This year I was awarded the Award For Excellence 2009 – 2010 with the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Glass Painters. It is a huge honour to be given this opportunity. As part of this travelling scholarship I am able to tour around different glass studios and get an insight into the way they work. So far it has been really amazing. I have attended three different studios already this year between September and December. The placements I've been to to date are Swansea where I studied under Johnathan Cook while attending a glass course at the Swansea Institute; Wells at Steve Clares studio Holywell Glass; and finally Lincoln at the Lincoln Cathedral Works Department under Tom Kupper. I learned new skills and benefited from each of these placements in different ways. I want to talk about what I was allowed to work on in each of them and how I've enhanced my own knowledge of architectural glass through this experience.
First I am going to give a detailed account of my time in Swansea Institute. I arrived in Swansea, Wales on the 24th of September 2009 after a long journey from Edinburgh and started the course on the 25th under the instruction of Johnathan Cook. I had never been to Swansea before but was aware of the degree course there in glass painting and conservation and had considered doing a masters course there in the future so was interested to visit.
The course ran for four days from Friday the 25th till Monday the 28th. It was therefore much shorter than my latter placements but I feel I probably learned just as much in that short amount of time as I did in each of the others so although it was short he managed to cram a lot in and the experience was very valuable. Had I known about it, it is definitely something I would have done under my own steam long before and only helped to further illustrate to me how much I still have to learn after what was to all intents and purposes a self taught four year degree at Edinburgh and how lucky I am to get the opportunity to hone my craft with this award. I have never actually been ‘taught’ how to paint and so to have someone so knowledgeable go through his process as he did step by step was hugely beneficial.
Each day I was there the first half he spend talking to us around a table in great detail about a certain technique or process and then we’d spend the afternoon meticulously trying to emulate said process. I am an avid note taker and I am going to go through some of those notes now to demonstrate the particular activities we took parting and what I learned from them.
On the first day we learned about painting a base layer of either clear vinegar or water. This would be painted as a matt and then we would paint other brushwork on top of it. The particular technique he wanted to show us was how to construct an image with different layers of paint but using only one firing. He said this is how painters used to do it in the past and it was better because it used less energy heating it and so was quicker and more cost effective.
He told me a good way to tell if an old painting had been done using this method was to look at the scratch marks in the paint that have been scraped with a stick. If you can see clear glass through them it was done in one firing where as if there is a matt underneath it must have been done in two.
The first layer, when building up layers of paint in this way, is a base layer or matt. That is all we worked on the first day. We cut several squares of glass and practiced mixing up brown matts of different shades using different quantities of gum Arabic with the vinegar mix then the water mix. First we tried no gum, then a little, then a lot. We applied the paint using a flat brush then created a matt finish with a badger brush and an English stippler. We mixed the paint using pipettes to add a drop of vinegar/water at a time and then folded it into the paint. We covered it with a lid after so it would not get dust in it and sealed it by rubbing a wet finger around the lid so the paint would not dry out. John told us that if we did this we could re-use the paint up to three or four months after it was originally mixed.
Another tip he gave us that I had never heard of before was to add a tiny amount of fresh earwax to paint to stop it frothing. This didn’t seem to do anything when I tried it but perhaps the stuff he kept in a jar from his children was not fresh enough.
He taught us about how to blend paint. We were to use our fingertips or a make up brush to dust the surface or we could use a scrub. If we were to make our own scrub we would need a good quality brush such as a hog hair. It could then be chopped up until it was very short and rounded, pressed down into a heated Chinese take away tin to singe the ends, then sandpapered. The bigger the brush the subtler the blending. Mark making can also be achieved using a pin, nail, feather (goose or peacock quills are best) or a wooden point.
Once the base layer is painted and dried it is not advisable to try and stipple or badger on top with another layer of paint because it will remove the first. I could however paint lines over before firing, but I could only do so once, not going over it so the texture below could remain. When painting over dry paint he advises we mix the paint a little wetter than usual. If vinegar mix is left two or three days it goes harder and more paint can be added without the need for gum.
If you are to paint lines, as we were, you need a brush with a point and not a flat end. His line brushes were long but not as long as some I have seen. He usually works flat on a light box with an easel to check things. He uses a bridge to lean on but advises that one needs a variety, long sweeping lines need height and short ones for detail.
