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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Reverse Glass Painting

Rainforest Parrot tropical wall sconce, Floravita
In commenting on the famous motion picture dance couple, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, some wit once noted that, "Ginger did everything that Fred did, only backward and wearing high heels." Imagine having spent dozens of years learning to paint, then deciding to try a new medium only to find that everything you did before now had to be done backwards (the high heels being optional). That's largely the situation for any artist who decides to take up reverse glass painting. As one artist explained:

"It was not an easy task, it took 6 months before I could think backwards, learn to write backwards, as everything had to be in reverse order. The light in the eye had to go in before the pupil, then the pupil before the white, the white before the eye itself. Don’t forget the eyelashes had to be put as to look as if they are in front of it all. Mistakes are not al-lowed, everything must be perfect from start to finish, or start again. You then see the difficulty in building a picture in this manner; [it is] not easy. Continue until you complete your figure, then the background reversing the clouds so they are in front of the blue sky, also shading is in the op-posite side. At times I thought I would never master it. But I stuck at it, and I have now introduced new techniques and different types of paint, different types of glass and many other ways of getting the best from this type of art."     --C. Dowson
Indian Winter, C. Dowson
Captain Joseph Huddart, Chinese
reverse glass painting, c. 1785-89
Just to be clear, I'm not talking about painting on glass but painting behind glass (reverse) so that the image is seen through the glass. Painting on glass no doubt goes back a couple thousand years. Reverse glass painting likely not more than a few hundred, developed probably as a means of protecting the image, though today such work is more of a novelty than having much in the way of aesthetic or practical value. We do know that during the 17th century reverse glass paintings became popular for land-scapes, genre-paintings, portraits, etc. It was also customary to copy work of famous masters. In the 18th century several English painters produced reverse glass paintings for peep shows. Some of them are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The portrait of Captain Joseph Huddart (left) might indicate that the art of reverse glass painting may have come to 18th-century England from China.
Two different artists paint largely the same scene.
Art Deco reverse hand painted glass in a
French Rococo style with natural dried
flowers forming a background.
It's not likely that any one country had a monopoly on reverse glass painting. Besides China and England, it can be found in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, and somewhat later, in the United States. Reverse glass paint-ings of famous American landmarks, such as the U.S. Capitol (above), quite frequently pop up on Internet auction sites. As seen above, two different artists have painted largely the same scene, which suggests there may have been at least one reverse glass painting "factory" in the U.S. around 1900. I vaguely recall my grandparents having a similar piece. These two are on beveled glass, which accounts for a certain degree of optical distortion, but not the fact that one painter was obviously much more adept than the other.

George Huszar continues a long tradition of painting
eastern European icons on the back of glass. 
George Huszar (above) uses traditional oil paints for his Eastern Orthodox icons. Inasmuch as there is no absorbency to glass my experience has been that drying times are somewhat prolonged. My own experience in painting on glass has been limited to having once restored an antique sign painted on the front of a mirror. I believe I used hardware-bought enamel, though in painting on the back of glass, I see no reason acrylic paints couldn't be used so long as the artist was careful as to their tendency to want to peel away from the glass when dry. Portrait artist, Wayne Pearson (below) uses fired enamels much like those used by artists in creating painted ceramics.

Regardless of the type of paint used, the rules remain the same--details first, general areas last.
Wayne Pearson's background stems from glass making. He claims he could not create these paintings in any medium other than fired enamels. His aim is to use gestures, technique, and the portrait traditions as a means of broadening glassmaking into painting. His choice of glass is not arbitrary nor an attempt to be controversial. It is an evolution of technique in the production of the portraits. His work is collaboration between the sitters, the material, and the artist. Portraits painted on glass lend themselves to many different styles, techniques, not to mention media. The Art Deco portrait by Ruben Vargas (below) with its flat, rather unmodulated hues, is reminiscent of stained glass images from that era, though in this case the artist has availed himself of the structural freedom reverse glass painting allows.

Ruben Vargas, Art Deco reverse glass painting.
Untitled, Regina Reim,
reverse glass painting, 21st century
Modern variations can be found as new materials become available to artisans. Reverse glass painting is taught today at a university level alongside painting on celluloid, a popular technique in the animation industry. In this fine art, produced in the 21st century, artists create Mandalas and abstracts using metallic and iridescent paints as well as reverse painted on Plexiglas, which produces a similar gilded effect. Regina Reim's Untitled abstract is quite typical of the experimental work being done on trans-parent surfaces today. These draw an interesting connection between the old world spiritual subject matter and modernist abstract techniques. Like traditional verre églomisé, (French for gilded glass) proper direct lighting is essential to produce the artist's in-tended effect.


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