Friday, 18 May 2012

Elephant No. 229: Reverse Painting on Glass

Several years ago, my husband bought three reverse glass paintings produced in the late nineteenth century. They're incredibly detailed, and have a luminosity you don't quite get with paintings on canvas. Although I'm nowhere near being in the same league as a painter or artist, I thought I'd try reverse painting on glass for today's elephant.

The main thing to consider when producing this kind of painting is obviously that you're working on the final details first, then working backwards to the larger blocks of colour and, finally, the background. The completed image is then viewed from the non-painted side of the glass. Sometimes gilding is added to provide greater glow and depth.

Reverse glass painting has been produced for centuries. During the Middle Ages, religious works and icons were reverse-painted. The technique later spread to Italy, where it influenced Renaissance art. In the middle of the eighteenth century, reverse glass painting was used for works of art, but more commonly for painting clock faces and other forms of decorative work.

Reverse painting on glass of Krishna from Tanjore, India,
early 20th century.

During the nineteenth century, glass painting was a popular folk art in Central Europe, but would decline and virtually disappear between the two World Wars. The original techniques and materials more or less had to be reinvented during the post-war period, and it wasn't until the 1990s that reverse glass painting enjoyed a true resurgence.

Today, reverse glass painting can be either realistic or abstract. For realistic works, planning is important, as it is impossible to correct mistakes if, for example, the iris of an eye is added before the pupil. It remains an important technique for religious icons in Eastern Europe, and is particularly popular in India, where bright colours and large quantities of gold are the norm.

The most commonly used type of paint today is acrylic. I have a set of glass acrylics I used for the glass vase I painted, but I think I'll use regular acrylics for today's elephant.

Because I wanted to try something relatively realistic, I decided to work from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose: 

African elephant.
Photo: Gary M. Stolz

I thought the greenery in the foreground might make for an interesting challenge. On the other hand, there was also a possibility that I was biting off more than I could chew.

I bought a cheap picture frame with glass (rather than plexiglass). To prepare the surface for painting, I washed it carefully and wiped it down with vinegar to remove any finger oils. I then dried the painting surface with newspaper to keep from adding too much dust.

I started by doing the greenery that sits in front of the elephant.

Next, I did a very tentative outline of the elephant, using a light grey. At this point, it starts to get tricky, because you have to think about what overlaps what, and which colours you actually want to use. I suppose I could have done a fine outline of everything in black and then sort of coloured it in, but I didn't really want to go that route.

I added the tusks next, as those seemed to be the only things that really lay over top of the grey parts of the elephant. Then, just to give me a better idea of where some of the blocks of colour would be, I added a few heavy strokes of various greys and beiges.

I was feeling a bit more confident now, but I realized that I'd made a bit of a mistake with my earlier brushstrokes. Although it's hard to flip this over and look at what's going on on the other side, I sort of peered at it, and saw that the early streaky strokes didn't look great. So, for the rest of this, I was fairly bold and heavy-handed.

After the elephant was more or less done, I filled in the background with various shades of green, and bits of purple, yellow, blue and brown.

This is what the reverse looked like when I was done.

And this is what it looked like flipped around.

About halfway through the process, I had decided that I'd paint over the entire background in gold, so I didn't worry too much about gaps in the painting above, and actually left a few clear areas in the elephant on purpose. One important thing to remember is that the painting should be very dry before you slather on a background colour, or the fresh paint will reactivate the previous layers and cause them to peel away.

A few tips if you decide to try this:

1. Remember that you're working backwards, and that you can't really go over things you don't like. You can, however, gently remove areas that displease you, as long as you're willing to layer them back in again.

2. That being said, don't be tentative when you add your colour. This type of thing looks a lot better if the paint is laid on thickly, without a lot of streaks.

3. Make sure each layer is dry before you add another, unless you intend to blend colours as you go, in which case you'll need to work quickly.

4. Plain acrylic paint is fine, and doesn't really need any additives to adhere well.

5. You can draw something in grease pencil on the non-painting side if you like, or use a drawing on a piece of paper underneath, bearing in mind that the final design will be reversed.

6. Work straight on, rather than at an angle. This will help you avoid too much visual distortion from the thickness of the glass and light refraction. Also, try to work without too much light bouncing off the surface of the glass. Reflected light can be incredibly disorienting until the paint starts dulling the surface.

7. If you add a background colour as I did, make sure the other layers are dry. Use a hairdryer to speed this up if you like. On the other hand, these kinds of paintings also look very interesting if there are clear areas with no paint at all.

8. The painted surface is always going to be relatively delicate, so it's a good idea to seal it, or frame it as soon as it's dry. If you decide to frame it, it's not a bad idea to use either a translucent backing like plexiglass—or even no backing—to allow light to shine through.

This first attempt at reverse painting on glass is by no means perfect. I would definitely apply the paint more thickly next time, and might even use a drawing to guide me. But I'm fairly happy with the final result, despite its flaws—and it only took about 90 minutes, so I'll definitely try this again sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In May 2011, tornadoes devastated the city of Joplin, Missouri. More than 140 people were killed, and wide swathes of the city were flattened.

Enter a couple of circus elephants. The Piccadilly Circus had been scheduled to perform in the local arena, but when disaster struck, the arena became a makeshift hospital. Rather than take the day off, circus staff brought their elephants to help remove heavy debris.

As one elephant effortlessly dragged cars out of a mountain of rubble, bystanders had a number of opinions about the activity. Some felt that it was exploiting the animals. Others feared that the elephants might "freak out" and run amok. Others thought the animals must be scared to walk through such chaos.

Most people were appreciative, however. Debris-removal crews in Joplin were stretched to their limits, and the ability of elephants to move large items quickly and effectively brought a smile to many faces. Nor did the elephants seem to mind. In one instance, an elephant dragged away a large station wagon so quickly that staff had to slow her down.

On the other hand, who knows what goes through a elephant's mind when faced with the mysterious requests of humans.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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