Stained Glass Faces: What Glass Should I Use?

From the postbag

Amidst the many questions we got this week – nearly all answered: always sorry if we ever miss one: nothing personal: it’s just there’s a mighty lot to do! – there were two questions about … … what glass to use to paint a stained glass face:

About to take on a new challenge of painting and leading a large stained glass window. If I am painting a face for example, and want a nice flesh tone, what is the best glass to use as a base?

And also:

I want to copy a section of a window in a local church. It’s circular, about 24″ across, with a head, shoulders and part of the wings of an angel. Could you suggest what colour glass to use for the face, or should I use clear glass and put some colour into it? (The original is almost orange.)

"Well, we're listening ... what glass do you use?"

“Well, we’re listening … what glass do you use for faces?”

Quick answer

Lots of points to answer there, starting with – white glass …

stained glass Lazarus

Maybe white is fine for Lazarus – but then he’s just had a difficult experience

I have to say, we’ve never used white so far.

We’ve always used tints of yellow or green, sometimes a light beige even.

(By tint I mean a light or pale version of a colour.)

Of course, if we were doing a literal copy (as in restoration), we’d source the original glass (even orange!), or somehow fake it.

Since people are reading this from all over the world, everyone will be using different makes of glass.

Ours are hand-made English, French (like Saint-Just), German (like Lamberts) or Polish (Tatra).

But my advice is: don’t fixate too much on the glass:

  1. Do a good design
  2. Choose a tint
  3. And concentrate on painting well

I repeat: don’t fixate too much: the glass is just a vehicle.

If your design and glass painting succeed, that’s what people will notice (not the glass).

Frankly, if they comment on the glass, that’s just plain rude!

As for a “nice flesh tone”: it’s not possible to answer this question in the abstract.


“Me? I thought you’d never ask! I’m hand-made English amber … Great in full sunlight”

It depends on many things, like the level of realism you’re after.

On the one hand there is quasi-photographic – almost print-like – realism.

On the other, medieval saints and virgins.

“Flesh” means different things across this spectrum. Again, your style of painting will affect how people “see” the underlying glass.

And would we “put some colour” into our painted faces?

Probably not: it’s not our style.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t or shouldn’t be yours.

All I’m saying is we wouldn’t (except for restoration as required).

We tend to work with tracing paints (not enamels). That’s just the way we work.

I myself reckon sometimes people get too caught up in using enamels to make things seem real whereas it’s often better just to focus on light and dark, line and shadow (with the basic colour of the glass giving you a spring-board, so to speak).

Know what I mean here?

And now for a wider consideration of the underlying issues because … you see, the best thing always is, for you to build your own judgment and experience.

Which means we all have to look and think for ourselves.

Look closely from now on

Here’s what I do.

Each time I’m in a building with stained glass windows, I always spend a few moments observing the base colours as closely as possible.

I ignore the paint.

That’s right. Me, a glass painter. I ignore the paint.

Downton St. Giles

“I think the background blue shows me up nicely, thank you!”

Instead I focus my eyes and all my attention on the glass beneath the paint.

It takes an effort of will but it’s worth it.

And from now on, when you’re in a church, spend five minutes really concentrating on the choice of colour.

Stop your eyes darting off all over the place as they try to interpret the traced lines and shadows.

Just look at the glass.

Only the glass.

Are all the greens the same or do they vary? How would you describe the tint of the hands – is it a yellow, a green or a blue? And so on.

Chances are, you’ll pick up on some strange and interesting things.

Like a green face …

Yet when you see it “in the whole”, maybe in full sunlight, your brain doesn’t see it as green at all: everything looks as it should be.

Well, maybe sometimes it doesn’t …

I reckon, in the olden days, sometimes they just had to use what they had to hand.

Ask me nicely and I’ll show you some photos one day! The ecclesiastical setting makes you think, you can’t criticise it … but I’ve seen some shockers, and now maybe so will you!

OK so that’s the long-term advice on how to develop your own judgment here. Lots more to say about this, but that’s enough for now.

Well, almost enough.

Appleby Saint Bartholemew

“I’m not meant to be here!”

This week we’ve been enjoying correspondence with several new readers from New Zealand,

And one of our new friends, Sue Adams, mentioned how loads of the stained glass windows in the New Zealand churches there were actually shipped out to them from England.

Now that’s really interesting.

See why?

Because it means the designers and painters had no idea of the quantity and quality of light their work would be subjected to …

Goodness! I wouldn’t like to work like that.

Here’s why …

Point #1 – Where’s it going?

Like we said, the glass is a vehicle for your paint.

So of course you choose whatever colour glass gives you the best start, depending on where your painted glass is going.

Say it’s going in an east window in a Gran Canaria church: well, you’ll need a stronger-coloured glass than if it’s going in the west window of a cloud-covered chapel in Wales.

The reason is, the Gran Canaria sunlight will bleach out more tint than the rain-filled skies of Wales ever will. (Sorry, Welsh people, but it’s true!)

If you’re making an autonomous piece – something which can be hung anywhere and won’t be installed in a particular architectural setting – go for a mid-range tint and consider point #2.

Point #2 – What colours are around it?

You know this already, don’t you? Colours aren’t “out there” as such, just wavelengths of light which your brain interprets.

And it’s very easy for wavelengths to merge and do all kinds of weird things in our brain.

Or they would do if you let them …

Which is exactly why it’s good for the glass itself to be larger than the image you’re painting on it.

Cleobury St. Mary

“It’s true – a looser fit feels much more comfortable …”

See, this isn’t just because some shapes are impossible to cut and lead up.

It’s also to protect the painted image from the effect of the surrounding colours.

Again, when you’re in a church, it’s great practice to start observing this from now on: see how much space is left between the painted image and the lead.

