Pictured above: Rosberry Park Hospital by Catrin Jones
Angela Neustatter asks Catrin Jones and Milly Frances how it’s done.
Written & narrated by Angela Neustatter
Listen to Angela narrate her article:
Catrin Jones had no idea whether she could make a living as a stained glass artist when she took the course at Swansea College of Art, but she was passionate about the effects that could be created with glass, which she believes “has an extraordinary capacity to affect the human spirit”.
Graduating with honours gave her a boost and a Swansea College Architectural Course followed. Here she developed often unorthodox and experimental ideas using acid etching, sandblasting and dynamic painting on glass. From there, she developed her own style – her signature. Talking to beginners wanting to work with glass professionally, she believes the most important thing is knowing who you are as an artist. “Know your artistic identity,” she advises.
Catrin has worked as a stained glass artist for 25 years and has won prestigious awards, had work exhibited in the Ely Glass museum and sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Today she is a go-to artist for architects, town planners, community project managers and individuals, who want her to design and make stained glass windows, walls, doors, screens and much else, incorporating the many techniques – acid etching, sandblasting, tinting , frosting and painting on glass – that she uses.
For all this, she gives a beguilingly modest laugh when I speak to her at the studio she runs at her rural Welsh home, complimenting her. There has been luck, she insists, but as she speaks it becomes clear how, from the beginning, she looked for ways to build confidence, get known and attract commissions. She willingly agrees to offer guidance to others who want to work professionally with stained glass.
After graduating, Catrin teamed up with four other glass artists from her college and they set up a co-operative called Glasslights in a place they rented in Swansea.
“Working with others is a good way to start. You become known as a fully equipped studio rather than a solitary artist. You advise and critique each other and it is helpful in the beginning to work on designs together and build up business skills.”
Glasslights was open to students and artists who paid a fee to use the studio. Established artists wanting to help on projects would pay the team to do this. “So we didn’t rely entirely on getting commissions – the majority of which came from the Catholic Church Commission – for our income,” continues Catrin. “I suggest anyone wanting to build a base should let the local diocese, council and architects know if they have work in a craft fair or exhibition. And it is well worth finding out where these are happening and exhibiting as often as you can. You can also offer to go into schools and community halls, to give demos of how you work.”
There is a vibrant market for the best of stained glass work, but Catrin says that costing a large piece of work can be tricky. “I start by giving a ball park figure when I know the size of the project and my square-footage cost is on my website. Along with materials, I cost in my time, which is usually about one third of the fee. And don’t be tempted to skimp on your fee – remember that is what makes your living as a stained glass artist,” she advises.
After four years, Catrin went solo. It’s not easy, she warns. “I found commissions came sporadically,” she says. “And beginners may need to find some other paying work to supplement their art.”
A good idea is try for a placement as an assistant or apprentice with an established glass studio. Catrin learned a great deal by doing that.
Her first solo commission in 1990 was thrilling and nerve-wracking. A local sheltered housing project wanted an enormous glass window for the front of a building. Catrin was chosen on the basis of work shown at a local art fair. Since then, she has created work for a wide range of buildings and a memorial window for a dear friend.
Milly Frances, an award-winning stained glass artist, pops up with pleasing regularity on my desktop, her smiling photograph an invitation to read the latest free online newsletter with its invaluable guidance for stained glass makers.
Becoming a stained glass artist herself was “a long and winding road”. Aged 27, she went on a part-time course in Bristol and then did a master’s degree in glass.
After college, she rented a studio and invested in a big kiln and a secondhand sandblaster. “I had most of the other equipment and acquired some piecemeal,” she explains. “It’s not necessary to buy new but it is worth having quality.”
Through word of mouth came some commissions. Then came her lucky break with Breakfast Networking. She won a “huge and terrifying” commission for Abbeywood Community College in Bristol.
She began entering open competitions for tenders, winning a number of these, and she advises others to do the same. She also had a few smaller public art commissions.
Milly then got teaching work at Bristol School of Art. To do this, she needed to get a PGCE qualification. These days, she runs her own online courses. “I enjoy helping others realise their ambitions,” she reflects. “And it stimulates me for my own work.”
In 1997, she set up her stained glass art business Striking Glass. This led to her becoming a successful public artist with some “huge commissions”, such as Patchway Health Centre Hub, Bradley Stoke Primary School, St. John’s School Clevedon and Torre Abbey. She continues wryly: “Then funding for these disappeared off the face of a cliff with the 2008 recession.”
Milly’s determined optimism enabled her to see the upside to this. “I wasn’t sorry. Working on very large pieces meant I had to buy in help and I found that I was often acting as a project manager rather than an artist,” she says.
Redundancy from teaching at Bristol School of Art turned out to be for the best. She decided to take the plunge and start her own online business Everything Stained Glass.
She set up a website – something anyone going professional should certainly do as a way of telling why they are special and showcasing their work. Her newsletter was part of the first issue of the Everything Stained Glass website. She explains: “I wanted to provide really useful information that came in small digestible pieces, rather than the HUGE amounts of information we’re overwhelmed with on a daily basis. It’s a mutually beneficial way of communicating with others who are passionate about stained glass.”
The website is a separate thing, providing a library of stained glass information. It also gives details of free tutorials and online paid-for courses where Milly tutors students.
Her advice to those starting out is to develop the best skills possible because this will build confidence. She says you should also consider whether you will do best by taking a course to gain your foundation or if hands-on experience in a studio may suit you better.
Most important, she opines, is: “Learn to be dispassionate about your work. You need to see it as a vehicle of your self-expression or that of the community commissioning you.” Whichever, it needs to reflect your own style – that’s why you are chosen over other artists, she adds.
If you are keen to go solo, she cautions to bear in mind that being self-employed can be hard. “You have to initiate everything, you’re responsible for making sure everything is done properly, you need to look after your equipment, and you need great tenacity to get through the inevitable difficult times.” Despite that, Milly concludes: “I encourage my students to fulfill their dreams with stained glass.”
Tips for starting out as a professional artist
Fiona Sanderson and the team at Miss S – Accounting for Purpose CIC – work with start-up businesses and sole traders. Fiona also enjoys creating stained glass in her spare time. Here, she offers guidance for those wanting to start up as professional glass artists.
- Plan your business, taking time to consider possible hazards before you launch. Be clear about the kind of products you want to make and be focused on making it better than the competition. Commissions come from work that people notice.
- Have a budget saved up for equipment, glass and other materials, but also to pay yourself until money comes in. Research if any grants are available.
- When launching your business, new equipment is not essential, but quality is. To buy secondhand, try Facebook groups and individuals interested in glass work. eBay sells secondhand and there may be ads in magazines. Find out if studios are replacing equipment.
- Find out the insurance you need. Working with glass and chemicals is high risk and will have insurance implications whether in your home or an independent studio.
- Being meticulous about getting tax returns done correctly is essential. From the start record everything you buy and include your own earnings. Taking on an accountant can save time, anguish and money, but go for someone you like and trust, not necessarily the cheapest.
- Marketing is vital – create a profile on social media such as Facebook and Instagram. It is a free and very effective way of getting your individual approach known. When you have a profile, consider giving small courses or online instruction to supplement your commissions. Research where you can exhibit and offer to give a demonstration as well. Place your work at home in a glass-paned door or window where it will be seen.
- Selling can begin with online platforms like Etsy, Not on the High Street, eBay and art fair stalls, where you can sell small items as well as large. But factor the commission they charge into your cost.