Glass engraving. Modern development opportunities

Report at a conference at the Museum of Glass. Elagin Island, Saint Petersburg, Russia. 
Эта же статья на Русском →

Музей стекла на Елагином острове

We really like this definition of glass engraving by Simon Whistler – “My own analogy for glass is to imagine that it is actually made of light; light is sandwiched between two polished sides. Scratch the surface and light comes out at that point. The task of the engraver is to find and release the light in a way that best expresses his ideas.

Thus, a deliberate violation of the integrity of the polished glass surface is engraving. There are various methods of creating an image, each of which can be attributed to the concept of “glass engraving technique”.

History of glass engraving

The ancient world

Initially, back in ancient Rome and the medieval Islamic world, there was a technique for decorating glass with a diamond.

These were scratches and dots on the surface, a little later the technique of engraving on a machine with stone and copper circles appeared.

Rome 3rd century
Сирия или Ирак 8 – 9 век;
Syria or Iraq 8th - 9th century
Римские сосуды
Roman vessels

Holland XVII century

Diamond point engraving reached its peak in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Today, other hard materials such as tungsten carbide are used instead of diamonds.
Голландский кубок Аарта Шумана 1743г.
Dutch Aart Schumann Cup 1743
Гравированный Голландский кубок Аарта Шумана 1743г.
Dutch Art Schumann Cup 1743 (fragment)

A very hard, very sharp object, diamond or tungsten carbide, pokes tiny dots on the surface of the glass that are used to form the pattern. The closer the dots, the whiter the surface. Changing the density of the dots creates a range of tints, from the black of intact glass to the white of a carefully engraved area, the image is formed using light that hits the glass where the surface is punctured. 

The resulting engraving has a delicate, ethereal quality that cannot be produced by any other engraving method. To look as effective as possible, such an engraving must be properly lit.

XX century. The Revival of Glass Engraving

Гравировка на стекле в церкви Святого Николая в Мортоне
Engraved windows in the Church of St. Nicholas in Morton

The pinnacle of works performed in this technique, in our opinion, are undoubtedly the windows in the Church of St. Nicholas in Morton, performed by Sir Lawrence Whistler

He single-handedly revived the tradition of point engraving in the 20th century, a sophisticated technique popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. His simultaneous use of linear engraving and bit-painting techniques on both sides of flat glass was a great innovation, creating the illusion of perspective in his portrayal of English landscapes.

Sir Lawrence Whistler (1912 – 2002), St. Nicholas Church in Morton.

St. Nicholas Church in Morton, a few miles east of Dorchester, was bombed during World War II. After the war, it was rebuilt, the windows were glazed with simple glass, and for thirty years Whistler engraved them. 

The effect is amazing. During the day, the beautiful countryside is visible through the engravings. The images on the glass mix with the real world behind the glass and become a part of it.

When the lighting changes, the impression of the work changes, at night the engravings are perfectly visible against a dark background.

Церковь Святого Николая в Мортоне. Гравировка на оконном стекле
St. Nicholas Church in Morton. Engraving on the window glass

The Thirteenth Apprentice

And here is the Thirteenth Apprentice window, designed in 1987. 

It depicts Judas Iscariot at the moment when he hanged himself in repentance for betraying Jesus. His 30 silver coins flow through his fingers to the ground. Sir Lawrence Whistler, called it “the window of forgiveness” and showed how silver coins turn into flowers before they touched the ground.

The engraving of the figure of Judas and the landscape depicted on the glass are so transparent that they absorb the surrounding world and its reflections in the glass, creating the impression of the reality of the unreal. Mirage – visions from the past.

The window was installed in 2013, after the death of the artist.

Traditional glass engraving method

Engraving on the machine

The most traditional method of glass engraving – on a machine, also dates back several centuries and is still used by many artists around the world. The basic principle is that the product is in the hands of the master, and he brings it from below, from the side, at an angle to the cutting tool (a copper circle with a suspension of abrasive powder or a circle with a diamond layer).
Гравировка стекла на станке
Engraving on the machine
However, having devoted yourself to this method of engraving, you must be prepared in advance for the great difficulties of mastering it.

