? Imagine the tales that David persuaded me to leave out …

  2. Hi Stephen!
    Enjoyed your stories. I am just finishing a large panel that I designed with painted orchids – it’ll be installed in a shiny new house by the weekend. With the fee for this commission I am going to purchase some new brushes. I am not sure if I want to see your face in every paintbrush I pick up though!

    I am glad you listened to David – that would be oversharing.

    Take care Guys!

  3. I remember the big rushed job (or possibly one similar). I was drafted in to cement windows and, horror of horrors, late in the day I rushed and cracked a painted head when lifting a panel that I’d just finished … I can still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I walked in to tell “the master painter”!

    I strongly agree with your comments about materials: I would of course!

    Here’s just one example from another craft/art: bonsai. When wiring the branches of bonsai (wire is wound spiraling along branches which are then bent into shape and left for some time as the tree grows and sets to the desired shape) there are two materials one can use. The Japanese traditionally use annealed copper wire but it is also possible to use aluminium. In all respects aluminium is a poor substitute. It is very flexible and more maleable and so you have to use higher gauges to perform the same job. It also seems to soften as it is worked, unlike annealed copper which work-hardens so that once the branches are set to shape they stay there.

    So why would anyone use aluminium?

    Well, because it’s half the price by weight.

    That this is a false economy – as one needs to use higher guages of aluminium compared to copper – does not seem to occur to many.

    On top of this, aluminium is also ugly, whereas annealed copper is very beautiful.

    Why shouldn’t the process of making something be aesthetically satisying in itself? I strongly feel that using lovely annealed copper – with its density and satisfying crackle as the oxidised surface crazes as one winds it onto the branches – is part of the pleasure of styling a bonsai tree. So too is painting with very finely crafted brushes on beautiful handmade paper or glass. And if the process is aesthetically pleasing it is probable that will show in the work. We reap what we sow!

  4. Thanks for this post! I still go to nightclass locally for the social side of things and to learn more about fusing. I paint things sometimes and then wash them off and have had comments like “Are you mad?” and “It looks OK”. But l know I will never be happy with it if I don’t persevere – “OK” is great for some but I want my work to be a statement so if it’s not fine it gets washed off and started again. It’s always worth it. I travelled up from Kent (about 200 miles) for your course and I can honestly say it was worth every penny.

    • Caroline’s comment is absolutely right: whilst “OK” is good enough for some, it really doesn’t go anywhere near far enough when it comes to glass painting.

      And I am glad that Carolyn appreciates the restraint I urged on Stephen. Calm he is indeed (as Shelagh noted) but he has an ear for naughty and revealing anecodotes.

      Readers may like to know that Matt Williams is my eldest son (he must have found this newsletter via Stephen’s dalliance with Twitter). Where did we go wrong that, instead of painting glass, he spends half his time being a real-life Indiana Jones and the other half stopping trees from growing tall? (Photosynthesis, Matt – the planet needs it!)

  5. Stephen!
    You two are awesome and your creativity blows me away! I have created a beautiful stepping stone in memorial of one of my blessed pets. Balki, a seal point siamese cat. Balki was a quirky fellow, but so full of fun, cuddles and love. He couldn’t hunt if his life depended on it:) The stepping stone was a concrete, sand, gravel mix; with an in-laid stained glass hand-painted picture of the great Balki Bartokalos himself. There was nothing more painful than being witness to a loved one having a terminal stroke right in front of my eyes. Yes, I can honestly say that I have loved a cat more than I have loved my own parents. It is all in the quality of the relationship!

    I have also had the great pleasure of creating an ocean side scenic piece that is divided into 2 opening stepping stones under a rose and clematis covered archway onto a pathway leading to a peaceful garden. Much has the pleasure and beauty that a craft such that you teach brought to me. Your talent and expertise have reached the Pacific West Coast! You have a rare talent and I already know that you write very well to suit the comprehension of the masses. I wish you well on your new publications and look forward to reading your new line of published works on your choosen work and passion.


  6. I don’t normally get much time these days to ‘read’ on the internet but all I can say is … “Well said sirs!’

    “Wouldn’t travel 200 miles …”

    Try 12,000 miles!!!

    I did, and it was well worth it.

  7. Hi David and Stephen,

    Brillant story! I can visualize very well (being British myself) how the great traditions live on in their wierd and wonderful ways.

    I was actually contemplating coming to visit you at your studios over the summer. Living in Canada on the East coast that a bit of logistical organization, but hey, you only live once so better make the most of it …

    I’m ever grateful for your exact advice and help whenever I have needed and your timing is impeccable in responding to my questions.

    A big thank you!

  8. I’m glad to read your stories – you possess the knowledge that what you do is good – and they are spoken like an artist!

