How We Learn By Copying What Other People Do

Stained-glass design

Work in progress

Right now, David is adding colour to his initial sketches for a west-facing flank of four windows, each set composed of three lancets:

Adding colour to stained glass designs

Adding colour to the initial sketches

Also this month, we’re starting work on actual windows. Here are their scale designs …

And windows in progress

These are the scale designs for the north and east sides of a castle tower – these are the windows we’re working on right now.

Scale designs for stained glass windows north and east

Scale designs: north and east

The cut-lines are finished. (Aside from widths and heights, the ‘heads’ of each cut-line must be true to the actual sizes of the stone-work.)

In February we’ll start etching and staining the full-sized prototypes.

Our routine

There’s a lot for us to do.

So David gets to the studio by 8, whereas I get in at 9 (I see my daughter off to school first).

Now it’s not a competition but I certainly wake up before David does: I get out of bed at 5, shower, make a flask of coffee, then listen to music for an hour, by candlelight.


Early morning music with coffee and candle-light

No need to ask – I’ll tell you: music puts my head straight, because I don’t get on with words. So far this year I’ve enjoyed all the symphonies of Mahler, Nielsen, Elgar and Sibelius.

How composers learn their craft, which is also relevant to you the glass painter

Now these composers got me thinking:

  • Mahler was a formidable conductor;
  • Nielsen played second violin in the Royal Danish Orchestra for 16 years;
  • Elgar was a violinist, pianist and organist. He also played the bassoon;
  • Sibelius also played the violin. In fact he so loved performing, he was distraught when, around 28, he realised he couldn’t become what he wanted to be – a concert violinist.

My point is, composers first learn their craft by playing other people’s works.

‘Playing’, reproducing, copying, forging – whatever you call it, it’s so important.

The benefits of stained-glass restoration

After his apprenticeship, David spent 15 years’ overseeing not just the making of new windows, but also restoring old ones.

Fragment from a stained-glass border

Fragment from a border

I myself did five years’ restoration.

Fragment of stained-glass drapery

Fragment of stained-glass drapery

And here’s a path which a lot of you can also follow:

  1. You can search for and collect fragments from old painted stained-glass windows.
  2. And examine them.
  3. Then work out how the painter made them: the sequence of techniques, the media, the firing.
  4. And try your hand at copying them.
Fragment of stained-glass hand

Fragment of a stained-glass hand

It’s funny how forgery has such a bad name in painting. The emphasis in painting is so much on “saying what only you can say”.

Contrast this with music: no one thinks the less of a pianist who spends their whole life playing other people’s compositions – whereas a painter would be considered inferior if they only ever copied other painters’ paintings.

"Vincent Van Gogh: An Artists's Struggle" by Marc Verhaegen and Jan Kragt

“To start with” … (“Vincent Van Gogh: An Artist’s Struggle” by Marc Verhaegen and Jan Kragt)

But would it perhaps be better if painters were more like musicians than they usually are these days?

Musicians rehearse, musicians practise, musicians repeat and repeat and repeat. A lot of the time, musicians play other people’s music, not their own.

And there is no shame in this. Far from it. Rehearsal, practise and repetition of other people’s music: this is the royal path to technical accomplishment and glory.

I don’t think David would be the designer he is if he hadn’t spent 15 years learning other styles, and, through copying them, worked through how other people had answered their particular architectural and aesthetic problems.

Stained-glass design

Don’t we also learn by copying other people’s answers?

Indeed, one of the big problems with this “Romantic” approach to painting (“I must paint what only I can see”) is this: if someone only ever solves the problems of their own choosing, maybe they risk limiting their horizon.

Whereas if, like musicians always do, you first play a wide variety of other people’s music, then your skills are lifted upwards to the heavens.

Fragment of a stained-glass violinist

This violinist is probably playing someone else’s music

We’ll develop this thought for a review we’re writing of Ken Leap’s wonderful manual, Silver Stain: An Artists’s Guide. And I’d love what you think. How much copying do you do? Do you think that rehearsing and copying another person’s stained-glass painting is less important than answering your own questions? Or does it come down to what you can sell and how you can make a living?