It is very difficult to reach a level where the technical side of the skill of work allows the maximum fulfillment of everything conceived by the author, it is only possible to achieve this through many years of practice. 

At the same time, when using the techniques of traditional engraving on a machine, there are a number of restrictions that the author has to reckon with when considering the next work. First of all, this is the weight and size of the object to be worked on.

Engraving on large planes

Джон Хаттон. Гравировка на стекле
John Hutton. Glass engraving

Engraving with a flexible shaft motor avoids the size and weight problems of the work piece in many ways. I would like to specially note that the engraving method, when the cutting tool is in the artist’s hand, is much easier to master than the traditional one on the machine.

In fact, the pioneer of this method of glass engraving was back in 1953, by the English artist John Hutton. He developed an engraving method using a grinding wheel attached to a flexible drive. For that time, it was an absolutely unique approach to working with glass, which allowed him to solve problems that were impossible in any other way.

He used it to work on the glass “Screen of Saints and Angels” in the west window of the Coventry Cathedral in Great Britain, recreated after World War II. 

A giant screen – a window, measuring 21.5 – 19 meters, separates the new modern cathedral and the memorial in the form of the preserved remains of the old cathedral of St. Michael.
They are left as a reminder of suffering and forgiveness. And John Hutton’s Angels trumpet in their background!

It took him 10 years to engrave sixty-six figures!

«Экран святых и ангелов». Джон Хаттон. Ковентри Собор в Великобритании
"The Screen of Saints and Angels". John Hutton. Coventry Cathedral in the United Kingdom
Фрагмент «Экрана святых и ангелов». Джон Хаттон. Ковентри Собор в Великобритании.
A fragment of the "Screen of Saints and Angels". John Hutton. Coventry Cathedral in the UK.
Ангел Хаттона
A fragment of an engraving on glass in Coventry Cathedral in the UK. "The Screen of Saints and Angels". John Hutton.

The figures of Angels are much larger than human growth due to the sketchiness, lightness of the image, their translucency do not interfere with the perception of the entire space as a whole. 

Most of the figures are made actively polished with subsequent application of matte fine graphics. They are read in completely different ways depending on the point of view – from the background to which they fall when viewing. Sometimes sparkling, catching light, sometimes reminiscent of a chalk drawing on a dark background. And against the background of a light sky, they become dark.

His technique of engraving with stone grinding wheels gives the work a grain and a shade of chalk drawing, and, unlike the clear and restrained lines of traditional engraving, allows him to convey the effect of preliminary sketches.

Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to obtain more information about the very process of its work. The presented photographs are undoubtedly staged. It is known from the available texts that the figures of Angels of this size were engraved with stone circles. In the process of work, the circles were moistened with a damp sponge, the removed glass sludge was sucked off by a vacuum cleaner.

John Hutton (1906-1978)

Polishing wheels were used, followed by finishing with small stone wheels. In some cases, the silhouette of the figures was previously sandblasted.

Lawrence Whistler and John Hutton almost simultaneously in the 20th century made a breakthrough in the technique of glass engraving (each in his own), deciding and amazingly embodying it in works on large planes. Both are genuine innovators! 

Endlessly respecting the keepers of the traditions of the complex technique of engraving glass on copper wheels, this very method of work, which is little known to us in Russia, the work of famous artists, amazing in texture, surfaces, I want to admit that any search for development should only be welcomed.

XXI Century. Classic and innovative methods of glass engraving

In 2006, having worked for 24 years in the classical technique of glass engraving on a machine, we gradually began to experiment with engraving on large flat glasses. And today we only occasionally return to the traditional technique.

Working with a flexible shaft motor requires a completely different workspace. It is extremely important that it be as convenient as possible for work, thought out to the smallest detail, helping the author to translate his ideas into a work.

We dedicated a report published in the collection of conference reports in the Glass Museum of the Elaginoostrovsky Palace Museum to the technique of glass engraving using a motor with a flexible shaft on large planes.

