Painting with light

Paul Hughes explains the art and craft of stained glass.


I’ve drawn in pencil, charcoal, and inks; painted with watercolors, acrylics, and oils; created woodcut and linoleum block prints; sculpted in plaster and with found objects; and worked with cameras of all sorts. What I’ve never done, but have been curious about for decades, is stained glass, which began to flourish in European churches and cathedrals during the 12th and 13th centuries. Stained glass evolved from mosaics, which are composed of separate ceramic and/or glass pieces embedded in a solid surface.

Stained glass is magical. While securely soldered into place so that the individual pieces work as a solid whole, the ever-changing light creates a dynamic form of art. It turns out, all colored glass is “stained,” or colored, by the addition of various metallic oxides while it is in a molten state. But how are those luminous, contoured compositions made? Fortunately, Island artist Paul Hughes spent a recent morning unveiling the process.

We began in his studio, where he had a few pieces in progress. Looking at line drawings of floral patterns, I saw individual pieces of glass resembling petals and leaves lying on top of 11- by 17-inch clear sheets of glass, under which was the sketched design on graph paper. The pieces in the works fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Hughes’ inspiration comes from his imagination, unless someone has commissioned a specific subject matter.

For the cutting process, he explains that originally the pattern is cut up and each section glued onto a larger piece of glass. To create the shape, Hughes first scores around the edges with a glass cutter. You then take a breaking plier, which when you clamp down over the scored line snaps the glass off along it.

Hughes then grinds along the edges to make them a little rough, because the next step is to put copper foil along them like a piece of tape, and it won’t stick to a smooth edge. You wrap it around the entire piece of glass. This “foil method” is the one used with the famous Tiffany lamps.

Once all the pieces have been cut, ground, and the foil applied, you brush the copper with flux, which will help the solder flow between the copper-taped pieces. You join them together using a soldering iron, which is shaped like a large pen or pencil with a pointy tip. Solder is a mixture of tin and lead. When you use the iron, it melts the solder, which runs along the foil tape so that the individual pieces fuse to one another, eventually creating a single work. Afterward, you patina the solder, which can be silver, copper, or black. The resulting defining “lines” become integral to the overall composition, rather than receding into the background. Hughes then frames the piece with channeled metal strips called came.

Astonishingly, Hughes tells me that he can, depending on the size and complexity of the design, cut, grind, foil, and solder it all in a day — although for larger works he may break it up for a few hours over the course of three days or so.

After describing the process, Hughes showed me an assortment of his luminous work. Among the hanging works is “East Chop Lighthouse,” one of the first pieces he created. The colors and light help define the blue sky with white clouds, green grass foreground, and robust bushes in the distance. There’s a stunning work with a tree inspired by Norse mythology and referred to as the “World Tree.” The leaves are sea glass, and there is negative space that has no glass, thus allowing what is behind it to become part of the composition, which includes a colorful geometric frame.

Among his work are two stained glass sunflowers sprouting in a real pot, and then four distinct and multicolored freestanding birds perched on real tree stumps and branches. One mesmerizing hanging work completely constructed with clear glass holds in place shallow glass bowls with embedded designs that splinter the light, and whatever you see behind them, in a captivating manner.

In fact, that’s the real magic of stained glass. It’s not just the color that affects the work, but the glass’s transparency, texture, or design can refract, obscure, or fragment the light, creating art that is like no other.

For more information about stained glass see Paul Hughes can be reached at 508-693-0138.