14 thoughts on “How We Learn By Copying What Other People Do

  1. Besides my own original work I have been restoring stained glass windows, primarily from churches, although I’ve done boats, restaurants & homes. I did the Berkely which is part of San Diegos maritime museum. It was for the 100 anniversary. It has a wonderful history including being part of the San Fran. Earth quake and fire. All of the glass for the 52 windows is Kokomo Glass. Kokomo worked with me remaking the original Amber glass which was the greatest damaged until we had a perfect match. I purchased the entire run. Then I had to have the lead profile duplicated. Kokomo used this as part of their advertising for several years. Restoration: I would say that more than 90% of failure is due to inadequate use of rebar. I could tell some real horror stories. I often say to my self when working ” these people have no right to call themselves stained glass craftsmen”! My oldest complete restore was from 1848 Wiesbaden Germany. Absolutely beautiful painting. They had been removed from a church and were stored in an attic. Some idiot stepped in the middle of them. It was enough to make you weep! Took nearly a year to find matching glass and have Reusche mix paint for me. Thanks for your posts. Have a great year

  2. I don’t restore work but I am so inspired by how you two go about it! Thank you for another wonderful read. Happy 2016 from Maine, USA!

  3. How timely this article is! Not only do I work with stained glass, but I am also a potter. I am improving quite nicely I think, however when I show a piece to my husband he will ask, “is that your design or someone elses”? It really deflates me and the joy I was feeling to have made something that was challenging for me. He doesn’t seem to understand that in order to improve I need to “copy” another piece to see if I can do it. I do make some of my own ideas but when I slap down a few pounds of clay with the intention of making a nice pitcher I see in my mind (but the clay has other ideas) and it ends up being a small vase….still nice but NOT what I was going for, no one knows but me that it wasn’t the intended outcome. Whereas when I have a picture in front of me with dimension goals and the challenge set, if I succeed it is quite satisfying. Same with painting glass. If you have a piece in front of you that you intend to “copy”, when you have finished you can compare them and see where you need to improve and where you have succeed quite nicely.

    • When you make a good copy, hold onto the joy. Absolutely hold onto it. Now, at this time of my life, I myself I more grateful than ever I learned piano and violin as a child: there, copying (as performing another person’s work) is fundamental. And this outlook has helped me enormously when I paint stained glass. So hold onto your joy: a good copy is a tribute and a triumph.

  4. I am a traditional and contemporary iconographer and teacher. Learning the language of the icon requires that the basic elements of the language are understood and this takes practice. I liken it to writing an essay. Rarely is my first draft perfect. But it is a start. Iconography is a traditional art. As a life-long student of the icon I learn from the masters the best that history can teach me. Once I learn as much as I can from them and have become fluent, as in language (which takes about 10 years) I move on to infusing my work with my own specific skills and gifts tailored to the needs of the church or community that commissions me.

  5. I totally agree, rehearsing and copying other artists glasswork is a way of developing skills you can use for your own work and designs in the future. Sometimes it provides the answer to your own questions, by examining other work carefully, and figuring out which steps the painter took, and in what order, you can maybe solve problems you come across making your own designs.
    Thank you for another great post!

  6. I could not agree more. For a long time, so called “artists” have been too self indulgent with an inflated opinion of themselves and their work, with out any real “nose to the grindstone” effort to perfect their technique. That is not to say that technique is the only thing that matters, as giving life to one’s personal vision has given the world its great masterpieces, however I would venture to say those artists creating great masterpieces did a lot of grunt work along the way. I enjoy abstract work, but when someone is trying to paint a human figure in a realistic manner and it appears as if it is the result of a bizarre genetic experiment gone horribly wrong, I say, “Back to the drawing board”. Before you can be an abstract artist, I believe you must have a firm grasp of human anatomy first, and so it is with any endeavor. Only through rigorous practice and repetition can one become proficient.

  7. Enjoyed the letter Stephen….many thanks.
    Classical music is my ‘calming’ influence as well. Have it on everywhere, including the studio. Only time it goes off is in my study when I am concentrating on the book writing. Also an early riser…..helps get my brain in gear.

    Very best wishes

  8. I copy everything from the Chauvet cave painters to Picasso. It would be a crime to be denied this wealth of images. I twist it around and disquise it and use it. Art professors tell me this is a big no no and Interpol is going get me. I’m having too much fun. Thanks for all the inspiration throughout the years.

  9. Thanks, Stephen, for your thoughtful article. Not just in glass painting does one learn from those who come before them. We become better at what we do by opening ourselves up to watching and listening and learning from those with greater experience to share.

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