Here is brief.

Рабочее место гравера для работы с большими полотнами стекла
The engraver's workplace for working with large canvases of glass

A 3-meter long work table with a large water collecting tray allows 2 work stations. Longitudinal crossbar above the table are used to suspend splash guards, mirrors to control the engraving process, install bars to accommodate the glass to be processed and to suspend a motor with a flexible shaft.

The tray is equipped with a system for draining water through the sump from glass sludge. 

Conveniently organized water supply and lighting systems in the engraving work area. Height-adjustable armrests allow engraving on the entire glass surface. If necessary, glass up to 3 meters long can be installed in the workspace.

The work uses the original Foredom motor with a flexible shaft with replaceable tips. The tips are equipped with diamond, abrasive, polishing wheels.

Стол для гравировки стекла
Glass engraving table
Гравировка на стекле "Грифон"
In the foreground is the engraved Griffin, in the second is its reflection in the mirror. It is very convenient to control the entire process of work.
To work on glass with a size of 1600 x 1400 mm, it was necessary to equip a remote tray and lower it down. This made it possible to work over the entire plane of the glass.
Размер стекла позволял работать одновременно вдвоём
The size of the glass allowed two people to work at the same time.

Modern glass engraving on large planes

Thanks to the conveniently organized workspace, we are no longer limited in the size of the glass to be processed and we got the opportunity to experiment with new processing techniques. 

We in no way claim to be the pioneers in the application of these techniques. Over the centuries of the development of this art, many artists, to one degree or another, began to use them in their work. We just have to follow and creatively develop them.

Выставка витражей в Музее стекла на Елагином острове. Кабинетный витраж. Размер 2130 - 1800 мм.
Exhibition of stained-glass windows at the Museum of Glass on Elagin Island. The cabinet stained-glass window. Size 2130 x 1800 mm.

Sculpture in glass

So in the early 2000s, we increasingly began to use engraving with a coarse grain of diamond tools in our work. This made it possible to transfer glass engraving to the category of carving, i.e. significantly increase the depth of the relief. Thus, the traditional, one of the most classical techniques – engraving acquired sculptural expressiveness. 

Thus, we got a new, very important for us, texture of the glass surface. Work with diamond wheels with a grain of 315 microns. gives the picture sparkling effects in the light due to large chips. So gradually we began to form a new palette of textures.

Dryad – the rough texture of a woman’s figure becomes delicate when viewed through a thin matte veil. The task is to emphasize the contrast between the bark of the tree and the body of the Nymph
Dragon of the Mountain – The dragon is hidden in the depths. Bright sparkling rocks are made with coarse diamond grain, the head and body – with fine grain with polishing. A monster in the shadows, in the darkness of a cave.
Angel – Angel’s body of smoother texture, and above it a bright, powerful wing goes to infinity due to polishing.

Diamond saw engraving

The development of this direction was the use of a diamond saw for engraving. In addition to the sparkling texture of the glass surface, completely unexpected effects were obtained, which can be called “second light” effects from a saw cut and, of course, a “figured cut”. 

Serra – currently at work. The cuts express the power and speed of the movement, Serra rushes through the storm.

Through cuts are like a breakthrough through space. (Serra. The birdfish is a fabulous creature from the medieval Bestiary).
Prayer – a convex disc of optical glass contains a winged figure, a half-bird-half-human, soaring to the upper edge of glass matter. The sparkling texture of the diamond saw mark unites the body and the wings, transforming this image into a surreal glow.
Awakening – a contrast between the powerful texture of ice hummocks and a quiet, gentle mermaid emerging from the dark depths.
White Silence – a sense of the unknown, the existence of the eternal, omnipotent – the powerful incisions of the saw in contrast to the dark faces made with coarse grain create the mystery of this endless space. The image of the Watchers at the entrance to the mysterious world.

The English technique of “pointillism” in glass, the technique of point engraving, has always amazed us with its light, translucent effect. Awesome welcome! 

