How to design a southwest-style etched glass window

Deeply carved art glass

Snowbirds and permanent residents alike fall in love with the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona and wish to celebrate its unique flora and fauna by commissioning artistic etched glass for their homes or businesses

Artistry in Glass has specialized in Southwest-style windows since 1986 and has an extensive portfolio of proprietary designs, drawn from nature by John Wakefield.

To design a southwest-style etched glass window: measure the panel, choose your favorite elements, decide if you need privacy & choose between frosted or carved

Principals of etched glass design

The terms etched and sandblasted are used interchangeably in the decorative glass business for glass that is frosted. The good news is that etched glass is substantially cheaper than colored stained glass when comparing similar designs.

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Why choose etched glass?

Many people automatically think of stained glass when considering art glass for their home. However, the cost of labor, in particular, has made traditional stained glass extremely expensive these days.

(For a detailed explanation of stained glass costs – read this comprehensive post.)

Etched glass has several important advantages many of which are summarized here.

In particular, etched glass is much more affordable and much more effective in rendering Sonoran Desert plants and animals.

Design advantages of etched glass

Stained glass has many wonderful qualities, not least in its historic function in the great Gothic cathedrals of Medieval Europe, where windows brought the stories of the gospel to illiterate peasants. However, it is not ideally suited to represent Sonoran desert plants without heroic and very expensive glass painting.

Study the image below to see how prickly pears have to be represented in a folk-art cartoonish form because of the limitations of the art glass and lead came format:

Etched designs can be much more detailed than stained glass
Etched glass (left) with details of thorns, contrasts with simplified design required by the medium of stained glass (right),

Notice how the medium of etched (sandblasted) glass allows the details of thorns and flower petals to be rendered in exquisite and realistic detail. The use of shading and carving (deep etching) permits an additional level of detail in the form of 3-D sculptural effect – see drawing below.

Hawke with shading and dove with carving
Hawk (left) features shaded etching – Dove (right) is rendered with deeply etched (carved) feathers.

Southwest etched glass windows – the design process

Etched glass is a fantastic medium with which to decorate your home or business. For the best results, consider the following questions:

Size and shape of your window

Always bear in mind the proportions of your panel when planning the design. “Landscape” panels like the ones below are not suitable for a single tall saguaro (or even a lighthouse in Maine).

To get started, email an image (or the dimensions) of the window you wish to decorate to your favorite art glass studio and indicate your favorite subject matter (Tucson customers refer to the drawings on our website).

Long, narrow panels (clerestory windows)

If you have long, skinny windows (landscape-style) like the examples below, then a panoramic Sonoran Desert scene is your best option:-

Southwestern designs for clerestory windows

Tall skinny panels (sidelites)

If, on the other hand, your panels are tall and thin (like entryway sidelites), then tall desert plants like ocotillos, agaves, or saguaros are good choices:

Sonoran etched designs 1-4
Good choices for tall narrow windows – ocotillos
Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 16-17
An agave is a great choice for a tall narrow window

Wide rectangular panels (doors)

Wider panels, often found in entry doors or shower doors are suitable for a wide range of southwestern designs.

Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 10-11
Sonoran Desert scene hand-drawn by Artistry in Glass
Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 8-9
Saguaro, agave, and ocotillo are icons of the Sonoran Desert

Which design elements do you prefer?

At Artistry in Glass, we have a comprehensive portfolio of Sonoran Desert mammals and birds drawn for etching by Tucson artist, John Wakefield. Decide on your favorite plant or critter let your glass designer incorporate it into your panel.

Mammals from the Sonoran Desert
Javelina, jackrabbit, big-horned sheep, coyote and desert tortoise
Southwestern birds
Roadrunners, hummingbirds, and cactus wren

Save time and therefore money by choosing designs already available from your favorite glass studio.

Insider tips from a glass professional
Wild cat and Big Horn Sheep

Avoid the temptation to send photographic images (colored jpegs) of animals to your glass artist. In the first place, hair is very difficult to render by sandblasting, and, second, working from jpegs is very labor-intensive.

Which etched style do you like – frosted, shaded or carved?

The customer can have control over the budget of the project by choosing inexpensive frosted glass, moderately priced shaded glass, or top-of-the-line and expensive, carved glass. Study the images below to learn about the differences:

Frosted art glass agave
Etched glass – simple frosting
Shaded art glass
Etched glass – shaded frosting
Deeply carved art glass
Etched glass – deep carving

Frosted glass is the most affordable option but, for a more artistic outcome, invest slightly more with a shaded glass panel or to make a real design statement, choose deeply carved glass.

In shaded glass, individual design elements (leaves or feathers) are shaded from unetched (black) to fully etched (white) in a technique similar to airbrush painting. The result is an attractive 3-D effect.

In carved glass, individual design elements are very deeply etched or carved so that they reflect light back to the eye of the viewer and produce a sculptural effect. Carving is most effective on overlapping elements like leaves, feathers or fish scales.

Do you need privacy or view-control

The main practical benefit of etched glass is that it can produce privacy or view-control. That is, it can diffuse the light and disguise or obscure the view.

If this is your requirement then frosted glass is your best choice.

Spooky guy is obscured by frosted glass
Privacy from spooky visitor
Etched glass obscures ugly view
View control – hiding the garbage

To be effective in obscuring a view, the majority of the glass must be frosted.

Static-cling film for privavy

If can really want to save money – choose inexpensive window film (easy to install yourself) from this selection available on Amazon.

Make your final choice and proof the design

Working with a qualified design studio like Artistry in Glass, you will have complete control over the etched glass design and etching style.

Study the etched glass examples shown below, choose your favorites, and email the reference number to Artistry in Glass.

Add any favorite animals or birds and we will draw a final design to the proportions of your panel – for your final approval.

Southwestern flora and fauna from the artists at Artistry in Glass

Study these hand-drawn options and choose your favorite. Then add or subtract animals, reptiles, and birds and we will do the rest.

Sonoran etched designs 1-4
Ocotillo fantasy with hummingbirds
Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 5-7
Add your own animals & birds
Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 8-9
The saguaro – the silent sentinel of the Sonoran desert

Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 10-11
Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 12-13
Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 14-15

Hand drawn Sonoran etched designs 16-17
Hand drawn Sonoran etched design #20
Hand drawn Sonoran etched design #20 by Artistry in Glass

Southwest bird designs
SW petroglyph look like aliens
Native American Pots
Native American pots

Summary: the design process

Remember, at Artistry in Glass we are here to realize your aesthetic dreams – we will take any design and customize it to include your favorite Sonoran Desert animal or plant. Drawings can easily be modified to fit your window shape and scale – so call 520-320-0104 or email us for more details.

All you need to know about art glass

Commissioning stained and etched glass

Technical information

Guides to stained glass design

Unique Mirror Resources from Artistry in Glass

Mirror Design & layout

Mirror Installation & Removal

Mirror Repair & Restoration


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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San Xavier Mission Elk at rut bellows his mating call in the White Mountains of Arizona - etching by Artistry in Glass