Reverse Glass Painting

February 1, 2017 , In: Art History, Culture, Glass


So our Christmas tree took itself down this year….

I’m sure you’re probably wondering what that has to do with anything. However, our rogue tree inspired this post because of the great ornament tragedy. Our tree is not what one would call “beautiful” or even “pretty.” We treat our tree as more scrapbook than showcase. Every time we go travel somewhere, we try to find an ornament or something that can be used as an ornament from that locale to hang on the tree so that every year decorating the tree becomes a game of “remember when…”

Fortunately, we didn’t have as many casulaties as I feared we would, but one casualty was a handpainted glass ornament we picked up in Seattle in 2003. It broke in 3 large-ish pieces and rather than throwing it out, I put it aside to look at more closely after we cleaned up the mess. In spite of the momentary sadness of the loss, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the magic of not only painting on the INSIDE of these small glass ornaments, but also that it has to be done in reverse order from usual painting. 

Top photo is the exterior of the ornament. Bottom is the same piece seen from the inside (back side of the painting) of the ornament.

What is reverse glass painting? It is the act of painting on the back side of clear glass, so that the painter must paint in reverse order, adding details, highlights, and working backwards until they do the background last. 

Reverse glass painting, also known in hinterglasmalerei in German (which translates to behind glass painting) or verre églomisé after Jean-Baptiste Glomy who introduced the technique of gold gilding, has a long history in Europe and China. No source I read seemed to agree when reverse glass painting began or who started it, but many say evidence dates back to ancient Rome. Others say the technique wasn’t developed until the Renaissance. Regardless, reverse glass painting has been around a while. Originally it was primarily used to depict religious iconography, clock faces, and furniture. However, subject matter and techniqes changed over time, as they tend to do. Interesting to note is that shortly after the Revolution, Chinese painters were busy replicating patriotic images on glass to export to the United States.

“Chinese artist, Portrait of George Washington, after a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, early nineteenth century (1800-1805). Reverse painting on glass, 32 1/2 x 25 1/2 in. with frame (82.5 x 64.8 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass., gift of Mr. Howell N. White, 1970E78992 © Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by the Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo.” From this link on the website Common Place


Why would anyone want to paint in reverse on clear glass? As a person who has worked in glass for years, having to look through clear glass to view what’s behind it creates depth and interest that doesn’t exist when the eye is stopped at the surface of the glass canvas. For practical purposes, it protects the painted surface. 

Left side is the exterior of the ornament that the viewer sees. Right side is the interior (back side of the painting) of the ornament.

Below is a video showing the process of painting inside the ornament. 

Almost 12 years ago I took a very tiny step into the process of reverse glass painting. At the time I was almost exclusively doing warm glass (fusing/slumping) and I wanted to create party favor for my husband’s grandparents’ surprise 75th birthday party that the entire family was traveling to Florida to attend. I don’t recall my exact thought process because I’ve slept since then and my notes don’t reveal that particular information. However, if I were to guess, I wanted to make sure the paint couldn’t ever be scratched off. 

Technically, the only painted portion of these magnets are the words and outline of the cake and candles. The color is created using thinly sifted glass powders. I can tell you a little bit about how I made this. First I drew the design in actual size. Then I had to scan it into the computer and flip the image. Why? Because I was working in reverse, if I didn’t my words would have been backwards. 

I printed out the design to use as a “cartoon” to place under the front side of the precut glass. I mixed a black enamel with an essential oil to create a liquid…I think it was clove oil picked up from the healthfood shop. I used a nip pen to outline and write.  Once that step was complete, I sifted powder onto the foreground details like the cake, the candles, and the flames. Then I covered the entire piece with the backgound powdered glass. 

The next step is sketchy as my notes say two different things and it’s possible I tried both then decided I preferred one firing method than another. In a couple firings I fired the clear glass to fuse the design, then capped with a piece of white glass to do a full fuse. In other firings my notes say “no pre-fire” which I assume (12 years later) meant I did the entire piece, including the white glass backing in a single firing. I wish I could remember! I used the white glass to back and protect the design, plus make the back opaque so no light would come through the back and also so you couldn’t see the magnet glued to the back side. 

Every good fuser keeps a logbook of every firing they do. Twelve years later and I can still look up my exact schedules and results (assuming I made notes of them). Here are two of the three pages of firing notes I took related to making these magnets.

There are some incredible modern artists working in this medium. I particularly like Bonnie Bews – Hinterglas. Definitely visit her website and Facebook page to see additional pieces. 

‘Pink Fairy’s gather and dance to the humming of the Bees’ by Bonnie Bews – Hinterglas Paintings

While trying to gather information about the history of reverse painting, I went down many a rabbit hole of images and websites, none of which went into as much detail as I hoped. However, if you google history of reverse glass painting and click on images, you will be in for a wide range of styles and perhaps it will spark an idea for you in your own work. 



Jennifer Cameron

Combining fire and glass since 2005, Jen Cameron discovered jewelry making after realizing a small child could disappear in the growing collection of beads sitting around the house. Jen is the adoring mother of two, jackpot winner in the husband category, and zookeeper of several pets. Jen is also the instigator for bringing together this team of innovative, talented, passionate and dynamic women to write for Art Jewelry Elements.
  1. Reply

    My mom though self taught is an expert in reverse glass painting (with paints and not enamels) and would do garment folds and beaded jewelry on portraits with ease. Though she stopped doing them almost 20 years ago I am thankful that taught me when I was little kid

  2. Reply

    what a fascinating post, Jennifer! We have a reverse painted Christmas ornament from China, but I had no idea that the details had to be painted first, before the background. I can’t even imagine how difficult that must be, Wow!

  3. Reply

    Just trying to imagine doing everything in reverse boggles my mind. You would have to be so detail oriented because you could just go back to add anything.

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