Or "Why You Must Learn to Love your Light Box"

Part 1 – The experiment

Day 1: spent 10 minutes cleaning and painting undercoats on 8 small pieces of glass, then 17 minutes copy-tracing 2 images [just 2!] before deciding other things were “more important” than painting glass. Felt bored and distracted.

Day 2 … Day 3 … Day 4 … Day 5 …

Day 32: began with 60 minutes practice on light-box – thick lines, thin lines, dark lines, light lines, straight lines, squiggles, spirals, signature, various symbols, anything! Was surprised to learn an hour had passed. Then spent two hours painting a complicated roundel from start to finish without a rest. Very focussed. Couldn’t be distracted by “necessity” of other tasks.

Big change in just over a month, yes? That’s what this post is all about. It applies to everyone who doesn’t paint glass every day.

Is that you?

Part 2 – Why don’t glass painters play scales?

It’s always troubled me, this question:

Why don’t glass painters play scales?

This maybe gets you reaching for the panic button, so I’ll explain right now, and tell you a secret which will make an enormous difference to your glass painting. Just please don’t skim this post because you‘ll miss out.

Maybe like you: as a kid, I had music lessons. And me, I learned violin and piano.

Six years ago, I took up the clarinet – and then my daughter Nell arrived: something had to go: and no, it wasn’t her.

Now one thing I always did when learning was play scales and arpeggios before I started practicing the “proper” pieces.

Can’t say I loved them – but they got my fingers into shape.

Scales and arpeggios also helped my sense of rhythm.

So scales and arpeggios it always was.

For me.

But – amazingly (I thought) – not for my music teachers, oh no.

Something I couldn’t understand way back then was how my teachers just picked up the violin or sat down on the piano stool – and played.

Played beautifully.

Without any “warming up”.

Back then, I couldn’t understand how they did this.

It seemed unfair.

But now I’m older and wiser, I understand.

Because as I got to be a teenager, it also happened to me: at a school concert or a regional competition, I’d just tune up and be ready to perform.

So I reckon yes indeed the scales and arpeggios did the “superficial” things I’ve mentioned – they strengthened my fingers and sharpened my rhythm.

But much more than this, they got my mind into the right place.

The scales and arpeggios were like a cue I eventually internalized. Yes – a hypnotic cue.

As I say, I didn’t understand this then; I only understand it as a grown up looking back. It makes sense of my childish annoyance that my teachers didn’t need to practice.

Now I see they’d learned to switch on the required attentiveness whenever they wanted to, just by picking up a violin bow or adjusting the height of a piano stool.

Intermission – Ooops …

Here’s why “Ooops …” –

“Oooops” because, according to the blogger’s rule book, this post is already far too long, the words I’m using are far too big, there aren’t any bullet points, and really I should already have tried to sell you something.

Plus I should added loads of hyperlinks (not one so far) to dazzle and maybe confuse your brain whilst making you think you’re were getting “real choice”.

Wh0 are the strange folks who invent this stuff?

But pay close attenion here because I’m counting on you.

Hear me out.

This is so important:

With glass painting (as with playing a musical instrument) the habit of “switching on” is just as important as the skill itself.

To prove it, here’s a true story – and if you think poorly of me, well, all I can say is I’m very happy to tell you a story “at my own expense” when you get the benefit.

So here goes …

Part 3 – studio life at Williams & Byrne

As you know, it’s David and me working alone at the studio.

Yes, we sometimes call on outside help. But with our clients, this isn’t possible very often, because it’s “us” our clients want (we’re not offering a service or product we can out-source).

In every relationship or partnership, there are various agreements, various understandings.

Well, since David can paint like an angel – like my old music teachers, he’s been doing it nearly every day, his whole adult life – the agreement always is, he leads the way with painting.

Which means I’ve often had a supporting role so far as painting is concerned. More cutting and leading than painting. Or painting lots of decorative borders. Plus a whole lot of planning and negotiating. Plus working together on designs. Plus … plus … plus …

Thing always is, you have to play to your respective skills and strengths, to keep things moving upwards.

There’s no other way – this is so in all relationships!

Now last autumn the situation became extreme.

I was caught up with a hundred other essential things each day and I barely had time to paint from one week to the next.

Know the feeling?

(It’s just like when someone needs exercise but is always “too busy” to take a walk.)

Of course, my painting “suffered”.

And the reason is suffered was not because I lacked the dexterity.

