Some Useful Remarks on Pricing, Artists’ Statements, Tracing and – Teaching

A fine mixture today. Let’s begin …

Edward Burne-Jones and Pricing

Everyone knows something about the pre-Raphaelites in general and Edward Burne-Jones in particular.

But did you know this? That Burne-Jones wrote beautifully and also under-charged.

Yes, I had to smile when I found this entry in Burne-Jones’ diary:

I make my usual charge – a charge so ludicrous and inadequate that, for the sake of old associations, for the sake of the morality of friendship, for the sake of public decency I do sincerely trust that no accident in the future will bring to public light transactions which are chronicled only in these pages – and which, for my wife and childrens’ sake, I lament should reflect so little credit on my business capacity

You can hear his frustration, can’t you?

A “charge so ludicrous and inadequate”.

I’ve felt this same anguish myself. Maybe you have too.

Anyway, if you under-charge, take comfort from your illustrious company.

But don’t use it as a precedent.

There’s more on pricing here. It’s not as exciting as Burne-Jones’ fine prose, but the points are good.

Artists’ Statements

A few weeks ago, I visited Kent, a lovely (occasionally over-crowded) country in the South of England, where I passed several hours in All Saints’ Church at Tudeley.

This church is famous because Marc Chagall designed the windows, and Charles Marq made them.

The East window in All Saints', Tudeley

The East window in All Saints’, Tudeley

Now, aside from All Saints’, there is only one other English church with a stained glass window by Chagall and Marq: namely, Chichester Cathedral:

The Chagall/Marq window at Chichester Cathedral

The Chagall/Marq window at Chichester Cathedral

And I was reminded of this window at Chichester, not so much by its common authors (Chagall/Marq). Rather, because there is a particular text which is forever associated with the window’s meaning.

A text associated with the window’s meaning?

You may know this already, I am not normally someone who tolerates talk about art. I say: if art’s meaning were reducible to words, we wouldn’t need the art.

Indeed, artists’ statements induce in me a violent reaction. I am therefore barred from than 13 London galleries, 12 of them in Whitechapel.

But this text “about” the Chagall/Marq window in Chichester I do not mind at all.

Quite the contrary. It lifts my heart and helps my understanding. It is Psalm 150. Here it is. Treat yourself, and say it out loud, or find a translation and say that aloud (it makes no difference what your Faith is, or isn’t):

Praise ye the Lord Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise Him in the firmament of His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts:
praise Him according to His excellent greatness,
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise Him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance:
praise Him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise Him upon the loud cymbals:
praise Him upon the loud sounding cymbals.
Let everything that hath breath, praise the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord

Now, what do you think about this as guidance for our thoughts and feelings when we contemplate this window? Or (if you don’t know this window), what would you think about the artist who suggested this kind of commentary on something he or she had made?

Myself, I love it; yet artists’ statements I absolutely loath.

My view is: artists’ statements are crass because you can go to an exhibition, re-arrange the artists’ statements (so that no exhibit is correctly labelled), and no one will know the difference.

I know this is true because I’ve done it.

That’s how useful artists’ statements are; or maybe many viewers don’t know what to think and just accept whatever they’re told.

So if your work absolutely must have a written meaning (and it is up to each of us, how we lead our lives), I gently suggest you make it more like the quotation some novelists put at the start of the books they’ve written, where, just like the psalm, it works as guidance only (not instruction or analysis). Don’t waste time with statements – you’re better off just twizzling your tracing brush thoughtfully around your palette.

Which reminds me …

Pace of Tracing / Strengthening

Forgive me if this is obvious to you but this is so important yet many people overlook it.

When you trace or strengthen lines, what you’re after is the feeling that the paint is being drawn from your brush by the surface on which you’re painting. Here I am talking to you as a teacher, not as a scientist: what’s important is the feeling, not the literal truth. You see, when people trace or strengthen badly, it’s usually because they paint too fast. And they paint too fast because they rush. And they rush because their paint is runny so it forces them to move their brush too quickly. And when they move their brush too quickly, the line is blobby or out-of-place. But you change all that when you put a different picture in your head. Instead of concentrating on mixing paint which flows, get it into your head and imagine it as vividly as you can that what you want is paint which can be pulled and drawn.

If anyone is struggling with their tracing or strengthening, this is the thought they must hold in their head: you can’t rush tracing, because you can only go as fast as your paint is drawn down by the surface on which you’re painting.

When you flood, it’s altogether different: that’s when the paint well and truly flows. (And once it’s flowed, you just wipe and spread it around.)

But when you trace, then your paint shouldn’t flow by itself: you could hold your brush tip-down all day and not a drop would fall.

