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.
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.
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.
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,P.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.