It also wasn’t because I didn’t have the know-how.

It suffered because every time I painted, I got bored and rushed off to do other things.

Part 4 – “I’m bored”

Yes, I got really bored with glass painting.

And if you think bad of me for saying this to you, I’m sorry, I’m just telling you the truth, because it’s helpful here.

So I’d be painting a gargoyle or a leafy column or whatever, and I’d think, “Gracious, I’ve X and Y and Z and also A and B and C to do, not forgetting P and Q and R … Lord! this is so unimportant … and I must get to the Post Office, and write to Mr Anderson, and answer those 12 questions from our readers … oh when will this painting end?!?”

And you know what? I’d be “bored” within 5 minutes of picking up my brush.

Bored stiff.

Longing to get on with other things.

And then it struck me: the core problem wasn’t boredom with glass painting.

Glass painting is slow. Sure.

But boring it ain’t!

Rather, I was bored because I’d lost my capacity for concentration.

I’d lost my ability to focus on just one task for an extended period of time.

I’d become habituated – maybe even addicted – to juggling 15 tasks at once, like writing a letter, while planning a proposal, while sketching a design, while replying to an e-mail and taking a phone call …

No surprise either I didn’t finish a single book between October and December. I started many. But did I finish a single one? Not one!

Not a good place to be.

I thought I was efficient.

Really, my attention was deficient.

So I resolved to change all that.

Part 5 – the experiment again

Each day I did some painting.

Each day, for whatever time it was, I worked to focus all my attention on the painting.

I’m now 32 days into the exercise and let me tell you again the difference:

Day 1: straight into 10 minutes cleaning and painting undercoats on 8 small pieces of glass, then 17 minutes copy-tracing images onto 2 of them [just 2!] before I decided other things were too important to wait any longer. Goodness me, I was bored and distracted.

Day 2 … Day 3 … Day 4 …

Day 32: 60 minutes’ practice on my light-box – thick lines, thin lines, dark lines, light lines, straight lines, squiggles, spirals, my signature, various symbols, anything! – the hour went before I knew it – and then a further two hours‘ painting a complicated roundel from start to finish without a rest.

And I could have carried on. I was (as we say) “fresh as a daisy”.

OK so I had a dormant habit to reawaken: something to build on. I also had a good quantity of “sleeping” dexterity.

But the change in the quality and quantity of my attention is just amazing.

It’s like I’m “me” again: it’s like I’ve woken up: it’s wonderful: I feel alive when the brush is in my hand.

Part 6 – and my enemy was …

In this, the Internet was my worst enemies (and it will also be the same for some of you). It wanted me to “multi-task” in a way that undermined my ability to focus. It required me to learn the wretched habit of constantly swapping focus from one thing to another and then to another and then back to the first and then on to another and so forth.

It’s no way to think. It’s no way to live.

You can’t paint glass and live or think like this, always attending to many separate things.

People who sincerely have a God – they maybe have it easier here, because maybe there is something prayerful and meditative about the craftsman’s determination to do his or her best: just to focus on the task in hand, without distraction or temptation.

Now I said earlier it’s easy to form this “attentiveness habit. Here’s one way that’s guaranteed to work …

Part 7 – how to love your light box

For me, the biggest change came in how I felt about the “warming up” practice I always did on the light box.

See, at the start, I didn’t do any. No scales or arpeggios so to speak. I just rushed in to clean and undercoat a stock of pieces, then rushed on to copy-trace a few before … I got bored.

Little by little, I began to enjoy the initial mixing of the paint. I mean I enjoyed it for its own sake. As I turned and ground the paint, I enjoyed observing it, figuring out what it wanted in order to come to life again.

Once I’d got hooked on that – and started to slow down – it didn’t seem such a waste of time to, you know, just run some tests on the light box before diving into painting.

So I’d do a couple of swatches of light undercoat … and doodle for a while: as a way of checking I really was happy with the paint.

And then I noticed you can have all kinds of fun on just one swatch of paint:

  • A light stroke, a dark stroke
  • A thick stroke, a thin stroke
  • A thin dark curved line, a thick light curved line
  • A spiral without taking your brush of the glass – that’s the challenge: what can you paint without taking your brush off the glass?
  • A circle and some cross-hatching
  • My name
  • Part of the Williams & Byrne logo
  • Whatever came to mind …

Also doing things I wouldn’t normally do. Like I normally pull the brush towards me, so now I’d try to paint straight lines by pushing the brush away from me.

