Instructions on How To Paint Glass

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Painting Glass: What Color is Glass?

A picture tutorial of painting glass

Marion Boddy-Evans

No single color or paint could be labeled 'transparent glass.' The color of the glass is determined by what's around it, what you see through it, what is reflecting in it, and how much shadow there is.

The two glasses in this photo are both simple, transparent glass. The one at the front is empty, and the one at the back has liquid in it. Now your brain knows that the color of the glass at the back hasn't changed, it's the liquid in it that's making it a different color. But to turn it into a painting, you don't first paint the glass itself and then what's in it.

You're creating an illusion. You need to suspend your brain's interpretation of the objects and look at the colors and tones. Paint each little shape or bit of color and tone individually and, like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will snap together to form the whole.

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Painting Glass: Influence of an Orange Background

How a background affects a glass

Marion Boddy-Evans

The color of the glass is influenced by what's in the background. These are the same two glasses as in the previous photo, but with an orange plate behind them. Compare the two photos, and you'll see how the 'color' of the glasses change.

Notice how the colors in the stems of the glasses are influenced too. There are oranges in all sorts of places, including shadows and edge closest to you.

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Painting Glass: Influence of a Green Background

Influence of a green background on a glass

Marion Boddy-Evans

These are the same two glasses as in the first photo, but with a green plate behind them. As with the orange background, the 'color' of the glasses changes significantly. Even the color of the liquid in the rear glass is different.

For me, glasses are a good example of why, if you want to paint in a realistic style, you should paint from observation, not your imagination. You are unlikely to get enough of it 'right,' to have all the small details that will make it real. It's hard enough overriding your brain's autopilot instincts with the objects in front of you!

Start by setting up the glasses so they're in a consistent light (not one that changes; a lamp may be helpful) and take the time to look at them before you start to paint. When you think you're ready, mix three tones—a light, medium, and dark. (These can be any color, it's the tone that's important.)

Now do quick tonal painting or study with just these. You're not trying to create a finished painting, just a rough sketch putting down the shapes or areas you see as light, medium, and dark, in tone. (If you're using watercolor, consider using masking fluid to preserve the lightest tones.)

When you're done, step back so you can see both your tonal study and the glasses. Spend some time comparing the two, then adjust and refine your tonal sketch as necessary.

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Painting Glass: Orange Watercolor Version

A glass affected by an orange background

Marion Boddy-Evans

This is a digital watercolor created from the ​photo of the glasses with the orange plate ​behind them. Compare it to the green version, and you'll see that there isn't 'one color' for glass. There are shapes of similar colors in both paintings, such as the bright highlights and the dark shadows on the edges, but the 'color' of the glass is determined by what is around it.

Also, note the colors of the shadows. Painting a shadow doesn't simply mean you put some black on a brush and dab it down. Shadows have color (for more on this, read What Colors are Shadows?).

"But some bits are black," we hear you say... Well, we still wouldn't paint them with black from a tube. We'd mix the darkest orange/red I'd used in the painting with a dark blue (its complementary color), such as Prussian blue, as this gives a much more interesting dark.

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Painting Glass: Green Watercolor Version

Glasses with a green background

Marion Boddy-Evans

This is a digital watercolor created from the photo of the glasses with the green plate behind them. Again, you can see there is no single color for glass, it's influenced by what's around it, light, and shadow.

When painting it, don't first paint the green background and then paint the glasses on top. Paint all the elements simultaneously. So paint the green bits of the plate, the green parts of the glass, the green bits in the glass stems at the same time. The yellow liquid, the yellow reflection in the glass, and the yellow in the plate need to be painted at the same time.

Look at the colors in the whole composition, see them as shapes and paint them individually, rather than painting the objects one at a time. Initially, it may look like a chaotic mess, but keep at it, and the shapes will all slot together to make a whole, like a jigsaw puzzle. You can then add in the tiny shapes of color, such as the highlights.

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Painting Glass: Watch for Distortion

Glasses affected by glass distortion

Marion Boddy-Evans

Remember: objects seen through glass are distorted. It can be hugely, as here, or just slightly. Observe closely, and get the distortion into your painting. Rather exaggerate it, than underplay it. But without it, the painting won't feel 'right.'