A Sobering Thought about Your Painting Bridge

In my last post I gave you 9 tips for keeping a steady hand when tracing, or – “How to stop the wobbles“.

The last tip was, not too much wine. (Well, none at all is best.) Which reminds me how David’s been teetotal for 30 years. Not a single drop. Thankfully, that’s not the secret of his amazing skill, though as I say, you’ll definitely paint better when you’re “dry”.

No, other things also count – like your painting bridge and how you treat it.

Love your painting bridge as if your life depended on it

Let me put it to you like this. Suppose you need a ladder to do an important job. You’ll take time to think where best to place it. You’ll also check it several times to make sure it’s stable.

OK, that’s also how you should think about your bridge.

Your painting bridge

Treat your bridge as a friend, not a stranger

Now I know you won’t break your neck if you get it wrong.

It’s just that if you get it wrong, I promise you you will not paint the stroke you want to paint.

But here’s what often happens when we trace: we fixate on the stroke itself – on what we want to do.

And actually you have to fixate on the context – on whatever allows you to get it right.

The bridge – is part of the context.

Your bridge is a tool

Yes, a tool.

But most people don’t think of it like this.

They think, like:

It feels awkward, I wish I didn’t have to use it

And also:

I’m not really sure what I should be doing with this but other glass painters use it so I suppose I should as well …

No, most people don’t consider the bridge a tool. They pretty much overlook it, or think of it as an uncomfortable necessity.

But here’s what master glass painters quietly know: they know they must resist the temptation to rush forward to the brush-stroke.

And if that’s new to you, then that’s what you must also do.

Before each stroke, take 10 seconds to consider: is the bridge in the right position?

All right, so what happens when I move it a little bit this way or a tiny bit that way?

You’ll be amazed how just moving it 10 degrees can make such a huge difference.

Small changes make a big difference

Small changes make a big difference

You’ll also find it helps to reflect for a moment on how the bridge is there to guide you.

So put it exactly where you want it: really take time to consider where you want it. Also check it’s stable. Get in the habit of doing this every time you paint a stroke.

Every time.

Yes, it’s second-nature to me and David. And repetition and constant practice will also make it second-nature to you. Imagine how that’ll improve your painting: and isn’t that worth aiming for?

All the best,

Stephen Byrne of Williams & Byrne the glass painters

P.S. I’ve got a lot of time for Maurice de Vlaminck, not least because he said how “Visiting museums bastardizes your personality just as hobnobbing with priests makes you lose your faith” … (Self-serving and self-important curators of the world, wake up and listen. Is the museum a way to improve your C.V., or is it there to nourish our soul?)

But last weekend we visited not one but two museums which restored our faith.

The first was the breath-taking Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

The second one was smaller but vividly inspiring: the museum of flat glass and enamel art in Ravenstein, where we were given a very warm welcome by Mr Jan Klink, the founder and director.

We saw both museums as guests of PELI Glass who had invited us to the Netherlands to give a whip-cracking five-hour seminar called “Fire less, paint better”.

One glass painter said she’d waited 20 years to learn what we had taught her in just one day.

So when I say you must pay attention to your bridge, this is not about me, it’s valuable advice.

Your bridge is a simple but perfect tool to help you paint the perfect strokes

Your bridge is a simple but perfect tool to help you trace the perfect stroke

13 thoughts on “A Sobering Thought about Your Painting Bridge

  1. Intuitively I know my bridge is too low for me but I don’t know how high would be more comfortable. I know my hand and wrist size is not the same as yours, but could you please advise what height you use?

    Thank you for your generous information – I always find it useful.


  2. Hi Julia,

    Good question, because with everything you use – every tool you use – there’s always the issue: am I using it wrongly, or is it (in some manner) incorrect for me?

    It’s really important to be sensitive to this issue. Which is not easy, because on balance it is usually wrong – as the adage goes – to “blame one’s tools”. But then if you look at the whole adage – “A good workman doesn’t blame his tools” – and you know in yourself that you are doing it right – then, indeed, we must look at the tool.