I also did some painting without a painting bridge. Yes, a muddle to start with, but it soon got better: and why shouldn’t it.

And I started varying the speed: it’s fascinating to see how slowly you can paint if you just make subtle adjustments to the consistency of the paint.

Another thing I did:

I started using a fountain pen again. It’s so much better than a biro or a felt-tip pen for giving you a sense of making marks and shaping lines.

Which is just what you need when you paint with a brush.

Please consider trying this. You’ll be glad you did.

Anyway, each day a little more, I became absorbed by the whole activity of keeping the paint just right – oh the self-confident joy of knowing exactly how to mix whatever kind of paint I needed! – then loading and shaping the brush, then making the stroke appear exactly as I wanted it.

I still had all those other jobs to do.

But I soon learned not to think about them until it was their turn – that’s the point. Which means I absolutely focussed on my painting. Which also means, when it came to other jobs, I also focussed on them. Much less multi-tasking. Much more attentiveness.

And I read a book last week!

If you want to see the quickest improvement in your painting, do like me: find the glass painting equivalent of scales and arpeggios, practice them regularly until you make or re-make the necessary habit of attentiveness.

After just two weeks I guarantee you’ll already be able to “switch on” all the attentiveness you need. And this is particularly important for those of you who run your own business or have children – or if you do something completely different as your “day job”  …

Pretty much everyone covered here!

Once you’ve built the habit of switching on and sustaining your attention, you just need practice to get more and more dexterous.

And that’s the easy part. Once you learn to pay attention, the rewards come thick and fast. – Because the strokes you paint will own a real life and beauty.

Intermission #2 – quick tip

While you’re preparing paint, keep your design and glass well away from the light box. Because the moment you place them on the light box, they create a compulsion and rush to start.

But you must be the judge of when to start.

Say you mix the paint beautifully and it’s five minutes before you get going – so what?

Part 8 – Why the experienced glass painter doesn’t play scales

You know the answer, don’t you?

Like my music teachers, it’s because the mind is ready – it’s trained to pay attention the moment the brush is in the hand.

Attention is switched on.

Here at our studio, David paints glass nearly every day.

I asked him what happens when he doesn’t – say because we’ve had a big two-day meeting in London, or spent a week working on a new design:

“It’s confusing … a muddle … I have to pull myself together. Not easy.

“It’s like when I haven’t done any digging in my garden over winter – those first hours in spring, when I first tackle the garden again, those first hours are really difficult: it takes a while to remember the rhythm of digging, how to ‘hurl’ the spade, how to scoop the earth, how to hold my back and lever my arms. I look at the long undug patch of earth – just as I look at the face I’ve got to paint – and trust I’ve got it in me somewhere.

“- Because I know it’s there, inside. It’s never lost. I just need to remember, to make old connections …

“Maybe I’ll have a frustrating morning. – I almost said a ‘wasted’ morning – but it’s never really wasted. It’s never wasted when you’re really focussing on what you’re actually doing. Even if it takes time, things come together, once you’ve learned it well – “

For my part, not having lead a whole life in the service of art or craft, I will continue to practice my glass painting equivalents of musical scales.

I’ll practice on the light-box now. I’ll not rush in. I’ll experience and enjoy the flow of paint.

Best,Stephen ByrneP.S. Those of you who’ve read this far, you’ll understand this. Each day we reply to maybe 20 or 30 email questions. Email is great. Yes – by which we mean it’s quick! All the same, when you have the time, write to us by hand – our post lady loves to ask about the stamps! – and we’ll write back by hand if you tell us your address.

Williams & Byrne, Church Farm Studios, Stanton Lacy, Ludlow, SY8 2AE, UK

I promise we won’t use your address for any other reason than writing back by hand to you (even if it’s “just” to say Hello). Yes, the keyboard gets you a quick response; the pen gets you a personal one. You choose!

P.P.S. I’m now off to Wales for a long weekend with the family (it’s half-term) … plus my fountain pen, a notepad and a good book.

Like this article?

Really useful tips, techniques and demonstrations for all glass painters who use a kiln to fire their work: see here.

21 thoughts on “Practice,

  1. Every band rehearsal we play the “Scotland the Brave Set” which is “Scotland the Brave,” “Rowan Tree” and “Wings.” Boring? To a degree (especially S the B). But once done, “The Battle of Waterloo” rolls off the chanter as it should. Birls (no typo) and all.