Also see how the space is filled: is it blocked in, is it left blank, or is it decorated in some way?

Point #3 – the paint itself

Maybe you already know how we like to start with an undercoat – a primer, if you will – then copy-trace, strengthen, maybe soften and reinstate, then highlight, and also apply oil (washes, half-tones, lines etc.)

For a detailed step-by-step guide, see here for a tested real-life way of painting a stained glass face.

And you’ll see straightaway the undercoat is so important when it comes to faces.

It’s much like foundation with women’s make-up (I’ve been told).

So when we did St. Martha and St. Francis, we used an undercoat made from Reusche’s umber brown: it worked perfectly for that job – lifted the shadows, did not weigh them down with shades of grey.

Such a large topic …

Yes, such a large topic, the choice of glass. You have to be able to enjoy uncertainty, to live with a lot of questions in your mind: slowly figure out the answer to one of them (e.g. the style of design), then allow that answer to have an effect on other answers.

See what other people do, and make up your own mind what you think of that, and why.

You’ll do well!

All the best,

Stephen Byrne of Williams & Byrne the glass painters

6 thoughts on “Stained Glass Faces: What Glass Should I Use?

  1. Hi Stephen and David!

    Nice post about faces!

    To answer … For this face, I used a soft tint of flesh tone glass, (on the warm side). I asked the client about the light it would be getting into … they were pretty sure it would be “strong”.

    Well, strong is a relative term, but I went with it.

    I usually end up using Dasag brand. It’s what I can get locally. Dasag has two fleshy colors I like to use. I used the lighter version this time because his teeth would be showing.

    I painted it in umber (a nice warm color), sepia and bistre layers to build skin tones. (I sometimes use rouge on the reverse side if a face seems too washed out, but rouge is a lower fire enamel: not as stable at the higher fire paint : and I didn’t need it this time.

    I added “strong blue” in the irises (a nice high fire color) because the little guy has such striking blue eyes and the frame colors supported using it.

    I almost never use colorless glass for flesh anymore. After trying soft tints I don’t like the washed out look of the colorless glass anymore.

    And, yes what great advice to analyze the glass color choices of really good stained glass windows. Sometimes the oddest colors deliver a wonderful punch!

    Last year I started choosing my glass colors using window light (not the light table). I am beginning to understand how critical color choice is and natural light is the only way to be sure about how it all works together. I cut the pieces and, using plasticine, I stick them up on a glass sheet on a wide window sill with the cartoon taped lightly behind the glass. I remove the paper periodically to check how I like the choices. I am always amazed at how often I change my mind from what I thought would be the right colors.

    Just got back from 10 days on your side of the “pond”. What a wonderful trip! You sure do have a lot of great glass to enjoy. I learned so much.

    Thank you again for all you share with all of us.

  2. Dear Stephen & David,

    This is such a useful post because the issue is very important and it’s also relevant to other glass painting projects.

    Thanks for the great information you’ve been writing on your site.

    Warm regards,

    • Hello Hassan,

      Thanks for your interest and enthusiasm here!

      And after I’d written this post, I came across an old e-mail from a colleague in the US – Kathy Jordan – about the glass paint she uses.

      Here’s what Kathy said:

      “I myself don’t use red for flesh or any other red as a base color for my flesh. I like a viel of umber as a base. The reds seem too cool for my liking. Reusche has a wonderful Miessen Brown and a Medium Brown that are good for flesh and have a lovely warmth.

      I have been concentrating on translating china painted techniques to glass. I have been fortunate enough to study flesh painting with one of the best internationally recognized China Painters the past five years. China and glass painting are closely related. I am a replication painter and do very little new work. I love the challenge. In my research, I discovered that Tiffany employed China painters at the turn of the century. Tiffany flesh reads in reflected as well as transmitted light …

      The red I added to Mary’s cheeks was reusche’s Reflected Light. All of their lead free series mimics the china painters palette. Hope this helps. Keep the questions coming or feel free to redirect them to me from your students.”

      Hope to see you in June, Hassan!

      All the best,

  3. Excellent answers from you and Kathy to a question with broad implications. It’s always to interesting to learn about different approaches, especially when there are any number of good ones. Replication is decidedly in its own little galaxy, with each project laying out its own requirements for you. You can learn a boatload of wisdom doing it, and then, when you finally get the chance to do something entirely new, you have a wealth of options from which to realize your vision. Thanks again for another terrific article.

  4. This is probably a question you are not going to like one bit, but here goes. How would the painted glass stand up to being fused between two layers, possibly even being slumped…just a tiny bit. I shall probably be banned from asking any more questions after this one

    • Hi Candi,

      Nonsense: it’s an excellent question. And of course we’re fine about all questions where people want to do things better, learn new things, dicover new ideas or techniques or (of course) simply understand what on earth we mean.

      The best answer I can give you is, you must try things for yourself and see how they come out. If they work well in the context of the kind of work you do, and how you live and make your living, that is very good indeed.

      I am sure there are some glass ‘paints’ which won’t like the extra heat which comes from fusing. (Slumping is a different matter, because it isn’t necessarily hotter.) I’m thinking particularly of enamels here, and probably also silver stain. So, in your position, I’d start my experiments with the standard paint we use here for tracing and shading, namely Reusche tracing black and umber brown or bistre brown.

      And I’d be careful about flooding: I mean, I’d be careful to put it on as thinly as was compatible with the kind of coverage I needed.

      Without testing things myself, I don’t know if it’s necessary or not to fire the painting before you do the fusing.

      So: have a go! Be methodical, though: take photos and make notes of your tests, before and afterwards. Then you’ll soon see how to take things forward.


      P.S. For the record, the question I absolutely don’t like is when someone asks me to find them a cheap supplier of such-and-such. Your question is, as I said, excellent.

Comments are closed.