Seeing It Through: Richard Lee


For over 50 years Richard Lee has been perfecting the art of painting on panes of glass. It is a rare and challenging medium and style, where every brush stroke must be planned not only in advance, but also in reverse.

“It is the total opposite of traditional painting. You start with the gleam in the eye and then you paint in the black part and the white and so on. It is quite backwards,” Mr. Lee explains. “You paint the details first, then the background.”

Mr. Lee became enchanted with reverse painting in the mid-1950’s and first dabbled in painting on glass when he created a birthday card for a friend. Without paper, but possessing paint, he used what was on hand: an old piece of glass in a picture frame.

“I was immediately taken with it. It is a process that comes from the inside out. It is a wonderful learning curve in patience and foresight, and in the end, acceptance, because you can’t change it,” he said.Since that first birthday greeting, Mr. Lee estimates he has completed over 500 works on glass, and has no plans to slow down.

This summer he is expanding his gallery space from his small gallery off Main Street in Vineyard Haven, and moving next door to the space previously occupied by Che’s Lounge. Resplendent with a fresh coat of blue paint, the former café now boosts dozens of Mr. Lee’s vibrant works, which the artist eagerly discussed as, barefoot, he strolled the hardwood floors of his new gallery.

The walls are filled with Mr. Lee’s whimsical, colorful work. The images are heavily influenced by mythology and nature. Asked to describe his style, the artist appears thoughtful, then replies simply, “Charming,” and adds, “There are a lot of adjectives, depending on people’s backgrounds, point of views, and inhibitions.”

Indeed, nature and whimsy are his dominant themes. Painted on a trapezoidal boat window, small woodland creatures play water polo, and in his piece, “Who ordered the starfish?” a befuddled-looking waiter offers a plate of starfish to two hungry fish. Cherubic babies with detailed rose-blossom heads are another of his favorite subjects.

“I am addicted to zoomorphic forms,” Mr. Lee said of his work and of his style, “I love beauty and humor. And when you combine beauty and humor, you can get away with almost anything that would normally offend someone. It’s a beguiling trick.”

Painting on glass is a demanding medium. All of Mr. Lee’s pieces are done on antique glass, most of them well over 100-years old and the majority of the material comes from the Island itself. Several of his pieces are done on framed mirrors, one dating back to 1813 that was found in Frank Fenner’s attic. Every pane of glass has its own character, some are wavy, and others have imperfections like bubbles and whirls.

Having learned the art of restoration while working for a furniture restorer in Beverly Hills, Calif., his painted and restored frames are as much a part of the art as the paintings themselves.

Each painting starts with a drawing done on sheets of vellum. Next, the drawing is carefully traced onto the glass using a quill and a special type of ink, called Cel-Vinyl, used in animation drawing. This is the most challenging part of the process, and is where the particular characteristics of glass come into play.

“There is quite a bit of tension in drawing on the glass; it’s like drawing on ice,” the artist says.

Once the outlines have been drawn, Mr. Lee uses casein paint, a special type of paint made with whey, which bonds with the glass. He uses vibrant, rich colors: tropical oranges, deep reds, ocean blues, and other bright colors, often set against deep, abyssal black backgrounds, a traditional favorite color used in historic glass paintings in Bavaria. The mixing of the paint is a skill-set developed through years of experimentation.

“If the paint is too thick it will come off,” Mr. Lee says, “Too thin and it becomes see-through.”

Perfecting the consistency of the paint also allows Mr. Lee to create images that are fluid. His works have a liquid quality, with all the colors and details appearing solid and uniform. He also uses goldleaf and other metallic paints in much of his work, giving the pieces a glimmering, three-dimensional quality, as the details appear to rise out of the glass. And like many painters, he has his periods and categories.

“For four years I painted nothing but blue pictures. Blue is America’s favorite color, and I claim people in New England can’t take more than one color at a time,” the artist said with a characteristic grin.

On August 15, from 6 to 8 pm, 36 Main Street, Vineyard Haven, the new, expanded Richard Lee Gallery will host a reception of new work.