  2. Dear Stephen,

    I wasn’t bored with your writings … I was fascinated. It seemed I was reading my own notes.

    I began thinking of former days. Once, when I was happly playing my scales for the music teacher who was sitting by my side, I lost my appitite for scales when she (the teacher) left the room – saying that she had to go to the kitchen for a while because she had look after Pietertje (a white rabbit, until this time always sitting on her lap during the lasseons) who was ‘in the pan’.

    When she was gone, I stopped playing, put on my coat – and left the house. No music lessons for me after this.

    I have often tried to start again, but Pietertje was always there.

    Many years later I inherited a piano and – after a while – played my scales again … just as nowadays I like to use my light box when starting on a new piece of work and I practise my lines, the thickness of them, the intensity of the paint …

    I’ll send you a letter by post. I hope it reaches you.

    Kind regards,

    • Hello Ellen,

      What a story you remember about Pietertje. I am glad you left there and then. I am also interested to learn you too practice lines before you start. I think this practice is right and proper. But maybe the connection between painting / drawing and self-expression often leads people to think they don’t need to … (whereas a violinist knows he or she is reading someone else’s fine music and must strive to do it justice: it’s a different outlook altogether).

      I’ll look forward to your letter!

      All the best,

  3. I found this article very helpful, I have that trouble when trying to concentrate on cutting stencils for sandblasting. I’m going to try your technique and see if I can get myself in the groove!

    I would have written by real mail, but couldn’t find the address, it’s probably easy to find and I’m just missing it.

    Thanks for the insights!

    • It’s interesting what you say about cutting stencils, David. One thing I find important for myself is always to remind myself that even though a particular action is preparatory, it is also essential, an integral part of the whole process.

      Thinking back, I can myself remember sometimes rushing stencils – I’m talking about myself here: not about you – because I wanted to get onto the “interesting” bit. And one just has to teach the mind that every bit is interesting.

      Another practical thing I do e.g. when doing a “boring” job like cleaning glass, is, before I start, think calmly about what it’s reasonable for me to do in 30 minutes (or whatever). With “preparatory” actions, I think we often tend to put too much pressure on ourselves. Which is why a sensible expectation – “I’ll clean and dry 30 pieces, then take a break” – is good.


  4. Wonderfully written post! I believe most people will identify with what you write.

    Something I have found helpful is the establishment of a PRE-painting ritual. This is akin to entering through a gateway, a transition from one set of actions and reactions to a specific set of actions and re-actions – here, those of glass painting. Putting on a painting apron, cleaning the light box, using the mixing of the paint as a meditation, putting on special music – all these things can be quite instrumental in establishing that often evasive focus.

  5. I’m with you on this one Karen – I too have a pre-painting ritual.

    My problem is that I can do into my workroom and find dozens of other things to do, so it’s only when I put on my painting apron and and clear the light box ready for some paint mixing that I get ‘into the zone’.

    Yes, it is a form of meditation, and it works quite well for me.

    Having said that: as always, a wonderfully insighful post, Stephen.


  6. Thanks Stephen – you have me weeping with joy reading your meditation. How would you practice your scales if you were out of town and away from the light box?

    • Hello John,

      Good question, and since I’m just off on holiday for 4 days in 23 minutes, I’ll just answer you quickly right now and dig out the full citation later.

      Now this is really interesting. An experiment had 3 groups of people. The first group practiced a given task for a given time each day. The second group didn’t do the task at all – they were actually instructed to do something completely different. The third group were instructed to imagine doing the task well for a given time each day.

      Came the time for them to compete with one another. First group did best … second group did worst … third group came second but pnly just behind the first group.

      I think attentiveness is a “miraculous” phenomenon.


  7. Your explanation resonates with my own work. When I am writing a book or long piece of work I find any excuse not to start and, as you say, this comes down to having to concentrate simply on the task in hand – too many distractions …

    I have an advantage in that I can go for a walk with a small recording device in my pocket – just for that moment when the first sentence comes into my head. Get some funny looks at times, when people see this strange guy talking into his top-pocket, but going out does clear the mind.

    Bit more difficult in your case, unless you can devise a pocket-sized battery-driven light box. There you go, another project to deflect you, so ignore!

    Very best wishes to you both, always look forward to these communications.

