Reverse Glass Painting, an Amost Lost Great Art
by Manfried StarhembergFor the past thirty years I have restored clocks as a hobby. Many of the early high class clocks had reverse glass tablets incorporated in the case. For almost 250 years, these tablets were hand painted by master craftsmen. In order to make mass production work, a lot of the clock companies had five or six scenes which were templated and repeated by the painters. However, some of the more upscale clock companies would offer their customers options such as painting in their house, a wedding scene, a civil war battle site memorial, or their favorite horse. Eventually the art of lithography took over and the latest implementation of "reverse glass" panels comes in the form of decals available from a number of clock parts mail order houses.
So what is the big deal about painting a scene on glass? Well, you have to completely reverse every painting technique you have ever learned. The thing in the front is the first thing you paint: thus, if you do a face, you start with the tip of the nose; if you do a landscape, it is what is right in front of your feet, be it grass, a flower, a meadow--your feet, even. Then you work backwards: the meadow acquires a house, behind the house are hills or a vineyard. You forgot the tree in front of the house? Too late unless you wash everything out again. If I do a basic landscape panel I might start with water in the front. If I wish to have a boat in the water, the boat gets painted first, then the water comes second. Then I might add trees on the seashore, followed by buildings, which of course are behind the trees, and then maybe another hillside. But if the hillside has trees or structures or a vineyard, etc., that has to be painted first. The last thing you paint is the mountains in the distance and, finally, the sky.
The tricky part is preparing the glass. I wash every pane with soap and water (no Windex) and dry it carefully. Then I set the piece on a clean sheet of poster board, suspended on all four corners with rubber erasers. This allows me to slide a mirror under the painting to see if I have missed a perspective or bled my paint into a forward part which will impede the progression of front-to-rear work. I use acrylic paint and after every small piece, such as the lake in the front, I paint a neutral grey over it to fix that part of the painting. Often I varnish this section before I go on further because acrylics are water soluble and I want to make sure to build my painting one little piece at a time. I use water soluble varnish for this.
After you have done the sky, the piece should be finished. I now check for voids in the paint which are highly visible when held up to the light, touch up as needed, and then apply one last coat of grey and a good spray of varnish. (I use the canned variety as it will not create unwanted brush strokes which may disturb the acrylics.)
Voila, you are done. Let it dry and polish the front part of the glass before mounting the piece.
Right now I have about a dozen tablets painted to standard clock dimensions, each selling for about $450. But the best part is when I get work from museums. I recently did a Jauncey Jerome clock panel similar to the one pictured here for a museum in Texas:
The mainstay of my work however is private collectors who often only want old tablets touched up because parts of the original painting has worn off. I have also been asked by some auction houses such as Christie's to authenticate reverse glass panels on clocks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I try to refer those appraisals to my betters because I do not have the facility to study pigmentation or varnish composition in what I refer to as my "lab," and Nancy calls "kitchen."
My greatest pleasure however is the creation of original clocks of my own design, using vintage movements, my own woodworking skills, and of course reverse glass accents.
I have tried hard to get art schools interested in the art of reverse glass paintings but thus far have not received a single letter of interest, even after I offered free classes at my own expense. This saddens me, as this beautiful craft is becoming extinct.