Your Tracing Brush, the Ballpoint Pen, and Zero-Gravity

It is our strength – your strength and mine – that we learn from our experiences. But this can also be our weakness: we are both blessed and cursed when we pick up a tracing brush.

Blessed – because we already know to grip it like a pen.

Cursed – because we expect it to function like a pen.

And it doesn’t.

Or so I thought until I learned about the pens which astronauts use to write in zero-gravity space: I’ve just discovered a helpful similarity …

Tracing – three mistakes


OK, so let’s float backwards for a moment. Consider first the harmful expectations which pens – normal pens – can can easily give us:

  • We expect the same stability from glass paint which we get from ink

In particular, we have no conception of the amount of ongoing care that’s needed to keep our paint in prime condition from one stroke to the next.


  • We’re unused to the sensitivity and spring of hair

Indeed, nearly all our tools are hard like brass or steel. Thus we’ve learned to continue pressing until we feel resistance, which is way too much for most hair.

And finally:

  • We imagine the paint will simply flow.

It’s a liquid after all. “So surely all I need to do is make it nice and runny …”

If you’re having problems with your tracing, just take time to consider these three points and the extent to which they inform your technique.

Tracing – three rules

Here are three good rules to take their place:

  • You must assess your paint each time you come to load your brush

Will a few twirls be enough to maintain its balance, or must you now use your knife and take time out to grind down those ever-forming particles of dust?


  • You must learn to discriminate between minute degrees of pressure, because this will put you in charge of how your brush’s hairs respond to you

For example, you will learn to slow down and pull back slightly when you trace a curve.

But you can only learn these fine discriminations if you choose to observe and respond to the differences between working with a tracing brush and working with a pen. (The frustrations are part of the journey, because they show you how you are learning.)

And finally:

  • Most of the time you don’t want runny paint – you want paint you can control

This means you don’t want to leave it all to gravity. In fact the paint must be dry enough so that it needs your force and energy to make it flow. Yes, dry enough, that’s what I said: one mistake a beginner always makes is they mix their paint so it’s too wet, and that’s when gravity takes charge. Certainly, the paint will flow, but rarely where you want it to.

Gravity – it brings me back to pens.

The ordinary ballpoint pen

Indeed, the ordinary ballpoint pen relies on gravity.

Inside it, gravity forces ink down the reservoir and onto the top-side of a rotating ball, which soon becomes the side in contact with the paper, thus dispensing ink.

The source of all our woe:

  • Ready-made ink
  • A hard tip
  • Gravity doing all the work, leading us into lazy habits

So what’s the connection between your tracing brush and those pens which astronauts use to write in space?

The space pen

First up, the ink’s much thicker than in an ordinary ballpoint. It doesn’t just flow down or out. (If it did, it would be messy.) But it’s still just runny enough that it will flow under pressure …

So, second, the ink must be propelled. Not by gravity (we’re in space) but by pressurised nitrogen inside the cartridge.

I know you’ll know already how both these points are relevant to you.

Most of the time, your paint must be only just wet enough that, only when you apply pressure, it flows.

(The exception of course is flooding.)

A test for you

Here’s a test.

Mix some tracing paint. Load your brush. Now paint a straight line.

When you’ve done one, paint a second line, but this time stop and pause and start again.

Then stop and pause and start again.

Then examine the two lines.

Tiny wobbles aside (which only you will notice), if you can’t see any material difference between the lines, your paint is wonderful, and you’re in charge.

But if the arrested line shows blotches and bobbles, there’s something wrong.

Check the three rules above.

And you, what do you think? Do you stand or sit to paint? Do you only use a light-box or sometimes also use an easel? I’d love to hear from you!

Stephen Byrne

P.S. I blame the light-box. In olden days, glass painters worked (nearly) vertically against natural light. (Some of us still do.) It’s clear that, whilst the paint is in the brush, the effects of gravity are much reduced: thus, the glass painter must force the paint to flow, because gravity is not much help. It’s also clear that, once the paint is on the glass, the effects of gravity are much increased: if the paint were runny, it would flow and cause an awful mess.

7 thoughts on “Your Tracing Brush, the Ballpoint Pen, and Zero-Gravity

  1. “Thank you” is my first comment. I am just beginning to do stained glass painting: even small remarks such as the comparison between “tracing paint and flooding paint” and gravity have helped me visualize the consistency I should be trying to achieve. Thank you for every email I receive.

  2. Stephen, I hope are all well!

    When you mention how new students always mix their paint too wet, I recall the time when reminded me not to make my paint so wet.

    And indeed, after a lot more practice, now I understand the relation between well-mixed paint and good tracing. So now I at last know what you meant when you and David asked us on our course to control the brush.

    I always find your posts and tips very useful, and they are there when I need them.

    Thanks again for all what you are doing for us.

    All the best,

    • Hi Hassan,

      I’m glad to understand these points make sense to you. It’s interesting how, with experience, they come to make more sense. At the start, we must all take things on trust to some extent; afterwards, experience proves them right (or shows us where we must think for ourselves and on our own two feet, and duly modify our teacher’s words).

      All the best,

      P.S. Yes, we’re all well and happy, thank you; and I hope life is good for you and yours.

  3. Greetings Stephen,

    After watching and rewatching your wonderfully informative DVDs and web videos, I finally took the plunge and traced my first piece of glass.

    My ego had other ideas – being the impatient bugger that it is – and decided I could skip the time it took to properly mix the paint on the palette.

    Of course you know the results of that decision well, and now so do I.

    Even if I have a steady hand at tracing, which is a meditation all to itself, it is all for naught if the paint doesn’t flow as it should.

    Many thanks,

    • Hello Noreen,

      Thanks for writing. Let me reply with a story from David’s life.

      You see, when David was a child, he already had a precocious talent for paint and drawing.

      This is not to say he didn’t have to put in the hours and weeks and months and years. We all do. And he did.

      All the same, he had a talent.

      Now let’s roll forward a few years to the point when he was in his precocious 20s.

      He was determined to learn to paint stained glass.

      On the basis of his drawings, he got an apprenticeship in Patrick Reyntiens’ studio.

      And, knowing how to paint (and draw), he thought that glass painting would be a cinch.

      Just doing the same thing, only on glass.

      You know where I’m going now, right?

      Fact is, if he’d been accepted on account of his facility with glass paint, he’d have been sent off there and then.

      Think how this felt to someone who knew he was God’s gift to oil paint and to print-making.

      Thankfully, this being an apprenticeship, he was given the time to learn about the medium and its weird behaviour.

      Everyone needs that time.

      David did. I did. You do.

      Do we make mistakes? Sure, we do. Do we sometimes get frustrated? Yes.

      “You make it look so easy …”

      Yes. And we got there by practice and reflection.

      And so will you.

      All the best, and it’s a pleasure to work with you.

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