The Illumination Window: The Making

In the last blog in the series, artist Mel Howse describes the process of making our newest cathedral addition.

Over a period of 25 years my skills as a designer and maker have evolved into taking on some large-scale projects. I was fortunate to have had commissions coming in on graduation as a student, and my experience of transposing drawn designs to full-scale glasswork has grown along with my portfolio. I am not daunted in this respect by scale, in fact, I relish it, and the development of commissions that take years to unfold is all part of the territory. My focus as an artist is in creating unique pieces of work, that explore the opportunities afforded by my medium, keeping it relevant to our era.

Key facts about The Illumination Window

  • The journey from scale painting, to full size cartoon, through all glass processes started 2016 and has spanned over 3 years.
  • There are 64 rectangular glass plates in the four main lights, plus a similar number shaped in the lancets and tracery.   This is very few traditionally for a window of this size.
  • It is an intuitive work in a field of colour, using white as a continuous structure rather than black-leading as traditional in stained glass.
  • The Illumination Window is approximately 26 square metres of artwork in glass worked by one artist.
Photographer: Joe Cornish

Hand made glass – hand blown sheet glass

As a glass artist much of my last decade has been about the use of toughened glass and more modern glazing technologies.  So coming back to my roots for the Illumination Window has therefore been an interesting and rewarding journey.  And no less expansive as I bring my extended ideas back to its hand-made surface.

When I was a student at Swansea we were blessed with full racks of hand-made English glass blown by Hartley Woods of Sunderland. Beautiful heavy bodied sheets of coloured glass used for making stained glass. I look back on this now realising we had no idea how blessed we were. With Hartley Woods’ closure in the late ’90’s, the glass from this Victorian-era company become a rarer and more precious commodity.

Photographer: Joe Cornish

The type of glass I have used in the Illumination Window is called ‘flashed glass’. This is a sheet where the body of the glass is one colour, with other colours blown in layers onto the top. It is made in Germany by LambertsGlass, a firm similarly steeped in tradition from the early 20th Century but still thriving.

My choice of starting glass colour may not necessarily be of itself obviously and directly related to the end result, but rather chosen for its eventual effect when combined with processes yet to come. However it forms an important base for the interpretation of the design, potentially allowing more than one shade or colour within each piece of glass.

The Illumination Window uses a number of techniques, all working together to translate the design, but I will describe a few of them below.

1. Acid etching – a process in reverse

There are many traditional techniques for stained glass that have been adapted and expanded to fulfil the needs of contemporary architectural design.

Acid etching is a beautiful, if not somewhat hazardous, example of this wonderful progression. This is a technique used with hand-blown flashed glass to exciting effect, creating flowing, watercolour-like textures.  It is ‘in’ the glass not ‘on’ the glass.

It is a technique worked in reverse – backwards – a matter of subtraction and not addition. It is what you are removing from the surface that is forming the translation of your design. Surface textures, and wild patterns can also play a part as you work.

This is not a technique for the feint-hearted, and must be carried out with conviction and all one’s attention, but this makes it an exciting and tactile tool. I’ve been working with this technique for many years and it never fails to excite and deliver fantastic responses in the glass. 

2. Silver stain – alchemy at work

Silver stain is a fascinating mercurial and alchemic process. When the stain is fired in contact with the glass, it turns the surface a shade of gold or yellow. It is a substance that starts life as a muddy muck, turning to vibrant gold when fired. There are records of the process dating from 600AD in Egypt, and certainly it was used by medieval craftsman.

I have always loved this intense chemical reaction. From the tiny brushed marks in medieval windows where the stain is used sparingly, to the most powerful surge of yellow in my J Sainsbury’s facade on CMK (silver stain gone wild). The former sees silver stain applied by the thimble-full, whereas at CMK I used it by the bucket-load.

This is another process worked backwards when you are expanding on your design applied to the back of the glass.

Photographer: Joe Cornish

3. Enamelling – colour light air

Enamels are an applied process (thank goodness I hear you cry, not another thing worked in reverse), often described as a ‘dark art’ by craft workers. Working the colours must be mastered, especially when layered with other techniques. It is a traditional technique applied by brush to glass, but today it has been harnessed by progressive industrial processed that have made it a versatile working tool for glass, and other mediums, at all scales and in many ways.
The use of enamels is an important development, and one might argue this is no longer stained glass in the traditional sense.

It is potentially painterly, expressive, and also fired into the body of the glass – all beautiful effects. This expression is a freedom that leaded lights cannot give you.

Colour, light,and air, a gesture that allows the painter to come to the fore, expanding on the compositional qualities of ones design. The opportunities of depth and texture can be explored further.

Written by Mel Howse, 2019

Have you been to see The Illumination Window yet?
What does its design make you feel?
What are your opinions on the window in comparison to more traditional stained glass pieces?

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