Though slightly forgotten nowadays, the intricate art of glass painting was once the most dominant form of painting in Europe. Artworks created with a multitude of glass painting techniques decorated walls of the medieval religious buildings that were visited by millions of people who never got the chance to observe a portrait or a landscape painting. This applied art, almost a thousand-year-old, is multifaceted, to say the least. The nature of painting on glass incorporates numerous elements including aesthetic appeal, complex compositions, and consideration for effects that appear once painted glass is exposed to light sources. Developed in the 9th-century Germany, the art of glass painting reached its peak in the 17th century with numerous Gothic cathedrals graced by the stained glass masterpieces. The very first motifs were abstract, composed of numerous pieces of colored glass, as the artists lacked the tools and the materials needed to embody details and figurative forms. In the middle ages, religious motifs took the central stage and stained glass painting on windows often served as a tool for illustrating the scenes from the Bible to an illiterate crowd.
In the 16th century, special colors entitled enamels give birth to the type of glass painting that we know today. These colors could be mixed and applied like any other paint which lead to the expansion of the ancient art genre. During the 17th century, glass painting was booming as Gothic architecture developed a more ornamental form and stained glass windows become bigger, allowing greater creativity and illumination. In France, a new kind of circular stained glass painting on windows emerged and was quickly entitled "rose windows", due to the flower-like appearance of the objects. The 20th century has seen the development of brand-new forms and glass painting techniques such as copper foil and stenciling. Today, artists working with glass have a multitude of water and oil-based paints and an array of tools at their disposal. You can paint everything from large scale glass paintings and three-dimensional sculptures to your everyday wine glasses. And with the development of techniques that don't even require firing (once an unavoidable step in the creation of a glass painting), you don't even have to be an artist in order to paint glass. But that wasn't always the case.
Though many glass painting techniques appeared throughout the ages most of them only represent slight variations of styles dating back to medieval times. One of the first techniques for creating wonderful glass artworks, stained glass, for instance, is still used today. The technique implied using various metallic salts to color the glass into numerous shades and then used fragments of them to assemble a mosaic-like masterpiece. Glass fragments were kept in place by lead strips curved and soldered together to embody the design that was previously painted on a whitewashed table (paper was a pricey commodity at the time). This medieval technique has expanded with the development of glass paint that could be added to the artwork which enabled adding details to the colored base. The colors came in various shades of black and brown and the shade of the color depended on the amount and type of oxide used in its creation. Delicate details were added by employing ordinary art brushes but medieval artists also used sticks and quills in the process to smear the lines and create a coarse effect. This technique of glass staining is alive and well today although it had suffered certain alterations. Lead is replaced by still and colors come in more than two shades.
In the 14th-century innovative glass painting techniques and tools were used to create groundbreaking artworks. Badger hair brush was used to soften the paint but also to produce a stippled effect that was achieved with a pouncing of a dry brush onto the wet paint. Silver stain technique, that's very much in use today is another 14th-century invention that revolutionized the medieval glass painting artistry. Unlike classical glass painting techniques that were limited only to the inner glass, the silver stain was applied to the outside of the glass. This method was characterized by adding a compound of silver into the glass, that would once baked, change the color of the surface. Depending on the firing temperature and thickness of the application the glass would change its color from any shade between pale yellow and deep orange. It wasn't until the 16th century until glass painting colors that we know today appeared. These paints called enamels, made of pigmented metal oxides, ground glass, and a flux mixed with water and gum arabic or lavender oil can be fired directly on the surface of the glass. Enamels basically behave as any other paint, they can be mixed to produce an array of shades and applied with brushes directly on the glass. With the discovery of enamels, the artists could now use all colors from the spectrum on a single piece of glass which enables them to create a variety of shapes, forms, and patterns. For more complex designs enamels can be applied in layers and fired several times which provides a better sense of control, making the colors less see-through and smudged and more vibrant.
A method that originated in the late 19th century was invented by mimicking the European centuries-old stained glass technique on a smaller scale. Copper foil technique was created by Louis Comfort Tiffany, American stain glass artist often associated with Art Nouveau movement. Louis Comfort Tiffany created lamps and windows with an astonishing level of detail by edging each piece of cut glass in copper foil and soldering them together thus creating mosaic-like compositions. During the 1930s French painter, Jean Crotti developed a method he named gemmail (which is a French word from enamel gem). This particular approach differs from traditional stained glass techniques since the fragments of colored glass are not joined by lead came, but overlapped and glued together with a transparent substance thus creating a greater variety and subtlety of shades. Mostly affiliated with graffiti and street art stencils have found their way into the glass painting files as well. This glass painting technique is particularly popular in home decorating as it's easy and quick to learn. Numerous websites offer an abundance of printable stencils that can be used for the purpose of decorating glass. Stenciling can be produced with the use of enamel colors or even spray paint, simply by fixating the stencil onto an object and applying the paint on top, before lifting the template to reveal the design.
Glass painting may be a centuries-old art form but it managed to attract quite a few contemporary artists who experimented with glass as a medium. One of the finest artists of the twenty century, Marc Chagall created a series of stained glass artworks that are highly distinctive due to their intense and immersive colors. The artist created stained glass windows for the Hebrew University’s medical center's synagogue and a window designed especially for United Nations dubbed Peace. The visual effects of his artworks were particularly captivating as they appeared to shift and change depending on the time of day and the position of the viewers. In 2007 acclaimed German artist Gerhard Richter designed a window for Cologne Cathedral that transferred the medieval craft in a contemporary setting and adapted it to today's computer generation. The design based on the artist's 4096 Colours [CR: 359] artwork from 1974 contains 11,500 squares of glass in 72 colors carefully arranged to resemble pixels. On the other side, British artist Brian Clarke dedicated most of his career to painting glass, a medium that attracted him with its endurance and the ability to be recollected at any time in the future. His artworks are innovative and interactive as they morph and create irregular shapes through the interplay with the surrounding environment.
From its 9th century beginnings till today the art of glass painting has come a long way. Once reserved for religious objects and palaces, glass painting is now accessible to more-less anyone with a desire to learn and access to YouTube videos. Everything can be decorated, from custom made windows and glass doors to stained glass vases and tableware. But only those who learn how to utilize painting, architecture, and design and use every characteristic of the medium (from the glass' transparency and responsiveness to temperature fluctuations to its constant interplay with light and shadows), can create works of art that not only represent windows to the outside world but also passages into another dimension.
Editor's Tip : The Complete Guide to Glass Painting: Over 90 Techniques with 25 Original Projects and 400 Motifs
If we've inspired you to do a little glass painting of your own then make sure to read this book that contains all you need to know about the art of painting glass. Dazzling full-color photographs instruct and inspire as they present every step of this beautiful craft, from basic outlining to complex special effects. Etch, paint, create embossed effects, make mosaics, and more. The book contains 25 great ideas for original projects that range from simple to more advanced and include a backgammon set, jewelry box, sun catcher, and Christmas ornaments.
Featured images : Durban church window via thesouthafrica.com ; Sainte Chapel Stained glass Interior via wikipedia.org