On the second day we painted trace lines over the base layer we created the day before using the water and vinegar mixes like before, but also using lavender. Johnathan also taught us more about badgering. A good badger brush should stand up on it’s bristles on it’s own. You can get flat tips or rounded tips. Flat may be a little better but it’s negligible. Badgering paint forces the paint to dry faster so it is advisable to do it early in the morning when it’s dead cold so you can smooth it for longer. Always take the sharp edges off the glass so you don’t loose the tips of the brush.
Paint needs to be very well ground up when badgering because dust or lumps will really show up and a clear halo will appear around them which will stand out once fired. Glass dries from the edge to the middle so mix paint well to avoid tide marks appearing. Little badgers can be used to pull the paint around when it’s wet. Sizes four and five are good, any smaller and it’s scratchy.
In his opinion when using a paint vehicle, vinegar is usually preferable to water because it dries slower but water mixes good skin tones. He says the best oil to paint with is lavender and paraffin can be mixed with it to help it dry and smooth it out. He said to be careful not to get it on my hands however because your skin absorbs it so if it’s mixed with paint you’ll be absorbing that too. After painting with it the brush isn’t clean until you can’t smell it.
When your mixing up your paint he suggests that usually you should use sandblasted or abraded glass because it will help to grind down the paint. With lavender however it’s best to mix on a clear palette because oils heavier than water and it sits in the sandblasted areas so doesn’t mix as well. Dust shows up very strong in lavender so everything must be kept clean. Use leather to clean glass and get excess paint off brushes so there is no dust from tissues going into the paint. The leather rag can then be washed with washing up powder and re-used again and again.
Gum Arabic has no effect on lavender but copaiba balsam does if two or three drops are used. It makes lavender strong when dry and hardens after a few hours. In a few weeks it won’t move at all. Because lavender takes so long to evaporate the paint mix shouldn’t be too wet. Lavender paint gets better with age and like the vinegar/water mix if it is kept covered it can be used again in the future.
When painting with lavender he suggests the use of synthetic hair because real hair brushes pick up too much and make paint drippy and hard to control. A round brush is better than flat and the brush should be dampened with lavender before it is put in paint. When lavenders dry a line of vinegar or water can be layered on top.
With my newfound knowledge I created several test pieces using his techniques. These were pattered imagery from my imagination with which I tried to apply all I had learned. On the third day we were allowed to take this a little further and paint from an image of our choosing. I photocopied and blew up a couple of pictures from the local newspaper that caught my eye. I painted a woman holding a cat and a soldier in Afghanistan. We all used a mix of black and brown paint. Brown for the background and black on top so we could distinguish the different layers when we were done.
Johnathan suggested firing at 600C and soaking for twenty minutes rather than firing at 650C, which is what the paint suggests. He says this is because at 650C texture from the kiln can be picked up and lighter shading can be lost. I thought my tests fired very nicely at this temperature.
On the final day he taught us about some other techniques and gave us other information that we could experiment with on our own at a later date. The first thing he suggested was drawing on glass with a pen nib using balsam and clove oil (lavender too runny). He says this mix can be kept in jam jar forever and used like an ink well as long as it’s air tight so the balsam doesn’t harden. A stiff nib is needed, one that doesn’t bend with pressure and it will file down quickly against the glass. Once it’s dry you can paint over it with water/vinegar.
He tells me that Hartlewoods and Lamberts are the best makes of glass to paint on, but not to use Tatra because the paint and detail gets lost in firing. He showed me a set of examples he had of this and it was a startling difference. Other tips he gave were to add blackboard chalk to silverstain to lighten it and charcoal to darken it. Although he admitted that this didn’t always work.
With silverstain and enamel he suggests firing at 565C. He warns that silverstain needs ground more than paint and that gum arabic is not necessary because it hardens naturally. The same layering process can be done with enamels although apparently no earwax will be required. Oil can sometimes make green enamel blue and he feels degoussa is the best make. Painting on the tin side can make enamels iridescent, so that’s something to bare in mind.
I left Swansea on the 28th straight after his talk and headed straight to Wells ready to start work on the 29th. I remain incredibly greatful for my trip to Swansea as I found it an enlightening experience and I learned a lot from Johnathan who proved himself to be a superb teacher.