    • Yes, and I’m sure with your experience as a published author, you know full well what it takes to get started. In your case, though, I would imagine it is also necessary to prepare yourself for a testing and sometimes tangled 9-month period during which the book evolves: complicated! Maybe I sometimes feel something similar when I’m getting ready to work out (from first sketches through to finished water-colours) a large design.

  8. I am heading off into the hills right now. But please do leave a comment because it is so helpful for us and also, as you see from the above, new strands emerge which I am sure are helpful to others.


  9. Hi Stephen
    Hope you enjoyed your holiday.
    Thank you so much for sharing your feelings about your painting. It was so good for me to see you and others have had the same problem. I used to paint wild flowers, insects, feathers etc., in watercolour most days after the family had gone out to work/school & I never realized where the hours disappeared to, I was totally absorbed, like being in another world. Then the alarm would go, time to get food ready or pick up kids from school. Only to return to the painting & feel surprised at what I had achieved with what seemed like so little effort. I had been totally absorbed in the task. Some time ago, my son had a serious accident & I became his carer. There seemed so may things to do & so much legal paperwork to sort that I was totally overwhelmed, the painting stopped. When he improved, I tried many times to start again it all felt so difficult & I have every excuse not to do it, must tidy the studio, must do the garden, the washing needs doing etc., etc., Whilst I was on holiday I had some time to relax & forget about chores & I switched off completely to all else around, I just played with the paint & pencils, mixing colours & doodling. Then like magic, I was off! I was finding plants to paint & loving it, I felt such a release! I have booked myself on a course to paint stained glass, so I’m going to follow your advice & get some practice in before I go, make sure I can key into that focus!!!! I am going to print out your article & pin it up in the studio to remind me to be mindful of my painting.
    Thank you, you have been a great help!

    • Fiona!

      So glad – glad beyond words – the post is useful.

      And I must certainly take it on the chin if someone else minds me saying I struggle sometimes/often unless I practice.

      All the same, I reckon we are all in this together and just striving to get better. And so it’s better for me to “speak as I find”.

      And you were “finding plants to paint & loving it”: wonderful! That’s exactly it I’m sure.

      All the best,

  10. Hi Stephen,

    I herewith like to express my gratitude to receive your outstanding newsletters on a regular basis. My skills are really improved. I still lack a lot of experience but as a skilled master once told me that, as long as I try my best, I’ll one day wake up and know I’ve got the hang of it. So I’ll keep on practicing and experimenting.

    This brings me to the first item in this letter – namely “Experimenting”. Now, the “undercoating technique” works real well, so I introduced it to our glass painting class. And the students were amazed how easily it works.

    But then came the first comments …

    “If an undercoat is used on clear or light coloured glass, the undercoat has more or less a dampening effect on the clearness of the glass after firing”.

    After a few experiments, I came up with some water-based medium mixed with pure water. After applying it to the glass, making sure that the whole surface is covered, I’ll constantly sweep my badger lightly over the surface untill it starts drying evenly.

    After tracing, cleaning, correcting and reïnforcing the traced lines, I fired the glass, and it looked bright and shining.

    I hope you will do some tests and let me know if this works as good using your skills as it works with me. Especially in “combination panels” – i.e. with kiln-fired painted glass and plain (coloured) glass – the contrast will be surely reduced

    Hoping to hear from you soon.

    Best regards also to David – and thanks again for sharing your knowledge with all glass painters!

    Best regards,
    Louis van Telgen
    The Netherlands

    • Louis,

      Life is a strange thing, full of “coincidences”.

      Just yesterday, David and I were working in the main studio. I was filming him blending with his badger blender, and I commented how vigorously he used his blender.

      I mean, time and time again, back and forth, up and down.

      And having had this discussion with him, then, when I too did my daily practice (as I now do each day!), I observed the same thing of myself.

      And you will also know this as a teacher: how others, when they learn to blend, are nearly always far too gentle, too delicate, too fearful, too anxious.

      Which is not at all to cast blame. It is just to make an observation.

      And sometimes I take a student’s hand and say, “Let’s pretend we’re playing tennis” (because – as you suggest – blending is so physical).

      Which means … while I take your point about the medium – and please do tell me the name! – yet I also wonder whether it is as much the force of blending which might make the difference.

      And it will only be experience (or rashness) which gives people the confidence to blend forcefully, which explains why beginners find it difficult.

      Let’s talk further – because it’s useful to everyone.

      Best wishes,

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