The heck with it. Let’s play! (Part 2: Zen gardens)

>>>>The heck with it. Let’s play! (Part 2: Zen gardens)

(BTW, you folks know that you can click on one of the images in these posts to bring up a slideshow with more info about what’s pictured, right?)

Most of us get into the art business because we love it…but it’s possible to love it to death. You can get so serious and self-critical about your art that you maybe forget why you’re doing it: Because it’s so much fun. I realized last weekend that I was headed that way, fast.

And so for the next 48 hours I stopped worrying about being a grownup, serious artist trying to find my voice and instead had fun. I made a couple of glass samplers, an old project I used to love doing. It used up a bunch of glass scrap, reintroduced me to my inner child and did some battery recharging.

I also played around with a favorite old powder sculpture style I call Zen gardens. I’m not going to pretend any of this stuff is Aaaaahrt, that’s not the point. They’re fun, and they’re a way of not taking myself so seriously while I loosen up creative muscles I hadn’t realized were kinked.

Ever seen the raked Japanese sand gardens? The first time I saw someone demonstrating glass powder painting, maybe ten years ago, she warned us to keep our layers thin or they wouldn’t fuse perfectly flat.

And I thought, well, what would happen if you DID go thicker? Could you sculpt the powder? Could you rake it and get something that looked like those beautiful, serene Japanese gardens?

So I went home and tried it.

My first effort, above left, was a mixture of dark earthtone powders on a sheet of 3mm clear, bordered by 3mm black strips, with a heavy tackfuse and some coarse clear frit for contrast.

There is probably a half-inch of powder with very deep combing and the final texture is extremely dimensional, about like 60-grit sandpaper.

(apologies for the crummy photo, but the piece is long gone and this is the only record I have)

The magical part, though, is when you backlight it, right. You get this really lovely glow that I’ve since exploited in light fixtures.

Reduce the thickness of the powder, and you move from a sculptural relief to more of a raised line drawing (below). You’ll get different effects from transparent colors versus opaques, mixing colors, varying the depth of your rake, pressing the powder or adding larger sizes of frit. Powder and fine frit can be sculpted dry and keep their shape quite well, which can make for very interesting effects.

Making one is pretty simple; I cut a sheet of thin clear glass and border it on at least two sides with thin strips or glass noodles, held in place by superglue. (The Uroboros black glass noodles may be the single most useful forms of glass ever invented–after years and years of using them I still come up with new things I absolutely need them for, but borders are definitely top of the list).

The raised border helps keep the powder from sliding off the glass, and it causes some trade-offs. If you want the border to be well-fused so that it appears to be a solid, continuous part of the frame, you need to give it a heavy tackfuse (especially if you don’t use noodles). That, however, will gloss up and partially fuse the frit, so sometimes it’s better to fuse the frame first, then go back and add the powders in a second firing.

Normally, though, I slightly round off the edges of both glass and noodles with a diamond pad, then start sifting powder. The amount of powder I lay down varies with the color and transparency–the darker and more opaque, the less required. Paler transparents and clears need a surprising amount or they’ll disappear even in a tackfuse.

The typical triangular powder comb (Bullseye sells it, I believe) works well for very thin powder applications, but it pushes away too much powder for thicker applications. I cut my own combs out of cardboard, or broken plastic haircombs. (If you can find the comb-barette things people used to use, they’re wonderful) The comb’s “teeth” need a clearance about a quarter-inch higher than the level of the powder to be effective.

If you cut your own combs, don’t think just about the height of the comb openings–you can also change the angle and shape of the “teeth” to produce different effects. Rectangles give small, deep furrows that tend to collapse on themselves. Triangular teeth give the strongest effect, with the furrows getting darker in the center, where powder is thickest. A scalloped edge combines both, but is hard to comb evenly.

Usually it’s best to comb first in the center, and work your way out to the edges–you’ll be pushing a lot of powder ahead of your comb. The patterns can be random, as the light powder tray above, left, or you can work in more regular patterns. One of my favorites is a checkerboard (above): Mark off squares with a ruler and a Sharpie pen, set the whole thing on a light table and sift on powder. Then comb into the squares in different directions.

Or you can try sifting down different colors of powder, combing through them to the clear glass and then sifting again to fill in the blanks, as in the dish at left.