    I share your views in regards to my own work (though it’s in other “arts” now) and occasionally, after an encounter like this, I wonder if I’m just being a primadona. Not that it changes me – just the thought has crossed my mind. If we didn’t have the years of effort to learn, the devotion (slavery?) to our crafts, would they contact in the first place? No! So we need to be less accommodating to the people who expect us to spin gold from straw, not more. A little secret about human nature: we want nothing so much as what we cannot have.

    I began to learn glass work many years ago but ended up moving to a place without any room to continue. I have wanted to return to it for years, and I subscribed to your emails to get inspired and develop the focus to achieve that dream. I’d be coming from the States – but it would never even cross my mind that it would be “too far”.

    (Dying seems to be the excepted way for an artist to have their work finally taken seriously and well regarded! But why wait!)

    Thank you for sharing the things you do via your emails and videos – it certainly makes it seem less far away and more do-able. You represent the very best of what the internet can be – by freely sharing rather than hoarding your knowledge.

  9. After reading the five tales above, I wasn’t sure whether to heave a heavy sigh or burst out in laughter and applause, but think I may do both.

    Every continent seems to be “blessed” with such clientele, who seem determined to wear down one’s standards. To cave in to them does a disservice to all parties, certainly. They may never truly appreciate that better-than-asked-for result, but you will be able to sleep better for it.

    As for quality brushes, I proudly confess that I am a certified brush addict. I have far more than I can reasonably use at any given time, and adore each for its unique talent. (Any brush found to have deceived me as to its true nature soon ends up unloved and thrown to the wolves elsewhere in the studio!) Some I have refused to let die after years of service, and have constructed smaller versions of them with their remains – partiularly the badgers, whose lifespan is quite lengthy to begin with. There simply is no substitute for exceptional hair. I only wish the ferrules and handles would hold up as well. (One final sigh!)

  10. Hello guys!
    I have to tell you a story that – for me – worked the other way round. After I picked you out from the internet and was dreaming of coming all the way to you and your lovely place, I thought I should get some lessons here in Rome (Italy) first.

    Again I searched the internet and my only parameter was – shame on me! – to find someone as close as possible to where I lived.

    I stumbled upon a young man to whom I kept talking about a glass painting web site where it was said this and it said that, and finally one day I wrote down for him the name of your site …

    Well, by now you know how the story ends: the young man’s name is Diego and we kept on talking about you.

    He is bravissimo and simpaticissimo, just like the two of you.

    I like to think there must be some magic in all this, and therefore that I cannot but become a great artist!

    I hope to meet you soon!

    • Mafalda!

      Yes, there is magic in all this.

      Also the fact that Diego believes in teaching and sharing skills and knowledge.

      We will always be glad to see him again, and also to meet you for the first time.

      Maybe I will be in Rome again this year. If so, I will tell you both.

      All the best,

      P.S. Story #4 is perfectly consistent with recognizing Diego’s skills when you saw them. If you had met someone else with fewer gifts that he has, then I am sure you would have travelled further.

  11. So, Stephen, I see there’s no way to put you in a corner!

    Maybe because I “gave myself away” by saying (between the lines) that I have no hesitation in following your instruction.

    Thank you, you fantastic people, for the pleasure you bring to us.

  12. Hi Stephen!

    I just love this latest newsletter and completely share your comments on those who think they can pay next to nothing for a service, let alone a miserly BBC reporter who cannot even afford your fantastic e-book which has inspired me to take up painting. It makes me wonder where our licence fees go …

    As a professional violinist, I would be thrown off the stage if I turned up with a cheap and cheerful factory produced violin rather than the beautiful Italian one I invested in whilst I was at college (which cost £3000 in 1979). Quality really does matter!

    My stained glass tutor, who is also a fantastic stained glass painter, and who refered me to your website, inspired me to buy the very best brushes and and has also made me my own bridge to use whilst painting.

    I love watching your videos and get such inspiration from seeing the results appear as you go.

    And yes, I do now keep mixing the paint between each brush – what a difference that makes!

    Anyway I am planning to come up for one of your weekend courses sometime this year (from Sussex) and meet you both. It will be worth every penny. Do keep up the good work and I would love to see some more of the paintings that go wrong!


  13. I loved the stories – they reminded me very much of the engineering apprenticeship that I was fortunate to be offered when I left school a long time ago.

    And now, after subscribing to your most helpful book and staring mesmerised at the helpful videos, I have finally reached the point where I feel it is right for me to make a start!

    The process reminds me of being taught attention to detail by people who have learnt by doing and know that practice and good kit is the only way forward – it’s the only way how not to “spoil the ship for a ha’penny of tar” (Usually doing an excellent and tidy job then spoiling it at the end by rushing or drilling something in the wrong place because you started off without focus.) Care for equipment and having the best tools that get cleaned, stored and cherished becomes a strange ritual.

    Is glass painting a ritual? Is there a ritual to preparing?

    I am enjoying the slow process of getting better and will hopefully reach the point where I will manage to find a free space on one of your courses to make the journey. The engineers and toolmakers that took the time to train me a long time ago would actually be very interested in the craft, art and the process of designing, painting and assembling glass – there is a strong argument for doing things properly – and not spoiling the ship.

