Painting with light

The effect of stained glass is so simple, yet so magical. It’s daylight! But coloured! Even if you don’t have an access to traditional materials, there are several easy ways to recreate the trick of the light. Nature does it’s best of course, with the dappled sunlight of a forest clearing, the golden edge of a backlit cloud and the renewing miracle of the rainbow. Without getting too technical or scientific, rainbows are caused by raindrops breaking light up into its spectrum of colours, each colour a different wavelength.

stained glass

Coloured glass act as a filter, allowing only certain wavelengths or colours of light to pass through it to your eye. Colour in light behaves differently from colour on the page. Light’s primary colours are red, blue and green instead of red, blue and yellow. And when you mix them all together you get ‘white’, or clear light – not black.

Witley Court (116)

Although it is often argued that the craft of stained glass reached its zenith in the magnificent rose windows of medieval cathedrals, there are more recent examples to rival those achievements. The glasswork of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, the Wiener Werkst├Ątte in Austria and Louis Tiffany in America revived the art in the late 19th century, and contemporary stained glass exploits new technology to continue our fascination with light’s magical properties.

Tiffany glass

Leaded glass, as used in stained glass windows, is simply glass edged in metal so that it can be joined by solder to its neighbouring piece of the pattern. Once you’ve mastered the skills of cutting intricate shapes out of glass, it’s a technically simple craft, and one increasingly available to study.

contemporary stained glass

Stained glass is stained in the furnace, but you can imitate the effect on cold glass with glass paints, widely available in toy and craft shops. The ‘lead’ is acrylic and you pipe it from a tube, so you don’t have to cut any glass. Although glass painting makes possible shapes and lines that you couldn’t achieve by cutting glass sections, for the purist it lacks the rich depth of colour which real stained glass possesses.


If you don’t have access to classes, teachers or even glass, it’s still possible to play with coloured light in other ways. Theatre lights are coloured with ‘lighting gel’ – no longer actual gelatine as in the 19th century, but large sheets of flexible, flameproof plastic which can be cut to size with scissors or a craft knife. Its resistance to heat makes this medium ideal if you are planning to use artificial sources of light. Get hold of a swatch or sample book, and you’ll be amazed at the hundreds of tints and shades which are available.


A narrower but more readily available choice of colours is available as coloured cellophane, everywhere from florists and craft suppliers to your favourite selection of chocolates. The latter obviously come in rather small squares, but having to eat chocolate in order to acquire your craft material has its compensations.

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