Thirty Days of Making: “Stained Glass” panel

I’m in Day 14 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor.  (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!).

 Reasons for the Project:

This is sort of a two-fer.  There’s a pair of French doors in my office (that leak air like a sieve) which separate my apartment from the front hall of the house. The front hall used to be a no-man’s land as the previous tenants didn’t use the front door or the porch, and I didn’t have to worry about doing tai chi in my underwear first thing in the morning.  The new tenant in the upstairs apartment, though, is using the front hall much more frequently, and I feel like my privacy is partially compromised.  So I want to

I also know that a colleague of mine is planning to run a project on the middle ages, and specifically on craftspeople associated with a cathedral (thanks to David Macaulay’s book, Cathedral).  So I’ve been thinking about what kinds of projects I could have her classes do.  Proof of concept is critically important, as any designer knows.  I needed to show that students could do these projects, by proving *I* could do these projects.

That’s not to say that students don’t do these sorts of projects at my school already, of course.  This is also me thinking about what materials and tools I need to have in the design lab to support these projects, and to have tools and materials to begin to experiment with the boundaries of the possible.

Process and Result:

I went and read the article on St. Theresa of Avila on Wikipedia, since today is her feast day.  It’s been years since I’ve read any of her writings. I also found an existing stained glass window that I could use as a rough template.

Thirty days of making: "stained glass" panel
She’s looking very green here…

Then I taped two sheets of paper together, and started cutting out a rough sketch of the figure of St. Theresa.  I wanted to get across three different elements of the work of assembling her: that big slash of red, her hand open to the experience, and the golden arrow of light aimed at her heart.

I found the problem of eyes and mouth to be pretty limiting — I wanted her nose to be this lightning strike, and to make her eyes blue — but I found that I couldn’t cut out the eyes without damaging the integrity of this particular kind of paper.  More testing needed.

Thirty days of making: "stained glass" panel
Two sheets, taped together, cut the same.

There’s nothing about this figure, unfortunately, that indicates who she is or what she does; you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s St. Theresa of Avila, or at least that this is who she’s supposed to be.  Generally, I’m not even sure that she reads as female.  Another aspect of my artistic work that I really need to work on, as well — drawing the female form.

So then, I had two sheets of paper cut out so that they had exactly the same holes in them. In retrospect, I wish I had made more but smaller holes, so I could have introduced more pieces of paper. It turns out that I have quite a lot of pale whites and pinks and reds, but not so many browns or grays or blacks or yellows. We’re limited by the materials we can work with, as always.

Thirty days of making: "stained glass" panel
Don’t trace the translucent paper through the frame; trace OVER the frame, so you can have ‘tabs for attaching to the back.

Now I was in a position, though, to start cutting pieces of this translucent vellum to fit between the two sheets of heavy paper that I’d used as my frame.

I learned that it’s important not to put the translucent sheets between the two elements of the frame, and trace.  When you do that, you risk not having enough material to cover over the hole.   You can actually see that in St. Theresa’s red dress, here, which has a strip along the left hand side, and along the top of the hand, where the red is broken.  Using more strips of white paper across this unbroken sea of red would have been a better design decision, too.

But I learned from my mistakes when I went on to the white cloak over the outside.

Thirty days of making: "stained glass" panel
getting the technique right…

Here, I made use of the correct tracing technique — tracing over the upper of the two frames, so that my pieces would be slightly larger than the holes, and I could use scotch tape to hold the panels of ‘glass’ in place.  The result was a much better fit of glass to the panel, although I’m not happy about the way in which the panel as a whole still rises off the ‘glass’ and wrinkles and buckles.

Anyway, the final product turned out… OK.  Not great, not beautiful.  Ok, it’s a little beautiful. Clearly, the technique works.  I just need to get a lot better at it, and use better tools, like an Xacto knife.  And I need a better pattern.  Wow, patterns are clearly the basis of all good design.  If you don’t start with a good pattern, or a good prototype, all of your following results are going to be poor.

Thirty days of making: "stained glass" panel
The finished ‘window’ in situ

And what do you need to be a good pattern or prototype maker? You need to be a good visualizer.  And how do you become a good visualizer?  By making things, and drawing things, and sketching things.  Good observation and good drawing skills remain critical to the structure of design training.  If I’d started with a better design for St. Theresa’s stained glass window, I’d have a better final product.  Obviously. You can’t produce quality work that’s meant to be seen if you don’t know how to draw it effectively.

Also, yeah — materials.  Her headdress, her habit, ought to be black or blue paper, but I didn’t buy enough of that. So it’s green.  It’s wrong, but oh, well.  We learn with the materials we have at hand, and then we learn to work with better materials and correct colors later on.  Hands, face, cloak, habit, all of these things could have been done better or more effectively.  It’s a start, at least.

Anyway, there she is — installed in my French doors, an icon or stained glass image of St. Theresa of Avila, about to be pierced by her favorite golden arrow.  What do you think of her?

Reflection on My Learning

The smaller the panels of ‘glass’, the more effective the overall effect. Those narrow bits up by her throat look better than the big panels of her cloak and her red cassock. Her face is more effective by being rendered as two panels — but if I’d used an Xacto knife and more openings, and narrower framing bits, to suggest her eyebrows for example and her cheekbones,  I’d have had a better overall effect.  I also wonder if I should have put in a halo.  Even a thin nimbus line in gold would have been a nice addition to the design.  Maybe on some of the other ones in the series.

I think that’s the other part of my learning.  I think I’m going to have to do two or more of these, yet, before I really know if I’ve learned anything about the technique.  I remember doing one of these in Mrs. Duchovny’s class in 2nd grade (or maybe it was 3rd or 4th grades?) and being equally incompetent at it… but sometimes artistic work has to be done in series, in order to really know if you’ve learned the lessons of the first project or two.  And I guess that segues nicely into…

Reflection on General Learning

I have to ask kids to make three or four of these to cover a whole window at school.  I don’t want them to make one window apiece, or one with a partner — I want them to make six or seven each, and then collaborate with two friends on a major scene from the Bible.  We won’t do that at my school, of course — we’re non-sectarian — but that’s the only way to make sure that kids get the necessary practice at drawing and cutting and thinking through the limitations of both the materials and the format.    What parent or teacher is going to want their kid to wade through the sea of paper cuttings, though, and the potential boredom?  By the time you add in the technical challenges of researching six or seven saints for a couple dozen kids, this project has become a monster.

And I think that points to one of the inherent challenges in design, nicely illustrated by this video:

Every few years, there’s going to be a kid who cares enough about this art-form that they’ll want to do six.  Or sixteen.  Or sixty.  Or however many they want.  They’ll do it to the exclusion of other homework, they’ll do it to the detriment of their other studies, they’ll make panels celebrating Pilgrims for their history class and To Kill a Mockingbird for English and “Newton’s Laws of Motion” for science.  And some teachers will let them get away with it because they understand; and some won’t, because “enough already with the stained glass.”

But that’s what it means to run a diversified FabLab or Design Lab:  How do you support the kid who is designing for one?  How do you support the kid who is building in order to understand?  How do you help this kid make stained glass windows that explore what a single-celled organism looks like, when she wants to explore the idea that biology is holy?

You have the right tools and materials in place, and you produce documentation that demonstrates the methodology available to them.


I don’t know… she could be better, she could be a lot worse, she taught me a lot.  But I’m not very proud of her as a piece of work. St. Theresa is pretty much awesome and deserves better.  Three out of five stars.

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