It’s officially the Holiday Season, and you know what that means! Hot chocolate, snow days, lots of baking, and… stained glass?? Indeed. This month, we’re bringing you a festive look at the different ways that you can recreate ornate stained-glass windows onstage. As part of her thesis project at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Scenic Artist Chrissy Curtis focused on different techniques that can be used to create richly colored windows that dynamically respond to lighting. Below, she shares her discoveries (and beautiful images!) with us.

So you’re painting a show and the designer sends you a beautiful packet of renderings, which include a stained-glass window… what do you do?  Many Scenic Artists that I’ve talked to about stained-glass immediately think, “I’ll paint it on plexiglass!” And while this is one good approach, there are countless ways of suspending color in translucent products and equally countless ways of applying said mixture to a sheet of plexiglass to create beautiful stained glass effects. You could use Rosco’s Supersaturated Paints and Crystal Gel, or Dharma Pigment Dye and Sculpt or Coat, or Universal Tints in clear acrylic medium, or even leather dye/aniline dye and shellac.  All of these options will work, but don’t let your imagination stop there!

Stained Glass created using colored transparent adhesive-backed vinyl

Finished product after greyscale marker detail has been added

The real question is: What problem are you trying to solve?
We scenic artists are problem solvers.  Each stained-glass window you come across will be different and may require a different approach. When confronted with the prospect of recreating stained-glass for the stage, it is not only important to understand what effect the Scenic Designer hopes to achieve by including stained-glass in the design, but it is also important to consider variables such as time, money, talent, physical constraints, and safety. Creating samples of various potential treatments can help you select the best option within the constraints of your unique circumstance.

Today we’ll explore a few fun and interesting approaches to creating imitation stained-glass by responding to a few common problems. Then later we’ll talk about how to lead them.

Common Problems and Solutions

Problem One: You need the stained-glass to mimic the look of painted glass in natural light.

Have you ever noticed how when there is no light coming through a stained-glass window, the glass looks dark? It isn’t until there is light pouring through the window that you start to see the colors of the glass.  Transparent “cathedral” colors tend to look dark when there is no light shining through them and so from the interior, they appear dark at night and colorful during the day when the sun is shining. An imitation stained-glass window that is dark when front-lit but bright and vibrant when back-lit could convey the passing from night to daytime, or conversely from daytime to evening. How would you go about recreating that effect?

Finished stained-glass, with front light

One Solution: Stretch black scrim over vibrantly back-painted muslin!

This particular piece was inspired by the challenge of trying to imitate the color transition of cathedral windows in real life. This first picture is the piece with only front light.  It appears dull and dark. To create this piece, I treated the muslin layer like a translucency. I starched the muslin twice on the back and three times on the front, then I drew the cartoon onto muslin with sharpies.

All of the grayscale shading was painted on the front of the muslin with our shop’s standard black paint that had been diluted with water to varying degrees. Pale (or rather very thin) shades of the intended hues for each section were painted on the front of the muslin.  The vibrant color was painted on the reverse side of the muslin with dyes. The dye was coated with a layer of clear acrylic gloss to ensure that no holes in the weave of the muslin would be without color. Finally, black scrim was stretched over the front of the muslin, and the imitation leading was applied on top of the scrim.  Here is a picture of the piece with backlight, showing the transition to bright and vibrant colors.

Finished window, with back light

Problem Two: You only have a limited budget to create your effect.

You’re working in a small theatre and know that you can’t afford a massive piece of plexiglass for your stained-glass window.  How do you create a large imitation stained glass on a very low budget?

One Solution: Paint on a shower curtain!

Shower curtain liners can be a fun substrate to experiment on! Best of all, they are very easy to find locally in stores and are generally very inexpensive.  The shower curtain I have painted on here is a frosted polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) shower curtain liner which I purchased from Lowe’s for under $4.  It was approximately 5’-10” in both directions when purchased (I cut it down to the size I wanted), whereas a 6’ by 6’ piece of plexiglass could easily run upwards of $200.

Angel painted on PEVA shower curtain

First, here are some practical tips I discovered about working with this particular shower curtain. When stretching the shower curtain liner over the frame, I taped the edges of the curtain to the frame, then I stapled each side through the tape. I did this to help prevent the staples from ripping through the curtain. I then heated the surface of the curtain with a hairdryer where it was wrinkled or creased from being in its packaging. The heat caused the plastic to sag and relax. When the plastic had cooled, it shrank back to being taut. I worked the creases of the curtain out in this way.

I also discovered, that almost nothing stuck to this shower curtain! But, the one thing stuck really well was shellac. Therefore, the first step I took when making this imitation stained-glass sample was to coat the entire piece of shower curtain liner with shellac. After that, I had a surface that other products stuck to perfectly! To achieve the color, I mixed Rosco Super-Sat paints into Rosco Acrylic Gloss and thinned the mixture with a little bit of water.   Because of the intended “softness” of the chosen image, I was wary of using brushes and having to compete with brush strokes when the image was lit from behind. I used a sponge roller to get a little bit of texture into the background and clothing items and decided to use a pneumatic paint sprayer for the rest. I created a series of paper masks so that I could spray each differently colored piece one at a time. I would lay each mask on the shower curtain and weigh it down with washers or small rocks to prevent it from moving while I sprayed through the mask.  In the end, the masking and spraying process was a bit time consuming, but I think the result was well worth it.

