Reverse painting on cast glass: DIY imagery and opening up to a new technique

Can an artist be taken seriously if they paint a picture of their own pet? My friend and amazing glass artist Angela Thwaites says wisely “In the post-post-post-modern era you can busk doing a picture of your cat”. Or something like that.


Well, I choose to agree. My cat Sean, and several other subjects, became the first experiments into reverse glass painting. I was doing this work as part of my AA2A placement at Sunderland University in 2016/17. I’ve written about my project on Essex Crystals and the part this is playing in a new phase of creativity for me here.

For more about the ancient technique of reverse glass painting, I can recommend Frances Federer’s excellent little book Gold Leaf, Paint and Glass. I got a copy from my local library. It outlines the technique from an expert’s perspective, with lots of history alongside too. Basically, reverse glass painting involves creating an image (often gilded as well as painted) on one side of a glass sheet or vessel which is viewed from the other side by means of light reflected from the viewing side (as opposed to traditional stained glass which makes use of light transmitted through the glass rather than reflected off it.)

A page from my sketchbook

I’m no expert in this technique. I’m not even not-an-expert. But for me, this was about a process of exploration. Not just how to do something, what it might mean to mean creatively, and how it might add to my visual vocabulary. I have never painted before – well I have, but it has never been a significant part of my creative voice – and I struggled a bit to ignore the little voice in my head saying “This is ridiculous! You don’t paint!”.

My version of ‘Leda and the Swan’

I chose Sean, a sketch of Barbie and a big budgie that I’ve had in mind for ages as a version of the classical story Leda and the Swan, and a very rough copy of an existing Essex Crystal image of a swimmer that, as an enthusiastic wild swimmer, I felt drawn to. I reckoned that if I could paint these onto a flat surface, then I’d have a better chance with the trickier job of painting onto a relief surface.


I had a go with oil paint, but decided I would stick with enamels as I can fire them and then they stay put. I spent a long time sorting through my jumble of glass enamels and refiring samples to work out what was what (note to self not to let that get so messy in future). I stuck in the end with the Degussa Firing paint range (fires at 520-580 degrees celsius) as these have a wide range of colours and are mixable, so you can get an even wider palette. I mixed them with print medium to get a paint that I could work with. The problem with this low fire range is that when you come to paint into the reliefs you have to make sure your glass is hard enough so that it won’t soften and lose relief. For one of my tests I used Gaffer glass which is very soft. I just about got away with it by firing as low in the range as I could. I drew the image onto the glass with permanent marker and painted one layer at a time. I tried to visualise the image as four separate colour layers from light to dark. It’s a bit of a trick to mix ginger! Any highlights went on first, like the white spots in the eyes and the whiskers. I made at least four separate layers and firings – and in some cases more. And I backed the final picture with white to make the colours pop.

To begin with I was hiding these images from other students and artists, but halfway through the process I realised that something was working for me. The strangeness of the images made me much more comfortable with the process. This is not just a sentimental picture of my cat. Although it became more so when the little chap was run over just as I finished the flat glass painting of him. I still miss him terribly, though the process of immortalising him in glass and paint has added a strangely Victorian feel to the whole process. Anyway, what I liked about the painting is that having used borrowed imagery and objects a lot – photo collages made into enamel transfers – I found that there was a certain amount of freedom that comes with making your own. Borrowed imagery pushes you off your well worn paths, making you make connections that you then try to tie together visually in the finished piece. Or not. But to use my own imagery means that I don’t have to wait until I find something that appeals. It feels free-er. And what’s to stop me using both? This could be something to take into the next phase….


Having tried flat glass, I then had a go at the same process of reverse painting into reliefs that I have made by modelling two and a half dimensional images in glass and then making a cast of them. This was altogether trickier – you can’t use a guide on the front because anything you draw onto the surface as a guide is distorted visually when viewed from the front. If I have my time again I would make the reliefs deeper – more three-dimensional – and the optics more domed to increase the animation of the piece. But for now, it was enough of a challenge to paint into a relief.

I then ground the face of the glass into a dome and polished it up to create some optical three-dimensionality. I’m going to post some pictures of the finished piece, ‘Sean’ which I’ve submitted for the Contemporary Glass Society’s ‘Celebrations’ Exhibition at the International Festival of Glass 2017.

Finishing off with some stitched goldwork on an embroidery frame

I’m interested to know from you: Have you tried a process that felt like it wasn’t yours, and then it turned out that it really had a lot that you could use? How do you feel about using borrowed images or your own?

6 Replies to “Reverse painting on cast glass: DIY imagery and opening up to a new technique”

  1. Really lovely having insight into your process on this project. When I first started painting in reverse on glass I couldn’t even find the glass, now I’m wondering where I’d go if I wanted to make it 3D …


    1. Well, happy to share my tips, but I’m a novice too… I’ll try and record a bit more of the modelling/casting process next time. I’ll also post a pic of my ‘swimmer’, which uses fused glass and is a bit of a half way house in terms of going 3D. Melanie, do share a link to your lovely website..


      1. We are all novices really. What excites me about your work is that when I was first told about ‘Essex glass’ (carved/etched, reverse painted jewellery) and tried to research it, I found so little information as to make it into an antique curiousity. Even if you don’t keep with this work forever, it feels like you’re breathing new life into a lost tradition. And the fact your work might end up going in a different direction from what you first expected only makes it more interesting to me. My own reverse oils on glass work certainly took me by surprise and still keeps me guessing. It’s one of the reasons I like following your work, it indulges my curiousity and enthusiasm without the obligation to actually make anything – 2D glass is more than enough for me just now 😉

        And thank you for calling my website ‘lovely.’ After many months of redoing it myself that has made my day! It’s at I’m feeling inspired so I might even go and add in another blog post soon. Maybe one about how slowly oil paint dries – I promise that you are working much faster with enamels!


  2. Thanks again Melanie for your thoughtful comments. Yes, we are all novices, indeed. I love the imaginary worlds you have created in your paintings. I’m really interested in how small spaces can be imaginatively huge…


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