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The Making of The Tunnels at Sunset, Buena Vista, CO (Glass, 19"x 22" framed)

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

The first time I saw Joe Randall’s photo of the old railroad tunnels north of Buena Vista at sunset, I knew I’d have to try and re-create it in glass. So I contacted him, and he graciously agreed to let me have a go at it. I wasn’t sure how faithfully I could reproduce it, and I knew as I went along, it probably would change some. And it did.

Prepping the Layers

After about 6 months of deliberation and screwing on my courage, I settled on a size for the picture and figured out the best way to get it done, which was to make the “through” images on white and leave the black to itself for the tunnel.

1. I cut 2 pieces of 16 ½ x 13 ¼ sheet glass—a white for the base or bottom layer and black for the tunnel, or top layer. My friend, Bob, who is also a photographer, printed Joe’s photo in black and white outline form on his large-format printer (same size as my sheet glass pieces).

2. Next, I laid this black and white outline guide picture on a light table and covered with clear kitchen food wrap and, using a wet-erase marker, traced the basic outline of the tunnel. I then lifted the food wrap off and cut away the outside using an art knife and scissors, which left only the inside of the overlay.

3. I laid this overlay on top of the black sheet glass and traced the outline, which gave me the guide for cutting away the inside. I used a ring saw, which allows movement of the piece in any direction, and all of the tunnel inside area could be reached except the inside 4 inches, which I had to manually score and break out. Last, I placed the black tunnel outline on top of the white sheet glass and then fused them together.

4.Next, I gridded the paper outline of the picture into 9 equal sections and did the same to my now-fused sheets using a wet erase marker. I then free-handed the rest of the basic outlines of the picture directly onto the white sheet glass. The photo below combines these first few steps.

The First Powder Layer

5. Once I was happy with the marked up sheet glass, for the second firing, I then added the first layer of glass powders. This approach is similar to the way a painter begins a picture, working on the background layers first for overall color and depth.

I had to be careful to select powders that don’t react with each other where they touch. I fired the base layer to 1420 degrees F. This intentionally made that bottom layer smooth, but not flat, since it would be affected by subsequent firings. Below is the powder (pre-fired), and below-left is the fired powder layer.

The Second Layer—Adding Depth and Some Detail

6. For the third firing, I started adding detail, working mostly on the farthest-back layers. This included gray and a bit of lavender for the clouds and some landscape detail along the sides of the gravel road.

I also worked the far tunnel into dimension. But I wasn't

happy with the fired results on the sky (wrong shade of yellow) and felt the clouds needed more sharpness. My friend, Evelyn Gottschall Baker, suggested I fire the additional clouds, rocks, and trees in wafer form—that is, firing them separately, and then fusing them to the piece.

7. So I made samples of the various rock, cloud, and greenery colors and then fired several rounds of wafer elements by themselves between 1250-1280 degrees—just enough to form them, but not shrink them down—to be used in the 4th firing. I played around with placement first, checking colors, too, and ruling out some pieces. (Photo below, left.)

At this stage, I found it was hard to visualize depth without the road having the gradient it needed to draw my eye into the picture. So I darkened the road. Once that was done, it made the rocky area easier to visualize.

8. In the fourth firing, I placed the wafter elements--clouds, rocks, and greenery--on the base picture, and decided to add rocks just inside the tunnel. I fired to 1320 degrees F.

Finishing the Piece

9. I was happy with the fourth firing overall, but still felt there was something missing. So I concentrated on the immediate foreground to add still more depth. As I was finalizing the foreground, I added a layer of black powder to darken the rocks inside the tunnel.

I also discovered that the road needed still more darkening, so I sifted one last layer of black over it, too, along with more powder blue highlights for snow or standing water. As an afterthought, I sifted a mixed layer of dark-red and gray powder to the tunnel attempting to add some depth to the black, but this layer, much like the powder blue hightlights I added to the last layer on the road and on the facing rocks, disappeared into the inky depths because it was too thin. This was probably for the best. Last, I added a few rocks around the outside edge of the piece both as a visual stimulant against all the black and to (hopefully) show some forward depth. This was the fifth firing. The image above shows the last layer of powder.

10. I then sandblasted and sealed the piece (image above) to eliminate the various surface glares and give it a matte finish, and then had it framed.

Some Final Observations

I’m firmly convinced that creating any work of art poses the same challenge as working a caulk joint—you have to know when to leave it alone. That’s hard. I won’t lie. Of course there are things I wish I’d done better. There always will be.

Glass powder, while it can be moistened and brushed on or otherwise applied with a palate knife, is not the same as paint. It has some of the same qualities, but does not behave the same way. Sifting glass powders also poses its own challenges, such as keeping powders separate from each other in clean lines. And as I noted above, figuring out how much powder to put down in a layer or to fashion an object is tricky, since most of it will shrink up (around 50% in some cases) if fired too long. And—certainly not least of the considerations—there’s the matter of trusting that the powders on the glass, which do not look at all like the fired colors, will actually look good when fired and cooled.

But these considerations and processes are infinitely stimulating. In part, it’s the not knowing that makes this medium so challenging and fun to work in.

See more of Joe Randall’s photography at

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