Guide for designing abstract stained glass – tips & tricks!

Colorful abstract stained glass

Abstract stained glass uses shapes, colors, and lines to create designs that depart from a realistic depiction of the world.

Designs may be partially figurative or totally abstract: they frequently invoke a mood or stand for virtues like optimism or spirituality: they appeal to the sophisticated customer and, if designed expertly will, by avoiding the cliché, retain their exciting novelty.

Artistry in Glass has been designing abstract stained glass in Tucson since 1986 and has developed expertise in helping customers choose the best design for their home, company, or place of worship. This post explains the history of abstract stained glass and examples of the main design styles. Finally, as a service to customers and fellow glass artists, we detail eight examples of the ways we modify a realistic design and create an abstraction.

Take a look at this video for all you need to know about abstract stained glass

History of Abstract Art

Abstraction has occupied a primary place in the evolution of modern art since the early 1900s when radical changes were taking place in science, technology, and politics. These changes drove many leading artists away from the realistic depiction of life and towards the creation of a new type of art.

Take a look at these famous portraits to see how the visual arts evolved from figurative and highly realistic in the 17th Century (top row) to stylized and abstract in the late 19th to early 20th Centuries (bottom row).

Velasquez Vermeer Rembrandt Van Gogh Matisse Picasso
Guess the famous artists – follow this link for the answers

A similar evolution in styles is found in liturgical stained glass: from Medieval realism (A) to neo-Gothic symbolism (B) to modern semi-figurative (C) and to total abstraction (D). Follow this link for more information on religious stained glass documentation and conservation.

Evolution of religious stained glass
A: Medieval (Chartres Cathedral), B: Neo Gothic (St Ferdinands, Arivaca), C: semi-figurative (Wilhelm Buschulte). D: Abstract lyrical (Temple Emanuel, Tucson)

Medieval stained glass reached its peak in the magnificent Gothic cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries with figurative depictions of bible scenes such as those at Chartres (A). By the 19th Century, stylized but still realistic, images of saints characterized the neo-Gothic period (B). A unique renaissance of the glass arts flowered in post-WWII Germany where numerous churches were refurbished in abstract style by artists like Wilhelm Buschulte (C): notice that Christ is shown in recumbent and inverted cartoon-form. Finally, a new trend towards the entirely abstract is represented by a late 20th Century Dalle de Verre window (D).


Styles of Abstract Stained Glass

We summarise the techniques that can be used to modify a figurative design and change it into an abstract one. The idea is to surprise and delight the viewer – to introduce tension and uncertainty – to give her the opportunity to ponder the significance of the imagery. Eight examples of abstractions are explained below:

Inspired by Unexpected Colors

All gradations occur from totally figurative to totally abstract and the novice may begin by taking a realistic image and challenging the viewer by changing colors from natural to unreal – or by changing a line from real to surreal. We’ll begin by changing colors:

sonoran desert stained glass
A: realistic stained glass depiction of the Sonoran Desert. B: design is abstracted by making some prickly pears an unnatural amber and by the folk-art depiction of the sun’s rays. C: All-natural colors are changed to create a semi-abstract saguaro scene.

The simple step of surprising the viewer by using a non-realistic color is enough to change the design from a cliché to an interesting work of art. Let’s now take a look at how adjusting lead lines can create abstraction and extra interest.

Inspired by Unexpected Lead Lines

The evolution of the lead line

The lead line is the term used by glass artists to refer to the pattern of lines made by the metal (lead, zinc, or brass) came or even solder lines that serve to hold the glass together.

Lead lines in stained glass

In early Medieval panels (A), lead lines were often discordant – crosscutting pictorial elements and serving only to hold the panel together. By the 19th century (B) lead was always arranged to surround important elements like face, while in the early 20th century, lead lines became important components of the design (see the feathers in (C) above).

Early leaded glass panels, made with diamonds and rectangles were called “Leadlights” but now the term stained glass is used to cover all types of leaded glass.

Evolution of lead lines
Traditional “Leadlights” (A) were made with diamonds and rectangles of glass: -modern abstract interpretation by Joannes Schreiter (B) creates tension by breaking up the grid and in (C) the grid squares are deliberately made deliciously irregular by Wilhelm Buschulte.

The same principle of abstraction used in color substitution is here used by surprising the viewer with unexpected lead lines. In (B) above the distorted and broken grid lines introduce a sense of drama to the panel. In the hands of German artist, Wilhelm Buschulte a design (C) that would historically have been made up of circles and squares is rendered by irregular, hand-drawn shapes giving a fresh liveliness to the panel.

Stained Glass Inspired by Nature: Leaves

Lyrical stained glass
Grass leaves (A) suggest a curvilinear design (B) rendered in textured glass (C)

Many of our clients at Artistry in Glass have a strong preference for either straight or curved lines. Curves relax the mind, providing relief, softness, and balance. They give a graceful, lyrical quality to interiors. In this example, simple leaves provide the inspiration for flowing abstract panels made from clear textured glass and installed as symmetrical mirror images in this interior door. The granite and water glass textures provide privacy for our customer’s home office.