We have it sharper, deeper. Maximum sparkling, catching sunlight. The thinnest veil of pointillism turns into bright deep chips, knocked out with a hammer and a sharply sharpened edge of a scarpel. We called this technique – “punch”.

Milky Way. Powerful gouges – bright, sparkling pass into the thinnest veil of shallow gouges. Creating the impression of a space that goes deep.
Гравировка арт-объекта "Шоу"
Work process
Show. Bright gouges on the figures contrast with black shadows flying after the gymnasts, creating a feeling of impetuosity, danger, risk.
работа над "Шоу"
A set of finely sharpened scarpels
"Пейзаж" фрагмент гравированного стекла в процессе работы
Work process

Palette of glass textures

To solve the “Landscape” image, a wide palette of surface textures was created – bright rays of the sun through the spruce, sparkling snow on the branches – “punch”. Sparkling snow on the branches – “punch”. Slow flowing water, cold, thick, winter spruce through the frosty haze – abrasive rubbers, abrasive skins. The bright deep drifts in the foreground are a rough diamond grain. Distant mountain peaks – Czech Polpur polishing wheels.
The distribution of engraving depths and jewelry work with abrasive “rubbers” with different grain sizes, almost without going into depth, or even surface tinting of glass, made it possible to build volumes on such a large area (1600 x 1400 mm.) And tint them with abrasive rubbers so that they conveyed both the depth of space and the structure of plans – the feeling of sunset, the light of the sun hiding behind the trunk of a spruce, shadows from snowdrifts on the water and water covered with thin ice in some places.
The “punch” made it possible to create the necessary contrast between the brightest place in the composition (the sun disk) and the spruce trunk – the sparkling texture created by the scarpel made it possible to display the effect of the sun shining through the spruce.
Гости Эрмитажной конференции ICOM Glass у нас в мастерской - директора европейских музеев стекла.
Guests of the ICOM Glass Hermitage Conference in our studio are directors of European glass museums
Волны под крылом Серры выполнены абразивными шкурками.
Waves under Serra's wing are made with abrasive skins

Backlight - another tool for the glass engraver

Light plays a huge role in the perception of glass art, especially engraved glass. Reasonable use of illumination as a technique for the embodiment of an idea opens up new possibilities for the artist, it becomes a tool.

In the kinematic object “Awakening” it was necessary for the Mermaid to float out of the depths, and the ice floes sparkled on the surface. 

The problem was solved as follows: the mermaid was engraved under the lens and looked through the glass, and on the other side, the end of the lens was cut with a diamond saw far in depth and brightly illuminated.

Now the ice floes glow brightly on the surface of the water, and the sleepy Mermaid cautiously floats out into the sun. The viewer looks at the object from above, the lenses tremble and this makes their head slightly dizzy, the same happens when you look at the flowing water.
In the work on the art object “Show”, the front lighting allowed to create the atmosphere of the circus arena, increasing the contrast between the bright, sparkling figures of gymnasts in the foreground and the faces of the audience in depth, depicted only in silhouette, very lightly punching, they are barely visible, but you can read the expression of admiration , amazement at this fantastic flight. And a clear breakdown into light and shadow, shadows flying around the arena from their figures create the impression of an illusion of everything that happens.

In the work “Mysterious Worlds” we wanted to get the overall greenish tint of the panel. As a material for work, we took glass with a high content of iron oxide – the usual 6 mm window. 

When backlit, the greenish tint of the engraved image, from the edges almost invisible to the eye, gains strength towards the center and is clearly readable, and the longer the path the light beam has traveled, the more color it has gained.

The work used diamond wheels, abrasive rubbers and a lot of “punching” with finely sharpened scarpels. It was this technique that made it possible to convey the fantastic, enchanting glow of space.

To create an image, it is advisable for an artist to use all available techniques for working with glass, and we are constantly striving to diversify our palette. 

This is a very interesting creative process!

Glass engraving. Modern development opportunities
Пейзаж - гравированное панно из стекла
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