Painting on Glass Vs. Painting on Paper

They are not the same

James Hogan – a designer and glass painter who worked on many windows in Liverpool Cathedral – made this observation:

Stained glass painting has no relation whatsoever to picture painting.

It is an art of its own, dealing with the transmission of light through coloured material, whilst painting is the application of a coloured pigment on a flat surface upon which light is reflected.

“Oi, girls, let’s get Hogan – he’s disqualified us!”

A neat, analytical distinction, this.

As you would expect, it risks disqualifying substantial quantities of painting on glass.

But never mind that for now. I am sure that the ladies on my left will set dear Hogan straight.

And also never mind Hogan’s assumption that stained glass painting is an art. Ah, “art” is such a slippery word – especially in these post-modern times of ours.

Instead, join me on a journey to the Dark Side.

This way, please.

Venture to the Dark Side

Now, since you are reading this by virtue of your personal interest in stained glass painting, here is an important exercise for you to try.

The very next time you paint stained glass, focus your mind on Hogan’s words.

Focus on how you use using paint to modify the transmission of light as it passes through the glass to reach your eyes.

So, as you apply the paint, observe how you are blocking light by painting shadows.

Feel what it is like to reject the distracting proposal that the stained glass painter is someone who “paints with light”.

Instead, and more usefully, experience what it is to see yourself as someone who paints with darkness, as someone who creates the impression of form by laying down shadows in between the light.

Yes, “painting with darkness” is an admirably down-to-earth description which can concentrate our minds on the actual task in hand, and – this is the important thing – thereby help us do it better.

My learned colleague, Dr. Byrne, has just badgered me with a quote from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations:

“A picture held us captive, and we could not get outside it.”

Section 115, says the good Doctor. But should I trust an Oxford man? As I recall, Oxford didn’t behave awfully well during the English Civil War, although I grudgingly suppose this did do something to preserve our stained glass heritage from vicious looting.

Well, the considered advice from both of us to you, our fellow glass painters, is that you must escape captivity from this experientially misleading picture that, when you paint stained glass, you “paint with light”.

“More eye-liner, please – I’m going out dancing tonight”

“Paint with light” you do not. You paint with darkness.

And what is more, you’ll find this is a really useful way of feeling and thinking about the process of painting on glass. (In this connection, glass painting is rather like drawing with charcoal.)

And, to return to Hogan’s observation, it is your painted darkness which modifies the light that is transmitted through the glass.

Go on, then: go paint with darkness. (Just maybe find some other way of describing it when you talk with clients. You don’t want them reaching for the panic button …)

Now that’s our advice. As always, we’ll be glad to hear yours.David Williams

P.S. Please do read the comments and also add your own – we want to know what you think.

P.P.S And I’ve just seen that Stephen has logged on with a post plus a glass painting video which make the point nicely. Watch the video right here.

16 thoughts on “Painting on Glass Vs. Painting on Paper

  1. My title for my stained glass business is “Angle of light” – but I like very much the other angle opposite … namely “angle of darkness”.

    Great imagery…


    • Annie!

      “Angle of Light” is a wonderful name. “Angle” is particularly rich – it catches things with a sideways and original glance.

      It takes the darkness of our paint to reveal that angle and bring it into sharp relief.

      All the best,

  2. I am fond of “painting in the shadows”, as most of my time spent when I paint is in the surrounding dark with the ethereal glow humming underneath my staring eyes, covering or scratching, while deciding which way to hide or seek the light … And there are other times that it isn’t to do either, and instead I lay down altering color, so I may then look through tinted ‘rose colored glasses’ (or emerald, or indigo, or maybe even yellow stained- so many choices).

    I always enjoy your perspectives and especially helpful experiences.

  3. That’s an excellent perspective on you do when glass painting, Brian: you look at the glass, and actively decide where to hide the light and where to seek it. Playing “hide and seek” with light: very interesting indeed.

    And, if I understand you correctly, you also say you sometimes distance yourself from your glass by looking at it through the medium of different coloured glass. Another interesting idea: doing something which jolts one into seeing something differently, and then responding to that particular way of seeing.

    Maybe this is similar: we sometimes put our unfired work on an upright easel against the daylight, then turn our back on it, then look at it with a mirror. (It’s sometimes good also to do this with designs.)

    • Hello Cyrus and Jaishree,

      Yes, indeed! And I’ve just added a new video right here which shows exactly what you say! I just want you to know that we are here to work with all the comments and ideas that you and others kindly make.

      All the best,

  4. How did you guys manage to appear in my world just at the right time? I mean, I presume Williams & Byrne had been putting things on the web prior to my becoming aware of their existence, but it continues to stun me the way that the world places just the right ideas in my head at just the time that I need to be thinking about them. Thank you, David and Stephen – “painting with darkness” is a beautiful way of imagining it. They say that Rembrandt did everything that could be done with darkness. But I think there’s a few things yet to discover.

  5. Douglas,
    The thing we find is that we’re meeting the right people – the people like you who reflect on things.

    It’s so interesting to us that we meet such reflective people who are engaged in this light-transmitting craft.

    All the best,

  6. Gentlemen!

    As always, your tongue-in-cheek banter is a delight and source of mirth in what is an often solitary pursuit.

    Your apt description has me envisioning us all as unseen beings, dutifully shaping a formless darkness about the brazenly uninhibited light, quietly leading it to its best presentation – guiding it to subtlety or boldness, whichever is its intended task.

    Peter Gibson (of York Minister fame) once told me that glass painters are “geniuses”. I am still a bit uncomfortable with the weighty connotations of that title, but at times we do seem graced with results that certainly verge on it.

    Let us all aspire to be worthy shapers of the formless!

    All the best,

  7. What a great perspective twist. As a lover of all things dark, I can pull up to this much more readily than the idea of painting with light. I will ponder this during my next painted commission.

    Thanks, guys!

  8. This describes exactly what has been churning around my head as I paint. I have recently completed a large window with two portraits in it. I painted the entire window with what I consider ‘limited’ eyesight. My artwork tends to, now, take on a more impressionistic feel. I am literally painting what I see and I find that it resembles my charcoal work from years past. It’s as if my distorted vision allows my to see how light will envelope the window and space prior to installation. I am happy to say that those portraits turned out nicely and the congregation fell in love with the window right away. Thanks for all your support and advice along the way!

    John ~ Old Sun Stained Glass Studio

  9. Hello John,

    That’s wonderful your stained glass portraits turned out so well. And the connection you make with charcoal drawing is exact: charcoal drawing is so much closer to stained glass painting than is water-colour painting, for example.

    All the best,

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