Problem Three:  There is no room for lighting.

Your designer has requested a stained-glass window in a space or an arrangement that would be impossible to light from behind.  However, the designer would still like the window to have a luminescent quality.

Caulk leading applied on silver wrapping paper

One Solution:  Paint on a reflective surface!

By adding a layer of transparent glossy color to a substrate that reflects light, you can create an interesting facsimile of a stained-glass window that appears to be emitting light by virtue of its reflective quality.  It isn’t a perfect solution, but it may be a decent option in some cases.

Shellac painting in process

One fairly accessible option for an inexpensive reflective substrate is plain old silver wrapping paper.  In this process, I glued a piece of silver wrapping paper to a sheet of luan with spray adhesive. I then transferred the image I was imitating and applied the lead lines using a ziploc bag with one corner cut off.  With the leadlines piped in place, I started adding color to the “glass” sections. I decided to use leather dyes suspended in shellac and a little bit of denatured alcohol, commonly known by the name F.E.V. or French Enamel Varnish.  To blend multiple colors together, I had to work fairly quickly because of the rapid dry time of F.E.V.s . It is possible to work F.E.V. back into a solution, but I found it was more simple and looked better if the blend was done while the first color was initially wet.  I also found that dripping drops of one color into a wet section of another color gave a fantastic mottled look.

With a rag and a little bit of denatured alcohol, I found I was able to gently rub color away from areas where I wanted to expose a highlight.  Finally, I used a combination of Sharpie paint markers and greyscale alcohol markers to add all of the appropriate lining and shading within the “glass” segments.

Finished process on reflective substrate

If you don’t have any experience working with F.E.V, it is important to note that shellac is not water-soluble. You can, however, thoroughly rinse your brushes in ammonia, which will break down the binder in the shellac, and after having done so, you can then wash your brushes with soap and water.  I highly encourage every artist to carefully read the labels for any new product that you might be working with for the first time. 

Let’s talk about leading…

The question of when to apply the imitation leading should be a part of the planning process right from the beginning. It may be that, for a particular imitation technique, the most logical solution is to apply the leading as the very last step, but there are also very many cases where you might want to apply the leading earlier in the process. If you intend to flood a section of “glass” with color or have a break between sections of particularly runny paint treatments, you may want to apply the leading as one of the first steps in the process. It can be very difficult if you are painting on china silk, for instance, to control color bleeding. The physical barrier of dimensional leading, especially a “liquid” or “goop” mixture leading that will sink somewhat into the fibers of the fabric, can act as a barrier between sections of differing colors. Knowing when to apply leading is both technique and substrate-dependent.

Leading created with Plaid Simulated Liquid Leading

There are several ready-to-use products that you may want to test as potential leading solutions. Black hot glue, colored caulk, and craft products designed to simulate leading are all viable options. Black hot glue is easy to use and relatively easy to control. A potential downside is that black hot glue dries shiny, and typically in real stained-glass windows the leading is matte.  Another note about hot glue, if you are working on a PEVA shower curtain is that touching the heated tip of a hot glue gun to the shower curtain will burn a hole in the surface. The hot glue itself will cool enough so as not to drop through to the other side, however, and will become suspended in the curtain surface.

Black or dark grey caulk can be purchased in matte or glossy and there are caulk products that allow you to control exactly what color the caulk will be as well. One potential downside is that caulk guns can be harder to control when trying to create intricate leading patterns, especially for artists without much experience using caulk guns. This problem can be mitigated by opening up the tube of caulk and transferring the caulk to a different application tool, such as a pastry/piping bag.

The finished product after leading and color

And then, of course, there are craft companies that create and sell products that are designed to simulate leading. Some of these products include “liquid” leading that is applied with a squeeze bottle, or alternatively, adhesive strips that are designed to look like lead. Glass artists occasionally use real adhesive lead strips in their artwork. These real adhesive lead strips give the closest approximation to lead came for an imitation stained glass piece, but they can be quite pricey.

One ready-made crafting product that I found to be an excellent imitation lead is Plaid Gallery Glass Simulated Liquid Leading.  The squeeze bottle application was very easy to control and the product was the perfect viscosity and color for the job. It shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, that this product worked well because it was designed for exactly this purpose, simulating the lead lines of stained glass.

So What’s Your Solution?

Hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you that there is no one “right” way to make an imitation stained-glass window.  I’ve described just a few brief processes, but there are so many more out there. So put your problem-solving cap on and start imagining new solutions!  And as always, when faced with a new problem or challenge: test, test, test! Test new products; test new substrates, and discover how two things you may or may not have used before interact with each other.  Also, make sure that you are shining light through your tests to see how the sample interacts with various lighting conditions. After all, the paint treatment can’t pass as a believable stained glass window without light to make it magical.

As an aside, perhaps you’ve noticed that I have a bit of a passion for imitation stained-glass.  If you have a fun story about a stained-glass window you’ve worked on, or if you’re excited about a particular process or product, I’d love to hear all about it!  Please feel free to send me your stories:

Chrissy Curtis is a freelance scenic artist currently working in the greater DC area.  She graduated from UNCSA with her MFA in Design and Production in 2018 after having pursued a BA in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University.  Someday, maybe she’ll write a book about imitation stained-glass!

To see more of her work, be sure to visit her website at


For more on this topic, check out our article on creating a large-scale rose window using another stained-glass technique; The Great Napoli Window Re-Do!


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