Recreating images on glass

The lamp had once been an antique, a hand-painted beauty and someone's treasure. Now, the shade was broken and the pieces along with the lamp base sat on a garage sale table for the "get-rid-of-it" price of $20.

For Jo Linda Smith, a resident of Topaz Ranch Estates, porcelain artist and garage sale connoisseur looking for antique bargains, this was a bargain not to be passed up.

For Smith, visions of its revived glory were not beyond her imagination and she knew just who to take it to for help. Smith was a china painter but she didn't know how to air brush and the shade would need that technique if it was going to match the base. Elinor Skiles, a china decorator living in the Carson Valley since 1990, has specialized in glass lamp reproductions and restorations since 1985. Skiles, now 80, has worked in the three-century-old craft of porcelain and glass painting since 1968.

"My interest in lamps all started by doing little TV lamps," Skiles said. "I was having so much fun with them I thought to myself, 'I think I will try something just a little bigger.'"

Bigger got better and better. Soon Skiles was sought after for reproductions and restorations.

"I enjoy working with glass more than porcelain," she said. "It just has a fascination for me when I see the light glowing through the images. I would do a lamp a week if I could afford it."

"But, just getting all the parts and pieces can sometimes add up to as much as $100 or more."

Now, with the remains of the broken lamp in front of her, the work begins. After finding a shade in a shape as close to the original as possible, the next task is to match the base color of the paint.

It is a trial-and-error process as the colors have to be recreated by mixing different colors until the exact shade of the original is found. Many old manufacturers had their own colors mixed in the factories that produced the original lamps. This process can take many tries and many kiln firings but, once the color is found, it is airbrushed on the shade and the remainder of the left over paint is stored in jars and marked with all the necessary information to recreate that color again. These colors can be stored indefinitely. If they dry up, they can be reconstituted with alcohol.

After the base color has been applied and fired, Skiles goes to work replicating the design. This is done with layer upon layer of color, fired in between each layer. Skiles starts the layers out very light, sometimes, barely visible in the unfired state. Some of the colors will deepen during firing in the 1,000-degree temperature, and years of experience has taught Skiles what those colors will do and how to acquire the expected results.

"This process can take up to 10 or more firings before the desired effect has been achieved," Skiles said.

The temperature is critical in this process. Glass, which is more fragile than porcelain, melts at temperatures much higher than the 1,000 degrees. Some of the paints used on porcelain contain gold and need to be fired at higher temperatures and can't be used on glass. New products have been created that can be used on glass and reproduce similar effects at lower temperatures.

A century or more ago, factories employed artists to decorate the fine china found today as meager survivors displayed in antique stores. With the advent of mass production the decal process of decoration was invented and the art form of china decorating by hand was almost lost. According to Web site, in the 1940s a native Oklahoman Pauline Salyer recognized the art form was being lost to the world. She went to work to recapture and rejuvenate the fine art. She sought out and taught individuals with talent, hoping they would, in turn, pass on the skills to others. In 1962 she published her first issue of "The China Painter," a bi-monthly publication of porcelain art that is now distributed to more than 7,000 artists worldwide.

Today, the art of painting on glass and porcelain has been carried to higher levels with new products on the market. The art is only limited by the imagination of the artist, who creates artwork that is a delight to the eye, as well as having a practical purpose. Tile murals, sinks, lamps, dishes, pots and vases, even tiles used as canvas for framed artwork; the art has taken on a new modern look. The classic brush strokes used to create the flowered "Victorian" images of the past still remain the basic foundation.

Skiles, with awards to her credit, said she has fulfilled the promise to keep this art alive by offering lessons in the art to others. She has classes in her studio located in the Gardnerville Ranchos and still travels to Reno once a month to teach classes there as well.

If you are interested in learning this age-old art, Elinor Skiles can be reached at 265-5813 or by e-mail to


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