No, it only flows because it’s pulled.

OK: I exaggerate. But only a little. Just a little. If you trace already well, you already know this (consciously or unconsciously, it doesn’t matter).

But if you want to improve your tracing, your copying, you must change how you think about your paint. When you understand your tracing paint must be drawn (it mustn’t pour), you’ll prepare a drier mixture – and twizzle it more to keep it mixed and in good shape: that will work wonders for you.

See here for my thoughts on how to load a tracing brush and here for a laid-back video of David tracing.

These are things we’ll demonstrate this weekend because …

Techniques in Holland

Tomorrow we fly to the Holland to give an intensive two-day workshop called “Paint Better, Fire Less”.

We’ll be teaching all weekend, exhausting our students but (I hope) leaving them with new-found confidence and skill.

In case you’re wondering: I didn’t announce it here because the places all sold out before I could.

Here’s the trailer – it worked:

This time it’s not just softened lines and oil-based shadows on the agenda.

This time people will also experience for themselves the extraordinary shading delights of Propylene Glycol.

We’ll also film two full-length demonstrations.

I’ll tell you when they’re ready.

Thanks for reading this: I hope you’re well and happy and as busy as you want to be.

Now to pack my bag and get ready for my flight …

All the best,

Stephen Byrne


P.S. Ever tried to get through airport security with a badger blender in one pocket and a glass cutter in the other? I have. Never again.

P.P.S. I’ll join in with and reply to all your comments in a short while – and be assured: I do want to hear from you – so I will start writing back the moment I have disposed off the finger-tiring and eye-straining amount of tracing I must do this month. (I’m not complaining – it’s all part of studio life.)

18 thoughts on “Some Useful Remarks on Pricing, Artists’ Statements, Tracing and – Teaching

  1. When I paint with oil, after I have smoothed the area with my sable brush, then tiny dots appear. I have let the paint saturate overnight and mixed well. Do you have this problem?

    • I’ve seen this happen. My impression is, it’s come from blending – by which I specifically mean the blender itself: I reckon little bits of uncleaned dirt have dropped out. So when we work with oil, we mostly always clean our small round-headed blenders with a few drops of lavender oil, rubbed in and pushed around thoroughly to moisten the hair, then quite a lot of flicking against some good lint-free (important!) paper or material, so the dirt is released and transferred. I hope this helps.

  2. I really enjoy your e-mails. I am an intemediate stained glass artist. After viewing your video, about tracing, I have two questions. First, where do you get the patterns to trace? Second, do you put the undercoat over the tracing once you are finished? I would love to travel to England some day and see your shop and meet you. Job well done!

    • Chris,

      We mostly do our own designs either straight from our head (those are the really weird ones) or based on images we’ve seen in local churches.

      And you ask about the undercoat. Well, if it’s an undercoat, then it goes before the tracing and strengthening and shading and highlighting. It’s the first thing we put on. We don’t always do this, just mostly, and it’s a great help with the style of painting we do.

      Technically speaking, it’s a wash of paint, applied to the whole surface of the glass, then blended as required. And of course we also paint a wash on top of our tracing if we want to turn it into shadows.


      P.S. You’ll see all this in our upcoming movie documentary, The Master & the Beast.

  3. You are wonderful. I have been self-conscious when asked to provide an artist’s statment and confused when reading the artist statement of others. I must admit to being a poor translator of ‘galereese’.

    Propylene gycol when added to tracing paint (gum and water mix) gives it a slightly longer open time. Just a drop or two helps the stability of the paint and also helps the ‘drawing out’ of the brush that you were mentioning. If you live in a hot and dry place, give it a try. You may be quite pleased.

  4. Regarding propylene glycol, it’s also wonderful for tracing! I find mixing it with the paint is a great substitute for clove oil, and it cleans more easily. Be aware if using a lot of it in a gas-fired kiln it will make a rather scary ‘boom’ around 270 degrees C (as I recall). No damage to paint, glass or kiln – only jangled nerves.

    Rgarding Artist’s Statements, unless your work is purely decorative (or you’re content to have it viewed as such), uses already-familiar symbols and images (for your audience) in an expected way and/or your message is blatantly obvious, you need to provide some guidance to your viewers!

    Sure it’s possible to enjoy a work or art on it’s purely sensual, experiential aspects, but without context it’s purpose is diminished. A Last Supper is just a group of guys eating unless you have the context. All those stained glass windows? They’re telling stories. If someone doesn’t tell you the story, it is only colour pattern and light. Art should be visual/visceral, but it doesn’t have to be just that.