    Thanks for your inspiration (and I need to ask you about “flooding” outlines at some point …).

    All the best,

  14. Pet hate no. 3: to get summoned to a mansion, with the very best of everything, marble, Italian Taps, custom made windows and doors, and then you are expected to crown this glory with a magnificent stained glass window and no budget! Now why would that be? Was this not factored into the cost? Did the owner overspend (as is common with building projects)? Or does the Art of Stained Glass not get the recognition it deserves? Anyway I hate it, and I will never compromise on especially an entrance door.

  15. Hi Louise,

    I know exactly what you mean. Thing is, of course, rich people are often rich because they are very careful with their money. And as I know you know, it’s so important with people like that not to get flattered into doing something they aren’t paying properly for.

    You also mention overspending. Yes this often happens. Windows come in last, don’t they … And it’s up to us to make sure they are not treated as an after-thought.

    Another factor is that we are all so disassociated from the cost of physical labour that the time involved in any labour-intensive work (like design and glass painting) is baffling to many people. And how could it be otherwise? We must just stand our ground and talk truthfully and persuasively to people.

    All the best,

  16. Stephen and David!

    What a lovely article, how true all your comments are and I only wish that there were more people with your ideals.

    I have started painting again after a break of 20 years and your articles have been extreeeemely helpful and encouraging.

    Your DVDs are a godsend, and your recommendation to buy from Peli has saved me from losing a commission due to shortage of transparent blue here in Australia.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Peter,

      Great! And what wonderful news about the commission! As for painting, I know how life gets busy but, even so, it’s far better to do a little every day than a lot just rarely. Even if, for example, you repeat one of the Diamond Lights images each day for a week (then pick a new one the next week), you’ll make amazing progress.

      All the best,

  17. Dear Stephen and David,

    I avidly read your posts since finding your website and the last message has struck such a loud chord I feel sure you might have heard it in Shropshire!

    I completed a 2 year foundation degree in fashion at Bournemouth 6 years ago and despite trying various avenues still hadn’t found the ‘thing’ which was to light the fire in my belly, until attending an evening course on stained glass at Cirencester’s Brewery Arts centre. After the second night i realised that this what i have been put on the earth to do and 10 days later i had a place at Swansea Met studying BA Architectural Glass.

    I have just completed my first year and i have never soaked up so much ‘learning’ in my life. I have loved every minute and literally fell in love when i first tried glass painting. I eat, sleep and breath ideas, concepts and projects. My family, friends and anyone i come in contact with are under strict orders to spot stained glass and photograph it where ever they go.

    In between juggling earning money to support myself over summer, I have been hatching ideas for the second year of my course which I am due to start next week.

    Then out of the blue I received a letter from the student loans company telling me that they have reassessed my entitlement to the tuition fees and grant from last year, two weeks before I was due to start my second year! They stated that they will be reclaiming my tuition fees and although I will still receive the maintenance loan, the grant (which makes up half of what money I receive to live on) would have to be repaid. I received another letter telling me that they would be funding me for next year minus the grant…BUT I can’t go back because they will be reclaiming the tuition fees from the uni!!!!

    I have battled on the phone for two weeks to no avail. I have contacted the Financial Ombudsman and my local MP. Through all this I have yo-yoed between hope, despair and total frustration. Now i’m trying blind faith an optimism!!! Your last post about deserving the best, striving for excellence and that being’ worth it’ has renewed my hope, stoked the fire in my belly and made me determined to become the best glass painter I can possibly be. I have re-enrolled online at uni as the student loans company haven’t yet reclaimed the tuition fees so i am not yet in arrears and will carry on turning up until they drag me out!!!!

    I am determined I am not going to be “moved away from where i should be and remain!”

    Yours – determined of Wiltshire,
    Georgina Foster

    ps. what oil do you use when glass painting with it?

    • Hi Georgina,

      Good luck with your battles, you deserve to keep going. You have probably tried many different avenues but have you had an opportunity to speak with any of the student advisers at your university? I had a different financial problem when I studied and they were fantastic – The Student Loans company has been getting a lot of things wrong lately so may be worth a try.


  18. Hi!

    Well, thank “somebody” I stumbled on your web site too!

    I’d been searching for information, tools, supplies etc. in Perth (Western Australia). There are a only about 3 main suppliers for glass artists here … things are a bit grim … Jackson Art Supplies … zip!?

    And then there was you … (There’s a song in there somewhere. Ha!)

    Through PELI, I have now purchased all the necessary “kit” I’d been searching for and soon my goodies will arrive & I will be off like a greyhound!

    … wouldn’t travel 200 miles …”?

    I would love to come and do a workshop with you. And I will. That’s at the top of my “gunna -do” list.

    I really appreciate all the tips you provide: thanks so much.

    Anna Nilsson (Anna Stained Glass)
    W. Australia