Reverse Painting Wow!

Reverse, or glass painting, traditionally used glass as a support…..

……but now we can use any cheap and easily available see-through surface, such as Plexiglas. You paint in reverse, looking at the image through the other side of the glass. It is a method dating back to the Middle Ages, and can be seen in Byzantine iconic art, in Venetian Renaissance art, in Christian church art from the middle of the 18th century, and appears in examples of folk art from Austria, Bavaria, Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia.

This is now my favourite painting technique.

Why I like it

There is something about the technique, which is like working digitally.

You have the sense of layers, like in a program such as Photoshop, however what is produced is a hand-rendered piece of artwork. There is nothing digital about it at all. It is traditional as painting itself.

The reverse image construction is also very like printmaking. I find it easy to control, and the thought process that goes into the composition

feeds into the image. As you are approaching the painting backwards, starting with the highlights rather than the background, you cannot ‘wing it’ and touch it up at the end! Fixes have to co

And the very opportunity to see, and construct the w

ork backwards actually allows for certain objectivity. This can be very helpful when an artist is blocked, or afraid of failure, at whatever age. Again, rather like working digitally, the ease with which ‘mistakes’ can be wiped away, is perfect for experimenting, and takes away any fear of failure: you get many second chances and it is very hard to mess it up…

As an artist, I adore working with line. This technique this allows a calligraphic quality to dominate, for complex and sophisticated layered work.

Reverse painting is an excellent project for children’s workshops. Of course, the idea of painting in reverse is challenging, yet a lot of it is intuitive for many children. Visually, we learn to think of backgrounds first as we develop as painters, but that is a little counterintuitive: a child will naturally gravitate to the foreground, the subject of the piece. I have noticed too that the control the process gives children, allowing them to create an image that is clear and easy to read, provides a genuine sense surprise and accomplishment.

Husky (painted by a 5 year old)

It is possible too, without too much discipline, to produce clean bright colours, due to the separate, layered technique.

Finally, although it is ideal for studio work, working in plein air can be very exciting…as you work in reverse without any props…..

Video of a reverse glass painting

To see a reverse painting being completed watch this quick 30 second clip. The camera was below the glass as I worked.

Reverse Painting chez vous – what materials you will need

Plexiglas, acrylic Perspex – cut to size. All hardware shops sell this, 4 or 5 mm thick. It is best to get it cut in store if you have all the measurements (can be cut at home by scoring a line and snapping it at home if you are brave…. it can snap or splinter). Depending on the quality it is approx. 15€ per m2

Acrylic paints (You can use oils, take into account that they take longer to dry. Certain oils/pigments can also react to the Plexiglas. I have made a few paintings with oils (and some mixed media) but I quickly switched over to acrylic for ease, speed and predictability). 

Masking tape

Plain paper

Calligraphic pens

Old felt pens

Pencil/pen

Hairdryer

Kitchen towels

Cotton buds

Water

Step by step guide

  1. Take your Plexiglas cut to size and put it on the plain paper
  2. Draw around the Plexiglas to get the dimensions on the paper as a frame. Put the Plexiglas to one side
  3. Map out your drawing in reverse within the frame. In reverse is very important and key to everything. Not only is the image reversed but the order in which we work on the image is reversed too. For example the foreground/highlights are painted first, the last thing you will do is the background. Children paint like this naturally – and this is why they are excellent at this technique.If you are finding this reverse idea tricky, don’t worry, bear with me, all will become clear in the process

Top tip – most people will not know if you have forgotten to reverse your image unless there is writing, or it is a very obvious scene.But you will need to reverse any writing – if you find this difficult – go to a window and trace against it – using it as a light box.

Top tip – if you are shy of drawing, you can print out an image (in reverse!) to work from. No shame. The creativity will be in your brushwork.

 

  1. Remove the protective film from one side only of the Plexiglas, and leave the other side’s protective film on
  2. Place the Plexiglas back on the paper layout/plan protective film side down. It is really important that you are left with clean Plexiglas surface to work on and not the protective film! (I have has a few artists produce masterpieces on this film. (Salvageable, but not the aim. Painting on Clingfilm is possible as a poor man’s Plexiglas)
  3. Tape the Plexiglas to the paper so it doesn’t move as you work (as you would do with tracing paper)
  4. Decide colour and thickness for the outline. With children, I use old felt tip pens, dipping them in the ink. Adults may like to try a calligraphic pen.
  5. Mix up colour to ink like consistency. You can use Indian ink as well, but I like to make my own ‘ink’ from acrylic paint to get the right consistency. If you are using a made up solution, it is the right consistency when you can draw a line on the plastic and it is not too blobby and thick, nor too watery so it breaks up. I tend to use an off white, or a grey or pure black for this depending on the effect I am looking for. Of course you don’t have to use a line at all. This is up to you. But I like the clarity that the line creates and I like to make a feature of it – using different pen marks and calligraphic strokes. For me, the ability to use line like this is one of the reasons why I love the method so much
  6. Draw the outline, or pattern onto the Plexiglas. If you make a ‘mistake’, remove it with damp kitchen paper (for a large ‘mistake’) or a damp cotton bud for a more detailed mistake. Feel free to peel back the paper from time to time to see the image from the front. Looking at it the right way around, not back to front you will be able to quickly spot any mistakes or omissions. (And you might want to consider why this is!)
  7. Leave it to dry, still on the paper. Naturally this will take about 30 minutes, or with a hairdryer – 2-3 minutes
  8. Once it is dry, and there is a fixed outline, add your colour, texture, and form. At this point, students can begin to really “get” the process; the outline holds the image; the planning and thinking improves the composition. But sometimes you need to complete a whole painting to see how it works.
  9. Always work on the back of the Plexiglas (a common absent minded mistake at this point is to switch sides). Work highlights to background. For example if you are drawing a dog with black spots you need to paint the black spots first then add the white fur. If one object is in front of another you need to paint that object first. Experiment with brush stokes, scratching the paint away, and painting over with a different colour, etc. Keep flipping the Plexiglas around to see what it looks like from the front. This is fun. Most people are surprised by how good it looks…. When all objects in the foreground are complete, fill in the rest of the background. With the background, play with the paint make it as crazy as you like: not much will show through, the objects in the front will always be in the front…it is ok if you paint over your painting, from behind. The back of the acetate can look a mess while the front is a beautifully clear composition.
  10. Leave to dry face down, messy side up. You can speed up with a hairdryer only when it is dry, peel off the second protective layer. This is an exciting moment. The image will already have looked clear, yet the plastic dulls it a little, without us really realising. But by removing it, the image springs forward again, and is more vibrant, focussed, without any spots or paint splashes that will have inevitably appeared when painting. With children in particular we have fun at this stage hamming up the removal of the protective plastic with a dramatic flourish, to reveal a ‘professional’ image behind Perspex. Children love the idea that the back of the picture is a mess but the front is beautiful. I have sat through countless ‘jokes’ where the children say “mummy look what I did!” showing the wild strokes on the back, then flipping it around to show an accomplished painting.

Children’s workshops

I run reverse painting children’s workshops all through the school holidays in Chamonix.

Finshed work

This is particularly popular with  those children, for whom a whole day on the mountain is too much, too tiring and of course for passionate artists! Contact me here to find out more.