If you make a mistake, don’t worry–either sift on more powder in that area and redraw, or blow the whole thing off (literally) and start over. You’ll get different effects if you leave the sifted powder fluffy, or if you press it down with a flat piece of glass. You can also press the powder after sifting, which makes a very controlled and muted texture.

In fact, you can actually sculpt the powder, if you’re careful and don’t insist on a lot of detail. The powder pyramids in the picture above are about 2 inches high at the peak. It helps if you’re working in a wetter climate when you do this, but if you just can’t get the powder to stay in place you can schpritz a little water or even hairspray on the surface. Use a sprayer with the finest mist setting possible–it’s VERY tricky to get right and I actually don’t use any at all.

I usually use a pointed tool to clean out the troughs between the furrows and neaten up the lines. And it’s nice to vary the strokes and directions in different sections.

The firing schedule controls final appearance–the closer you are to a light tackfuse, the “sandier” the piece and the wider and higher the lines of powder. More heatwork, and the raked lines integrate more and more into the glass, until they can nearly vanish.



  1. Janet McFadyen January 16, 2014 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Cynthia it’s a great idea I love the look…the backlight earth tone piece really shows the awesome possibilites with this technique.

    I also have dropped the, what do I reperesnt, what is my work saying challenge and let go. It feels good …so tired of the struggle… just making glass is what I want to do…leaving the gallery scene and opening my own modest gallery in yard has really made a huge difference for me… your glass blog is always a pleasure thanks.

  2. Shelby April 16, 2011 at 8:21 pm - Reply

    I really love these!!

  3. Cynthia January 6, 2011 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    Laura, John Groth of WaterJet designs in Hillsboro, OR made it. I don’t know if he still does (this is about 18 months old) but you could check. When I bought this he offered the option of varying the width between the back/front support for thicker glass.

    It’s nice and heavy, and fairly unobtrusive. If I were selling the glass with the stand, I’d probably get one with wider base, to blend into the black edges.

  4. Laura January 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    Love these! For ZenCheckRiver, do you know of a supplier for that great stand in which you have the glass?

  5. robin g June 21, 2010 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    We really miss you!

  6. Cynthia June 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Sorry. Major computer failure(s), lots of rebuild time, lots of client stuff, family things, OGG business that’s taking longer than expected, and I’m doing a show today…just flat out no time to post. Hopefully I can do something tonight or tomorrow…

  7. Jerry Jensen June 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Hey Cynthia where did you go?

  8. Rinee June 16, 2010 at 10:21 am - Reply

    Cynthia, thanks for the inspiration (as usual). I am firing the kiln for the next few days as I am in-between terms. I needed to run a tack fuse so I think a few of these will be great fun!

  9. sunny strapp June 14, 2010 at 5:02 am - Reply

    my cats love it when I do frit work and forget about them for 2 seconds. They get some pretty interesting textures that one seldom sees on other fun stuff.


  10. Stephen Richard June 13, 2010 at 2:37 am - Reply

    On cleaning out the bottoms of the furrows and cleaning up the lines: I have found the keyboard cleaning attachment for my Miele vacuum sweeper excellent for this. Adapt the finest nozzle by putting the end of a ball point pen in and filling in the remainder with blutac or similar. Turn the suction on the vacuum down to minimum and you can be very accurate about the amount of powder you remove.

  11. Margot June 12, 2010 at 8:48 am - Reply

    Totally looks like fun! I haven’t done much with frits – yet. I did do a few plates – one that I did in a Patty Gray class and I loved the look. My mission now is to build up my frit inventory. Every time I go to my glass supplier I pick up at least 4 jars of frit. Yes I was the kid that had to have the super sized crayola crayon box with every color imaginable!

  12. ellen abbott June 12, 2010 at 7:40 am - Reply

    that does look like fun. I can’t wait to get back at it, to have my studio intact again after about two years of it being helter skelter. It wasn’t supposed to take us this long to get moved, to get the shop built, to get the studio put back together. I haven’t felt much like working either after the economy crashed we had to go back to the commission work to get out of debt, the debt that trying to break into the gallery/collector world got us into. It had become ‘not fun’. I’m hoping that this long hiatus will be over soon (shop getting built finally) and the new stuff in my head will come bursting out.

Comments welcome! (thanks)

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