    So look closely at the very last photo. Scroll up and do that. You’ll see I’ve stuck some sticky pieces underneath my bridge. This gives me a bit of extra height. I experimented until I was happy. You can do the same. Once you know the right height, then you can make your next bridge exactly as you want it.

    What are those sticky pieces? We often buy many sheets of glass at once, and those sticky pieces are what our glass supplier uses to keep the sheets apart. Of course, many other things will do.

    I hope this helps. Good for you for asking this question.


  3. I find my bridges extremely valuable, I don’t know what I would do without them. I have made 5 bridges of different sizes and French polished them for a nice smooth finish, great for smooth hand gliding strokes. one sits less than half a centimetre from the glass for really small details that I need to be as close to the glass as possible. It is especially good for using my light sticks, as I can hold it comfortably like a pen close to the tip, where I have more control and it feels more natural. My others vary from 1 cm high up to 5cm or so, so I’m never left without the right height for my strokes. Besides the shellac which I already had for the French polish, the wood cost me less than $2 to make them all. Great value on an artists budget! Thanks for the post Stephen, it’s always great to be inspired by like-minded artistic people that have as much zest for stained glass as you do! Rhyce.

    • Hi Rhyce,

      Thanks for your timely reminder about how a craftsman /craftswoman in fact collects or makes various tools within a given type. A woodsman will have a number of chisels (of course not just one!), and so a glass painter will also have a collection of bridges. Yes, indeed.

      All the best,

  4. Stephen,

    Another excellent point, well made. A good bridge is certainly a crucial part of the mix. We have 3 of various widths and heights. I have a cushioning layer of closed-cell foam sheeting over several, to circumvent pressure point issues. The foam allows my hand to glide along if needed, yet is easily replaced when worn or no longer able to be cleaned. I also use a mahl stick quite often. One end is capped with a small rubber cup such as you put on a chair leg. It allows me to smoothly pivot/roll the stick to maintain even brushing of long lines without the end of the stick slipping on the light table.


  5. Hello Terry,

    I like the idea of using a small rubber cup like the ones on the end of chair legs. I’ll try it. (Right now ours are round-ended with cloth at the end to help prevent slipping.) Funny to be using something from a chair when you’re standing and working on an upright easel!


  6. Hi Stephen,

    Recently I found myself stuck, poised with my loaded paint brush above and over my glass. What was wrong? Bridge missing!
    I had been so engrossed in thinking about how I would paint the next stroke that I hadn’t had my bridge ready to hand.

    I couldn’t continue to paint without it, still learning, I guess this must be a good sign.

    All the best,

    • Hi Sara,

      You’re not alone – I often see people doing this, wondering “What’s wrong?” just like you describe.

      But the habit soon sinks in again.

      I hope all’s going well and happily for you.

      All the best,

  7. Speaking of rubber mahl sticks, I dipped one of my cloth ones in some moulding silicone rubber that I use to make plaster casting moulds. It has a very nice grippy, almost suction like quality on the glass, and never slips. Once one of my cloth ones slipped and wiped out a whole hour of work, now the rubber end should avoid another disaster like that again!! ‹(•¿•)›

    • Thanks for the tip about dipping cloth in silicone rubber.

      And, regarding your cautionary tale about the tumbling mahl stick which erased an hour’s work, we should compile an eye-watering collection of such anecdotes.

      You can go first, then me second with the story of how slugs consumed our unfired painting of the Blessed Nicholas Wheeler …

      Any more, anyone?

  8. My unfortunate anecdote would be the time a kitten got loose in the shop (a very long time ago when things were much less structured) and decided to relieve itself on top of some enameled pieces. It’s a form of acid-etching I would not recommend.

  9. Thank you for sharing tips and techniques. Thank you for what I’ve been reading and watching. You both are incredible.
    I want to expand my creative skills and I would like to know the dimensions of the bridge used in stained glass, what kind of wood? I’d like to make one. I haven’t started to paint yet, reading on the hows and whys before I start testing and firing. I am still getting the studio settled.

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