Video showing reinforcing of panel with steel rebar

Inspired by Nature: the Prairie Sumac

Prairie Sumac
The genius of Frank Lloyd Wright takes the Prairie Sumac plant (A) and transforms it into an abstract masterpiece (Dana-Thomas House, Springfield, Il)

A wonderful classic from the Frank Lloyd Wright portfolio: highly abstracted Prairie Sumac plant is still recognizable even though rendered in characteristic and non-realistic straw & amber-colored stained glass

Stained Glass Inspired by Fine Art

Hard-edge artwork rendered in stained glass
Rectilinear designs after Mondrian (A) and abstract “Hard-Edge” art (b) & (C)

Of all the abstract movements, so-called “Hard-edge” art is particularly well suited to stained glass with strong primary colors and straight lead lines. Squares and rectangles (eg Mondrian-style (A & B) ) give us a sense of stability and safety, while horizontal lines (C) convey feelings of tranquility and a harmonious relationship with the earth. The skilled stained glass designer can draw inspiration from these famous works of art and design custom panels for the adventurous customer’s home.

Inspired by Geological Strata

Abstract stained glass with geological strata
Permian sandstone from Utah (A) inpires abstract strata (B)

Playing with line and color, the artist surprises the viewer with multicolored and folded geological strata in an abstract cross-section through a southwestern mountain. Are the colors a little too vibrant and brash? You decide.

Inspired by Geological Faulting

Geological strata with faults inspire stained glass panel
Schematic geological map (A) shows strata dislocated by faults then cut by yellow igneous intrusions. Stained glass version (B) with added circles.

Once again drawing inspiration from nature, a faulted section of strata imparts tension to the design that is partly resolved by the stabilizing effect of the horizontal and vertical beveled glass lines (representing igneous intrusions).

Design process for entryway door & windows, Tucson AZ

Stained Glass Inspired by Hopi Kachina

Abstract Kachina

A traditional Hopi kachina provided the inspiration for this minimalist art glass panel. An almost complete abstraction, the design hints at the kachina shape while mirroring the color scheme. The art glass is realized by attaching polished and beveled colored glass to a frosted glass substrate using UV-activated adhesive.

Inspired by a Spiral Galaxy

Galaxy inspires stained glass
Andromeda Galaxy (A). Galaxy in stained glass (B).

Our customers were retired physics professors from the University of Arizona with a special interest in cosmology so we took as our inspiration the Andromeda galaxy. Our stock of antique glass, fortunately, included a mottled texture that closely resembled the cosmic microwave background as well as a special piece (B) that simulated a spiral galaxy with a black (blue) hole in the center.

Design process for the galaxy windows

Inspired by a Cancer Diagnostic Machine

Ventana Roche machine
Cancer diagnostic machine made by Ventana-Roche (A) inspires abstract art glass panel (B) being examined by Artistry in Glass founder John Wakefield,

As a special gift to Ventana Medical Systems founder Dr. Tom Grogan, we construct an abstract rendering of an automated cancer diagnostic machine (invented by Tom). The microscope slides in our stained glass are represented by sparking beveled glass in a carousel arrangement. Ventana Medical merged with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche Holding AG in 2008.

Lighted jewels closeup
Jeweled cornucopia design

Learn how our latest outstanding abstract panel was created and installed

Inspired by Total Abstraction

Colorful abstract stained glass

For the avant-garde customer – a total abstraction where circles compete with dramatic diagonal lines for drama. Dislocation of the circle creates tension. Colors are chosen to pick up highlights from a customer’s interior and mixed with bold textured glass (right) and trailing lead lines (top left).

Learn how this design was developed by following this short video:

Answers to Famous Artists Quiz

Velasquez Vermeer Rembrandt Van Gogh Matisse Picasso

Top Row: artists painting in figurative/realistic styles

A : Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). B: Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). C: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).

Bottom row: artists painting in impressionist/abstract styles

D: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). E: Henri Matisse (1869-1954). F: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).


Tastes in art are very personal and highly subjective. Some customers are much happier with a realistic rendering of a Sonoran Desert scene, complete with saguaros and a coyote howling at the moon. If this is your taste, Artistry in Glass will attempt to accommodate you but, I have to confess that, our hearts will not be in the project. The main reason is that for all art – figurative or abstract, the main requirement is to avoid the cliché.

The second reason is that stained glass is not the ideal medium with which to render desert plants with complex flowers and thorns. Unless you make truly heroic (and expensive) efforts with glass painting and/or sandblasting, the results tend to look childish and naive – like Folk Art.

The benefits of abstract stained glass

There is no doubt that customers with the courage to think outside the box will benefit from a unique work of art when avoiding the figurative. Finally, if your tastes are stubbornly traditional then geometric/abstract designs in the Victorian, Baroque, or Art Nouveau styles (see below) are also very acceptable options

Traditional Non-figurative Designs

restored Art Nouveau-style transom from Chicago
If you must have a traditional design – chose an authentic motif like this, rather than a saguaro cactus.

Strictly speaking abstract but nevertheless traditional and ideal for a conservative home. Should be made with period-appropriate opalescent glass.

Southwestern Chevron Designs

Also abstract in the sense that it is nonfigurative – this design is a variation on the Prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright, adapted with strong Southwest-inspired colors.

Southern Arizona Customers – call Artistry in Glass!

For highly creative stained glass designs in contemporary and abstract styles – call John Wakefield at Artistry in Glass in Tucson or follow the links below for more information on how to order a stained glass masterpiece.

All you need to know about art glass

Commissioning stained and etched glass

Technical information

Guides to stained glass design

Artistry in Glass is your source for antique repair in Tucson

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I was an exploration geologist and University Professor working in Botswana, Zambia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and other countries before opening Artistry in Glass in 1986. In my more than 35 years of experience, I have brought my technical abilities as a scientist to the trade of glasswork. During this time I have become an industry expert in glass and glass-related skills. Watch out for special insider tips developed from my detailed knowledge of the glass business.

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