Case Study: The Challenge of the Tycoon’s Casket

The tycoon's challenge

It isn’t every day you sit in a tycoon’s boardroom (complete with a terrifying set of Gothic, lion-clawed chairs) and receive a challenge:

The commission is yours (the tycoon growled) if, within seven days, you can forge me a convincing piece of ancient-looking painted glass. It would be nice if it were beautiful, but above all else it must look old.

The boardroom was littered with other makers’ samples – wallpaper, curtains, rugs, table-tops etc.

I could see the tycoon’s problem.

The tycoon’s problem

And the problem was:

Everything looked new.

Beautiful but … new.

Indeed, money can buy most things.

But that’s precisely why it’s often nicer to make the impression that money bought these things a long, long time ago

Anyway, we accepted the challenge. Why ever not?

1. Arouse curiosity

This was already an interesting aspect of the challenge: what exactly to depict?

There had to be a narrative, an imagined story – something to seize our client’s imagination and excite him.

David and I spent a dutiful morning, walking around various ancient English churches, until we came across a window in the corner of St. Laurence’s in Ludlow, and found The Adoration of the Magi.

We liked the look of Casper’s casket.

I took a photograph. David used it as a basis for this design:

“I wonder what’s inside”

We’d found an image we believed would satisfy the tycoon.

Now I want to tell you how we made and also aged it.

2. Choose good and appropriate glass

The faces in a 19th century stained glass window may look white.

But, in your hand, and out of context, you’ll often find them to be green.

The reason is, their colour was purposefully chosen to hold its own against the strength of the bleaching sun.

Our tycoon is a lifelong collector of stained glass. He will therefore know this fact. So we found an interesting piece of tinted, mouth-blown English glass and cut it down to size:

The colour in hand is not the same as the perceived colour when seen in context

3. Map out the main lines

This often means first laying down a smooth undercoat.

Then, with the glass on top of the design, you use a fine tracing brush to make a literal copy of the outline.

Copy-trace the main lines

Note: it’s often easier to prepare a pencil tracing from the water-colour design, and work from this.

4. Initial highlights

There are so many different ways you could go forward from here. for example, it’s often possible and advantageous to build up shadows right away.

Here we settled on a more immediate approach, setting down some highlights straight away:

Rough highlights to give an impression of where light falls

5. Giving body and weight to the image

It comes as a relief (because you thereby move away from a provisional state of affairs) when you strengthen and/or thicken your original trace lines, and block in around the edges of your glass, in order to contain the light:

Blocking in quickly adds substance to the painting

This close-up draws your attention to the roughness of the blocking in.

The point is, perfection under a microscope can sometimes conflict with the wider and more important objectives, such as being legible from a distance, and also – crucially – gaining the tycoon’s confidence. Remember: he wants it to look old and wrecked by time.

6. Other appearance of ageing

Always remember the back of your glass.

It is your second canvas.

Working the back of the glass you can either add shadows and thus create a greater sense of depth.

Or, as here, with a light wash plus a good toothbrush, followed by some gentle rubbing, you can start to mimic the  ravages of age.

These spots are on the back of the glass

To be clear: these spots are on the back of the glass. With a suitable firing schedule, and a suitable mix of paint, you can fire both sides at once.

7. Authenticity

It is a modern luxury, and sometimes even an indulgence, to run the risk of firing your glass several times.

Yes, it’s easy when you have a computer wired up to your kiln, and you can walk off and get on with other things.

In earlier times, you’d pay a great deal of attention to the firing, and chance it as infrequently as possible.

So a lot more painting would go on between your firings.

In particular, you’d often resort to oil, as here, to build up further shadows:

Oil adds a new dimension to your glass painting

Just look at the subtle shading on the hand here.

I don’t say this to boast.

I say this to remind you how, with oil, you can give tremendous expression and delicacy to your shading. (Much more on oil shading here.)

8. Secondary highlights

Another wonderful quality of oil is how you can take your time to make exactly the highlights you want:

You can take your time with oil highlights

And you can also blend them afterwards.

9. Older still and older …

You can add texture to the front of the glass by flicking water onto the oil you applied earlier:

Flicking water on oil

The effect is random, so you have to pray you get what you want:

See how the water has caused the oil to separate …

10. First firing

Then a few hours while the kiln does its work:

When you paint with oil, you won’t suffer much from paint-loss in the kiln

Incidentally, without oil, you can reckon your lines and shadows will lose 10-15% of their density in the kiln. They get lighter.

But with oil, they don’t. The oil protects your water-based glass paint underneath. So firing doesn’t make your lines and shadows lighter, which is useful, because you know what your fired glass will look like. (There’s no guessing.)

11. Tracing and shading with silver stain

Time was when you’d have been anxious about staining – it’s such a messy and frustrating job with water or vinegar.

With oil, it’s so much easier (though you always have to run suitable tests):

Silver staining with oil really is that easy – when you know what you must know …

More using oil to stain over here.

12. Second firing

If you’ve done your tests, there’s little cause for worry now.

Unless there’s a tycoon who wants his proof …

Did it work, the stain?

And was the tycoon pleased?

What do you think happened?

13. More

All this and more is explained in Glass Painting Techniques & Secrets from an English Stained Glass Studio. (Free chapter How to paint stained glass.)

Best,Stephen Byrne

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8 thoughts on “Case Study: The Challenge of the Tycoon’s Casket

  1. Hi Stephen and David,
    Another excellent demo and a real testament to the talent in your studio. But enough of the flattery … Can you please help me? I know I get your regular e-mail newsletter, and I know I have bought your ‘secrets’ on line, but I am a bit confused however as to just what I have got. You seem to have new/different work in your demos that I would like in some cases.

    Can you tell from your records just what I have and what I don’t have as well, as what I will have to pay to catch up (as much as I can afford).

    I am quite busy with a variety of decorative work, including glass, (check my website) and am lost!

    Cheers and thanks!
    Terry
    P.S. I am quite new to stained and painted glass having started it three of four years ago.

    • Hi Stephen, excellent as usual. But how did you photograph the original its at least 15 feet high ?
      Regards Mike -shrewsbury

  2. Indeed we can help, Terry! You already have Glass Painting Techniques and Secrets from an English Stained Glass Studio, plus various free guides from that time. What you don’t yet have is the in-detail case study of St. Martha (96 minutes of close-up online video demonstration plus downloadable handout) nor this latest guide to silver stain (73 minutes of online video plus downloadable handout).

    There’s also a summary page right here which shows you a complete listing.

    I hope this helps.

    All the best,
    Stephen

  3. Hello Stephen and David!

    This demonstration – i.e. the painted hand etc. for the tycoon – is a really terrific piece of tutoring. Your explanations are always easy to follow, and a lot of fun. This one is a star in the body of your work – can I say that?

    I’ve tracked down today’s Independent and my neighbour has promised not to use it in her cat’s litter tray but keep it for me so I can have a look tomorrow.

    Thanks for all your continued inspiration.

    I just wish I could find more commissions where painting is used. But slowly I am finding more and hope to post them on my website, as and when.

    Again, many thanks,
    Shelagh

    • Thanks for your message, Shelagh. You make a useful and interesting point for everyone about wanting more commissions where painting is used.

      The truth is, it takes time. All the same, everyone is better off doing fewer better projects than many poorer ones. As you finish the better ones, then, as you suggest, you take good photos and let people know about them in all the different ways at your disposal.

      I’d also say this: if were easy, it wouldn’t be so worthwhile.

      All the best,
      Stephen

      P.S. It’s also interesting and important to us to know that kind of information you and others find useful, and why – so please do let us know!