    Perhaps the issue is more with badly written artists’ statements or sub-par work. That’s a different issue.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Yes, sometimes it is something to do with badly written artists’ statements: people stringing words together, because they feel they must, or because they’ve been told to and don’t know how to say “no”.

      And you also mention sub-par work: well, that’s a large area. Personally, I mostly feel people can spend their time however they choose: it’s their life. But if someone paints badly, no amount of metaphysical bilge will change that fact: end of story. And I’ve read artists’ statements which have left me feeling I shouldn’t be as hard as I would like to on the skill with which the painting itself was done, e.g. because the artist suggested they were taking a stand against injustice and poverty in the world … That’s when I get riled. The work is its own thing. Maybe there are indeed facts about its context which are relevant – you mention the subject of the Last Supper; more specifically, there is also Picasso’s Guernica where, you might argue, some written statement is absolutely essential. All the same, there is a huge leap from an artist’s statement which presents cold, cool facts (however traumatic or significant for the human condition) and, on the other hand, the bilge which frequently accompanies conceptual art, for example. I’ll dig out some chestnuts (as we say over here) and see what people think.


  5. Love the psalm too!

    Mind you: sometimes you create a piece, think of its meaning to yourself, after all that’s how it was generated. And then hey presto someone comes up with what they think is its true meaning and spreads it about with immense authority, leaving the you the maker a bit bemused and a bit annoyed.

    Hey ho, is that why artists get verbose.


    As to the paint flowing off the brush…….

    Am having trouble!

    Please do tell when your next course is in Shropshire.

    Thank you,

    • Hi Claudia,

      Good point: invented meaning by those whose salary depends on it but who cannot paint themselves. I had better be careful here because the subject of curators sometimes gets me going … Mind you, it’s not their fault. Well, not all their fault. People like to pidgeon-hole, don’t they. It’s very tidy if they can go round a gallery, looking mostly at labels, having a sense – a misguided sense – they understand what they are looking at.


      P.S. We teach one-to-one. That way, our other work continues in the studio, which is also helpful for you to see, because you see we actually use the techniques we teach. (Of course we do; but you know what I mean – you see the techniques in real use to make windows and earn money.) So it’s your call to decide when you want to be here.

  6. Being Jewish and speaking Hebrew, I immediately started to sing that psalm. The original Hebrew words were set to most beautiful music: lively and strong, like a Hallelujah should be. And, in brackets, hallelujah is Hebrew: halllelu means praise; jah means God.

  7. Oh, how I agree about the artists’ statements – they’re usually completely incomprehensible. I’ve always assumed that my lack of understanding is due to being more of a craftsman (of sorts) than an artist!

    Thank you for all your generous help and advice – I now spend more time wiping off and repainting than producing anything, but I tell myself improvements are being made!

    It’s nice to see the pics of Tudeley church. I lived just up the road from it when I was growing up, but of course didn’t find glass so interesting then!

    Thank you again,

    • Hi Sally,

      Two thoughts. First, when mistakes happen, it’s important we all learn to distinguish mistakes which genuinely ruin the piece from incidental mishaps which really do not matter in the wider scheme of things. Here’s an example. Say someone is undercoating, tracing and strengthening in order to go on and apply a wash to soften the lines and turn them into shadows. Well, if that’s what they’re doing, then minor blemishes in the tracing and strengthening do not particularly matter; what matters is that the softening goes well, and, if it does, then those minor blemishes will disappear. And so, with mishaps like that, it’s important to develop a caste of mind which is undeterred by such small-scale events. You must know where you’re going and only judge yourself by the success with which you accomplish your objective.

      Second – things we’ve done which we don’t like (in some sense): if someone rubs off everything, they won’t have a living record of their improvement. In many ways I am thankful I now longer think like the despair-laden existential adolescent that I was in 1974; but I am glad I still have my diaries to remind me how much happier I now am. And if I’d destroyed those diaries – say, because I was embarrassed, or because I knew I could now write better than I could back then – well, the memory would be lost, and I’d have nothing to assess myself by. So don’t rub off everything you don’t like; do fire some of them. They are your record.

      Life is too short to destroy all our traces (no pun intended).


  8. Dear Stephen and David,

    I have a question a bit off-topic. Here in Canada, I have the great privilege to be part of a team restoring France-made stained glass installed 1907. They were made in Reims by A. Vermonet.

    My question relates to the windows depicting the Jesuits who were martyred in 1649, and sainted in 1930. In these windows, which were made BEFORE Brebeuf’s sainthood, the halos are intact (designed, painted, leaded) but after the leading they were BLACKED OUT with unfired paint of some sort. Is there any European protocol for this sort of thing?


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