Design Development: Reverse Painting – Birds

I used the reverse painting method to develop my own bird paintings. But what is reverse painting, and where has it been used before?

What is reverse painting?

Originating from Medieval Europe, reverse painting is the process of painting an image on to glass which is seen from the other side.  

However, the process goes against an artist’s instinct as you paint the design backwards. Starting with the finer points of the design, then building up the painting and finally ending with the background. 

“Traditionally, reverse glass painting consists of several layers of paint applied to one side of the glass while the painting is viewed from the other side.” – Sherrie Eatman, vam.ac.uk

Example of reverse painting. New England Still Life Rebecca Salsbury James
New England Still Life by Rebecca Salsbury James. collection.artbma.org.
Improvisation 26 (Rowing) by Wassily Kandinsky. kandinskypaintings.org.
View in the woods (1660-1680) by Jan van der Heyden. discover.hubpages.com.

From fine art to film...

The art of reverse painting was widely used in classic animated films, including Disney’s Snow White (1937), Pinocchio (1940), alongside many others. These animated films are made up of thousands of animation celluloids. By comparison, they use the same painting process to create each individual scene. 

Learn more about using animation cels from Walt Disney himself:

Walt Disney’s MultiPlane Camera (Filmed: Feb. 13, 1957)

Example of a Disney animation cel showing the reverse painting process. Snow White.
Original Walt Disney Production Cel from Snow White.animationsensations.com.
Example of a Disney animation cel showing the reverse painting process. Pinocchio.
Original Walt Disney Production Cel from Pinocchio.animationsensations.com.
Example of a Disney animation cel showing the reverse painting process. Snow White.
Original Walt Disney Production Cel from Snow White.animationsensations.com.
Example of a Disney animation cel showing the reverse painting process. Pinocchio.
Original Walt Disney Production Cel from Pinocchio.animationsensations.com.
Example of a Disney animation cel showing the reverse painting process. Snow White.
Original Walt Disney Production Cel from Snow White.animationsensations.com.

Reverse glass painting on a budget

I was inspired by the smooth, glossy finish of reverse glass painting. However, I wanted to find a budget friendly way of trying it. Therefore, my illustrated bird set (as shown below) uses acetate instead of glass and gouache as my preferred medium.  

First thing to remember, if you are going to use acetate when doing this process, is to ensure it is thick enough. This is due to the wet medium you will be applying. Given the process of reverse painting, each layer needs to be completely dry before applying the next layer. Furthermore, thicker acetate could handle a little heat if you chose to dry the paint quicker with a heater.  

Another key point is you should experiment with your paint of choice before starting. Owing to watery paints not working on the glossy finish of the acetate. In essence, oil, acrylic, and gouache paints are commonly used.

In fact, I used this tutorial – How to paint reverse glass (John Lepard) – to understand the process. I would highly recommend giving this video a watch before you start.  

Reverse painting in action

To illustrate, the below set of bird paintings use the reverse painting method. I opted for traditional English birds, in addition each painting has been created using gouache on acetate. This set features a Blue Tit, Goldfinch, Robin, Greenfinch, and (my favourite) a Kingfisher.  

Lauren Peploe Kingfisher Reverse Painting

Developing the designs

Finally, after finishing the birds, I developed a range of paper products using the unique designs. In the end, I decided on fine art prints, greeting cards, and postcards, all of which are available now on my online shop.  

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Amy Barnhart
28 days ago

They are beautiful and this process was fascinating to read about. I didn’t know artists were still using this technique.